The Art of Trade War - Subdue the Enemy Without Fighting

Mounting trade tensions between U.S. and Chinese administrations in the form of protectionist rhetoric, tariffs and escalating retaliatory actions have placed financial markets firmly on edge. Uncertainty towards the scope of import taxes on targeted goods and services, pace of application and intensity of the tariffs by the world’s largest economies are reverberating up and down the full length of increasingly complex and interconnected global supply chains.

Forecasted impacts on revenue for institutional enterprises and small businesses, credit ratings and bank balance sheets vary wildly, highlighting the pervading sense of uncertainty facing CFOs and corporate treasurers. With the added weight of Brexit global business’ concerns are well founded, although British enterprises are already positioning themselves actively to explore new trade opportunities as referenced extensively in East & Partners April Research Note, “UK Trade in the face of Brexit” and recent London Private Markets Briefing – “Trade in 2018”.

How well are corporates prepared and what do they expect from their bank to guide them through the undoubtedly turbulent months ahead as markets creep away from ‘free trade’ promoted by the World Trade Organisation (WTO)? Can trade finance markets successfully absorb the rapid shift in volume, cost and complexity of global merchandise trade?

In response to President Donald Trump instructing U.S. trade representatives to apply tariffs on US$50 billion worth of Chinese goods across a broad basket of agriculture, technology and manufacturing products, China announced similar measures. Notably the trade war is not limited to goods and services. In capital markets the U.S plans to limit new foreign direct investment from China and prevent corporate mergers and acquisitions, matched by similar measures to be applied by China. The U.S. is now planning a further 10 percent tariff on US$200 billion of additional Chinese imports, eclipsing market expectations and triggering a tit-for-tat escalation as China responds in kind.

Fortunately trade volumes have been resilient leading into the onset of trade war hostilities with most importers and exporters exhibiting positive sentiment globally according to East & Partners analytics. Export participation among SMEs is improving and the vitally important middle market is seeking to scale up international trade rapidly. Growing demand for trade financing facilities and increasing sophistication in use of FX payments is clear, linked with an equivalent rise in uptake and demand for currency risk management solutions.

East & Partners has closely tracked growing competitiveness between domestic and international banks on Open Account terms, Letter of Credit and Documentary Bills for Collection for financing international trade. In the last four years there has been a discernible jump in customer switching intentions, or ‘customer churn’, coupled with heightened competitive pitching in an increasingly transactional market.

This strengthening trend is a clear illustration of the rising level of competitiveness trade finance providers are grappling with. International banks process of ‘right sizing’ their operations have resulted in more focused offerings, while domestic banks in Australia particularly are reaching beyond the predominantly ‘import only’ trade profile that characterises SMEs and Lower Corporates. International banks secure the lion share of primary trade finance relationship share in Asia and the UK among institutional enterprises. In Australia, while domestic banks dominate, HSBC is rapidly closing the gap and is the most preferred secondary trade finance provider to the Top 500 enterprises by revenue.

With the added pressure of adapting to paperless trade finance process, investment in Blockchain capability and ongoing digitisation, it can easily be said banks globally are facing a war on several fronts with Brexit and trade war uncertainty looming.

Given the inherent unpredictable nature of trade wars as experienced by ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ policies in the lead-up to the Great Depression, businesses face a difficult task adapting their strategic planning and corporate treasury policies to be prepared. By trade profile, two out of three large corporates in Asia both import and export, trending higher each round of research conducted biannually. In comparison the proportion of Australian trading enterprises who both import and export is 45 percent in the institutional segment, trending lower each round.

Asian corporates use of Open Account financing is up 11.5 percent since 2014 with growing momentum in use of supply chain funding particularly, in addition to receivables financing and distributor financing. Australian use of open account financing has grown by 11.2 percent since 2010 to 82.7 percent as of 2018, reflecting the direct correlation of rising raw materials exports with higher frequency execution and limited supplier risk.

Cast against a backdrop of rising customer expectations on digital capability, pricing competitiveness and value for money, there is a sense among a growing number of corporates that banks simply aren’t delivering. Industry Knowledge is a key service factor businesses look for from their bank and as the need to keep pace with regulation and adapt to change becomes more important, corporates will ‘shop around’ for a provider that can meet their needs.

While larger enterprises have more resources and capability to adapt to changing corporate treasury conditions, small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) do not enjoy the same level of support and arguably will bear the brunt of lost revenue and unemployment. This converts directly into slowing economic growth given small businesses represent a high proportion of employment and activity.

The European Commission forecast that growth in the European Union (EU) for 2018 will drop from 2.3 percent to 2.1 percent as a direct result of trade tensions, with Pierre Moscovici, Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs stating that the downward revision "reflects the impact on confidence of trade tensions and policy uncertainty, as well as rising energy prices. European growth is set to remain resilient, as monetary policies stay accommodative and unemployment continues to fall however a further escalation of protectionist measures is a clear downside risk.”

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney went a step further, warning the U.S. that a further escalation would have “serious and damaging consequences for global GDP” and economic growth in fact would be curtailed the most in the U.S. itself, contracting by as much as 5 percent compared to a hit to global growth of closer to 2.5 percent.

When it comes to sourcing Trade Finance advice, over nine out of ten corporates seek out friends or colleagues ahead of other channels, even approaching competitor banks in preference to their own relationship manager. The need to benchmark their performance against fellow competitors often drives this impulse however banks must do more to provide dedicated industry knowledge and advice at a time when the impact of trade wars is difficult to ascertain. Closely supporting customers who are increasingly seeking dedicated support by placing an emphasis on specific industry knowledge and expertise to navigate the challenging trade war environment has never been more important.

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