SAN FRANCISCO — Wall Street has taken the China-U.S. tariffs enacted on Friday in stride so far, but investors are on alert for a ramp-up in the trade conflict.
Stock investors had been bracing for weeks for Washington and Beijing to place the tariffs on $34 billion of each other’s goods, and share prices were occasionally hurt by escalations in rhetoric along the way, with certain sectors taking a bigger hit than others as traders avoided companies seen taking the heaviest blows.
Another round of sweeping tariffs could knock Wall Street off track. U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday upped the ante on his country’s largest trading partner, warning the United States may ultimately target more than $500 billion worth of Chinese goods, roughly the total amount of U.S. imports from China last year. [L1N1TY1VC]
“The real question is, how long do we stay in the trade war?” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital Securities in New York. “If we got to that point (of escalation), all bets are off for any continuation of the bull market.
The S&P 500 rose nearly 1 percent on Friday, with traders saying they had priced in the United States and China enacting tit-for-tat duties.
The S&P 500 is still up 3 percent year to date and the Nasdaq is up 11 percent, near record highs.
The specter of a full-blown trade war also risks sinking China’s markets deeper into bear territory. Six months of wrangling over tariffs with the United States has wiped out about a fifth of China’s stock market value.
U.S. stocks have been in a bull run for nearly a decade, with the latest leg driven by a U.S. tax code overhaul that are boosting quarterly earnings.
Investors are now laser focused on any warnings companies might give about the impact of tariffs when reporting second-quarter results over the next few weeks.
S&P 500 companies are expected to report 21 percent growth in earnings per share for the June quarter, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
“There may be impacts even in the second quarter, even though the tariffs haven’t gone through yet, because people’s behaviour changes at the margin in anticipation of these things. It will be a read of the tea leaves,” said Tom Martin, senior portfolio manager at Globalt Investments in Atlanta, Georgia.
Investors have been selling out of specific sectors and stocks they believe are more at risk of being hurt by tariffs and buying others.
Since March 1, when Trump ignited fears of a trade war by threatening steep tariffs on steel and aluminium, S&P 500 industrials have fallen 4 percent and the S&P 1500 steel index has lost 7 percent.
Boeing Co, the largest U.S. exporter to China, is down 4 percent from early March, but has still gained 14 percent in 2018, outperforming the wider market.
Caterpillar Inc, another major exporter to China, has lost 14 percent year to date.
The Russell 2000, which tracks smaller companies widely viewed as less exposed than larger corporations to global trade, has gained 20 percent in 2018 and 3 percent just this week. But with that index already setting record highs in 2018, some investors warn further gains may be limited.
“You can say small and mid-cap stocks are a pocket of safety but at some point they become overvalued,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial.
(Reporting by Noel Randewich in San Francisco, additional reporting by April Joyner and Sinead Carew in New York; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)