The S&P 500 closed at an all-time high on Friday. Because it was the S&P and not the Dow, the mainstream media didn’t make that big of a deal about it. For some reason, the media continues to use the Dow as the overall market gauge, even if it isn’t what they should use.
After the all-time high, President Trump tweeted on Sunday that he intended to implement new tariffs and increase other tariffs on Chinese goods. This tweet said the tariffs would be in place within the week and it came ahead of the next round of negotiations are scheduled to take place.
Stock futures dropped sharply when they opened on Sunday night. Dow futures were off by 450 points, Nasdaq futures were down 150 points, and S&P futures dropped 50 points. When the cash market opened Monday morning, all three indices were down over 1.5%. As the day moved on, the indices rebounded, and many analysts claimed the President’s tweet was a negotiating tactic and it wasn’t a sign that the negotiations were off or anything like that. When the cash market opened again on Tuesday, stocks fell once again as the trade war continued to weigh on investors.
I for one started thinking about the various announcements and tweets that have taken place over the last year and a half. I started thinking about the timing of the announcements and where the market was at the time. I started considering whether President Trump was trying to control the stock market to some degree.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing illegal about it if he is timing these announcements such that they have the least impact on the stock market. The only way they would be illegal is if he is telling people ahead of time so they can make trades ahead of time—that would be illegal. I am assuming that President Trump isn’t doing that. Instead, I am working on the premise that he is releasing bad news when stocks are high and can handle the news and releasing good news after bouts of selling.
If this is one of the President’s goals and he is able to pull it off, it is brilliant. We are edging closer to the next presidential election in 2020, and we are overdue for a bear market and a recession. If either of these things happens before the election, it would drastically hurt his chances of reelection. So if he is able to control the stock market and help the economy from now until the election—it will be a bold and brilliant move.
Looking back at the timing of different announcements, I found a timeline of the trade war on the website of CNBC. The first move in the trade war for me was in January 2018 when President Trump announced the safeguard tariffs on solar panels and washing machines. That announcement came on January 22, 2018, and China retaliated with an investigation of U.S. sorghum exports with an announcement on February 5, 2018.
If you look at the S&P 500 before these announcements, the index had jumped 18.4% from mid-August. The S&P fell sharply in the last week of January and the first week of February. The index would lose almost 9% in two weeks.
The market then settled down a little and inched higher for the rest of February and the first part of March. The S&P had gained back more than half of what it lost in the two-week selloff, but then came the next round of tariffs.
On March 8, 2018, President Trump announced 25% tariffs on steel imports and 10% tariffs on aluminum imports. This was also the first time “national security” was listed as one of the reasons for protecting the industries.
The S&P fell once again, this time it lasted approximately three weeks until the beginning of April. Ironically it was at the beginning of April that China implemented new tariffs on U.S. goods as a retaliation for the steel and aluminum tariffs.
After the second round of tariffs is implemented by the U.S. and the first round of tariffs by China, things settled down a little, and the two parties started meeting to negotiate a deal. As we know, a deal still hasn’t been struck, but the fact that the two parties are meeting and negotiating is taken as a positive sign.
From early April through mid-June, the S&P had rallied approximately 9% from the low to the high. On June 15, President Trump announces new tariffs of 25% on $50 billion in Chinese goods. This time unfair trade practices and intellectual property rights are cited. China retaliated immediately with tariffs on $50 billion in U.S. goods.
We didn’t see a violent reaction from stocks this time around, but the S&P did fall once again, much smaller decline. At this point, investors were getting used to the barbs back and forth and the trade war wasn’t having much of an impact on U.S. stocks. It was also at the end of June that the People’s Bank of China became more dovish and started making moves to help stimulate the Chinese economy.
Things remained relatively quiet until September. On September 17, President Trump announced another round of tariffs on Chinese goods. This time it was a 10% tariff on $200 billion in goods. The plan also included a hike in the tariff rate to 25% at the beginning of 2019. He also threatened additional tariffs on $267 billion in goods if China retaliated this time.
At that point, the S&P had reached a new all-time high by moving back above the January level when the trade war started. The high didn’t last long as stocks started falling and the S&P would drop 18.6% from September 17 through Christmas Eve.
With the stock market melting down in the fourth quarter, President Trump announced that the U.S. would not raise tariffs on January 1. That announcement came on December 1, but it did little to settle markets at this point. The tariffs had been put on hold several times in the previous months and I think investors had come to question the status of the negotiations.
Since the Christmas Eve low, the S&P has rallied back and eclipsed the September high last week. The Fed had become more dovish, and that helped stocks, the economy showed some resilience with tremendous job growth, etc. Corporate earnings have held steady and haven’t fallen off a cliff. All of these things helped push the S&P to a new all-time high in just over four months after it fell so sharply.
And then came President Trump’s tweet on Sunday. The market has reacted in a very negative manner, but it is moving lower from an all-time high. As I write this, even after the selling, the S&P is still higher than it was in January ’18 when the trade war started. President Trump has made it clear that he watches the financial markets closely—probably more closely than any president in history. If the selling continues like it is so far this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if he came out with a positive tweet regarding the trade negotiations later this week.
One could argue that the highs in the market became highs because of the timing of the announcements, but you could also argue that the White House is timing the announcements based on where the stock market is at the time. Like I said before, if President Trump is successful at keeping the market from going in to a bearish phase and the economy from going in to a recession, his reelection chances will be greatly enhanced. Controlling or massaging the market is a hard thing to do.
I thought about using the word “manipulating”, but that has too much of a negative connotation to it. I think what the President is doing is using the announcements to temper investor expectations. When expectations get too high and the market keeps moving up and up, it is safe to make a tough announcement like he did on Sunday. When the market was at its low in December was the time to be encouraging and positive.
I may be completely wrong about this whole point, but it seems like things are timed a little too well for it to be a coincidence.