In the lead-up to January 20 when Donald Trump becomes US president, Asians are guessing about the outlook for their savings.
Trump is particularly difficult to read because he made so many wild statements on the campaign trail. Everyone accepts that campaigning politicians promise heaven and deliver mostly hell, but when they win elections, most become much more sober. So far, it looks like Trump’s policy will follow his campaign threats.
The Trump presidency will be bi-polar – either highly successful if he reboots American dynamism, or one that may bankrupt the country trying, including getting involved in another war.
His rise to power has been accompanied by wild swings in investor mood as markets yo-yo from hesitation to rally, with the Dow currently peaking.
So far, Trump family members appear to have more clout than was the case with any previous , with perhaps the exception of President Bill Clinton.
Disappointingly, the favourite to be Trump’s treasury secretary is ex-Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin, which means Wall Street would have another insider running the status quo. It remains to be seen whether he can simultaneously deliver the promised spending on infrastructure, tax cuts for the rich and containment of effects of a stronger dollar.
All signs are that the dollar will strengthen, bringing echoes of the famous phrase, “my dollar, your problem”. In its latest health check on the US economy, the International Monetary Fund reported in June that “the current level of the US dollar is assessed to be overvalued by 10-20 per cent and the current account deficit is around 1.5-2 per cent larger than the level implied by medium term fundamentals and desirable policies”. The IMF thinks that the risk of the dollar surging in value is high, and estimates a 10 per cent appreciation would reduce American GDP by 0.5 per cent in the first year and 0.5-0.8 per cent in the second year.
Trump is likely to be highly expansionary in his first year because the Republicans, having control of the Congress, Senate and the White House, must revive growth and jobs to ensure voters give them a second term. Note carefully that Trump’s election promises of stopping immigration, scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, imposing sanctions on China and cancelling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are all inflationary in nature.
This is why if the Fed does not raise interest rates in December this year, it may be under pressure next year not to take any action to slow a Trump economic recovery. The Fed’s independence will be called into question, since Trump’s expansionary policy will put pressure on his budget deficit and national debt, already running at 3 per cent and 76 per cent of GDP respectively. A 1-per-cent increase in nominal interest rates would add roughly 0.7 per cent to the fiscal deficit, making it unsustainable in the long run.
Those who think that recovery in US growth would be good for trade are likely to be disappointed. So far, the recovery (which is stronger than in either Europe or Japan) has led to little increase in imports, due to three effects – lower oil prices, the increase in domestic shale oil production and more onshoring of manufacturing. The US current account deficit may worsen somewhat to around 4 per cent of GDP, but this will not improve unless sanctions are imposed on both China and Mexico, which would in turn hurt global trade.
Why is a strong dollar risky for the global economy?
The answer is that the global growth model would be too dependent on the US, while the other economies are still struggling. Europe used to be broadly balanced in terms of current account, but has moved to become a major surplus zone of around 3.4 per cent of GDP. Germany alone is running a current account surplus of 8.6 per cent of GDP in 2016, benefiting hugely from the weak euro.
Japan has moved back again to a current surplus of 3.7 per cent of GDP, but the yen remains weak at current levels of 107 to the dollar. I interpret the Bank of Japan’s QQE (qualitative and quantitative easing) as both a financial stability tool and also one aimed at ensuring that the capital outflows by Japanese funds would outweigh the inflows from foreigners punting on a yen appreciation.
The Bank of Japan’s unlimited buying of Japanese government bonds at fixed rates would put a cap on losses for pension and insurance funds holding long-term bonds if the yield curve were to steepen (bond prices fall when interest rates rise). Japanese pension and insurance funds have been large investors in US Treasuries and securities for the higher yield and possible currency appreciation.
In short, the capital outflow from Japan to the dollar is helpful to US-Japan relations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to call on Trump and likely dangled a carrot: Tokyo will fund Trump’s expansionary policies so long as Japan is allowed to re-arm.
From 2007 to 2015, US securities held by foreigners increased by $7.3 trillion to $17.1 trillion, bringing its gross amount to 94 per cent of GDP, official figures show. Japan already holds just under $2 trillion of US securities and, as a surplus saver, has lots of room to buy more.
The bottom line for Asia? Don’t expect great trade recovery from any US expansion. On the other hand, Asian investors will continue to buy US dollars on the prospects of higher interest rates and better recovery. This puts pressure on Asian exchange rates.
Of course, it’s possible that US fund managers will start investing back in Asia, but with trade sanctions and frosty relations between US-China in the short-term, US investors will stay home. If interest rates do go up in Asia in response to Fed rate increases, don’t expect the bond markets to improve. The equity outlook would depend on individual country responses to these global uncertainty threats.
Think Asian By Andrew Sheng, a former central banker, writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.
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