Insights & Advice


Tariffs trash stocks

Volatility in the form of U.S. trade tariffs levied on China cut through investors’ complacency with a vengeance this week. It took less than three days to drop the markets by 3%. Is it over or do we have another 5% or so to endure?

My bet is that it is over—for now. Sometime during the on-going trade negotiations occurring in Washington today and tomorrow, the thorny trade issues, (such as intellectual property (IP) protection for U.S. companies) will be kicked down the road. A compromise on other, easier issues will be announced as “on-going” (although not inked) and the Chinese delegation will fly home in an atmosphere of reconciliation.

From the President’s perspective, China, after agreeing to a list of breakthroughs in the trade negotiations in Peking two weeks ago, “broke the deal.” Over a half dozen important “firsts” involving IP rights, as well as other structural rules and regulations that have hampered U.S. companies doing business in China, were first agreed to as of two weeks ago. A week later, half of them had been deleted from the formal draft agreement sent to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief Trade Negotiator Robert Lighthizer.

The move surprised the negotiators and infuriated the President. Sunday night, the President took to Twitter and threatened to raise U.S. tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10% to 25%. The tariffs took effect Friday morning. The Chinese have responded by preparing their own additional tariffs on U.S. goods.

As you might imagine, the Dow dropped 500 points or more on Monday, spiking higher on Tuesday, down again Thursday, and by Friday no one (including the Algos and their computers) was sure what to do next so the averages spent the day moving up and down just because. The volatility Index, which is a measure of fear and loathing in the stock market, exploded higher, putting even more pressure on world markets.

The Chinese market, as well as other emerging market indices, cratered. One of China’s main indices, the Shenzhen Index, dropped over 7% in one day. As the markets fell, the financial media trotted out all the “what if” scenarios they could cram into their studios between commercials. Hopefully, you turned it all off.

Why, therefore, am I not more concerned? Well, for one thing, all this bruhaha has only pushed markets down by 2-3%. In the grand scheme of things, that’s simply one of three or four normal pullbacks you should expect each year in the stock market. And, on average, you can expect at least one 10% correction per year. You should remember that.

Granted, if things escalate from here on the trade front, we could see another 5% downdraft or so. But it still wouldn’t be the end of the world, given the gains we have enjoyed so far this year. You might argue that I am too complacent, given the impact that higher tariffs could have on U.S. economic growth, let alone global growth.

If economic activity did decline, I would fully expect the Fed to come to the rescue, cutting interest rates in order to support the economy, while goosing the stock market once again. In fact, one could theorize that the President is thinking along these same lines when he said on Friday that “there was no hurry” in lifting these new tariffs.

I have been warning readers for weeks that all signs pointed to a market pullback. All that has happened is that we are now in one. In the short-term anything could happen. We could bounce from here, get back to the old highs and fail.   Things might also quiet down on the trade front for a week or two, while investors’ focus may switch to what’s happening in Iran or North Korea. Those areas could also cause markets to fluctuate. Take it in stride. My advice is to look beyond these events and keep focused on the fact that there is still a whole lot of good news supporting the markets just under the surface.

Posted in At the Market, The Retired Advisor