Does China hold keys to a global economic bounce?

A late '90s-style reacceleration may not be in the cards.

  • Facebook.
  • Twitter.
  • LinkedIn.
  • Print

Key takeaways

  • Some investors have likened current global economic conditions to 1998, and wonder whether Fed monetary easing can once again ignite a global economic reacceleration.
  • But unlike in 1998, the US has entered the late cycle and financial conditions have remained favorable—calling into question whether Fed action will be as effective this time around.
  • China also now plays a weightier role in the global economy, but so far its recent industrial stabilization has been unable to reverse the global manufacturing slump.
  • China's severe debt overhang has inhibited the stimulus response by policymakers, and the trade conflict with the US is exacerbating the economic headwinds that may blunt its ability to stimulate global growth.
  • The late-cycle environment may spur volatility and a less favorable risk-return profile for asset markets than during recent years, warranting smaller cyclical asset allocation tilts and prioritization of portfolio diversification.

When the US Federal Reserve (Fed) cut its short-term policy rate in July for the first time in more than a decade, it cited the risks from global economic weakness as one of the key factors. Some investors have drawn a comparison with Fed monetary easing in 1998, when the US economy was relatively healthy but much of the rest of the world was experiencing a manufacturing and trade recession. Over the course of the next year in 1998 and 1999, the global economy rebounded, manufacturing and trade boomed, the US economy reaccelerated, and global stock prices rose sharply.

The key question facing asset markets today is whether the Fed's monetary easing can once again catalyze a global upswing and provide fundamental support for a reacceleration in global profit growth.

The global economy remains in expansion but the cycle continues to mature

Today, the global economy continues to register positive growth, but the world is experiencing a synchronized recession in manufacturing and trade activity.

  • The share of countries reporting new orders for manufacturing goods has dropped to near 35%, the lowest level since 2012.
  • Global manufacturing and trade are closely correlated, and the year-over-year change in global trade growth has moved into negative territory.
  • The escalation of trade policy tensions—particularly between the US and China—is exacerbating this trend and continued uncertainty is making it more difficult to find a floor in global trade activity.

The global business cycle continues to mature, and most major economies are in the late-cycle phase.

  • Consumption and domestic services have held up well in many large economies, including Germany.
  • Overall, recession risks in Europe remain elevated as manufacturing conditions and business investment remain weak.
  • China's economy has stabilized as a result of the past year's stimulus measures, but growth remains subdued and a complete reacceleration from its growth recession has remained elusive.

Unlike in 1998, the US has already entered the late-cycle phase, and financial conditions have remained favorable.

  • These dynamics call into question whether Fed easing will be as effective in boosting the US economic outlook as it was in 1998.
  • In 1998, financial markets had seized up in the wake of the failure of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management and thus benefited greatly from the Fed rate cuts.
  • Moreover, history has shown that Fed easing tends to be less effective in late cycle than during the mid-cycle phase.

Today vs. 1998: China matters more

Perhaps the biggest difference between today and 1998 is the greater importance of China to the trajectory of the global business cycle.

  • When the Fed cut rates in 1998, the US accounted for more than one-fifth of global economic growth, much more important than other countries including China.
  • Today, China contributes roughly 29% of global GDP growth, with the US accounting for less than half that amount.
  • Moreover, China is the world's largest trader and incremental driver of manufacturing activity, the areas that are currently the weakest links in the global economy.
  • As a result, an upswing in China's economy is likely necessary if the global economy is to sustainably reaccelerate like it did in the late 1990s.

Unlike the past decade, China's stabilization has not yet driven a global reacceleration

Over the past decade, China's economic cycle has been a key driver of fluctuations in global manufacturing activity. So far, however, China's industrial stabilization during 2019 has failed to reverse the global manufacturing slump.

  • Our China industrial production diffusion index, has recovered to above 50% after plummeting in 2018.
  • Previously, rebounds in this index coincided with (and helped propel) global manufacturing recoveries, particularly in 2009-10 and 2016-17.
  • Today, however, around two-thirds of the world's largest countries have purchasing managers' indexes (PMIs) that are below 50, indicating a contraction in manufacturing activity.

One possible explanation is that China's policy stimulus so far has been smaller and more narrowly focused than during prior upturns.

  • While policymakers have eased fiscal policy and attempted to redistribute credit to the private sector, they have thus far avoided an across-the-board stimulus designed to rapidly increase credit growth and reflate the property sector.
  • One reason for the weaker stimulus has been policymakers' recognition that prior stimulus episodes have left the economy with a severe debt overhang and an inflated real estate sector that threaten the country’s long-term financial stability.

The trade confrontation with the US creates an untimely headwind that exacerbates the cyclical pressures on China's economy.

  • Export growth has dwindled, particularly to the US, even before additional tariffs may go into effect.
  • Concerns about supply chains have caused some businesses to invest less or relocate manufacturing production to other countries. While China’s economy has stabilized, a sustained reacceleration and major boost to the global economy appears unlikely.
  • The Fed's easing will provide more latitude for China to further ease policy, but mounting domestic and trade headwinds imply more stimulus may be needed just to maintain activity at current levels.
  • Depreciation of China's currency is a double-edged sword—it helps exporters, but puts more pressure on businesses borrowing in foreign currencies, on capital outflows, and on the financial system in general.
  • We are closely monitoring the real estate market and banking system for signs of additional stress or alternative signals that Beijing is moving to a more comprehensive stimulus effort that attempts to once again reflate property markets.

Asset allocation implications

Over the past decade, swings in China’s economy—and in the global economy outside the US in general—have been extremely important to global financial markets.

The cyclical swings in global trade and manufacturing, underpinned by China’s accelerations and decelerations, have displayed a strong correlation with the performance of global stocks.

While the US economy has been relatively stable over the past 10 years, stock market fluctuations have been heavily influenced by global trends. US corporate profits have tended to follow the manufacturing cycle, which is extremely global in nature and has reacted to trade movements in China and around the world.

As a result of late-cycle dynamics in both the US and global economies, the distribution of potential asset- return outcomes is less favorable than during earlier phases of the cycle. The move to a global monetary easing cycle may boost asset valuations and provide support for financial conditions in the near term, but heightened trade policy risks and a multitude of economic headwinds may blunt the ability of monetary easing to stimulate global growth. Overall, we expect the late-cycle environment to provide more volatility and a less favorable risk-return profile for asset markets than during recent years. The more asymmetric risk profile warrants relatively small cyclical asset allocation tilts and prioritization of portfolio diversification.

Next steps to consider

Research investments

Get industry-leading investment analysis.

Planning & Guidance Center

Analyze your portfolio and create a clear plan of action.

Read more Viewpoints

See our take on investing, personal finance, and more.

  • Facebook.
  • Twitter.
  • LinkedIn.
  • Print
Please enter a valid e-mail address
Please enter a valid e-mail address
Important legal information about the e-mail you will be sending. By using this service, you agree to input your real e-mail address and only send it to people you know. It is a violation of law in some jurisdictions to falsely identify yourself in an e-mail. All information you provide will be used by Fidelity solely for the purpose of sending the e-mail on your behalf.The subject line of the e-mail you send will be " "

Your e-mail has been sent.

Your e-mail has been sent.

Sign up for Fidelity Viewpoints®

Get a weekly email of our pros' current thinking about financial markets, investing strategies, and personal finance.