Between publicly chastising US Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and escalating his trade war with China, US President Donald Trump has finally rattled the markets. While investors were happy to look the other way during the first half of Trump’s term, the dangerous spectacle unfolding in the White House can no longer be ignored.
NEW YORK – Financial markets have finally awoken to the fact that Donald Trump is US president. Given that the world has endured two years of reckless tweets and public statements by the world’s most powerful man, the obvious question is, What took so long?
For one thing, until now, investors had bought into the argument that Trump is all bark and no bite. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as long as he pursued tax cuts, deregulation, and other policies beneficial to the corporate sector and shareholders. And many trusted that, at the end of the day, the “adults in the room” would restrain Trump and ensure that the administration’s policies didn’t jump the guardrails of orthodoxy.
These assumptions were more or less vindicated during Trump’s first year in office, when economic growth and an expected increase in corporate profits – owing to forthcoming tax cuts and deregulation – resulted in strong stock-market performance. In 2017, US stock indices rose more than 20%.
But things changed radically in 2018, and especially in the last few months. Despite corporate earnings growing by over 20% (thanks to the tax cuts), US equity markets moved sideways for most of the year, and have now taken a sharp turn south. At this point, broad indices are in correction territory (meaning a 10% drop from the recent peak), and indices of tech stocks, such as the Nasdaq, are in bear-market territory (a drop of 20% or more).
Though financial markets’ higher volatility reflects concerns about China, Italy and other eurozone economies, and key emerging economies, most of the recent turmoil is due to Trump. The year started with the enactment of a reckless tax cut that pushed up long-term interest rates and created a sugar high in an economy already close to full employment. As early as February, growing concerns about inflation rising above the US Federal Reserve’s 2% target led to the year’s first risk-off.
Then came Trump’s trade wars with China and other key US trade partners. Market worries about the administration’s protectionist policies have waxed and waned throughout the year, but they are now reaching a new peak. The latest US actions against China seem to auger a broader trade, economic, and geopolitical cold war.
An additional worry is that Trump’s other policies will have stagflationary effects (reduced growth alongside higher inflation). After all, Trump is planning to limit inward foreign direct investment, and has already implemented broad restrictions on immigration, which will reduce labor-supply growth at a time when workforce aging and skills mismatches are already a growing problem.
Moreover, the administration has yet to propose an infrastructure plan to spur private-sector productivity or hasten the transition to a green economy. And on Twitter and elsewhere, Trump has continued to bash corporations for their hiring, production, investment, and pricing practices, singling out tech firms just when they are already facing a wider backlash and increased competition from their Chinese counterparts.
Emerging markets have also been shaken by US policies. Fiscal stimulus and monetary-policy tightening have pushed up short- and long-term interest rates and strengthened the US dollar. As a result, emerging economies have experienced capital flight and rising dollar-denominated debt. Those that rely heavily on exports have suffered the effects of lower commodity prices, and all that trade even indirectly with China have felt the effects of the trade war.
Even Trump’s oil policies have created volatility. After the resumption of US sanctions against Iran pushed up oil prices, the administration’s efforts to carve out exemptions and bully Saudi Arabia into increasing its own production led to a sharp price drop. Though US consumers benefit from lower oil prices, US energy firms’ stock prices do not. Besides, excessive oil-price volatility is bad for producers and consumers alike, because it hinders sensible investment and consumption decisions.
Making matters worse, it is now clear that the benefits of last year’s tax cuts have accrued almost entirely to the corporate sector, rather than to households in the form of higher real (inflation-adjusted) wages. That means household consumption could soon slow down, further undercutting the economy.
More than anything else, though, the sharp fall in US and global equities during the last quarter is a response to Trump’s own utterances and actions. Even worse than the heightened risk of a full-scale trade war with China (despite the recent “truce” agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping) are Trump’s public attacks on the Fed, which began as early as the spring of 2018, when the US economy was growing at more than 4%.
Given these earlier attacks, markets were spooked this month when the Fed correctly decided to hike interest rates while also signaling a more gradual pace of rate increases in 2019. Most likely, the Fed’s relative hawkishness is a reaction to Trump’s threats against it. In the face of hostile presidential tweets, Fed Chair Jerome Powell needed to signal that the central bank remains politically independent.
But then came Trump’s decision to shut down large segments of the federal government over Congress’s refusal to fund his useless Mexican border wall. That sent markets into a near-panic, and the government shutdown was soon followed by reports that Trump wants to fire Powell – a move that could turn a correction into a crash. Just before the Christmas holiday, US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin was forced to issue a public statement to placate the markets. He announced that Trump was not planning to fire Powell after all, and that US banks’ finances are sound, effectively highlighting the question of whether they really are.
Recent changes within the administration that do not necessarily affect economic policymaking are also rattling the markets. The impending departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will leave the room devoid of adults. The coterie of economic nationalists and foreign-policy hawks who remain will cater to Trump’s every whim.
As matters stand, the risk of a full-scale geopolitical conflagration with China cannot be ruled out. A new cold war would effectively lead to de-globalization, disrupting supply chains everywhere, but particularly in the tech sector, as the recent ZTE and Huawei cases signal. At the same time, Trump seems to be hell-bent on undermining the cohesion of the European Union and NATO at a time when Europe is economically and politically fragile. And Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s 2016 election campaign’s ties to Russia hangs like a Sword of Damocles over his presidency.
Trump is now the Dr. Strangelove of financial markets. Like the paranoid madman in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, he is flirting with mutually assured economic destruction. Now that markets see the danger, the risk of a financial crisis and global recession has grown.