Monthly Market Overview – January 2017

16 Jan 2017

Investor reaction to Trump’s success in the US Presidential election has been remarkable. The US equity market (as well as the US Dollar) has risen strongly as investors anticipate the success of a switch away from extraordinary monetary policy towards a more traditional fiscal stimulus via both tax cuts for corporates and individuals, deregulation and increased spending on infrastructure. Optimism abounds that such policies will be the panacea which will enable US (and thereby global) growth to rebound and economies to reflate. Indeed, regional surveys of company management teams are beginning to suggest confidence that global economic growth will accelerate during 2017.

We have been vocal for some time for the need for policymakers to switch from a playbook which meant any misstep in the economy was met with additional money printing (and bond buying) to that of fiscal stimulus. However, we fear that the gulf between what can be promised in speeches (and is being priced into markets) versus what can be delivered is growing and that at some stage during the year reality may set in and there is likely to be a reappraisal of what can be achieved during by the Trump Presidency. Despite being relatively expensive, the US equity market is likely to continue to do well during the early days of the Trump administration but soon investors will be demanding policy detail and assessing the probability that the policies will be enacted; perhaps we are close to ‘Peak Trump’.

One counterargument to current investor optimism is that in the real world actions have consequences. Ripping up trade treaties and implementing targeted import tariffs (or their equivalent) will create significant trade tensions, let alone disruptions to existing supply chains. Such actions will also intensify inflationary pressures which are already building given the tight US labour market. If taken to its logical conclusion, investors will start to price in considerably higher interest rates than currently expected, which would strengthen the US Dollar still further. This will reduce the US economy’s competitiveness and dampening some of the positive ramifications of Trump’s pro-growth policies. The 30 year mortgage rate has already responded; rising sharply. This, combined with a stronger US Dollar, is tightening financial conditions in the US before any of Trump’s policies have been enacted.

The best case outcome is that the more sensible growth promoting Trump policies are enacted without much controversy (whilst his wilder policy platforms are quietly dropped) and this manages to extend the US economic cycle by encouraging domestic investment, the repatriation cash held by corporates overseas, significant tax breaks for corporates and increased share buy backs.
In geopolitical terms, the new US regime appears to have a strong desire to drive a wedge between Russia and China, in order, perhaps, to try to isolate China. Any US import trade tariffs could have significantly negative consequences on the overly indebted Chinese economy and this, alongside a threat to rip up the ‘One China’ policy over Taiwan, may be used to try to pressurize China to bring North Korea ‘to heal’ and demilitarise the South China Sea. However, this might strengthen China’s resolve to fight back against the proposed tariffs/import tax policies of the new administration. The most obvious way of doing this would be for them to devalue their currency in a dramatic and one off nature to such an extent that Chinese economic competitiveness is once again achieved despite the actions of the US Government. This could threaten another wave of global deflation. Unfortunately, in such a scenario whereby the Chinese economy starts to undershoot its economic growth projections, the authorities may well view external geopolitical tensions as worth playing up if it deflects the populace’s attentions from economic problems at home. Such an outcome would have negative consequences for emerging market assets.

Elsewhere, Teresa May has committed to trigger Article 50 the end of the first quarter of 2017. Nothing to date assuages our fear that the European Union will ensure that the UK is ejected unceremoniously from the European Union with no trade agreement in place in two years’ time. Given the poor state of the UK’s finances, let alone the unbalanced nature of the economy this could have negative short term consequences to domestic consumption as imported inflation rises and high value jobs move out of the UK. Dutch elections in March, are followed by French Presidential elections in May, whilst German State elections are held in the Autumn. All of these have the potential for generating more political uncertainty.

With all the uncertainty evinced above, we believe that the pendulum which swings between investor greed and fear has moved into greed territory and whilst there may be further to go in the short term, it is only a matter of time before it changes direction and starts to swing back towards fear, not least because the ultimate consequence of reflation is higher debt prices for governments and corporates which are already accommodating significant debt levels, and this (rising finance costs) can in itself become an headwind to further equity market performance.

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