The S&P 500 popped Tuesday and reclaimed the psychologically significant 2,900 level as trade war rhetoric escalated. As it stands, the US will start applying tariffs to 50% of all Chinese imports and China will retaliate by taxing 85% of our China-bound goods. As bad as that sounds, the market doesn’t care.
But this reaction from the market is not a surprise for readers of this blog. Last week I wrote:
“Confident stock owners made it abundantly clear this summer that trade war headlines and White House scandals don’t matter. If nothing can take us down, it is only a matter of time before we go up.”
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Some pundits claim the market rallied because these headlines “were less bad than feared.” But that’s hogwash. Trump’s trade war keeps escalating, and it doesn’t look like it will stop until both sides are taxing everything. I’m not sure how a full-on trade war is “less bad than feared,” especially when it is crushing Chinese growth.
No, the real reason the market doesn’t care is a lot simpler than that. We didn’t dip today because everyone who fears Trump’s trade war sold months ago and were replaced by confident dip buyers who don’t mind holding these risks. When there is no one left to sell the news, it stops mattering.
Conventional wisdom tells us complacent markets are ripe for a pullback. But what conventional wisdom fails to mention is periods of complacency last far longer than even the bulls expect. When confident owners refuse to sell, it doesn’t take much demand to prop prices up, and that is exactly what is happening here.
As far as these events being less bad than feared, things could definitely take a turn for the worse. While Trump believes he has China backed into a corner, they still have the nuclear option. They could most definitely wreak total havoc on our economy, and many of Xi’s advisors are pushing him to use it.
While tariffs on imported Chinese goods are most definitely inconvenient and will affect corporate profits and consumer discretionary spending, that is far better than the alternative. Some Chinese advisors want to prevent Chinese companies from selling critical components to US manufacturers. Nearly overnight that would bring our manufacturing sector to a grinding halt. Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, Boeing, Caterpillar, and nearly every other manufacturer uses at least a few components made in China. Take those away, and our manufacturers would be forced to shut down for weeks and even months as they scramble to adjust. The temporary layoffs and inability to sell finished products would trigger a nearly instantaneous recession. “Less bad than feared” could quickly turn into “oh my god, what just happened?”
China’s nuclear option definitely qualifies as Mutually Assured Destruction because it would be equally crippling to the Chinese economy. But just the threat of such a move could send our markets tumbling and force Trump to reconsider his threats. While Trump might have China backed into a corner when it comes to tariffs, you never know what a cornered animal capable of.
I certainly don’t expect the above scenario to play out, but it would be incredibly painful if it did. The market isn’t even considering this, and its “half-full” outlook assume everything will work out in the end. But fear is contagious this is definitely something we need to keep an eye on.
Baring the above scenario, the market is acting exceptionally well. A market that refuses to go down will eventually go up, and we are setting up nicely for a rally into year-end. Assuming Trump and China come to a reasonable compromise, that will be the catalyst for the next leg higher. But if things get ugly and fear starts to spread, get out before things get worse.
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