Quarterly Update

Jul. 2018

Matthew Peron, Chief Investment Officer, Senior Managing Director | Jul. 2018

Trade Wars: Playing Chicken

Current tariffs unlikely to derail strong U.S. economy

Overseas markets more affected by trade tensions

Confidence of consumers, companies is important

Fifty years ago, America found itself on the brink of a major international crisis. The problem wasn’t nuclear missiles in Cuba or a big wall in Berlin. No, the problem was frozen chicken. This strange, forgotten piece of history had its start back in 1962, when, following the introduction of factory farming, the U.S. began producing chickens on a massive scale and sending them overseas, where chicken was far rarer and more expensive. After tense negotiations failed, European countries began instituting huge tariffs in an effort to protect local farmers from being edged out of the market, and the Johnson administration quickly retaliated with the so-called “Chicken Tax,” a 25% tariff on light trucks and other products.

Fortunately, the great poultry war of the 1960s was short-lived, and most of the tariffs were soon lifted. However, the one on imported light trucks remains in place to this day, causing lasting distortions in the marketplace. By insulating U.S. automakers from foreign competition, the tariff has reduced pressure on them to innovate and match competing international models with increased fuel economy. It has also caused both foreign and domestic automakers to go to great, almost comical, lengths to circumvent the tariff. Ford, for example, imported the Transit Connect as a passenger vehicle from its plant in Turkey, then stripped the vans of their rear seats and windows once they were in this country. Although the move cost the company thousands of dollars, it saved thousands more in taxes. For American truck buyers, however, the Chicken Tax has only meant higher prices and fewer options.

Financial markets seem to be of two minds about the impact of mounting trade tensions between the U.S. and its global trading partners. Despite the escalating tit-for-tat between countries, tariffs enacted so far affect only a relatively small part of overall GDP. The consensus is that these measures should not have a significant and lasting impact on the U.S. economy, or on U.S. stocks, and may even help bring about fairer trade in the long run. Still, each escalation increases the risk of slipping, either deliberately or inadvertently, into a full-blown trade war that would significantly damage corporate earnings and overall economic growth, thereby hurting equities, especially non-U.S. equities.

Given the fluid nature and complexity of the situation, confidently predicting an eventual resolution is difficult. The $34 billion in tariffs currently in place on Chinese goods amounts to a drop in the bucket of a nearly $20 trillion U.S. economy. But the Trump administration appears to be playing an escalating game of chicken with the global trade community, and no major economic region or trading partner has been spared from threatening rhetoric. Already the president has signaled his willingness to put tariffs on all Chinese goods imported to the U.S., which would amount to more than $500 billion. Meanwhile, his team is investigating whether to place tariffs on the roughly $360 billion worth of auto, truck, and car parts that were imported from European and other foreign nations last year. In addition, there are the ongoing NAFTA negotiations, which affect more than $1 trillion worth of annual trilateral trade.

It’s not hard to see how quickly trade actions could begin to add up and have a noticeable impact on economic growth. For example, RBC Capital Markets estimates that if the U.S. and China were to levy 25% tariffs on all imports from each country, and China were to include additional non-tariff barriers so as to match the total U.S. tariffs, this would subtract a little more than one-half of a percentage point from annual U.S. GDP growth. According to the Tax Foundation, if the Trump administration also enacts additional auto tariffs, GDP would fall by an additional 0.36%, resulting in 0.26% lower wages and 277,825 fewer full-time equivalent jobs.

Quantifying just how much damage a broad trade battle could wreak upon the economy is a tricky task, and one made more challenging by the difficulty in estimating the effects of private sector uncertainty, which can exacerbate the shock from tariffs themselves. For now, the U.S. economy appears in good shape and able to withstand some trade-related headwinds. There is an ongoing tailwind from tax reform, job growth remains strong, and optimism over future economic conditions is high. But there are potential “second order” effects that we believe could be more serious. If the confidence of consumers or businesses is shaken, spending and capital investment might level off or decline, which could lead to a short-circuiting of the economic expansion and bull market.

While international equity markets have been weighed down by escalating trade tensions, this caution hasn’t yet shown up in the U.S. stock market in a significant way. In fact, U.S. stocks have largely recovered from their first-quarter declines, buoyed by solid economic data and very strong corporate earnings. Still, we think stock prices would be higher today were it not for trade issues. And this new era of protectionism could hardly have come at a more sensitive time for markets. While the backdrop for growth is indeed strong—particularly in the U.S.—financial assets were already bracing for tighter financial conditions as the world’s major central banks step back from stimulus.

Our asset allocation and investment strategies are positioned to take these uncertainties into account. We are overweight U.S. equity markets and underweight international equity markets, which we believe will continue to be more affected by trade disruptions. Likewise, our domestic equity strategy has little exposure to the sectors we believe will be most likely impacted by an escalation in tensions, such as autos and semiconductors. It is from this relatively strong position that we are watching the markets, looking for signs that conditions may deteriorate but also keeping an eye out for opportunities. For example, we recently added some short-term emerging market credit as spreads widened out to levels we felt incorporated a worst-case outcome.

As portfolio managers, it is our job to get ahead of the curve and work proactively to manage risk in our clients’ portfolios. This requires the ability to respond dynamically to a changing economic outlook and shifting market conditions. All sides of the trade disputes have incentives to resolve their differences, and we think this will occur eventually. But, in the meantime there could be more heated rhetoric and additional tariffs implemented that could keep equity markets off balance. Indeed, as the Chicken Tax shows us, the history of trade actions is rife with unintended consequences.

