In an interview recorded on Friday 22nd June, Philip Saunders discusses the latest developments in the ongoing trade war, OPEC’s meeting in Vienna and a look at the European economy.
Lindsay Williams: It’s Friday so it’s the weekly wrap and this week we have a separate international weekly wrap with Philip Saunders, who is the Co-Head of Multi-Asset Growth at Investec Asset Management in London.
I want to start with trade wars, if I can, because, Philip, it says here some officials in the Trump administration are trying to restart high level talks with China ahead of the imposition of $34 billion worth of new tariffs on the country’s goods on July 6. Now the other morning we woke up and the S&P Futures were under pressure because of 200 billion that was going to be imposed, with the threat of another 200 after that and eventually, of course, China won’t be able to retaliate because they don’t import enough US goods. So that makes it even more sinister to me I think because they could come up with other measures not to do with trade.
Philip Saunders: Yes, exactly. I think that this is getting quite messy and there are obviously sort of doves and hawks within the Trump administration. So the Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin, has been notably quiet recently, you know, as you have had this sort of “I’ll raise you 50 billion” type sort of approaches unfolding but now you are really beginning to see some reaction. Industrials have been very weak. If you look at companies like Caterpillar, the price actually has been pretty negative and they’re a sort of, you know, global growth proxy, if you like. Even India has weighed in and introduced tariffs – to offset the American tariffs.
So I think that if we carry on down this track, then it is going to start to have quite a significant effect on sentiment. So previously we dismissed it with sort of jaw-jaw not war-war. I think now basically we’re in danger of it being more war-war than jaw-jaw and that’s not great for sentiment. It’s not great for markets.
Lindsay Williams: No, it’s not at all and historically it’s never been good for markets or for anyone, whichever side you’re on, because I was noticing on – I think it was on CNN this morning they did a piece on George W Bush imposing tariffs on steel products I think it was and that ultimately led, along with a couple of other factors, to the loss of 200,000 US steel workers’ jobs. Reagan did it as well and it never ends well and, of course, back in 1930 or 1931, it really did become very nasty indeed. No chance of that happening, of course, but I do think that Daimler – was it Daimler-Benz the other day came out with some sort of a profit warning or something or some sort of warning that their business would be affected if this did escalate?
Philip Saunders: Yes and I think that Daimler-Benz has a huge plant in Alabama. Ironically, they export SUVs to China from that plant. So they are sort of being good corporate citizens in the sense that they are manufacturing stuff in the US and basically generating export earnings for the US and they have had to announce sort of potential profit warnings simply because of the sort of potential impact of this.
So I think the devil’s in the detail and the ramification when you have global supply chains and so forth, a lot of US companies basically sort of import stuff from China, component parts and Apple. Obviously, iPhones are all made in China and, you know, the global trade is very, very interconnected and if you start to mess around with the system and so forth, it has all sorts of unintended consequences which President Trump and his immediate advisors aren’t necessarily aware of.
So I can understand why America wants a sort of better deal and clearly a lot of Chinese trade practices, in particular, are probably no longer acceptable. They certainly are sort of outside the sort of spirit of the World Trade Organisation’s rules. Normally, you would negotiate hard behind the scenes rather than basically making it a public sort of reality TV show, which is where we’re at at the moment. So I think the longer this goes on, the more serious the implications potentially are.
Lindsay Williams: Mr Trump’s never going to do anything unless it’s in front of the cameras, good or bad.
Philip Saunders: Well, of course, and we have got midterm elections coming up in November and he’s playing to the audience and it’s interesting because this plays very, very well to a lot of people in the US, a lot of voters who traditionally have voted Democrat and that is resonating with that group, which potentially sort of undermines the Democratic Party’s attempts to actually try and reassert control in the Senate and in the Congress..
Lindsay Williams: Let’s move on to Vienna now, just down the road from you and there’s an OPEC meeting (it’s just about to convene, in fact), showing signs that agreement may be reached on the thorny subject (it says here from Bloomberg) of production increases. Iran doesn’t want that. Some people do. Venezuela, I don’t know where they sit but, anyway, I always find that these OPEC meetings are quite good fun because you know in a couple of weeks the cheating will start anyway.
Philip Saunders: Yeah. Well, actually they have been quite disciplined, you know, when they actually cut production in order to address the then problem of oil price weakness and actually they, even the Saudis and the Russians, who were daggers drawn in places like Syria, effectively cut a deal and actually were pretty disciplined about controlling production.
So, yes, I think OPEC’s track record is not brilliant but on this occasion they managed to achieve what they set out to. In fact, it was even more successful but that was partly because of obviously collapsing production in Venezuela and obviously the sort of sanctions on Iran again from the US. So where this ends up I think is interesting. I suspect basically production will increase somewhat and so the risk of oil prices spiking up on a sustained basis probably is lower than a number of people anticipate at the moment.
