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Investment Views

Trade war: who holds the stronger hand?

14 May 2019
Author: John StopfordHead of Multi-Asset Income

John Stopford, in an interview recorded on Thursday 9 May, looks at the ongoing trade tensions between the United States and China and its impact on global markets.



Lindsay Williams: Let’s talk about trade wars. On the telephone with me is John Stopford, Head of Multi-Asset Income at Investec Asset Management in London. It seems to me, John Stopford, that things have started to ratchet up a bit recently. There’s a little bit of brinkmanship going on here.

John Stopford: Yes, I think so. I think there is definitely cultural misunderstanding going on. So it appears that, having thought they had agreed quite a lot, the US has been pushing China on various sort of trade opening and rules and so on for a while but China sent back the draft with lots of things scrubbed out and that rather surprised the Americans. I am not sure they necessarily understand how each side operates but it is definitely back to brinkmanship again.

Lindsay Williams: Do you think that the Chinese really want a deal because I heard a comment from a senior Australian politician that said they don’t really want it. They don’t need it. It is Mr Trump that wants it and they are just sort of toeing the line, the Chinese that is. I cannot imagine a Chinese delegation, knowing a little bit about the country, that they would toe the line but it seems to me that they could walk away and be perfectly fine.

John Stopford: Well, I am not sure anybody would be perfectly fine. I am not sure higher trade tariffs and the impact that that would have on manufacturing and trade flows in general would be good news. I guess the question is who holds the stronger hand? I think also there is an element of bigger geopolitical issues here. There is an issue here of which is the dominant superpower. There are issues of face. There is how it plays to the domestic audience – all of those things.

China is in a better position than it was but 3 months ago to some extent both the US and China were panicking a little bit about what was happening in financial markets, what was happening in the global economy. Both of them work quite hard to support markets, so we had an about-face by the Federal Reserve, we had fiscal and monetary stimulus in China, we had talking up a trade deal. Markets have rallied. Chinese growth has stabilised or improved a bit. I am not sure it is that dynamic. So I think it is question of weighing up who is most vulnerable here and I think a lot of people think that, if the stock market takes a bigger hit, Trump might be the first to blink but we shall see.

Lindsay Williams: Do you think it is the real thing this time because this has been rumbling for quite a while now? It is almost like an adolescent relationship, your first girlfriend or your boyfriend. It is up and down every single day. You don’t know where you are. You don’t know how to behave but this time do people suddenly know how to behave and we are getting to the end game?

John Stopford: Well, I think it is very difficult. I think there has been a particular relationship between the US and China for a long time, China basically selling stuff to the US and using the proceeds to buy US assets and keep US borrowing costs low and that synergy worked for a while. The problem is China got too big and the hollowing out of the industrial base in the US was too pronounced or at least was an opportunity for somebody like Trump to raise the populist vote.

These things have been building for a long time. They are not easy to resolve. Both sides ultimately are also trying to think about their sort of longer-term position. I think at the moment you would probably view this as brinkmanship. Things get testy before final agreements are made but maybe it is more than that. I think we are definitely in a world where globalisation is to some extent in retreat, where localisation rather than globalisation is more of a thing. Both sides have got something to lose.

I think they will try and find an accommodation. To some extent, there are much bigger issues beyond just trade in terms of geopolitics and sort of who has tech leadership and so on, which are, you know, they are going to run along indefinitely. This is a battle within a longer-term war for supremacy rather than I think the only thing that is going on.

Lindsay Williams: Do you think that market participants will use this as an excuse to take something off the table? It’s the ‘sell in May and go away’ story, of course, but we have also got in the background, apart from the brinkmanship, the trade wars brinkmanships, we have also got North Korea and that is just loosed off another unidentified projectile they call it from the north-west of the country. There’s the Iran situation. Maybe this is the perfect storm and the market or rather the market participants will use this as an excuse to say, you know I’m fed-up with this, I’m going to get out and I am going to go away for the summer, the northern hemisphere summer, of course?

