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Oil Markets Face Nightmare Scenario

Nick Cunningham

Oil prices rose sharply on Tuesday after President Trump decided to delay tariffs, recognizing the negative impact tariffs would have on the U.S. economy. But by Wednesday, oil prices crashed again, as financial markets see the risk of economic recession rising in spite of the tariff delay.

The closely-watched spread between two-year and 10-year treasury yields finally flipped, the first time that has occurred since 2007. Yields on two-year notes are trading higher than 10-year treasuries, a phenomenon that has reliably preceded past economic recessions. Financial markets took note, and sold off stocks and commodities of all types.

This problem has been brewing for a while, with the early signs of an inverted yield curve showing up last year. Economists and analysts have been watching this for months, but the spread received a jolt after the recent announcement from President Trump regarding a new round of tariffs. He now seems to have regretted that decision, but market traders are not assuaged. The tariff delay “doesn’t really change the outlook on the trade tensions,” Louis Kuijs, chief Asia economist at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg. “We expect further policy easing in the coming months to help stabilize growth amid the above headwinds.”

The negative sentiment might be here to stay because reams of other data point to an economic slowdown.

For instance, China’s latest industrial data for July was the weakest since 2002. Germany’s economy contracted in the second quarter and is nearing recession. The same is true of the UK, which also saw GDP fall in the second quarter.

Car sales in China have declined for 13 of the last 14 months. Car sales in India and Germany also fell sharply in July. Global manufacturing activity and trade volumes are down.

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The ECB is expected to cut interest rates again, and the U.S. Federal Reserve might be compelled to do so again, after only recently cutting rates for the first time in a decade.

Some economists think bond yields could go to zero or even into negative territory if recession hits. “This is the ultimate indicator that something is fundamentally wrong with the world economy,” Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told the Washington Post. “The escalation of the trade war is making it worse.”

Notably, yields on 30-year treasuries plunged in recent days as well, a sign that capital is flowing into safe haven assets as fears of recession take hold.

After routinely boasting that the trade war was hurting China more than the U.S., and that China was forced to pay billions of dollars to the U.S. government because of tariffs, President Trump essentially admitted that U.S. consumers were bearing the brunt of the impact when he called off some of his proposed tariffs on Tuesday.

On the one hand, stepping back from the brink could put both sides on the path to a negotiated settlement – Chinese and American negotiators are scheduled for face-to-face talks in September – but it could also signal vulnerability.

Viewed from the perspective of Beijing, the flip-flopping from the U.S. is an admission from Trump that he can’t survive politically if the U.S. economy slows down too much. For Xi Jingping, there is little incentive to offer concessions of any significance. If that is the lesson then the trade war could drag on indefinitely.

Related: Oil Prices Crash On Recession Fears

Notably, the delay of U.S. tariffs saw oil prices soar on Tuesday as it seemed to take away a major economic headwind. But the bump was temporary, with prices falling back just as sharply on Wednesday after the raft of poor economic data and the inverted yield curve pointed to an oncoming economic recession.

Some analysts don’t say any major pitfalls to oil prices. “Oil demand in China and the US is unlikely to weaken noticeably as a result of the trade conflict, though if this were to happen Saudi Arabia would further reduce its output,” Commerzbank said in a note. “Thanks to the OPEC+ production cuts, the oil market will be undersupplied in any case in the second half of the year.”

Perhaps. But on the current trajectory, a supply glut is looming in 2020. On that much, most agree. But the problem is that recent price downturns were largely the result of U.S. shale growing faster than demand. This time around, the danger is much larger. A global economic recession would bring the expected supply glut forward, and make it much worse.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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