Key Points

Current tariffs unlikely to derail strong U.S. economy

Overseas markets more affected by trade tensions

Confidence of consumers, companies is important

Stay Informed.

Get our Insight delivered straight to your inbox.

Important Disclosures

The information presented does not involve the rendering of personalized investment, financial, legal, or tax advice. This presentation is not an offer to buy or sell, or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell, any of the securities mentioned herein.

Certain statements contained herein may constitute projections, forecasts, and other forward-looking statements, which do not reflect actual results and are based primarily upon a hypothetical set of assumptions applied to certain historical financial information. Certain information has been provided by third-party sources, and, although believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified, and its accuracy or completeness cannot be guaranteed.

Any opinions, projections, forecasts, and forward-looking statements presented herein are valid as of the date of this document and are subject to change.

There are inherent risks with equity investing. These risks include, but are not limited to, stock market, manager, or investment style. Stock markets tend to move in cycles, with periods of rising prices and periods of falling prices. Investing in international markets carries risks such as currency fluctuation, regulatory risks, and economic and political instability. Emerging markets involve heightened risks related to the same factors, as well as increased volatility, lower trading volume, and less liquidity. Emerging markets can have greater custodial and operational risks and less developed legal and accounting systems than developed markets.

Concentrating assets in the real estate sector or REITs may disproportionately subject a portfolio to the risks of that industry, including the loss of value because of adverse developments affecting the real estate industry and real property values. Investments in REITs may be subject to increased price volatility and liquidity risk; concentration risk is high.

Investments in Master Limited Partnerships (MLP) are susceptible to concentration risk, illiquidity, exposure to potential volatility, tax reporting complexity, fiscal policy, and market risk. Investors in MLPs are subject to increased tax reporting requirements. MLP investors typically receive a complicated schedule K-1 form rather than Form 1099. MLPs may not be appropriate investments for tax-advantaged accounts because of potential negative tax consequences (Unrelated Business Income Tax).

There are inherent risks with fixed-income investing. These risks may include interest rate, call, credit, market, inflation, government policy, liquidity, or junk bond. When interest rates rise, bond prices fall. This risk is heightened with investments in longer-duration fixed-income securities and during periods when prevailing interest rates are low or negative. The yields and market values of municipal securities may be more affected by changes in tax rates and policies than similar income-bearing taxable securities. Certain investors’ incomes may be subject to the Federal Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), and taxable gains are also possible. Investments in below-investment-grade debt securities, which are usually called “high yield” or “junk bonds,” are typically in weaker financial health and such securities can be harder to value and sell, and their prices can be more volatile than more highly rated securities. While these securities generally have higher rates of interest, they also involve greater risk of default than do securities of a higher-quality rating.

Investments in emerging market bonds may be substantially more volatile, and substantially less liquid, than the bonds of governments, government agencies, and government-owned corporations located in more developed foreign markets. Emerging market bonds can have greater custodial and operational risks and less developed legal and accounting systems than developed markets.

As with any investment strategy, there is no guarantee that investment objectives will be met, and investors may lose money. Returns include the reinvestment of interest and dividends. Investing involves risk, including the loss of principal. Diversification may not protect against market loss or risk. Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

Index Definitions

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) is a market capitalization-weighted index of 500 common stocks chosen for market size, liquidity, and industry group representation to represent U.S. equity performance.

The MSCI ACWI ex USA Index captures large and mid cap representation across 22 of 23 Developed Markets (DM) countries (excluding the US) and 24 Emerging Markets (EM) countries*. With 2,154 constituents, the index covers approximately 85% of the global equity opportunity set outside the US.

The MSCI EAFE Index (Europe, Australasia, Far East) is a free float-adjusted market capitalization index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets, excluding the U.S. & Canada. As of June 2007, the MSCI EAFE Index consisted of the following 21 developed market country indices: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The STOXX Europe 50 index provides a blue-chip representation of supersector leaders in Europe covering almost 50% of the free-float market capitalization of the European stock market. The index covers 50 stocks from 18 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The MSCI China Index captures large and mid cap representation across China H shares, B shares, Red chips, P chips and foreign listings (e.g. ADRs). With 447 constituents, the index covers about 85% of this China equity universe. Currently, the index also includes Large Cap A shares represented at 2.5% of their free float adjusted market capitalization.

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index captures large and mid cap representation across 24 Emerging Markets (EM) countries*. With 1,138 constituents, the index covers approximately 85% of the free float-adjusted market capitalization in each country.

The S&P Municipal Bond High-Yield Index consists of bonds in the S&P Municipal Bond Index that are not rated or are rated below investment grade. The S&P Municipal Bond Index measures the performance of bonds issued by state and local municipalities in the U.S. and its territories. All bonds in the index are exempt from U.S. federal income taxes, but some are subject to alternative minimum tax (AMT).

Indices are unmanaged, and one cannot invest directly in an index. Index returns do not reflect a deduction for fees or expenses.

Put our insights to work for you.

If you have a client with more than $1 million in investable assets and want to find out about the benefits of our intelligently personalized portfolio management, speak with an investment consultant near you today.

If you’re a high-net-worth client who’s interested in adding an experienced investment manager to your financial team, learn more about working with us here.