Despite tentative signs of stabilisation, it is concerning how dependant any nascent positivity is on the recent surge in Asian exports data. We think without the positive ‘front-loading’ impact on Chinese exports, the FLI could look quite a bit uglier. But while we can speculate on how important this effect has been, we won’t truly know until the next few data points come out.

Source: Fidelity International, November 2018.

Unchanged cycle tracker

The FLI tracker has failed to break out of the bottom-left quadrant (growth below trend and decelerating over the past three months), where it has been for the past eight months. This suggests continued softness in global activity for the rest of 2018, with some of the underlying components looking fragile.

However with deceleration approaching zero, we could potentially see a stabilisation in global activity around the turn of 2019. The FLI ‘bet’ ticked down from last month, retaining a marginal overweight to risk and underweight to duration.

Potential for a sudden snap-back in trade indicators

Two of the five sub-sectors are out of the ‘bottom-left’ quadrant. The main positive is global trade, which shows outsized strength driven by surging Korean exports. Caution is advised here as we are wary of the potential for a sudden snap-back in trade indicators in the coming months; this could change how the FLI looks for the worse.

Impending US tariffs seem to have caused a ‘front-loading’ of activity in Asian supply chains, artificially boosting indicators in the near-term. October could well represent the peak here, given the 1 January deadline for shipping arrivals to avoid tariffs escalating to 25 per cent on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the US.

The consumer/labour sub-sector, in the top-left for a second month, also ticked up. This is still being driven by US data, though some European consumer confidence metrics improved at the margin.

The other three sub-sectors are stuck in the ‘bottom left’, indicating below-trend and decelerating growth. Industrial orders were the biggest disappointment, entirely erasing gains seen last month; only the US data looks robust, while Germany’s new foreign orders and Japan’s inventory-to-sales are very weak. On the other hand, business surveys have continued to improve at the margin, driven by less negativity in the beaten down EC bellwether surveys. Components related to commodities are the weakest.

Key headwinds yet to reverse

This may explains why the FLI is yet to ‘break out’ from the bottom-left quadrant, and is negative year-on-year for the first time since 2015. There are three primary headwinds. Firstly, global financial conditions have become tougher, led by the United States’ tightening monetary conditions and growth outperformance, which has put pressure on emerging markets in particular. This drag looks set to continue considering recent labour data among other indicators.

Secondly, the slowdown in China shows no sign of abating. The relatively minor ‘targeted easing’ measures seen so far appear to be having little effect.

Lastly, oil prices have become less of a drag in recent weeks but remain well above 2017 levels. Oil will continue to exert a lagged impact on activity for now.

Two key things to monitor are Chinese ‘easing’ (or lack thereof) and any slowdown in Asian trade data after the tariff-related ‘pull-forward’ drops out. President Trump’s much-touted meeting with President Xi Jinping at the G20 might provide some boost to sentiment, but this doesn’t change the more fundamental headwinds above.

That said, these fundamental headwinds are increasingly mature and arguably now fairly well-digested by markets. This is perhaps reflected in the FLI’s stabilisation. The FLI ‘bet’ remains essentially neutral, giving a small positive reading for risk assets, but this is even smaller than last month.

At present, the FLI suggests slowing global growth to the end of the year, before a possible stabilisation or maybe even a positive inflection around the turn of 2019, barring a major external shock. All told, the overall picture suggests caution, with the FLI still negative year-on-year and very vulnerable to rolling over in global trade data in the coming months.

Ian Samson

Ian Samson

Portfolio Manager

Behn Mapus-Smith

Behn Mapus-Smith

Research Associate