Investors cheered US-China talks and Brexit. Now they're not so sure
Posted October 14, 2019 7:29 a.m. EDT
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Investors entered the weekend marshaling optimism. The prevailing view: After months of uncertainty, progress was being made to resolve both the US-China trade war and Brexit, two big geopolitical fights that have been weighing on global markets.
Behind the euphoria: Higher tariffs on Chinese goods worth $250 billion, which would have gone into effect this week, were called off as President Donald Trump announced a "phase one" trade deal. He said the agreement will include $40 billion to $50 billion in Chinese agricultural purchases, while kicking the can on thornier issues.
Meanwhile, positive messaging from a meeting between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, his Irish counterpart, raised hopes that the United Kingdom can strike a deal before the Brexit deadline on October 31.
Market impact: The S&P 500 finished Friday up 1.1%, snapping a three-week losing streak. The pound had its best week in more than two years.
The mood on Monday is a bit more skeptical. US stocks futures point lower and the pound was off 0.6% ahead of an official speech by the Queen laying out the legislative agenda.
Remember: Investors have had the rug pulled out from underneath them before.
One warning sign is the lack of an actual, paper US-China deal on trade — and the continued elusiveness of an agreement on bigger structural issues, such as Chinese state subsidies.
"In the absence of an actual text it is difficult to judge the significance of all this," Neil Shearing, chief economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a blog post on Monday. "Indeed, it is perhaps notable that so far the official line from Beijing has been couched in terms of 'progress' rather than an actual 'deal.'"
Plus, it's not clear a "phase one" deal would even relieve much of the pressure on the global economy. Tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in goods remain in place. Another round is still scheduled for December. And in leaving some key issues unresolved, the possibility of another flare-up looms.
"The envisaged mini-deal, which still needs to be codified, probably does not suffice to end the global downturn on its own. It seems to be too limited for that," said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg.
Then there's Brexit. Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, threw cold water on the notion of major progress on Sunday, when he warned EU ambassadors that the latest negotiations had been "difficult." His message: It's increasingly unlikely that an agreement can be reached by the time of the EU summit later this week.
Amid the rollercoaster drama of Brexit, more volatility for the pound is all but certain.
SoftBank could take control of WeWork
In calling off its IPO, WeWork failed to raise a significant amount of much-needed cash. Now, it faces a crunch — and its top investor may need to come to the rescue.
The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times are reporting that SoftBank is preparing a financing package that would allow it to take control of WeWork.
From the Journal: "SoftBank, which already owns one-third of WeWork, is aiming to invest several billion dollars in new equity and debt, some of the people familiar with the matter said.
... Should there be a deal with SoftBank, much of [former CEO Adam] Neumann's voting power — already diminished from its peak but still substantial — would shift to the Japanese conglomerate, which would take a bigger role in turning around We's operations."
Another possibility, according to the Journal, is that WeWork raises billions of dollars in debt. The paper warns that the situation is fluid, and there are no guarantees that the either option, or a combination of the two, will actually materialize.
Investor insight: Following its botched IPO, WeWork now has to deal with no small amount of reputational damage, which should keep traditional investors on the sidelines and looks poised to strain its finances.
The perception that the company is the manifestation with all that's wrong with tech startups — think: lofty valuations with no profits, and quirky governance structures — will be difficult to shake.
Don't count out gold just yet
A more bullish market environment would likely hit gold — a safe-haven favorite for investors that have recently been worried about a growing list of global headwinds.
But don't expect the latest trade developments to have a material impact on prices, UBS said in a research note published last week.
"Anything short of a comprehensive deal does not change the narrative, in our view," said strategist Joni Teves. "We continue to expect upside from current levels into year-end and would view any near-term setbacks as opportunities to re-engage."
Watch for lower trading volumes: US bond markets are closed for Columbus Day.
Coming tomorrow: US banks kick off third quarter earnings season. Wall Street analysts will be busy; Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo are all scheduled to report results before the US open.