Stocks rose and fell throughout the week as tariff fears spooked world markets. Steel and aluminum on the American side. Peanut butter and motorcycles from Europe. Who knows what China and the rest of Southeast Asia will throw into the teapot?
On a day-to-day basis, traders bought or sold stocks, bonds, and commodities based on their judgement of whether the president would announce tariffs on steel (25%) and aluminum (10%). Once he does (and he did so on Thursday) say the pundits, a trade war of “mammoth” proportions could ensue. Don’t you just love it?
The entire tempest, which is feeding on itself, is putting our Twitter-in-Chief, exactly where he always wants to be—the center of attention. Is this truly the end of free trade and the demise of the global economy, or will “The Donald” come to his senses in the nick of time?
You must admit that there is never a dull moment when it comes to the antics emanating from the White House. Consider this week’s departure. We are now at number 19. That is the number of officials who have quit, been fired, or no longer serve the president in the year since he was elected. This week it was Gary Cohen, the president’s chief economic advisor, who resigned over the tariff issue.
You could say that the nation is simply being treated to a new season of “The Apprentice,” only this reality show is being carried by every channel both here and abroad. We are now waiting for the new contestant who replaces Cohen. Will he (and you know it will be a “he”) be pro-free trade, or a protectionist like his boss? I’m betting on the latter.
Still, I think this whole tariff tempest belongs in a teapot. As I wrote in yesterday’s column, “Trade Wars: Episode II– attack of our trading partners,” that most of Trump’s bark is far worst than his bite. The threat of tariffs is, for the most part, a bargaining chip to get better terms for the U.S. in their many trade deals, including the negotiations that are underway among the members of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The idea that Trump may exempt both Mexico and Canada (among others), at least temporarily, from the steel/aluminum tariffs, lends credence to my suspicions.
In the meantime, can we get back to the markets please, and what’s important to you and your portfolios? Friday’s non-farm payroll number was a big wow. 313,000 jobs were created, way more than the 200,000 rate we have been seeing for the last several months. Even better news for Wall Street was the disappointing wage gains that came in 0.2% below expectations. That leaves American workers wages up 2.6% on an annualized basis.
Remember that what is good for Wall Street and the superrich is not necessarily good for Main Street. The less wage gains, the less chance of inflation getting out of hand. What we really need is more productivity and that is only going to happen if U.S. companies commit to a great deal of investment here at home.
As for stocks, despite all the angst and hand wringing, stocks finished higher for the week. However, we must await the tariff response from our trading partners. It should happen next week, causing more anxiety in the markets short-term.
I believe two trends will continue to occur. One: volatility will remain with us for the remainder of the year. That means that the more you look at your portfolios on down days, the higher the chance that you will do something stupid at the wrong time.
Number two: despite that volatility, the markets will continue to move higher (as they did this week). No, not in a straight line like they did last year. I suspect, it will be two steps forward, one step back, but the trend will remain your friend, if you simply have some patience. The growing economy, coupled with moderate interest rates, and lower unemployment will sustain and cushion us from any real downside.
As for the tax cut, I remain skeptical. You may have noticed that company billion-dollar buybacks are now occurring on almost a daily basis; as our increases in corporate dividend rates. That’s good for investors, who have money invested in the stock market (less than 50% of all Americans). I still see little evidence that corporations are investing those tax cut savings in the nation’s plant and equipment while unemployment rate is holding steady. If the tax cut savings is spent paying off shareholders and making the one percent that much richer, we have clear sailing in the stock market. Until that changes, stay invested.