April 9, 2018 Special Update

Up One Day, Down The Next

Last Friday’s jobs report was supposed to be the big event of the week. It was supposed to either send the all clear signal or upset the apple cart; to confirm or deny a spike in wage inflation; to let us rest easy about labor market strength or perhaps reveal a slowdown in hiring momentum. Alas, it never delivered the excitement traders were looking for. 

Not that Friday’s trading session lacked excitement. The Dow fell 572 points and the S&P 500 fell 2.2%, capping a week of extraordinarily large rollercoaster swings. In fact, Vanguard’s Jack Bogle said that with the possible exception of the 1987 crash, he’s never seen such volatility as characterizes this stock market. 

The jobs report and its standard set of figures on payrolls, unemployment, and wage growth turned out OK. Inflation isn’t spiking. The labor market isn’t over-heating. New payroll growth decelerated, but that was largely due to weather-related issues. Other metrics like average workweek were on track. Just as with other recent economic data, there’s nothing in the report to cause an unhinging of the stock market. Nothing to explain the spike in volatility. 

What hit the market on Friday was the perfect storm of words, not data. President Trump is again engaged in a war of words with the Chinese. Thursday evening, Mr. Trump asked the US Trade Representative to consider additional trade tariffs on $100bil worth of Chinese imports. In response, China’s Commerce Ministry issued a statement that it is ready to fight a trade war. “The Chinese side will follow suit to the end and at any cost, and will firmly attack, using new comprehensive countermeasures, to firmly defend the interest of the nation and its people.” On Friday morning, Mr. Trump Tweeted that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is giving an unfair trade advantage to China due to its classification of that country as “developing.” But while the war of words progressed, neither side moved closer to face-to-face negotiations. 

And there are signals that this issue isn’t going away soon. US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview that while the Trump Administration doesn’t want a trade war, “there is the potential” for one. He is “cautiously optimistic” that both sides will reach a solution. In a radio interview, the president said, “I’m not saying there won’t be a little pain, but the market has gone up 40%, 42% so we might lose a little bit of it. But we’re going to have a much stronger country when we’re finished.” 

Also thrown into the mix on Friday was congressional testimony by the new Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. He noted strong economic momentum in the US. “Given that the current pace of growth is above trend, my view is that we need to continue on the path of raising interest rates.” Mr. Powell’s message was a positive one, as expected. But considering the day’s events, investors were not in the mood to hear about further monetary tightening. The Dow took another leg down as he spoke. Mr. Powell tried to steer clear of trade tariff concerns, but when asked he said it’s “really too early” to estimate any economic impact. 

In that reply, Mr. Powell showed wisdom. We don’t yet know whether Mr. Trump’s sound bites constitute a new durable policy or simple rhetoric used as a negotiating tactic. We also don’t have a clue about the timeline for tariffs. Mr. Mnuchin said they “will take some period of time to go into effect. There will be public comment, while we’re in the period before the tariffs go on. We’ll continue to have discussions.” Besides, words change from day to day. Over the weekend, Mr. Trump eased his tone, Tweeting “President Xi and I will always be friends, no matter what happens with our dispute on trade.” Hence, the stock market bump this morning. 

The culprit for market volatility is clear. Words, in speeches, interviews and Tweets, made traders shoot first and ask questions later. That immediate re-pricing of investment risk may prove to be unwarranted, however. Aside of positive economic momentum, corporate earnings are expected to be very strong this year. Core business trends are largely positive and by one estimate $800bil in economic benefit will come from tax reform. US companies will begin reporting first quarter results this week, and we very much hope that investors and traders pay more attention to those reports than to presidential Tweets. As Bloomberg posits, “Markets Want to Rally—If Politicians Will Let Them.”

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