John Stopford: Well, I think there is potentially a bit of that. Markets don’t go up in a straight line. We have had pretty one-way traffic now for 4 months. Inevitably, some people will have made decent money and are sort of looking to take profits. I think within that though there are quite a lot of people who basically have missed out in this rally.

If you look at surveys of investor sentiment, if you look at positioning, all of those kinds of things, they suggest that people got super-defensive in the sort of bearish environment in Q4 of last year and, although they have got more positive, they haven’t really put a lot of money to work. So I think there is probably a decent pool of investors who are looking to buy the dip, which probably means it won’t be as dramatic a sell-off as it might have been if everyone had got in and got along. You know certainly people are probably looking for some excuses for at least near-term profit-taking and for markets to correct. How far we go, we will have to wait and see.

Bear in mind that essentially all we have really done in the last six months is go down and then get back broadly to where we were. So it is not as though valuations are materially more stretched and certainly policy has been more helpful, except for maybe this trade spat now, in terms of helping to remove some of the downside fears of investors. So the Fed moving from tightening towards potentially contemplating easing, the Chinese pumping in fiscal stimulus, tax cuts and opening the credit spigots a bit and most central banks actually easing off. So we had rate cuts this week in New Zealand, in Malaysia and so on.

I think the environment is a bit more friendly than it was. Growth is okay – it is not spectacular. Markets have sort of retraced the big sell-off. It’s a sort of natural point at which people are trying to get some direction and short-term this kind of thing I think means that the path of least resistance is to the downside but how far down we shall see.

Lindsay Williams: Yes. I am looking at a chart now of the S&P 500 Futures and incidentally, as we pre-record this interview on a Thursday at lunchtime, the S&P 500 Futures are down round about 24 points and that is round about 100 points off the highs that we saw just last week. The chart looks awful. It depends whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. It is either a giant double top or there is an inverse head and shoulders here.

John, we don’t need to debate that sort of thing but how are you as Head of Multi-Asset Income at Investec Asset Management in London, how are you positioning yourself? Has anything changed recently?

John Stopford: Well, a little bit. I would say medium-term we are in the sort of last leg we think of this cycle and this bull market. It has potentially been extended a little bit by the abrupt turn-around in policy but at the same time it is late in the day and valuations are not that compelling.

So we have chosen to play the ups more through options than through physical exposure and that works really well if things get messy because your exposure on the way up gets bigger but, if the market falls, your exposure drops back quite quickly and you are just spending a small amount of premium to pay for that one direction approach.

We have participated in the rally to an extent on the way up. If this turns into something nastier, we will quite quickly have our position decline to very low levels again and not be particularly hurt if actually this turns out, as you say, to maybe be a big double top and the rally of 2019 so far is just a head fake.

Lindsay Williams: So you are actually sitting there with your finger on the button should it be needed to be pressed (if that is the right phrase).

John Stopford: Well, fortunately, the options do it for us so we don’t have to be that clever but, yes, I think we are monitoring what is going on. I think we would be a lot more worried if sentiment had got extended. We were beginning to get noises where people were talking about the possibility of melt-up, they were talking about fear of missing out, all of those terms that were rather reminiscent of January 2018 when we then had a terrible February and March.

Despite that, if you actually look at what people were doing, most investors might be talking a bullish story but they haven’t particularly put money to work and so that makes us a little bit more comfortable that there is some ammunition to basically buy dip. Unless this trade spat and the other things you talked about (Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, etc.) turn into something more major, I think it is more likely that there is, at least in the short term, a buying opportunity into weakness rather than this being the final selling opportunity in a sort of decade long or more than decade long bull market.

Lindsay Williams: John Stopford, thanks so much for your time. John Stopford is the Head of Multi-Asset Income at Investec Asset Management in London.

John Stopford
John Stopford Head of Multi-Asset Income

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