Lindsay Williams: Staying in Europe, we go from Vienna to Greece and from Greece to Italy and also we start with a Purchasing Managers’ Index, a composite index, which showed some decent growth actually, 54.8 I think it was, which shows that the European economy is quite resilient after a couple of dodgy months’ worth of numbers.
Philip Saunders: Yeah. I mean I think that coming into this year, the consensus expectations for European growth were way too high. You know, there is a tendency to extrapolate and, as we know, I mean these numbers to ebb and flow and just when expectations were through the roof, you then had a series of much more disappointing, more subdued numbers and expectations basically then sort of crashed off again. Then everybody started to conclude that the European economy is sort of, you know, heading into the ground and clearly that’s not the case either. It’s just basically a much more moderate growth environment than had previously been anticipated.
I think there is a pretty serious longer-term issue in Europe in the sense that politics in Italy has progressively become more negative. You have got Merkel in a weaker position. So I mean the common denominator is populism, rising populism, and we know that there are significant imbalances within the Eurozone and there are significant political divergences between (if you like) sort of core EU, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. So I think we have clearly got structurally difficult issues beginning to surface, which ultimately could well affect growth but in the shorter term there’s probably an exaggerated level of pessimism about the current growth level.
Lindsay Williams: Let’s talk about Italy now. Italy is turning away migrants left, right and centre but there are some core economic worries as well, highlighted this morning by that notorious scaremonger, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph and, of course, my subscription for their premium offering ran out so I get the first paragraph of this article this morning. You probably keep yours up to date so you know what he said but is there a worry that Italy could blow up into something and could become the next Greece with far more serious consequences?
Philip Saunders: I think Italy represents a huge problem for the Eurozone and it’s not clear that there is an obvious way to square the circle of Italy’s progressive loss of competitiveness. We sort of know the story, don’t we, i.e. that the Italian economy hasn’t grown in real terms since the lira became part of the Euro? So the Euro really hasn’t worked for Italy. It has got interest rates down to German-like levels, which they have obviously done so that’s been beneficial but the structural problems remain unresolved and the people are becoming restive.
So I think that we are going to see a much more confrontational approach by the Northern League and Five Star, the EU elite, and that is going to be a key part of the narrative. Now I think, this is a sort of slow burn crisis still, not something that necessarily is going to sort of burst into flames tomorrow, but it exposes some very significant structural weaknesses within Europe and it is quite difficult to see how they are going to be resolved.
Lindsay Williams: Greece, of course, was something that used to consume our conversations a few years ago and with your ex-colleague, Max King, who was convinced, at the time anyway, that there was a real risk that Greece would leave the Eurozone and that would be the demise or lead to the fracturing of Europe and the demise of the Euro. Thankfully, we were pulled back from the brink there and it seems to me as though it has been resolved today because it says here:“The print comes the morning after another late-night meeting of euro-area finance ministers over Greece. This one finally (it says here in Bloomberg) put an end to the country’s long-running bail-out saga, leaving Athens clear to exit the lifeline that has kept the nation afloat since 2010.” Good news, indeed, and I think Greece has done rather well in rebuilding its economy via tourism.
Philip Saunders: Yeah but I think that even despite that, I think the problem of anaemic growth remains. So you might basically be back from the brink in terms of actually triggering some kind of crisis and Greece is small compared to Italy, which is much larger and in a structurally pretty weak position in terms of the government debt level and the problem of productivity.
Lindsay Williams: Turkey is the final European or rather peripheral European story because there’s an election on Sunday and President Erdogan is probably going to win it but I did see his chief opposition holding a rally, a really impressive rally, in a place called Izmir. I mean there must have been a couple of hundred thousand people out in the streets giving him a bit of a wave. So it’s not going to be that clear-cut but it still sees Mr Erdogan, who has been in power for 15 years, probably consolidating his powers.
Philip Saunders: Yes and I think that, obviously, the Turkish lira has been extremely weak and I think that Erdogan seems to have a sort of pretty poor grasp of economics; you know, interest rates are the devil’s work, and so therefore I suspect that he will remain in power in Turkey and it means that there will be a crisis at some point in Turkey even though basically we have come pretty close recently. I think if you were to see an environment of tightening international dollar liquidity, Turkey is extremely exposed and I think that that means that, I suspect that next time around, it’s going to be much more difficult for him to get elected again.
Lindsay Williams: Finally, very, very finally, how are you positioning yourself given everything you have seen this week, today and in the last couple of months? Is there any change to your asset allocation?
Philip Saunders: I think that we are positioned for continuing consolidation. We have been pretty uncomfortable about emerging market exposure in general and obviously a lot of things have cheapened up quite significantly but I think we are going to sit on our hands because I think that there are literally – although valuations have improved significantly, we think that there is a negative dynamic still which relates to obviously risk appetite and dollar liquidity particularly and the divergence of the US economy from other economies as the US economy booms. And so I think that it’s not a time to be [heading] out at the moment.
Lindsay Williams: Philip, thank you very much for your extended time this evening. That’s Philip Saunders, Co-Head of Multi-Asset Growth at Investec Asset Management in London.
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