The Finance 202: Trump stuns Wall Street, foreign capitals with new trade fights

THE TICKER

President Trump is sending shock waves from Wall Street to Washington and foreign capitals by dialing up his trade war around the world — after spending the past two months retreating from its various fronts.

Trump said he may wait until after the 2020 election to strike a trade agreement with China, saying there is “no deadline” on the talks. “In some ways I like the idea of waiting until after the election for the China deal,” he said from London, where he is attending a NATO summit. The comments followed his announcement, via Twitter, that he is restoring tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Brazil and Argentina. And his administration separately said it is considering new levies on a range of French goods in retaliation for a new digital tax. 

The consequences could reach well beyond the metals trade between the United States and its erstwhile South American economic allies and higher prices on French wine and makeup. For one, it signals Trump still views new tariffs as an effective lever to advance his trade agenda, a belief packed with peril for the markets broadly, and manufacturers and retailers in particular, among others. 

These are our big takeaways from Trump’s announcements:

1. The escalation of trade hostilities marks a serious U-turn by the administration. 

Trump’s team appeared to be winding down its trade fights in recent weeks, quietly foregoing tariffs on European auto imports, allowing American companies to continue doing business with Chinese telecom giant Huawei, and canceling a tariff hike on Chinese goods planned for October while working toward “phase one” trade deal with Beijing. 

But the confrontations the administration just launched could widen trade showdowns in both Asia and Europe.

At issue in France, per my colleagues David Lynch, Rachel Siegel and Terrence McCoy, is “a 3 percent tax France introduced last year, which the administration says would unfairly target America’s digital economy icons. French lawmakers call the levy ‘Les GAFA’ — an acronym for Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, companies that French officials accuse of paying insufficient taxes on revenue earned in France… Administration officials worry that the French tax could set a precedent for other countries. [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer said he may open investigations into similar taxes in Austria, Italy and Turkey.” Lighthizer proposed striking back by levying tariffs of up to 100 percent on $2.4 billion of French products, including cheese, porcelain and handbags. 

Trump’s moves against Brazil and Argentina “took officials in both countries by surprise,” my colleagues report. “In a sign of how abruptly Trump had acted, his own administration was unprepared to provide details.”

2. Don’t expect a Christmas calm for the markets. 

Stock market investors have largely priced in progress toward a trade truce between the United States and China. They have been counting on a deal to scuttle new import levies Trump is set to impose on $160 billion of Chinese goods on Dec. 15 — and they have been betting the president would see it through in part to put the market on sounder footing heading into his reelection campaign. 

But the president’s renewed fight with Argentina and Brazil throws the assumption into doubt, a fact reflected in a Monday stock market sell-off. Per my colleagues Taylor Telford and Tom Heath: “The record bull run of the past month flamed out, with the Dow Jones industrial average declining 268 points, or .95 percent, to close at 27,783. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index dropped 27 points, or .86 percent, to close at 3,113. The tech-laden Nasdaq composite was hit particularly hard, finishing at 8,567, a 97-point drop of 1.1 percent.”

Chris Krueger of Cowen Washington Research Group said Trump’s latest turn points to one of his central conflicts. “The id and ego of Trump (in our opinion) is Dow Man vs. Tariff Man,” he wrote in a note. “Tariffs remain Trump’s primary trade security blanket and what he reverts to when he feels aggrieved.”

3. Trump is turning the trade war into a currency war. 

The president, in announcing the renewed metals tariffs, accused Brazil and Argentina of devaluing their currencies to make their exports more competitive. The claim, for which there is no evidence, is “very different from what Trump said in 2018, when he first imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and it marks the latest unpredictable trade shock from the White House as business leaders are begging for more certainty,” my colleague Heather Long writes

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross underlined the wider threat the decision poses in a Fox Business interview. Brazil, he said, is not “the only one where there are currency issues.”

Per Heather, “Now Trump is showing a willingness to impose tariffs for yet another reason: currency moves, opening the door to more action, potentially against China… Trump has long railed against China for purposefully devaluing its currency and even promised to label China a “currency manipulator” as soon as he took office (something he eventually did in August 2019). Ross went out of his way on Fox Business to say China appeared to be doing better now. Still, the threat is hanging out there that other nations could be next.”

