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Gold bulls slowly returning, as Trump boost to dollar fades and balance of power shifts

Gold bulls slowly returning, as Trump boost to dollar fades and balance of power shifts
Donald Trump's impact on markets and global politics remains the great unknown

Trump has been elected, but he isn’t in power yet. Brexit has been voted on, but hasn’t yet been put into effect.

There has been a whiff of the “Phoney War” about the context in which global markets have been operating lately. For those too young to remember the Phoney War that uneasy period at the beginning of World War Two when both sides had declared hostilities but - without being too glib about it - nothing much had yet happened. But as we know, there was plenty of shock and awe in the works.

So far with Trump and Brexit it’s all been skirmishes - dollar up, gold down, gold coming back. Obama expels Russian diplomats. Russia declines to retaliate. Trump praises Russia. Trump works for Russia, or is it just “fake news?” Ford creates jobs in the US. Trump tweets praise. US Steel talks of 10,000 new US jobs.  Trump supporters hold up big “I told you so” signs.

Meanwhile, this side of the Pond the UK economy remains robust, defying the pessimism of economists in the Remain camp, so Brexiteers also hold up big “I told you so signs” and shrug off the latest inflation numbers.

Meanwhile, there is talk of “hard” Brexit, but no one seems to care. Brits don’t even care what their own government is saying any more, because they have “taken back control”.

But what happens when this Phoney War ends in a few days’ time? – when the levers of power start to be groped, prodded and pulled by President Trump, when Theresa May triggers Article 50, and when some country in Europe – as it will – elects a truly right wing leader?

Some flashpoints are obvious - Trump’s recent tutting at Toyota’s continued investment in Mexico signals that both NAFTA and competition from the Far East are likely to be major trigger points.

But the recent media war about Russian influence speaks more to the global balance of power, and how it will shift when the Phoney War ends.

With this in mind it was interesting to see that first train of a new weekly freight service from China to Britain has left Yiwu on China’s eastern seaboard. It’s due in Barking within days, and is merely the latest outgrowth in a continually expanding Chinese trade network.

China has been operating a freight train service to Hamburg since 2013 and runs rail services directly into several other European cities. Rail is cheaper than air freight and quicker than seaborne transport, but perhaps most significantly of all, the trade route can pass through areas of the world that are not subject to American influence.

US control of globalisation was only truly realised after the collapse of Russia as a major world power. Now though the rise of China to take Russia’s place could see a return to a two power system.

But which way will Europe swing in this new dynamic? China’s interest in establishing new networks of European trade routes shows a clear interest in reaching into what, even without the UK in the EU, is still one of the world’s biggest markets and biggest centres of economic, if not military, power.

But the ties that bind the other way will remain strong too.

European and US wealth was built on seaborne trade and a way of looking at the world economically that ignores central Asian trade routes entirely. The ancient trading route known as the Silk Road, which China is trying to revive in name as well as in fact, is nothing but a folk memory in Europe.

But the Atlantic has been criss-crossed continually since 1492 by the English, the French, the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Italians, although not so much by the Germans.

And it’s on the Germans that the balance of power may now pivot. It was clear from the start that Angela Merkel doesn’t like Trump. Trump for his part criticised her refugee policy this week.

But Germany may end up finding itself in a bit of a squeeze. After all, to the east, the Russians are on the cusp of better terms with the Americans than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

To the west, Brits are exiting and, in the absence of anything else sensible to say, Theresa May is making strong pro-Trump noises too.

Will Germany try to tip Europe into the Chinese camp as a consequence of all this, as it did briefly in the 1930s when a similar array of powers was ranged against it?

That question is a great unknown and is one reason why the recent period of quiet has felt like a Phoney War and why the new Chinese train services into European trading hubs represent more than just business.

It’s also caused perplexity in the gold market. Gold bulls love uncertainty. And they have it here in spades, in a likely tipping of the global system of alliances on its axes.

But gold traders have also had other cross-winds to contend with - the prospect of higher rates, a very strong dollar, and the return of tariffs. If America is strong the way Trump wants it to be, then uncertainty will diminish, and the gold price will be weaker.

But let’s wait and see what he actually does. Because in a little while the Phoney War will be over, and gold has already crept off its recent lows.



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