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Gloomy yuan forecasts point to gathering risks

* Yuan seen weakening to record low - analysts

* Shortfall in China farm purchases a risk to trade deal

* Goldman cuts yuan outlook, eyes break of 7.2/dollar

SHANGHAI/SINGAPORE, June 5 (Reuters) - Global banks are turning bearish on China’s yuan and expect it could breach record lows in coming weeks, posing a threat to the optimism that has lately pushed world financial markets higher.

Growing divisions between Beijing and Washington over issues from the autonomy of Hong Kong to the coronavirus response and progress delivering the Phase 1 trade deal have the currency at its most volatile in months and under pressure.

The yuan hit a record low against the dollar last week and, despite a bounce, analysts are becoming increasingly wary of a sharp fall in coming months, with consequences for equities and other Asian currencies.

“I am getting a bit concerned about this,” Nomura’s head of global FX strategy, Craig Chan, told investors during an online forum this week.

He said it was “a matter of time” before the yuan weakened past 7.2 per dollar, which is uncharted territory, and said China lagging purchase targets for U.S. goods presented the prime risk for another damaging falling out over trade.

“I can see the trigger for negativity that could actually flow through global markets,” Chan said.

He is not alone. Even as the dollar has lately suffered some of its steepest losses in months, analysts at Barclays, ANZ Bank, Goldman Sachs and others are becoming more convinced it is likely to gain on the yuan in the months ahead.

Goldman last week cut its three-month forecast for the yuan from 7.15 per dollar to 7.25 per dollar. It expects the yuan to firm after that, but also tempered those expectations.

The yuan has recovered from a record low of 7.1966 per dollar in offshore trade and a 9-month low of 7.1766 onshore after U.S. President Donald Trump elected against tariffs in response to China tightening its grip on Hong Kong.

But its roughly 1.3 % bounce, which came with a little help from the People’s Bank of China’s daily guidance, lagged a 6.6% jump in the trade-sensitive Australian dollar over the same period.

HUGE UNCERTAINTY

A six-month check-in on the trade deal due by August is the most likely scene for a flare up, analysts say, because China is seen falling behind a target of $36.5 billion in agricultural purchases this year. Nomura estimates it is on track to buy only $13.3 billion.

To be sure, not everyone is negative and nor are bearish forecasters predicting tensions to be as destabilising as the 2019 trade war or the 2015-2016 Chinese financial meltdown.

In an election year, Trump also has little choice but to stick with the trade deal despite his anger at Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic, people familiar with his administration’s deliberations say.

Even so, seasonal and other factors are weighing on the yuan, as mid-year dividend payments due over coming months from Chinese companies and rising prices for recovering commodities drive demand for dollars.

And the Sino-U.S. stability required for a break higher in yuan seems like a pipe dream.

“Disputes between the two countries now cover a range of issues which seem unlikely to be resolved soon,” Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note accompanying their yuan outlook cuts.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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