The Markets Are Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

Freddy Lim

Co-founder and CIO

14 May 2019

Once again, the market is missing the bigger picture all together. The media (reacting to Trump’s twitter account) are making a big fuss out of the potential impact of the trade deal. As a result, the markets are increasingly concerned about the uncertainty of the trade deal that might not even last, even if some version of a deal does get finalised eventually. Because the markets are focused on pricing in the content of Trump’s tweets about the trade war, they’re missing the one key thing about the trade war: that even if the tariffs go through, they have a negligible impact on the economy. And that short-sightedness is what’s causing the recent volatility in the markets.

Trade drama re-ignited and woke up the media

Trump and China’s back and forth over the last week are a picture-perfect example of how the markets can so easily react to meaningless noise. The latest episode of ‘Trump versus China’ started on 5 May when Trump, complaining of sluggish progress in the trade talks, tweeted that he would raise tariffs from 10% to 25% on the existing $200 billion of goods.

He also threatened to slap tariffs on all remaining Chinese imports if the two parties couldn’t agree on a deal by 10 May. Not surprisingly, China wouldn’t agree to his terms, and, this didn’t go over well with the markets.

As an attempt to cheer up markets, both sides chalked up the talks as “candid and constructive”. The cosmetics proved short-lived, as more “tweet volatility” over the weekend suggested progress is anything but smooth.

On 13 May, the markets priced in retaliations from China, and, like clockwork, China’s Ministry of Finance announced by midday in New York City that it will raise tariffs on US goods starting 1 June. Trump’s response only fired up media and market speculation more:

And, once again, the markets like the response didn’t either: at the close of 13 May, the Shanghai Shenzhen China Stock index declined 6.2% on a Month-to-Date (MtD) basis, and the S&P500 lost 4.4%. The Asia ex-Japan region has been particularly sensitive to the trade tension. Aside from China’s large market share of 32.4% in Asia ex-Japan, the region also has 14.3% invested in South Korea, which is a highly export-dependent (and hence trade-sensitive) country. As of 13 May, Asia ex-Japan equities lost 8% MtD. As shown in Figure 1, the Asia ex-Japan region has thus far underperformed the most across the majority of the growth-oriented assets (dark blue) we monitor. Emerging Market equities follow Asia ex-Japan’s underperformance, as Emerging Market exports depend heavily on Chinese consumption.

Figure 1 - Month-to-Date Asset Class Performance (As Of 13 May 2019)

Source: StashAway, Bloomberg

Tariffs don’t actually matter that much

From a geopolitical perspective, US-China relations matter a lot. The current US foreign policy path risks bringing the world to a more dangerous place over the long run. Supposing these tariffs go through, would the impact actually matter that much to the health of the global economy? According to Nobel prize award international economic, Professor Paul Krugman: No, they don’t. In his opinion column at the New York Times “Killing the Pax Americana - Trump’s trade war is about more than economics (11 May 2019)”, Professor Krugman explains:

In the short run, a tariff is a tax. Period. The macroeconomic consequences of a tariff should therefore be seen as comparable to the macroeconomic consequences of any tax increase. True, this tax increase is more regressive than, say, a tax on high incomes, or a wealth tax. This means that it falls on people who will be forced to cut their spending, and is therefore likely to have a bigger negative bang per buck than the positive bang for buck from the 2017 tax cut. But we’re still talking, at least so far, about a tax hike that is only a fraction of a percent of GDP. ”

Really, a fraction of a percent: the $65 billion in tariffs amount to 0.19% of the combined GDP of the US and China ($34.1 trillion as of end of 2018[1]). If the $325 billion in tariffs also come into play, that’s still only 0.43% of the combined GDP. The markets are more concerned about the uncertainty of the trade deals, that might not even last long-term, even if some version of a deal does get finalised. Yet, because the markets are focused on pricing in the content of Trump’s tweets, the markets are missing this huge detail about the trade war: that even if the tariffs go through, they’re negligible to the economy.

Truth be told, American consumers are the ones paying for Trump’s tariffs. Even then, it is not likely that tariffs would cause a recession in the US: firstly, leading indicators such as the Conference Board Leading Economic Index (top panel of Figure 2) is showing that the US economy has been stable and absolute level of output did not decline at all. In terms of its rate of change (bottom panel of Figure 2), the LEI has also stabilized after declining from its peak of 6.6% yoy in Sep 2018. In fact, the latest print is starting to see a small pickup in LEI’s rate of change. Additionally, earnings expectation of S&P 500 companies have been revised upward since February 2019, confirming broad economic strength of the US economy. Lastly, the US can offset tariffs by some other form of tax cuts (e.g. another round of cuts that is focused on personal income tax). The US government can also hand out more subsidies to ease the pain for consumers, even if it’s financed by more government debts.

Lastly, although the trade fight is targeted at China at a time when its economy is slowing down, retaliatory tariffs that impact Chinese consumers are much smaller than what American consumers are paying. As we have already mentioned earlier, we are talking about a fraction of a percent of GDP in either country.

Figure 2 - Conference Board Leading Economic Index shows a Resilient US Economy

Source: Bloomberg

What should investors do?

Ignore the media. In the end, the tariffs are not what is important, even though the media is making that out to be the story. What is important is that the economy is actually chugging along nicely, and leading economic indicators are still trending upwards. So, keep your head down, turn off your news notifications if you have to, and continue investing your savings at regular intervals (e.g. monthly).

In volatile times such as these, your consistent contributions is now buying you more units of securities than before; you can think of it as getting a discount on your purchase. Volatility is the price any long-term investor must pay in the short term in order to reap the returns that equities provide over the long term. If you feel uncomfortable with the ups and downs of your portfolio(s), you probably took too much risk: by adjusting it downward you’ll sacrifice some long-term returns but you will avoid putting you in a position to sell your investments at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

[1] Source: US Bureau of Economic Analysis and FactSet, as of 5/6/2019. Nominal US and China 2018 GDP in US dollars.

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