Soy sauced

Little wonder many US farmers are feeling the pinch of Trump’s trade war with China.

Figures from data service Knoema show the value of US soybean exports to China have collapsed. In 2017, US farmers sold $US12.22 billion of soybeans to China; last year that slumped to just $US3.12 billion. This followed the Chinese Government’s decision to drastically reduce US soybean imports in retaliation for Trump’s move to impose tariffs on Chinese goods.

To fill the void, US farmers have had to search for markets further afield, cultivating and expanding markets in Argentina, Egypt and (ironically enough) Iran, among others (see below).

US Agricultural Exports to China Falling, Farmers Seek New Markets

The pain felt by US producers is not just limited to soybean farmers either. Across the spectrum, agricultural exports to China are down – frozen fish, shrimp, pigs, wheat.

The US Government has provided a $12 billion aid package for farmers hurt by the trade battle, more than $7 billion of which has gone to soybean farmers.

So, thanks to Trump, American taxpayers and consumers are copping it both ways – paying more for consumer goods from China, and handing out even more money to farmers hurt by Trump’s own policies.

Then there is the little matter of exacerbating the risk of recession…

 

 

 

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Morrison’s half-hearted climate ploy won’t cut it

Scott Morrison and his government still don’t get it.

A day before arriving at the 50th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting in Tuvalu, the Australian Prime Minister announced $500 million to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and prepare for the effects of climate change.

Pacific leaders have been building up the pressure on Australia to take their climate change concerns seriously and the Morrison Government is obviously hoping that the package will take some of the heat out of the issue at the PIF meeting.

While it might buy Australia some temporary relief, the announcement is unlikely to work for long, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it does nothing to address regional concerns about the depth of Australia’s commitment to tackling climate change. By giving money to other countries to do something about their energy usage and disaster preparations, Australia is inadvertently reinforcing the criticism that it is doing all-too little itself.

When Tony Abbott whipped Australia out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement he made the country instantly more vulnerable to criticisms that it does not take climate change seriously and shirks from taking meaningful action to curb its own contribution to the problem.

From the viewpoint of small island Pacific countries who see themselves as on the frontline of the effects of climate change, Australia’s position as one of the world’s largest exporters of coal is increasingly morally and politically indefensible, and a $500 million handout won’t change that.

There is also a bigger story here that goes to the heart of Australia’s national interest.

The Morrison Government has significantly increased the policy focus on the Pacific. The tempo of ministerial visits to the region has surged, accompanied by attention-grabbing announcements like the electrification of rural PNG, the construction of a high-speed data cable between Sydney, Port Moresby and Honiara and the establishment of a joint Australia-PNG-US naval base on Manus.

The cause of Australia’s intensified interest is China’s growing presence and heft in the Pacific as an investor and a provider of development projects, funding and finance.

Australia is rightly wary of what China’s plans and intentions are in the Pacific. At the very least, it spells the end of 70 years of unchallenged hegemony for the US in the region.

There is a well of good will toward Australia in the Pacific region.

But it has gradually been draining away over the years as Australian governments have waxed and waned on the region.

Australia’s influence and diplomacy in the region has had several high points under the stewardship of dedicated ministers like Bob McMullen and Gordon Bilney, and Australia’s leadership of the RAMSI intervention to restore order in the Solomon Islands.

But often its engagement has been tepid, fitful and, in recent times, marked by curious decisions and disdainful remarks that have undermined Australia’s standing, like the penny-pinching move to axe the ABC’s shortwave service to the region and Peter Dutton’s dismissive comments about Pacific Islanders under threat from rising sea levels.

This is the context in which Morrison’s $500 million pledge should be viewed.

The fact that it is being funded at the expense of other areas of Australia’s development program will not go unnoticed.

The ability of Pacific nations to absorb significant amounts of aid is limited. Thin reservoirs of expertise and fragile systems of governance mean the risk of funds being misused or misspent is considerable.

But diverting funds from programs tackling family and sexual violence, building roads or supporting schools and hospitals to boost action on climate change sends a curious signal about Australia’s priorities in the region.

Under President Xi, China is shifting the bias in its foreign policy increasingly toward hard power, particularly through the rapid expansion of its navy and an increasingly nationalist and belligerent posture on the international stage.

The leaves an opening for Australia to augment its soft power in the region. Rugby league is a prime example. PNG, for example, virtually shuts down when the NSW-Queensland State of Origin matches are on.

