Tariffs, Trade Wars, and the Stock Market Tumble Market Update for March 23, 2018

“Everybody talks about tariffs as the first thing. Tariffs are the last thing. Tariffs are part of the negotiation. The real trick is going to be increase American exports. Get rid of some of the tariff and non-tariff barriers to American exports.” – Wilbur Ross U.S. Secretary of Commerce (Nov 30, 2016)


In a feared yet expected announcement yesterday, President Trump instructed tariffs on at least $50 billion in Chinese imports. The announcement sent equity markets tumbling. The S&P 500 fell 2.5%. Yesterday’s sell-off extends this week’s decline to -3.9%, and now the S&P 500 sits down -0.7% year to date.

In the recent past, the new tax policies boosted prospects for growth in the U.S. economy, corporate earnings, and consumer paychecks. This gave markets something to cheer about. Now the Trump administration has taken away the punch bowl with a new trade policy—broadly considered a bad thing. More on that soon.


A client called me yesterday to state, “Are you kidding me?”

If you are an active follower of the news, much less the markets, you may feel a little tired like this client. There has been a litany of political disruptions over the past week and in the last 36 hours alone we have weathered potential storms: A Federal Reserve interest rate hike announcement; Congress averting a shutdown with a $1.3 trillion spending bill in the wee hours this morning; and the announcement of tariffs, which may result in a trade war with China.

Not to mention, many of us have been disappointed with our NCAA tournament bracket picks. Although, you got to love this year of underdogs. I have Duke winning it all, but am now praying with 98-year old Sister Jean and rooting for Loyola-Chicago. Go Ramblers! You have to love March Madness!

The Ides of March originated as a Roman day in March marked by religious observances, the settling of debts, and the assassination of Julius Caesar. The Latin definition of ides is “to divide,” and in today’s political terms that meaning rings true. Trade tariffs may not only be dividing us with many other nations, but may also divide us within the U.S.


Tariffs sound complicated. Simply put, they are taxes on imported goods. However, their historical background is important. The first tariff was the Tariff of 1789, the second act ever by Congress. There are two primary draws to tariffs. First, they are a revenue source for governments. Second, they can be used to protect trade (i.e., industries, companies, employees and consumers).

Tariffs as a Revenue Source

Going back to 1789, the United States was a fledgling nation with massive debts and little revenues. It had a massive trade imbalance with Great Britain and other nations. Because the nation hadn’t created taxes and therefore had little income, the U.S. government created the Tariff Act of 1789. However, it was not without controversy. It pitted much of the North against much of the South, or much of the manufacturing parts of the nation against the agricultural parts. Northern manufacturers favored high tariffs to protect their industries against foreign competition, while Southern plantations desired low or no tariffs to protect the exportation of cotton, tobacco, etc. Herein lies a root problem with tariffs: it pits winners against losers.

Tariffs as Trade Protection

As witnessed by our history, trade tariffs tend to be helpful for nations that aren’t competitive and need to protect themselves. However, they create winners and losers as one country retaliates and imposes reciprocal tariffs often on other goods and services. For example, when the Trump Administration recently announced steel and aluminum tariffs, foreign governments threatened tariffs on U.S. agriculture, Harley Davidson motorcycles, and bourbon.

This retaliation process creates a cycle of winners and losers than can end up creating more problems than the original prescription intended. To that point, it is estimated that for every steel and aluminum job protected, there are 60 to 80 U.S. jobs that will be negatively impacted. For example, President Bush imposed a steel tariff in 2002, which is estimated to have caused the loss of over 200,000 jobs. That tariff was repealed. Politicians have generally been in tune with these dynamics of relieving tariffs when they cause more economical damage than good.

Tariffs are less important to our government revenues today than they were in 1789. From the late 1700s through mid-1800s, tariffs represented a significant part of the U.S. budget, often nearing 90% to 95%. Today they represent approximately 1%.

On a related note, the following exhibit highlights the significant decline in the average tariff rate since 1821. The U.S. is a leader in innovation, which makes us more competitive in industries that will be successful and growing in the future. Nonetheless, the debate will rage on as it did in the late 1700s between our forefathers – James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The debate, today, is different. The reasons they supported tariffs back then don’t exist.

Exhibit 1: U.S. Average Tariff Rates (1821 – 2016) Source: US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the U.S. 1789-1945, U.S. International Trade Commission.

While it is apparent that China has implemented some bad trade practices, raising tariffs has already led to announced retaliation. The result may harm our economy and disenfranchise more voters than some may realize. It is somewhat comforting that we have already exempted many countries from the steel and aluminum tariffs, and we suspect that this most recent China tariff tiff will be negotiated to minimize damages. Going forward, tariffs need to be closely monitored for their true impact – good and bad. We find some comfort that these tariff announcements are just posturing. Ironically, our current U.S. Secretary of Commerce suggested in late 2016 that we need to work on driving more exports, not just focus on tariffs. We will see if that statement is consistent with the broader tariff policies recently pushed forward.


Volatility has certainly picked up this year as we predicted, with the S&P having now recorded nineteen 1% or greater moves in the first 12 weeks of the year (10 up, 9 down), versus just eight 1% moves (4 up, 4 down) in all of 2017. While volatile markets like what we’ve seen in recent weeks can certainly be uncomfortable, ultimately what we have seen year to date in 2018 is much more in-line with the historical norm; 2017’s lack of volatility was an outlier. Over the past two decades, the average calendar year saw more than seventy 1% moves.

Exhibit: Number of 1% Moves in S&P 500 Source: Morgan Stanley.


Despite all this seeming chaos and uncertainty, the U.S. and global economies continue to do well.

Here are just a few highlights:

  • Employment – We are at near full employment. Actual unemployment figures are at a low 4.1%.
  • Leading Economic Indicators – The CEO Confidence index is at extreme highs. The Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) recently hit 60.8 (a new high).
  • Wages – Wage increases are slowly rising with a recent year-over-year growth rate of 2.6%. It is worth noting that we have never had an economic recession when wage growth was below 4%.
  • European GDP – Economic growth recently came in at 2.6% – the highest level in a decade.
  • U.S. Corporate Earnings – With 99% of S&P 500 companies reporting for the fourth quarter of 2017, 73% and 77% beat earnings and revenue expectations, respectively. Very solid numbers. Earnings growth for 2018 is now expected to grow 18.3% compared to 12% at the most recent year-end.

As March Madness continues, we continue to stay calm and remain vigilant in pointing out, assessing, and reading between the lines of our market and economy.


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