U.S.-China trade deal is REAL: are markets rewarding the effort?

Under the motto “America first”, Donald Trump promised to impose stiff tariffs on goods imported from those nations deemed to threaten the US trading economy. China was one of the biggest targets, with a 45% tariff bullet to be fired at being repeatedly suggested during the whole “Make America great again” campaign. Never completely dismissed as political rhetoric, Trump’s neo-protectionism seems to be on hold for the moment. On May 11 U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced a 10-point agreement as part of an ongoing trade negotiation between the United States and China. The agreement – “REAL news”-approved in a presidential tweet –  follows the 100-day plan for trade talks that began in April, aimed at boosting exports and reducing the United States’ trade deficit with China. Deals have been reached to ease market access on both sides for a series of industries, including energy, beef, poultry, biotech and financial services.

It seems to be good news for Chinese banks, with the agreement set to pave the way for them to be treated more inclusively in the U.S.: “We’ve agreed to treat their financial institutions, their banks, the same way as we evaluate other foreign banks when they want to come and open up activities in the U.S.,” Ross said. “Clearly China, whose banks are among the largest in the whole world, wants access to the U.S. banking market.” No specific date on when it may happen, but compliance with U.S. standards is to be met first. In financial services, in turn, Beijing agreed to issue guidelines that would allow U.S.-owned card payment services to begin the licensing process in a sector where China’s UnionPay system has a near monopoly. Visa Inc. (V.N) and MasterCard Inc. (MA.N) accepted the challenge and cashed in a timid 0.4% and 0.1% in stock value respectively. On the other hand, American Express Corp. (AXP.N) shares went down 0.6 %, as prospects for global payment network operators entering the Chinese market still remain uncertain.

Foreign-owned firms will also be able to provide credit rating services in China. Shares of rating agency Moody’s Corp. (MCO.N) rose 1%, while S&P Global Inc. (SPGI.N) dropped 0.6% in the aftermath of the agreement announcement.

The agreement also calls for China to issue bond underwriting and settlement licenses to two qualified U.S. financial institutions by July 16. The name of the institutions is still unknown, though JPMorgan Chase & Co and Morgan Stanley both recently secured regulatory approval in China: Jamie Dimon’s fortress reported in February it would be allowed to underwrite corporate bonds there, while Morgan Stanley was granted permission to raise significantly its stake in a Chinese securities venture.

While the world’s two biggest economies put a number of new deals on the table, and more items are to be potentially added soon, it is still unclear what would be their impact on trade in the near term. Ker Gibbs, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said the agreement cannot be a breakthrough, calling the opening in the electronic payments market “mainly symbolic”. As a matter of fact, despite a 2012 WTO ruling mandating Beijing to open the sector to foreign firms, domestic players are unsurprisingly well-rooted and any foreign company will have a hard time finding its share in the Chinese market.

U.S. gas drillers are also being called into action. The United States eagerness to export more liquefied natural gas (LNG), is set to leverage the huge Chinese customer base beyond other Asian countries such as Japan and South-Korea, where the long-term energy demand is arid due to rising energy efficiency. However, future cooperation between the United States and China on LNG would not have any immediate impact on supplies, being structural imbalances created by Chinese industrial policies and other barriers to investment a major challenge to overcome. Nevertheless, energy stocks generally responded well to the 10 points: shares of U.S. Cheniere Energy (LNG.A) went up 4.7%. and Sempra Energy (SRE.N), a diversified energy company that is building an LNG export terminal, ticked up 0.4%.

Mixed news for food producers: China will allow U.S. imports of beef no later than – again – July 16, while the United States will issue a proposed rule to allow Chinese cooked poultry to enter U.S. markets. Shares of Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN.N), selling both beef and chicken, rose 0.8%, while Pilgrims Pride Corp. (PPC.O), the second biggest U.S. chicken producer, fell 1.3%.

The U.S.-China trade agreement is both an opportunity and a challenge, which also needs to be assessed within the diplomatic framework of the North-Korean question. Though the Chinese government has always advocated not politicizing economy and trade, its mediating role with North Korea can be oiled up ahead with a proper trade policy. But before the Trump administration starts declaring victory, short-term, Twitter-feed volatility needs to turn into sound, stable market trends.

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