Australia’s labour mobility programs in the Pacific are another example. Already several thousand workers from Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati are sending welcome funds home from jobs on Australian farms, in our hotels, our nursing homes and other workplaces. PNG, which suffers from high rates of unemployment, particularly among its young people, promises to a particularly rich source of labour for Australian employers. For their part, workers who have had a good experience will extol the virtues of PNG’s near-southern neighbour.

Australia has a head-start in the race for hearts and minds in the Pacific, but it will only maintain its position by treating its Pacific neighbours with understanding and respect.

Half-hearted, penny-pinching climate change policies won’t cut it.

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Is China really the currency manipulator Trump says it is?

A great analysis of Trump’s accusation that China is a currency manipulator has just been published by the Timothy Taylor (aka the Conversable Economist: http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/08/china-and-currency-manipulation.html).

He shows how changes in China’s currency vs US dollar do not match up with rises and falls in China’s trade surplus with the US, which is at the core of Trump’s accusation.

The chart below, which maps the yuan/US dollar exchange rate over the past 30 years, tells much of the story.

china exchange rate

As Taylor explains, up to around 1995, the Chinese Government set an official exchange rate. The value of the yuan plunged that year when the official rate was unified with the much weaker market-set rate.

Between 1996 and 2005, the exchange rate barely budged because the Bank of China held it fixed.

From mid-2005 the yuan gradually strengthened, from about 8.2 yuan to the dollar to reach 6.8 yuan to the dollar by mid-2008.

Since then it has been held within the 6 to 7 yuan/dollar band by the Chinese central bank.

Match this up against China’s trade balance.

Chinese exports surged in the early 2000s after the country joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 (see chart below). China’s trade surplus reached a high of 10 per cent of GDP in 2007 before declining to less than 2 per cent by 2011 and less than 1 per cent last year.

china trade balance

Note how, in the early 2000s, will China’s trade surplus surged, the yuan/dollar exchange rate did not budge, and has stayed within the 6 to 7 yuan/dollar band for the past decade, even as the trade surplus has plunged.

As Taylor argues, especially since 2011 there is no evidence to no support Trump’s complaint that China has been using a weak exchange rate to power its trade surpluses.

In fact, China’s trade is close to balance at the moment. The IMF reckons it had a surplus of just 0.4 per cent in 2018, and thinks it is headed to a trade deficit in the next few years.

Given Trump’s “America First” (read, ‘bugger the rest of you’) focus, it is unsurprising that US Treasury’s gripe is primarily that, regardless of its overall trade balance, China is running a hefty trade surplus with the US.

But this has little to do with the currency and almost everything to do with the American consumer who has, like much of the rest of the world, become addicted to the flood of cheap clothes, toys, footwear, electronics and other goods coming out of China.

By hiking the tariffs on Chinese imports, Trump is imposing a tax on American households by increasing the cost of the Made in China goods they purchase.

He is also distorting global production chains.

Neither will necessarily be very good for the American economy, which is already slowing under the pressure.

Own goals don’t come much bigger.

 

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Interest rates Australia: the outlook for 2019

This post was first published in In The Black on 8 March 2019 at https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2019/03/08/interest-rates-australia-outlook-2019

When the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) last changed interest rates Malcolm Turnbull was still prime minister, Donald Trump had yet to seize the White House, the UK had just voted for Brexit and house prices were booming.

During all the subsequent turbulence locally and abroad, the RBA cash rate has been a rare constant. In two and a half years it has not budged from a record-low 1.5 per cent.

However, markets and economists increasingly believe this period of policy stability is coming to an end, though views diverge sharply on whether the next move will be down or up.

The Reserve Bank recently indicated that it has shifted from a bias towards increasing interest rates to a more neutral stance. Governor Philip Lowe said in a recent speech that “over the past year, the next-move-is-up scenarios were more likely than the next-move-is-down scenarios. Today, the probabilities appear to be more evenly balanced.”

Unemployment falling

CommSec senior economist Ryan Felsman.

Some, such as CommSec senior economist Ryan Felsman (left) and ANZ’s co-head of Australian economics, Cherelle Murphy, think the time is coming when the RBA will be able to raise interest rates.

Despite weakening house prices, the employment rate was steady at 5.1 per cent in January, supported by strong participation in the labour force, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The trend ratio of employment to population rose to a 10-year high of 62.4 per cent.

