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OPINION

Where to seek shelter in a time of trade wars

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Mr Trump's use of trade tariffs is not new among US presidents; it is the timing and manner of their use that is potentially explosive.

WHILE trade tensions have been making headlines for the past few months - and in fact escalated recently - the causes have deep roots. Globalisation has evolved and broadened over the past several decades, benefitting Western consumers, emerging-market manufacturers and the global economy in general. It has helped pull millions out of poverty and significantly strengthened the ranks of the global middle class.

Yet, the benefits of globalisation have not been distributed evenly. Blue-collar Western workers who have seen their jobs sent overseas and struggled to adapt to the new economic landscape have felt understandably disaffected by globalisation.

The financial crisis of a decade ago didn't help, nor did the policy response, which succeeded in generating the asset-price inflation investors had sought, but failed to generate any wage inflation for workers.

For these and other reasons, protectionism has been generally on the rise in developed markets and has found expression in the United States under President Donald Trump's "America first" platform. The problem, in our experience, is that protectionist policies rarely deliver in the long run.

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Mr Trump's announced tariffs - targeting a long list of goods including steel, aluminium, solar panels and home appliances - are part of a protectionist trade stance that also includes America's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and an ongoing investigation into China's intellectual property practices.

As of June 2018, the US Office of the United States Trade Representative has targeted more than 1,000 Chinese products valued at about US$50 billion in 2018 trade values. The tariffs are set to be imposed in phases and mainly focus on those key industrial products and technologies tied to China's "Made in China 2025" initiative.

Putting trade tariffs into context

The levying of tariffs is not a new feature of American trade policy; every president since Jimmy Carter has imposed some kind of protectionist curbs on trade, often targeting steel. Nor will many of Mr Trump's tariffs do much economic damage in isolation; the most prominent - steel and aluminium imports - would only reduce US gross domestic product by 0.2 per cent annually in the short term.

What is new about these measures is their context. They come at a time when America is turning inward, away from its long-held role as champion of free-market capitalism, international cooperation and other tenets that define globalisation.

What makes the current moment especially dangerous is the heightened potential for more worrisome forms of retaliation, particularly from China at a time when President Xi Jinping is striving to present an alternative to US values and hegemony.

Intellectual property: Tinder to the fire

The real risk we see is that the tariffs introduced thus far are just the opening salvo in a full-blown multilateral trade war impacting the global economy at large. Perhaps the greatest tinder box in this potential conflict is intellectual property rights in the technology sector. An investigation by the United States Trade Representative into China's intellectual property practices concluded in a 2017 study that Chinese theft of intellectual property costs American companies up to US$600 billion annually.

An escalating trade war between China and the US implies rising prices for consumers and a likely acceleration in inflation, putting upward pressure on interest rates. Overall, it would likely result in both countries becoming less prosperous and secure.

Tariffs aren't the only protectionist measures the United States has taken. Congress earlier this year introduced a bill to stop the government from doing business with two Chinese telecoms firms (though Mr Trump has since defended one of these companies' access to the US market).

He also took the unusual step of blocking the takeover of a US memory-chip maker by a Singapore competitor, citing national security concerns.

While we think the risk of an escalating trade war is a clear negative for global growth and cooperation, the knock-on effects of higher inflation and rising interest rates could conversely help cushion value-oriented stocks from the adverse consequences. That's because value stocks are often concentrated in interest rate- and inflation-sensitive sectors like financials and commodities.

Seeking potential opportunities

Value stocks have underperformed growth stocks 10 out of the past 11 years, marking one of the longest and deepest bear markets ever for value-investing. A major cause of value's woes has been artificially low interest rates, which we believe have distorted the value of money and forced investors out of the risk curve in search of growth and yield.

We think the ongoing normalisation of US interest rates could support value-oriented stocks and other late-cycle beneficiaries, such as the financials and energy sectors and European markets.

European markets tend to do well late in the cycle due to their high exposure to inflation- and rate-sensitive sectors like commodities and financials. European companies have been vastly under-earning their US peers while trading at historic valuation discounts, offering scope for both profit improvement and multiple expansion as conditions policy conditions normalise.

Overall, we view the risk of an escalating trade war as a net negative for global economic growth and equity market prosperity. While we think value portfolios appear relatively well-positioned for a late-cycle, rising-rate environment, escalating trade tensions nevertheless remain cause for concern among global investors.

  • The writer is chief investment officer at Templeton Global Equity Group.
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