The Tariff Tantrum

Markets are bracing for a drop after the weekend announcement that tariffs on Chinese goods are not only back on the table but bigger than before.

What this translates to for the markets is uncertainty. For the past couple of months the China trade negotiations were largely an after-thought. This brings things back to the forefront.

Trying to understand (or predict) how China will respond is a study in both culture, gamesmanship, and so much more. And frankly, it’s beyond the scope of this blogger. Instead, let’s focus on what the market may look at.

Futures are set to open significantly lower. The SPX appears ready to test the 2900 support level. This is a fairly significant emotional line in the sand for traders. It’s also a big round number. But it’s well above the 50-day moving average of 2852.

A drop below the 50-day moving average this week would be psychologically damaging – especially when many folks begin to get suspicious about the “sell in May and go away” adage.

The 50-day moving average is about 3.7% lower than Friday’s close. A one-week drop of this magnitude would likely throw the markets into a sideways pattern while more news gets sorted out. It doesn’t mean it’s time to brace for a bear market. But we could be in for several weeks of increased volatility and sideways moves as trade negotiations move front-and-center for a while.

Despite the fact that the tariffs will hurt China significantly, there’s no guarantee they will respond as hoped. So this could drag on for a while. And it could have a real impact on GDP and growth for the S&P500 companies. A roll-back to the beginning of 2Q19 is easily possible. That would put the SPX back between 2786 and 2852. If China responds with tariffs of their own, it could push things down even further (although the economic impact of these tariffs would likely be less damaging to the US as we import more than we export from China).

It is way to early to suggest the US bull market is dead because of this. Quite the contrary, economic data remains robust. So while this is a bump in the road — and certainly it increased uncertainty — and likely volatility with it — it’s entirely possible the markets will pull back a bit, find their footing, and continue forward. Consider the fact there are still few more attractive options for yield than the US stock market (even with these new tariffs on Chinese goods).

If you think about all the options available to you — be they super-low-interest-rate fixed-income products, foreign equities, real estate. or commodities — there are still few options that look more attractive than US equities when comparing the overall risk-to-reward opportunities. This should keep a bid under the US market (or at least reduce the likelihood of a massive wave of selling).

Whatever the case, we should have more clarity as the week rolls on. For now, there’s a bunch of speculation and guessing as the markets try to sort this stuff out. As the data becomes clear, we’ll get a better understanding of where things are headed.

For the week, look at the 2900/2912 level for the first area of SPX support. After that, we may fall all the way to the 50-day moving average at 2852.

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