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USA Börse in New York
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. R. Smith

Sovereign investors fear trade wars

March 7, 2018

The number of sovereign wealth funds planning to underweight US assets in the next 12 months has jumped, a survey showed, with almost a third citing trade wars and increased protectionism as the biggest tail risk.


US-based Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute on Tuesday released a survey conducted among sovereign wealth investors showing that 43 percent of them are skeptical about US assets for the year — up from 25 percent in a December survey.

The February survey, which covered 25 pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and other public asset owners with an estimated $1.21 trillion in assets, showed rising concern about growing risks from stock market turmoil and moves by US President Donald Trump to slap tariffs on a variety of imports.

The percentage of investors planning to underweight the US reflects those with overweight views on US assets, which slumped from 20.8 percent to 8.7 percent.

Around a third also said they planned to underweight passively-managed global equities, up from just 14.3 percent in December.

Stock market turmoil

The shift in sentiment follows a rollercoaster ride for global equities in February after US wage growth numbers sparked fears the Federal Reserve would need to raise interest rates more quickly than expected.

Both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones suffered their biggest percentage drops since August 2011 in early February, and ended the month down around 4 percent.

Not surprisingly given the spike in volatility in February, there was an increase in the number of asset owners saying they planned to overweight cash in the next 12 months, to almost 50 percent, up from 41.7 percent in the previous quarter.

Read more: Global stocks slump on Trump's trade war rhetoric

Looming trade wars

The survey also revealed a notable shift in investor thinking on the biggest tail risk, with trade wars and increased protectionism leapfrogging a stock market bubble into pole position. Seven respondents chose trade wars in the February poll, up from just three in the previous quarter.

Read more: EU tells Trump trade wars are 'easy to lose' could target peanut butter and orange juice

Trump has repeatedly rattled the sabre on trade over the past month, introducing measures against imported washing machines and solar panels. In early March he turned up the heat, threatening hefty tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

The moves triggered another equity market sell off as investors fretted about retaliation from exporting countries. Market jitters increased on Wednesday after the resignation of Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn, which came in apparent protest over the controversial tariffs.

The 57-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive lobbied passionately against the tariffs, but lost out to a decidedly more protectionist team that included US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.

Ross played down the Cohn resignation, insisting "this is not some sort of a palace coup." He said the departing economic adviser "has been contemplating some sort of a move for some little while."

Shortly after Ross delivered his comments US foreign trade figures for the month of January showed a widening of the trade deficit, which reached its highest level in nine years at $56.6 billion in one month.

Trump took to Twitter Wednesday to emphasize that the annual US trade deficit had reached $800 billion last year, which he blamed on "bad policies & leadership" from his White House predecessors.

EU's Trump tariffs riposte based on WTO rules

uhe/nm (Reuters, AFP)