It is possible that “trade” may start to move to the top of the agenda.
President Donald Trump’s list of accomplishments in office is somewhat shorter than his list of tweets while in office. There is perhaps a desire on the part of the White House to take actions in areas that do not require Congressional approval.
Trade is one area in which the U.S. President has considerable power.
U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer told Congress: “I have made it very clear that a bad decision with respect to the non-market economy status of China would be cataclysmic for the World Trade Organization (WTO).”
The precise threat was not spelled out, but in economic terms this is the equivalent of knuckle-dusters being pulled on as this statement comes ahead of an expected increase of tariff barriers on foreign steel imports into the United States.
U.S. imports of steel mill products have increased in recent months after declining in the second half of 2016, while exports have remained relatively flat. In April 2017, the steel trade deficit widened to -2.3 million metric tons from -2.2 million metric tons in March 2017, a 0.9 percent increase.
In April 2017, steel mill imports from China were down 2.9 percent from one year. April 2017 imports from China represented just 2 percent of all U.S. steel mill imports, up from 1.8 percent in March.
That said, there are wider implications from this than trade alone.
President Xi of China has invested a lot of political capital into his relationship with President Trump. There may be problems if that is not seen as yielding benefits.
Besides that, the decline in the price of crude oil is agitating some in the financial markets. Economists are less likely to get worked up, as should be long-term investors, by the short-term moves. Only if this is more sustained does it start to have a meaningful impact on the bigger picture, as well as the obvious impact on headline inflation over time.
There is also the question of the dollar’s reaction.
OPEC countries, especially in the Gulf, need oil prices higher to be able to finance their fiscal positions. Wherever the fiscal breakeven oil price is, it is not at $45 per barrel.
The result is that the Gulf countries have been dipping into the overseas’ assets to finance domestic consumption.
As in Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, the 31-year old Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the new heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia, there is little doubt he will play an even more influential role in the world oil markets than has been to hereto the case.
The prince has been a leading force behind the efforts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to bolster oil prices by cutting oil production in order to bring down the oil glut. His biggest obstacles have been the American shale oil producers and Libya, at least for the moment, that have continued to sustain their oil share to the oil glut.
Yes, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman could be seen as a positive for the oil price over the median term while U.S. oil production remains a negative.
As Gulf countries’ overseas assets are generally in the U.S. and their domestic consumption generally goes to imports from the Euro area, the currency implications of any prolonged move in the price of oil should put downward pressure on the dollar and upward pressure on the euro.
It might be good for investors not to overlook that fact that Prins Mohammed bin Salman is also known for being a hawk on Shiite Iran, who has ruled out any accommodation with Tehran.
Beginning May he stated when accusing Iran of seeking to take over Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia: “We are a primary target for the Iranian regime. We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”
Prince Mohammed was also an architect of isolating Qatar because of its close ties, albeit only in part, to Iran and Islamist political movements, which pose a threat to the traditional conservative Arab monarchies.
No doubt, uncertainties in the Middle East continue rising and, at least in my opinion, as an investor it could be a mistake not keeping an eye on it.
Etienne "Hans" Parisis is a bank economist who has advised global billionaires and governments on the financial markets and international investments.
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