Felsman says the central bank will look past the continued slide in house prices and unexpectedly soft growth in the September quarter to developments in employment.

“The labour market is the key indicator going forward as far as interest rates are concerned,” he says.

Demand for workers has been building – about 284,000 jobs were created in 2018 and the unemployment rate has dipped to 5 per cent – and Felsman expects this pressure to gradually force wages higher and enable households to increase their spending.

Eventually, he expects wages growth to reach 3.5 per cent, which would be consistent with an inflation rate of about 2.5 per cent – the mid-point of the Reserve Bank’s 2 to 3 per cent target band – “which the RBA has previously identified as a level they would like to get to before they lift interest rates”.

Interest rates to rise in November?

ANZ’s co-head of Australian economics, Cherelle Murphy.

 

Felsman thinks this point will most likely be reached in November, convincing the central bank to lift the cash rate to 1.75 per cent.

Murphy (right) shares Felsman’s upbeat outlook for the economy but foresees a more gradual improvement.

She does not expect the RBA to lift the cash rate until August next year, followed by another increase in November 2020 to take the cash rate to 2 per cent.

Murphy says national income is holding up. Businesses are being buoyed by good profits, encouraging them to invest and hire, and feeding more company taxes into government coffers.

Just as important, tighter credit conditions are working to cool the once-rampant property market without triggering widespread mortgage defaults.

While homeowners may see a peak-to-trough fall of 20 per cent in house values before the market stabilises, Murphy says the fact that mortgage rates are stable means few are being forced to sell.

“This helps explain why consumer confidence has not fallen in a hole, and instead has stayed at pretty high levels,” she says, along with the strong jobs growth.

Given the importance of private consumption for economic activity (accounting for almost 60 per cent of GDP), this is an important plus for growth.

Further interest rate cuts

AMP Capital Markets chief economist Shane Oliver.

 

AMP Capital Markets chief economist Shane Oliver (left) and Market Economics principal Stephen Koukoulas are much gloomier about the economic outlook and believe tepid growth, elevated global risks and inflation that is stubbornly below target will leave the Reserve Bank board with no choice but to cut official interest rates in 2019. Oliver tips the rate to drop to 1 per cent by the end of this year; Koukoulas reckons it will hit a record low 0.75 per cent.

Both forecasts are more aggressive than financial market estimates which, which nonetheless have fully priced in a rate cut to 1.25 per cent by the end of the year.

Concerns about growth, falling house prices, stagnant wages and soft household spending have been underlined by the release of figures showing underlying inflation has been below the RBA’s 2 to 3 per cent target range for most of the past four years.

China’s slowing economy

Internationally, China – Australia’s largest export market – has slowed. In the 12 months to the December quarter it expanded by 6.4 per cent, its weakest pace in almost three decades as consumers eased the pedal on major purchases such as cars. The unresolved US-China trade war has deepened concerns about Chinese growth.

Against this, the Chinese Government has pledged to support the economy and is expected to unveil tax cuts and relax bank cash reserve requirements.

Nonetheless, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the US economy to soften in the next two years as the effects of the Trump tax cuts fade, recent Federal Reserve rate hikes bear down on activity and the trade war with China rumbles on.

These developments are buffeting other economies. In Europe, the IMF expects Germany to be hit particularly hard. The euro zone’s largest economy is heavily reliant on exports to the US and China, and the Fund has sharply downgraded its growth prospects, forecasting it will expand by just 1.7 per cent this year.

Slowing European growth

Add to this mix the Brexit fiasco, and the IMF thinks the euro area as whole will struggle to grow by just 1.9 per cent in 2019 – and that is assuming Britain and the EU reach agreement on an orderly exit.

While these issues have been on the Reserve Bank board’s radar for some time, Oliver says the way they have evolved in the last few weeks will have it worried.

“I think they would be feeling more nervous about things than they were in December when they last met,” he says. “We have seen another round of volatility in markets, and a lot of the issues around that haven’t been resolved. Locally, the housing downturn has worsened, [and there are] more concerns about tight credit conditions.”

Despite this, Oliver does not expect the central bank to be in a rush to cut the cash rate and will instead want to see spending measures in the April Federal Budget and the promises made by both the major parties in the lead-up to the federal election before moving.

Amidst such uncertainty, the RBA and its counterparts around the world appear poised to act meeting to meeting, examining data in forensic detail for the faintest hints of how key aspects of the economy are faring.

As Felsman says, “Every policy meeting is now live.”

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