4. Trump promised the trade war would revive manufacturing. It isn’t working. 

Indeed, manufacturing is in a recession, and it’s getting worse. “U.S. factory activity contracted for a fourth straight month in November as new orders slumped back to around their lowest level since 2012, while construction spending fell in October, tempering optimism over the economy that had been fanned by a recent run of upbeat reports,” Reuters’s Lucia Mutikani reports

Trump blamed the Federal Reserve: 

But his trade war is a prime culprit. “We expect trade policy uncertainty to continue weighing on manufacturing activity into the new year. Slower external and domestic demand will also constrain manufacturing moving forward,” Oxford Economics lead economist Oren Klachkin told Reuters. And higher prices on imported metals from Brazil and Argentina will only raise costs for domestic manufacturers.

MARKET MOVERS

Fourth-quarter earnings projections nosedive. Bloomberg News’s Lu Wang: “Wall Street analysts are slashing projections for fourth-quarter earnings at a furious pace, making it more likely that a profit recession will hit Corporate America for the first time in almost four years. Two months into the quarter, analysts have shaved 4% off their estimates to $41.12 a share, a drop of almost 1% compared with a year ago after a 1.3% decline last quarter. While they almost always lower expectations as a period progresses the current pace has been exceeded only twice since 2015.

“Bulls say the hand wringing over stagnant profits is overdone, with the S&P 500 up almost 25% this year on easy Federal Reserve policy and a trade truce with China. But part of the optimism has been predicated on an anticipated rebound in earnings, which keeps getting delayed. For now, it’ll be well into 2020 before profits rise meaningfully, with analysts predicting a 9.2% gain for the year.”

Cyber Monday poised to top $9.4 billion: “Cyber Monday sales were on course to bring in a record $9.4 billion, according to early estimates, building on a bumper Black Friday weekend for U.S. retailers driven by earlier-than-usual promotions and free shipping,” Reuters’s Aishwarya Venugopal reports.

“Shoppers have already had nearly a month of offers and deals as retailers look to draw out their vital holiday season, which is six days shorter this year due to a late Thanksgiving.”

TRUMP TRACKER

TRADE FLY-AROUND:

WTO rejects E.U. to stop U.S. tariffs over Airbus: The World Trade Organization “rejected European Union claims that it no longer provides subsidies to planemaker Airbus, prompting the United States to say it could increase retaliatory tariffs on a wider range of European goods,” Reuters’s Tim Hepher, Philip Blenkinsop and Andrea Shalal report.

“U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the decision affirmed that European subsidies to Airbus continued to harm the U.S. aerospace industry, and strong action was required to eliminate such market-distorting subsidies.”

Strong dollar weakens agriculture: “Trump may have bewildered authorities in Argentina and Brazil by announcing on Twitter new steel tariffs as punishment for cheapening their currencies. But the measure does shine a light on how much the hardy dollar is hurting U.S. farmers,” Bloomberg News’s Lydia Mulvany, Marvin G Perez and Tatiana Freitas report.

“American corn isn’t impacted by U.S.-China trade tensions because the Asian nation doesn’t buy much of it. Still, U.S. corn exports are down 60% this marketing year mainly because the strong dollar is making it pricier for overseas buyers at a time when global competition is getting fiercer. Orange juice is another commodity caught in the currency crosshairs … If the trade war and tariffs ‘went away tomorrow, we’d still have a problem in U.S. agriculture, and that’s a strong dollar,’ said Ann Duignan, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst, in an interview with Bloomberg TV last week. ‘The reality of it is, the Chinese will buy at competitive prices, they’re not going to pay up for our commodities.’ ”

POCKET CHANGE

Companies will be tested on how well they can deliver: “Online shoppers may have extra angst this holiday season as delivery companies confront a problem they haven’t faced in years: how to deliver millions more orders in six fewer days,” the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Ziobro reports.

“Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November, fell the latest it possibly could this year, on Nov. 28, leaving just 23 days until Hanukkah and 26 days until Christmas for FedEx Corp., United Parcel Service Inc., the U.S. Postal Service and others to collectively deliver more than two billion packages. The last time the industry dealt with such a narrow window between the holidays was 2013, when U.S. e-commerce spending was roughly half as big as it is today, according to Commerce Department data.”

Fears spread across pension world that private equity has hit its peak: “Investors plowing cash into private assets may recall the words of Wall Street legend Barton Biggs: There’s no asset class that too much money can’t spoil,” Bloomberg News’s Anchalee Worrachate and John Gittelsohn report.

“One of the most fertile grounds for funds harvesting returns in a world of negative-yielding bonds and expensive public companies — private equity — is being swamped. Historically high valuations for leveraged buyouts has the likes of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management saying the industry has hit its peak after generating a decade of double-digit returns. That’s put the managers of vast pots of Californian retirement savings in a quandary … Globally, the outperformance of PE over the S&P 500 fell to 1.07 times in 2017 from 1.69 times in 2001, according to data from PitchBook.”

MONEY ON THE HILL

Waters faces challenge from freshman progressives. Politico’s Zachary Warmbrodt: “California Democrat Katie Porter fought with her over committee procedures. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the Squad of progressive female lawmakers withheld their support from her over the Export-Import Bank. Their staffs have pressed her team to give them more time to weigh in on bills. The target of these progressive freshmen: not some conservative Republican. It’s liberal icon Maxine Waters, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, who is facing growing dissatisfaction — and at times outright rebellion — from high-profile, left-leaning lawmakers who joined the panel earlier this year.

“Some progressives have openly lamented the committee’s leanings toward more moderate, business-friendly Democrats who dominate its ranks — a dynamic largely outside of Waters’ control… The incidents underscore the challenges that Waters, who is 81 and entered Congress in 1991, and other House leaders face in pulling together a restive caucus that has become increasingly polarized.”

Trump campaign lashes out at Bloomberg News: “The Trump campaign said that it would no longer provide journalists from Bloomberg News with credentials to cover campaign events, accusing the news organization of ‘bias’ against the president,” my colleagues Kayla Epstein and Derek Hawkins report.

“The move is the latest example of the president and his surrogates punishing news outlets for what they perceive is unfair coverage as the 2020 race heats up. Bloomberg News faced a journalistic quandary when its owner, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, decided to jump into the 2020 Democratic primary last month. In a widely criticized decision, editor in chief John Micklethwait announced that the newsroom would continue its tradition of not investigating Bloomberg’s personal life and finances, and would extend the same policy to his Democratic opponents. The move was intended to avoid conflict of interest in the Democratic primary.”

DAYBOOK

Today:

  • AutoZone, Lands’ End and Salesforce.com are among the notable companies reporting their earnings, per Kiplinger.

Wednesday:

  • Slack Technologies, Restoration Hardware, Five Below, H&R Block and Campbell Soup are among the notable companies reporting their earnings.

Thursday:

  • The Senate Banking Committee holds a hearing on the oversight of financial regulators, Fed Bank supervisor Randal K. Quarles and  FDIC chairman Jelena McWilliams are among those expected to testify.
  • Dollar General, Tiffany & Co. Kroger, Express, Michaels, Ulta Beauty and American Outdoor Brands are among the notable companies reporting their earnings. 
  • The Financial Services Committee holds a hearing on the Trump administration’s “deregulatory approach to financial stability.”
  • A Financial Services Subcommittee holds a hearing on the FHA and its impact on home ownership.
  • The Brookings Institute holds an event titled “The repo market disruption: What happened, why, and should something be done about it?”

Friday:

  • The Labor Department publishes the latest jobs report
  • The Financial Services Committee’s task force on artificial intelligence holds a hearing on “the impact of AI on Capital Markets and Jobs in the Financial Services Industry.”
  • Big Lots is among the notable companies reporting their earnings. 
  • Brookings holds an event titled “The great reversal: How America gave up on free markets.”

THE FUNNIES

From The Post’s Tom Toles:

BULL SESSION

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