HONG KONG – Sure, the trade war between the U.S. and China seems to be easing. But, with few details available after three days of midlevel talks, other than the promise of more talks, equity investors are taking a pause.
Chinese officials described the negotiations as “extensive, in-depth and detailed.” The U.S. noted a commitment from the Chinese to buy more agricultural goods, energy and manufactured products, while pushing for a way to make sure China delivers on its promises.
For the stock bulls out there, it was good while it lasted. The biggest five-day advance in the MSCI Asia Pacific Index since early November came to a halt Thursday as equity markets across the region traded mixed. As investors assessed the latest developments, the Topix index fell 0.9 percent, while Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea and others moved less than 0.4 percent.
“The trade optimism built over the last four trading days is facing a ‘reality check’ and Asian markets are giving up gains on disappointing trade statements,” said Margaret Yang, strategist at CMC Markets Singapore Pte. “Rising gold and yen suggest sentiment is turning to the cautious mode again, until more details of the trade talks are released to show concrete progression.”
With attention now shifting to the March 1 deadline set to reach an accord, investors are settling in for what may be months of uncertainty as the two sides inch their way toward a resolution.
Here’s a look at how they are evaluating the situation:
The fact that talks have picked up a lot of speed over the past few days is an encouraging sign, said Adrian Zuercher, Asia Pacific chief investment officer at UBS Group AG’s wealth unit in Hong Kong. The extended cease-fire to March should help turn around some of the macro indicators that have gone negative, he added.
“We’ll probably look over the next couple of weeks to increase a bit more cyclicality of the portfolio,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot of value around.”
Ross Cameron at Northcape Capital has held the view since last year that a short-term deal with China would be superficial and leave unresolved many underlying issues, such as intellectual property theft, cybercrime and currency manipulation — they are too large to be addressed in a single agreement.
“It is prudent to avoid Chinese companies reliant on U.S. technology,” said the head of the Japan office. “The trade war has also temporarily distracted markets from a very serious slowdown in the Chinese economy.”
Chance of March deal: 10%
For Chi Lo, senior economist for greater China at BNP Paribas Asset Management, there’s only a 10 percent chance for the best-case scenario of the two sides reaching an agreement by March to settle all major issues and roll back tariffs. The most likely result will be talks extending beyond March with no further tariff escalation, he said.
“We should see intense negotiations focusing on the list of 140-odd demands that the Treasury presented to China in the summer,” with some low-hanging fruit in market-access issues and China imports of U.S. products, he said.
Recent moves by China, such as the resumption of U.S. soy purchases, indicate the country is showing a lot of goodwill, said Khiem Do, co-head of Asian multiasset strategy at Barings LLC.
“There is a willingness to come to a sensible conclusion,” Do said. “No one will open champagne, but at least there is goodwill from both sides, and that is very important for investors and flows.”
For Tetsuo Seshimo, a portfolio manager at Saison Asset Management who usually invests with a five-year view, volatile times like these are good opportunities to pick up stocks.
“We’re actively investing in equities,” he said. “The market is conscious of a lot of different risks, which means equities have become that much cheaper.”
A long way to go
Market watchers, it’s probably worth buckling up for the long ride. That’s the message from Shane Oliver, Sydney-based head of investment strategy and chief economist at AMP Capital Investors Ltd. He added that “it’s going to take a lot of work to resolve these issues.”
“There will be periods like today where it looks like there wasn’t a lot of progress, there will be other periods where it looks like there is progress, so this issue will continue to wax and wane towards that deadline,” he said.
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