Back in March we introduced and briefly discussed Trump’s intention to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum goods. In less than a year those trade disputes escalated in a trade war, impacting not only the two involved countries but also other trading partners, including the EU. The disaffection versus international institutions has been driven by their inability to include the weakest parts of the population from feeling the benefits of the globalization process. While globalization has triggered economic growth and substantial real income growth in developing countries, the middle class of developed nations has not experienced the same benefits, leading to a decrease in purchasing power and a rise in protectionist sentiment.
The main idea behind Trump’s rhetoric was to reduce the large trade surplus China has with the United States. Trump previously described the widening deficit, which Washington has said is around $100 billion wider than Beijing reported, as “embarrassing” and “horrible”. China and the EU were among those expressing their concerns regarding steel and aluminum tariffs and have threatened the US with applying a number of countermeasures. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, announced that the union will engage in a collective response with other countries affected by American measures and expressed EU’s intention to draft a list of retaliation tariffs amounting to $3 billion.
Since then, Trump’s actions have shaken the very foundations of global trade, with billions of dollars worth of goods from the EU, China, Mexico and Canada. The protectionist measures imposed by the American president have escalated into a full-fledged trade war between China and the US. An economic showdown between world’s largest economies does not look great for anyone and the EU’s manufacturing and industrial sectors are largely affected. Clearly, those sectors are monumental for Germany – the world’s fourth largest industrial nation.
Potential Paradigm Shift?
As the US is escalating the trade war, it will be more difficult for China to accommodate American demands. There are few effective ways for China to retaliate without hurting its long-term development. An alternative would be to open up to the world’s largest economy to the EU. Thus, there is an expectation of a possible collaboration between China and the EU, given that China accepts the longstanding demands of the EU on better market access and give-and-take approach. Within this scenario we would observe a paradigm shift in terms of US-China economic relations. The EU Commission currently maintains a neutral stance towards Chinese exports. So, the result would largely depend on whether EU chooses to align with the US to protect its market from the Chinese market or maintain the neutral policies. By maintaining the neutral stance, EU could substitute the US and China in each other’s markets to an extent. Given that US does not hit the EU directly and EU maintains a neutral stance, potential gains for EU industries are relevant for the motor vehicles and aircraft sectors as well as other sectors combining over $200 billion altogether.
Germany’s GDP Growth
In the third quarter of 2018, German output contacted for the first time since 2015 and this helped push the euro zone growth down to just 0.2%. This weakness is expected to continue in 2019, with the German GDP Growth rate revised down from 1.8% to 1% due to the global economic slowdown. Furthermore, the euro zone does not have the economic backdrop to increase rates, since the ECB ended its net asset purchases in December. Therefore, the benchmark rate is likely to remain the same, making it harder for the EU to offset the effects brought about by the trade war.
The main factor contributing to this contraction is the German auto industry. German car production decreased by 7.4% quarterly and this subtracted 1% from expansion in the industrial production and 0.3% from Germany’s GDP growth. The reason for this decrease comes partially from the new environmental standards for passenger cars, as producers could not make the vehicles as quickly as they desired.
Another reason for the Germany’s GDP slump might be China’s economic slowdown as China is one of Germany’s largest trading partners. China is facing economic issues arising domestically due to financial instability and externally given the trade tensions with the US. In October, China’s financial team went into overdrive with ten meetings within two months and Vice-Premier Liu He’s team was under pressure to resolve problems caused by the trade war that slowed the country’s growth. China’s economy officially grew only 6.4% on YoY basis in the fourth quarter, its slowest rate since the global financial crisis. A lack of growth in investments and consumption is the main driver of this lackluster performance.
Weakness In The Car Industry
Back in June, Germany’s Daimler cut its 2018 profit forecast, while BMW stated it was looking at “strategic options” because of the trade war. Thus, the companies sparked fears of earnings downgrades in the auto industry. Daimler stated that import tariffs on cars exported from the United States to China would hurt sales of its Mercedes-Benz cars, resulting in slightly lower EBIT for the year. Morgan Stanley’s analysts added that Daimler will not likely be the only Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) to reduce its guidance. Other OEMs are exposed to similar trends in various degrees.
Daimler’s rival BMW, which also exports from the United States to China and Europe reaffirmed the profit forecasts, adding that these would largely depend on unchanged global political conditions.
“Within the context of the current discussion concerning additional tariffs on international trade, the company is evaluating various scenarios and possible strategic options”.
European Central Bank’s Hard Work
Mr. Draghi of the ECB and Mr. Weidmann of the Bundesbank seem to agree that the policy should be normalized without delay. This suggests that the ECB remains determined to end net asset purchases by the end of 2018. Still, German exporters are vulnerable to the slowdown in external demand and the risk of trade tensions between Europe and the United States.
So, what should the ECB focus on? The Quantitative Easing program launched in 2015 with the intention to reduce the risk of deflation has come to an end last December. The key EU Inflation Rate rose above the ECB’s target of close to but below 2% for 2018, making it harder to justify an extension of the QE program.
The ECB held its benchmark refinancing rate at 0 percent on October 25th and said it would stop to make net purchases under the asset purchase programme at the end December 2018.
This situation has changed in the past months as the effects of the Trade War have been felt on both the real economy and financial markets globally. The sharp slump in energy prices, a contraction in Exports and finally Consumer Sentiment drifting lower from high levels have consistently reduced Inflation and GDP Growth expectations for the EU Area. As a result, it is highly improbable that Mario Draghi will be able to follow through on ECB plans towards normalization in the short term. The continued reinvestment of the proceeds from bond redemptions will be necessary to provide stimulus to the European economy for the years to come. Moreover, ECB should use the forward guidance to thrust back market expectations over the key interest rate rise – something which would weaken the euro and further loosen the financial conditions. The ECB’s next moves largely depend on the upcoming levels of inflation and economic activity, which are linked to politicians’ ability to solve trade disputes and restore confidence.
Trade War Detente
China and the US have agreed to not impose new tariffs up until March, when a definitive agreement is expected to be reached. Furthermore, China’s Ministry of Finance removed the 25% tariffs on American-made cars and 5% on specific car parts for three months. This shows the willingness of both sides to cooperate and work towards a larger trade deal, but only time will tell whether this willingness will convert into a desirable outcome. As commentators pointed out, any positive cooperation including negotiation or even talking would help settle the markets, while continuing tensions will instigate investors to withhold their money.
Even if according to the United States Trade Representative several outstanding issues remain, the possibility of an expedited trade deal has helped stabilize the markets in the last weeks.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 163.08 points (0.7% increase) to 24,370.24 – its highest level since December 13.
The upcoming elections of 2020 in the US oblige Trump to find an agreement in order to maintain his electoral base and increase his probability of reelection. According to reports from various sources, US officials are willing to grant China sizeable concessions in further negotiation rounds to reach an agreement before the deadline. It is unknown if this is enough to restore confidence in the system and the first test is expected in few months on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In May there will be the elections for the European Parliament, with Eurosceptic Parties gaining ground thanks to the widespread economic malaise exacerbated by the Trade War. The March meeting proves to be essential for all the parties involved, making extremely hard to forecast future upcoming events.
Authors: Nikita Borzunov, Mario Stopponi
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