Stock Markets Pay the Price for Trade War Threats

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The press has been all over the trade war-induced falls across stock markets. The New York Times reported this week that the S&P 500 was off 2.4% on Monday, the worst day since early January.

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In all, the S&P 500 is down 4.6% so far this month, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index fell 3.4% — its worst decline in 2019.

European and emerging markets have likewise fallen sharply following tit-for-tat announcements between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping. This all comes despite the U.S. economy doing well, expanding 3.2% annualized in the first three months of the year and with unemployment down to 3.6%, its lowest level since 1969, the paper reports.

Indeed, it is suggested it is just those healthy numbers that have encouraged the president to up the ante in the face of apparent Chinese intransigence on certain key issues.

To keep stock-market falls in perspective, though they come on the back of a 17% rise so far this year, arguably the market has already achieved a year’s gains in just four months; a correction was to be expected.

The sharp falls, though, show how complacent the markets had become trusting a deal between the U.S. and China was just weeks, if not days away.

That this escalation of trade tensions came on the back of a return to robust growth is no surprise.

It is suggested by The New York Times that both sides have been emboldened by solid domestic growth, not to mention a need to pander to their domestic audiences – in Trump’s case, in the run-up to next year’s elections. Meanwhile, Xi is cognizant of his own nationalist rhetoric of recent years, making compromises to China’s Made in China 2025 march to global pre-eminence a personal humiliation.

So with the scene set for a possibly protracted standoff, you have to wonder why Trump has opened a second front with the European Union.

Conventional wisdom suggests generals wage one war at a time, as fighting on two fronts risks aligning your opponents against you and dividing your forces.

So why has the president chosen this moment to escalate his previous rhetoric with the E.U. over trade issues, threatening again in recent days to levy tariffs on automobiles from the E.U., among other categories? Possibly because the chances of securing a really meaningful victory over China are receding. Counterbalancing that with a win against Europe would allow some face-saving in the run-up to next year’s elections, but the risks are huge.

President Trump faces a May 18 deadline to decide whether to put tariffs on up to $53 billion worth of European cars. E.U. Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström is quoted by CNBC as saying she hopes the Trump administration could delay the deadline as it focuses on inking a deal with China, but recent comments from the White House suggest otherwise.

Trump may judge the Europeans more likely to compromise than China, as they certainly have more to lose. Europe is facing a shaky domestic economy already battered by trade tensions with China in the fallout from U.S. action, a decline in sanctions hit Russian trade and rising energy prices (in part due to U.S. action against Iran).

Last but not least, the ink is barely dry on the revised and still to-be-ratified United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Cracks are showing among the trade partners, as Canada and Mexico mull tariffs of their own in order to pressure Trump to drop his steel and aluminum tariffs.

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If there is any takeaway from the current highly uncertain political and economic outlook, it is consumers need redundancy and options in their supply chains. Well-established, multiyear supply chains are having their economic fundamentals upturned on a tweet. While companies do not want to be chopping and changing suppliers on a whim, having options at least enhances supply chain durability and may just keep production lines running.

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