U.S. President Donald Trump exits the White House before boarding Marine One in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Tariff Turmoil Helps Rates Traders Wrest Narrative Back From Fed

(Bloomberg) -- If the Federal Reserve’s optimistic take on inflation had traders second-guessing their bets on an interest-rate cut this year, they’re taking matters back into their own hands now.

Those wagers have gained traction with the escalation in trade tension between the world’s two largest economies. The latest U.S. tariff increase, and promised retaliation from China, are setbacks to the case for higher Treasury yields, and tame inflation data Friday didn’t help. Rather than gamble on a swift resolution to the standoff, investors are more likely to seize on any signs of spillover -- in economic data or markets -- to drive yields lower.

Tariff Turmoil Helps Rates Traders Wrest Narrative Back From Fed

Steeper equity-market declines could weigh on yields, as the Federal Reserve under Chairman Jerome Powell has already proven its readiness to tilt dovish when market conditions are strained. Financial conditions have tightened since the start of the month, when Powell said the forces behind weak price pressures could be “transitory.” Nevertheless, bond traders have ratcheted back inflation expectations for two straight weeks.

“The market is probably underestimating how long this will take to resolve,” Charles Tan, co-chief investment officer of global fixed income at American Century Investment Management, said last week. “You’ve got to factor in a bit more of a bearish outlook for growth if you believe the trade war is likely to escalate.”

‘Feel the Impact’

He expected the 10-year to remain at the low end of a 2.40%-2.70% range while the negotiations play out, but tumbling close to 2% “if things don’t work out and people feel the impact of higher tariffs.”

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday afternoon described the two days of talks as “candid and constructive,” but the tone shifted somewhat Saturday with Trump once again taking to Twitter to comment on the situation. The U.S. leader said the Chinese may have felt they were “being beaten so badly” in the recent talks that it was better to drag their feet in hopes Trump would lose the 2020 election and they’d get a better deal from the Democrats. Trump warned they would get “far worse” terms if a deal was negotiated in his second term.

Yields on benchmark 2- and 10-year notes have dropped to 2.27% and 2.47%, respectively, -- and that’s even before the market has had the chance to react to the latest rhetoric. They’ve more than reversed their advance following the May 1 Fed meeting, when Powell’s remarks on inflation fueled what looked at the time like the beginnings of a more optimistic market shift toward expectations for stronger growth. Positioning for a rate cut was briefly pushed back to mid-2020, but markets now reflect stronger confidence in a move this year.

Foreign-exchange traders were the first to react to the latest verbal exchanges between the U.S. and China. Traditional havens such as the Japanese yen strengthened in early Asia-Pacific trading Monday, while the U.S. dollar advanced against the Chinese yuan and trade-sensitive currencies like Australia’s.

“Dollar strength against the yuan signals the greenback should remain strong against the euro and other major currencies,” Mansoor Mohi-uddin, a Singapore-based senior macro strategist at NatWest Markets, said in an email before the market re-opened. “For the Federal Reserve -- still unwilling to consider easing monetary policy -- a surge in the dollar may become a risk to its current neutral outlook.”

Big Picture

Against the backdrop of trade uncertainty, industrial production data from the U.S. and China set for release this week may serve as an indicator of their respective economic bargaining power.

But Janelle Woodward, head of fixed income at BMO Global Asset Management, said last week that fixating on the U.S.-China relationship may be missing the big picture on trade, and its implications for investors. The U.S. administration may also be gearing up for a European confrontation, as the president is expected to make a decision on the findings of a probe into the national security risks of European auto imports by May 18.

The risk of a broader or more protracted trade battle could push the market back to the darker days of the fourth quarter last year, when trade tension helped drive the S&P 500 Index toward its weakest levels of 2018, she said.

“The concern here is really that this undermines business confidence and consumer confidence in a way that puts us back where we were in the fall of last year.”

What to Watch This Week

  • Developments in the trade war will be front and center. But investors will also get the latest reading on retail sales and an update on foreign investors’ Treasuries holdings, which will be of note given the debate over whether China might ‘weaponize’ its hoard of U.S. government debt.
  • Here’s the economic calendar:
    • May 14: NFIB small-business sentiment; import/export prices
    • May 15: Weekly mortgage applications; retail sales; Empire manufacturing; industrial production; NAHB homebuilder sentiment; business inventories; Treasury International Capital flow data
    • May 16: Jobless claims; housing starts; Philadelphia Fed factory index; weekly consumer comfort
    • May 17: University of Michigan consumer sentiment; leading index
  • And the (busy) calendar for Fed speakers:
    • May 13: Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida, Boston Fed’s Eric Rosengren remarks at “Fed Listens” event; Dallas Fed’s Robert Kaplan
    • May 14: New York Fed’s John Williams; Kansas City Fed’s Esther George; San Francisco Fed’s Mary Daly
    • May 15: Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles before Senate Banking Panel; Richmond Fed’s Thomas Barkin
    • May 16: Minneapolis Fed’s Neel Kashkari, Governor Lael Brainard
    • May 17: Williams, Clarida
  • Auctions are all about bills:
    • May 13: $39 billion of 3-month bills; $36 billion of 6-month bills
    • May 16: 4-, 8-week bills

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