The Hawks Have Not Left the Building

 

“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” – William Ellery Channing

 

“Very few negotiations are begun and concluded in the same sitting. It’s really rare. In fact, if you sit down and actually complete your negotiation in one sitting, you left stuff on the table.” – Christopher Voss

 

The Hawks Have Not Left the Building

 

A “typical feature of conflicts is that […] the intergroup conflict tends to be exacerbated and perpetuated by intragroup conflicts: by internal conflicts within each of the two contending parties. Even when there is growing interest on both sides in finding a way out of the conflict, movement toward negotiations is hampered by conflicts between the “doves” and the “hawks” –or the “moderates” and “extremists” –within each community”.  So wrote Herbert C. Kelman, the Richard Clarke Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus at Harvard University, in Coalitions Across Conflict Lines: The Interplay of Conflicts and Between the Israeli and Palestinian Communities.

 

Kelman – renowned for his work in the Middle East and efforts to bring Israel and Palestine closer towards the goal of achieving peace in the Middle East – identifies, in the paper he authored in 1993, the “relationship between intergroup and intragroup conflict” as a key hurdle towards building coalitions across conflict lines. According to Kelman, “doves on the two sides and hawks on the two sides have common interests”. The hawks, unlike the doves, can pursue their interests without the need to coordinate with their counterparts on the opposing side. The hawks simply “by engaging in provocative actions or making threatening statements” reaffirm the enemy’s worst fears and embolden the hawks on the opposing side. The doves, on the other hand, “tend to be preoccupied with how their words will sound, and how their actions will look, at home, and with the immediate political consequences of what they say and do.” Therefore, the doves tend to take a more measured approach in communicating their views and underplay their side’s willingness to negotiate – the kind of behaviour that plays right into the hands of the hawks and reduces the effectiveness of the doves

 

Kelman’s recommendation to increase the chances of resolving a conflict by means of negotiation is to facilitate greater coordination between the doves on the opposing sides and minimise the involvement of the hawks.

 

The lessons from Professor Kelman’s work, we think, are highly relevant today. His insights provide a framework for determining the possibility of success in each round of negotiations between the US and China in resolving the on-going trade dispute.

 

Subsequent to the working dinner between President Trump and President Xi in Buenos Aires following the G20 summit, the headlines have focused on the temporary ceasefire in the trade dispute. President Trump has pledged to suspend the increase in tariffs on US dollars 200 billion of Chinese imports that was to go into effect on 1 January 2019 for a period of up to 90 days. In return President Xi has pledged that China will buy more US goods, ban exports of the opioid drug, and offered to reconsider the Qualcomm-NXP merger that failed to receive regulatory approval in China earlier in the year.

 

The three-month period, before the suspension of the tariff increase lapses, provides the two-sides a window of opportunity to initiate a new round of talks to tackle some of the more sensitive issues surrounding the trade dispute, including ownership and access to technology and intellectual property.

 

Despite the announcements lacking details, capital markets have reacted positively to the news of the temporary ceasefire and the Chinese yuan, on Monday, posted its largest single day gain since February 2016.

 

We are not surprised by the bare bones nature of the agreement following the meeting between President Trump and President Xi. The last minute inclusion of Peter Navarro, White House trade policy adviser and prominent China hawk, to the list of guests attending the working dinner was, at least to us, a clear signal that meaningful progress on trade relations during the meeting was unlikely. After all, Mr Navarro’s role in the Trump Administration, as The Atlantic puts it, is “to shepherd Trump’s more extreme ideas into reality, ensuring that the president’s convictions are not weakened as officials translate them from bully-pulpit shouts to negotiated legalese. He is the madman behind Trump’s “madman theory” approach to trade policy, there to make enemies and allies alike believe that the president can and will do anything to make America great again.”

 

Moreover, we do not expect a breakthrough in negotiations to materialise during the next round of talks between Washington and Beijing before the suspension of the increase in tariffs lapses. As long as hawks such as Peter Navarro and Robert E. Lighthizer continue to have President Trump’s ear our view is unlikely to change. If, however, the dovish members of the Trump Administration, such as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Lawrence Kudlow, begin to take control of proceedings we would become much more hopeful of a positive resolution to the trade dispute.

 

For now, we see the temporary agreement between the two sides as providing much needed short-term respite for China. More importantly, we see President Trump’s offer of a temporary ceasefire without President Xi offering any concessions on sensitive issues, such as industrial policy, state funded subsidies and intellectual property rights, to be a symptom of the short-termism that seemingly besets democratically elected leaders without exception. Had the US equity capital markets not faltered recently and / or the Republicans not lost control of the House of Representatives, it is unlikely, we think, that President Trump would have been as acquiescent.

 

 

Liquidity Relief

 

In June in The Great Unwind and the Two Most Important Prices in the World we wrote:

 

“In the 362 months between end of May 1988 and today there have only been 81 months during which both the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have been above their respective 48-month moving averages – that is less than a quarter of the time.

 

Over the course of the last thirty years, the longest duration the two prices have concurrently been above their respective 48-month moving averages is the 25 month period between September 2005 and October 2007. Since May 1988, the two prices have only been above their respective 48-month moving averages for 5 or more consecutive months on only four other occasions: between (1) April and October 1996; (2) January and May 1995; (3) October 1999 and August 2000; and (4) July 2013 and August 2014.

 

Notably, annual global GDP growth has been negative on exactly five occasions since 1988 as well: 1997, 1998, 2001, 2009, and 2015. The squeeze due to sustainably high US interest rates and oil prices on the global economy is very real.”

 

We have updated the charts we presented alongside the above remarks and provide them below. (The periods during which both the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have been above their respective 48-month moving averages are shaded in grey in the two charts below.)

 

US 10-Year Treasury Yield10YSource: Bloomberg

 

West Texas Intermediate Crude (US dollars per barrel) WTISource: Bloomberg

 

The sharp drop in oil prices in recent weeks ended the 10 month streak of the 10-year Treasury yields and oil prices concurrently trading above their respective 48-month moving averages.

 

The recent drop in oil prices has coincided with the Fed weighing up the possibility of changing its policy guidance language. Several members of the Fed have suggested, according to the minutes of the FOMC’s November policy meeting, a “transition to statement language that [places] greater emphasis on the evaluation of incoming data in assessing the economic and policy outlook”. If the drop in oil prices sustains the data is likely soften and compel the Fed to dial back its hawkishness. With the base effects from the Trump Tax Cut also likely to recede in 2019, there is a distinct possibility that the Fed’s policy will be far less hawkish in 2019 than it has been over the course of 2018.

 

Lower (or range bound oil prices) and a more dovish Fed (even at the margin) are the conditions under which oil importing emerging markets tend to thrive. Although it is still too early to be sure, if oil prices fail to recover in the coming few months and the Fed is forced into a more dovish stance due to softer data, 2019 might just be the year to once again be long emerging markets.

 

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.