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Economists are Watching These Indicators to Gauge Trade War Pain

(Bloomberg) -- The global economy is showing the first signs of damage as a brewing trade war rattles financial markets and hurts corporate confidence.

The escalating actions and threats between the U.S. and its major trading partners, including China and the European Union, pose one of the biggest threats to global growth. We asked economists which indicators they are watching most closely to gauge the stress points.

Here’s what some of them said:

IFO

As Europe’s largest economy and a top global exporter, Germany would be particularly exposed to any trade slowdown. The Munich-based Ifo Economic Research Institute produces leading confidence indicators for the country and the euro area.

The measures so far announced by the U.S. and others would dent trade growth by no more than a few percentage points, said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg in London. “The major impact will be on confidence," Schmieding said. "Hence I am watching forward-looking confidence indicators such as Ifo expectations and French companies’ own production outlooks.”

South Korea

Readings on exports from South Korea, one of the world’s leading manufacturers, are a favorite of analysts seeking to gauge where global growth is headed. Taiwan’s export orders are also cited as ones to watch.

"As the starting point for many of the inputs into Asia’s electronics supply chain, South Korea is the canary in the global trade coal mine," said Tom Orlik, chief economist at Bloomberg Economics. "Exports for the first 20 days of June already look dismal -- with a 4.8 percent year-on-year contraction reversing a 14.8 percent gain in the same period in May. It’s tough to say if that’s monthly volatility or fading demand, but it’s not a good sign."

Numbers for the full month give a fuller picture, with the next reading due July 1. The chart below shows a clear link to China’s cycle.

New Export Orders

To get a handle on demand, keep an eye on the new export orders component of the JP Morgan Global Manufacturing purchasing managers index.

"This has come down sharply of late, and may already reflect growing uncertainty around trade policy, though other cyclical factors are at work as well," said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economics research at HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong. He’s also watching Chinese imports of processing goods, which are a useful barometer of Asia’s supply chains and foreign direct investment.

China

Economists routinely cite China trade data as a key measure of global demand and what it means for the health of the world’s second-biggest economy.

Overall trade appears to be holding up but there are some signs of softening. A sub-index on export orders can be volatile due to seasonal effects and other factors, but it’s likely to be among the first data points to register a slowdown.

U.S. Producer Prices

Vishnu Varathan, head of economics and strategy at Mizuho Bank Ltd. in Singapore, is watching three main indicators to get a handle on the global trade trajectory: PMI manufacturing indexes, mainly in Asia and Europe; global exports in volume terms, as “validation” of the PMI readings; and producer prices, especially in the U.S., for the impact of tariffs on the supply chain.

Electronics

Given that “a lot of the targeting of tariffs” is aimed at Made in China 2025 and electronics industries cited in that strategy, Selena Ling of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. is keeping an eye on electronics gauges from her seat in trade-reliant Singapore.

Ling acknowledges that it’ll be difficult for electronics exports to accelerate in 2018 at a year-on-year pace, given last year’s stellar performance. She’ll look for any further deterioration in electronics exports as a sign that trade tensions are taking a toll.

A sub-index of the city’s PMI focused on electronics has weakened this year, but is holding in expansion territory -- where it should remain for another couple months, in Ling’s view.

“The question now is whether the story’s going to change as of July 6,” when a new round of U.S. tariffs could take effect, said Ling. And from there, U.S. midterms should ensure that President Donald Trump keeps everyone on their toes.

Trade Volumes

Economists are also looking at direct measures of trade volumes such as cargo traffic. They’ve held up so far but it may be too early to record the impact of the flare-up in tensions. For example an index of container traffic in 88 major ports worldwide showed no sign of declining trade volumes as of May.

“Given Germany’s export focus, I would always start with German data,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-Diba AG. “Ifo export expectations are clearly a good start but I also found some smaller indicators like Fraport traffic figures or the DHL world trade barometer.”

PMIs

The negative impact of the fight over trade appears to be already showing up in sentiment indicators, according to Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank in New York. "It is striking that the significant tailwind from corporate tax cuts is now being offset by other forces, most likely the uncertainties associated with the ongoing trade war." In a note to clients, Slok highlighted recent drops in PMIs.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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