In June of 2018, as the initial rounds of the “Trade War” were heating up, I wrote:

“Next week, the Trump Administration will announce $50 billion in ‘tariffs’ on Chinese products. The trade war remains a risk to the markets in the short-term.

Of course, 2018 turned out to be a volatile year for investors which ended in the sell-off into Christmas Eve.

As we have been writing for the last couple of weeks, the risks to the market have risen markedly as we head into the summer months.

“It is a rare occasion the markets don’t have a significant intra-year correction. But, it is a rarer event not to have a correction in a year where extreme deviations from long-term moving averages occur early in the year. Currently, the market is nearly 6% above its 200-dma. As noted, such deviations from the norm tend not to last long and “reversions to the mean” occur with regularity.”

“With the market pushing overbought, extended, and bullish extremes, a correction to resolve this condition is quite likely. The only question is the cause, depth, and duration of that corrective process. Again, this is why we discussed taking profits and rebalancing risk in our portfolios last week.”

Well, that certainly didn’t take long. As of Monday’s close, the entirety of the potential 5-6% decline has already been tagged.

The concern currently, is that while the 200-dma is critical to warding off a deeper decline, the escalation of the “trade war” is going to advance the timing of a recession and bear market. 

Let me explain why.

The Drums Of “Trade War”

On Monday, we woke to the “sound of distant drums” beating out the warning of escalation as China retaliated to Trump’s tariffs last week. To wit:

“After vowing over the weekend to “never surrender to external pressure,” Beijing has defied President Trump’s demands that it not resort to retaliatory tariffs and announced plans to slap new levies on $60 billion in US goods.


China’s announcement comes after the White House raised tariffs on some $200 billion in Chinese goods to 25% from 10% on Friday (however, the new rates will only apply to goods leaving Chinese ports on or after the date where the new tariffs took effect).

Here’s a breakdown of how China will impose tariffs on 2,493 US goods. The new rates will take effect at the beginning of next month.

  • 2,493 items to be subjected to 25% tariffs.
  • 1,078 items to be subject to 20% of tariffs
  • 974 items subject to 10% of tariffs
  • 595 items continue to be levied at 5% tariffs

In further bad news for American farmers, China might stop purchasing agricultural products from the US, reduce its orders for Boeing planes and restrict service trade. There has also been talk that the PBOC could start dumping Treasurys (which would, in addition to pushing US rates higher, could also have the effect of strengthening the yuan).”

The last point is the most important, particularly for domestic investors, as it is a change in their stance from last year. As we noted when the “trade war” first started:

The only silver lining in all of this is that so far, China hasn’t invoked the nuclear options: dumping FX reserves (either bonds or equities), or devaluing the currency. If Trump keeps pushing, however, both are only a matter of time.”

Clearly, China has now put those options on the table, at least verbally.

It is essential to understand that foreign countries “sanitize” transactions with the U.S. by buying or selling Treasuries to keep currency exchange rates stable. As you can see, there is a high correlation between fluctuations in the Yuan and treasury activity.

One way for China to both penalize the U.S. for tariffs, and by “the U.S.” I mean the consumer, is to devalue the Yuan relative to the dollar. This can be done by either stopping the process of sanitizing transactions with the U.S. or by accelerating the issue through the selling of U.S. Treasury holdings.

The other potential ramification is the impact on interest rates in the U.S. which is a substantial secondary risk.

China understands that the U.S. consumer is heavily indebted and small changes to interest rates have an exponential impact on consumption in the U.S.. For example, in 2018 interest rates rose to 3.3% and mortgages and auto loans came to screeching halt. More importantly, debt delinquency rates showed a sharp uptick.

Consumers have very little “wiggle room” to adjust for higher borrowing costs, higher product costs, or a slowing economy that accelerates job losses.

However, it isn’t just the consumer that will take the hit. It is the stock market due to lower earnings.

Playing The Trade

Let me review what we said previously about the impact of a trade war on the markets.

“While many have believed a ‘trade war’ will be resolved without consequence, there are two very important points that most of mainstream analysis is overlooking. For investors, a trade war would likely negatively impact earnings and profitability while slowing economic growth through higher costs.”

While the markets have indeed been more bullishly biased since the beginning of the year, which was mostly based on “hopes” of a “trade resolution,” we have couched our short-term optimism with an ongoing view of the “risks” which remain. An escalation of a “trade war” is one of those risks, the other is a policy error by the Federal Reserve which could be caused by the acceleration a “trade war.” 

In June of 2018, I did the following analysis:

“Wall Street is ignoring the impact of tariffs on the companies which comprise the stock market. Between May 1st and June 1st of this year, the estimated reported earnings for the S&P 500 have already started to be revised lower (so we can play the “beat the estimate game”).  For the end of 2019, forward reported estimates have declined by roughly $6.00 per share.”

The red dashed line denoted the expected 11% reduction to those estimates due to a “trade war.”

“As a result of escalating trade war concerns, the impact in the worst-case scenario of an all-out trade war for US companies across sectors and US trading partners will be greater than anticipated. In a nutshell, an across-the-board tariff of 10% on all US imports and exports would lower 2018 EPS for S&P 500 companies by ~11% and, thus, completely offset the positive fiscal stimulus from tax reform.”

Fast forward to the end of Q1-2019 earnings and we find that we were actually a bit optimistic on where things turned out.

The problem is the 2020 estimates are currently still extremely elevated. As the impact of these new tariffs settle in, corporate earnings will be reduced. The chart below plots our initial expectations of earnings through 2020. Given that a 10% tariff took 11% off earnings expectations, it is quite likely with a 25% tariff we are once again too optimistic on our outlook.

Over the next couple of months, we will be able to refine our view further, but the important point is that since roughly 50% of corporate profits are a function of exports, Trump has just picked a fight he most likely can’t win.

Importantly, the reigniting of the trade war is coming at a time where economic data remains markedly weak, valuations are elevated, and credit risk is on the rise. The yield curve continues to signal that something has “broken,” but few are paying attention.

With the market weakness yesterday, we are holding off adding to our equity “long positions” until we see where the market finds support. We have also cut our holdings in basic materials and emerging markets as tariffs will have the greatest impact on those areas. Currently, there is a cluster of support coalescing at the 200-dma, but a failure at the level could see selling intensify as we head into summer.

The recent developments now shift our focus from “risk taking” to “risk control.” “Capital preservation strategies” now replace “capital growth strategies,” and “cash” now becomes a favored asset class for managing uncertainty.

As a portfolio manager, I must manage short-term opportunities as well as long-term outcomes. If I don’t, I suffer career risk, plain and simple. However, you don’t have to. If you are truly a long-term investor, you have to question the risk being undertaken to achieve further returns in the current market environment.

Assuming that you were astute enough to buy the 2009 low, and didn’t spend the bulk of the bull market rally simply getting back to even, you would have accumulated years of excess returns towards meeting your retirement goals. 

If you went to cash now, the odds are EXTREMELY high that you will outpace investors who remain invested in the years ahead. Sure, they may get an edge on you in the short-term, and chastise you for “missing out,”  but when the next “mean reverting event” occurs, the decline will destroy most, if not all, of the returns accumulated over the last decade.

China understands that Trump’s biggest weakness is the economy and the stock market. So, by strategically taking actions which impact the consumer, and ultimately the stock market, it erodes the base of support that Trump has for the “trade war.”

This is particularly the case with the Presidential election just 18-months away.

Don’t mistake how committed China can be.

This fight will be to the last man standing, and while Trump may win the battle, it is quite likely that “investors will lose the war.” 

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