Tariffs, Profits and Global Growth

Concerns about a trade war flared back up again last week.  The US released a list of proposed tariffs on some $50 billion worth of Chinese imports.  The 25 percent levies reach broadly, including medicine, aviation, semiconductors and consumer goods like dishwashers, snow plows and motorcycles.

Beijing was quick to respond with reciprocal tariffs, announcing $50 billion on 106 products including soybeans, automobiles, chemicals and aircraft.  Some analysts pointed out that the products will disproportionally affect states that voted for President Trump.

There was some initial reprieve from expectations that negations would ultimately avert a trade war, but the Chinese government said that they had not had any negotiations.  President Trump then said that he was considering another $100 billion in tariffs.

While the possibility of a trade war dominated the headlines, there was also some scrutiny surrounding the synchronized global growth theme that markets loved last year, as it was widely cited for the high return and low risk environment that characterized 2017.

Even though manufacturing in most big economies is still expanding, the pace has slowed in recent months.  Industrial commodities like copper and aluminum also started selling off in recent months, well before the concerns about protectionism and a possible trade war hit.

This week, macro matters may take a backseat to the beginning of earnings season. It’s expected that the tax cuts will contribute to the biggest quarterly profit growth in seven years.

Although negative surprises could contribute to the current market fragility, positive surprises could provide strong support for the market. At this point, analysts are expecting S&P 500 profits to jump 18.1 percent in the first quarter, the first since the tax cuts were passed.

Like last week, the coming week could be interesting.