Tech in trade crosshairs after its worst week since March

10-09-2018

Tech in trade crosshairs after its worst week since March

Technology stocks had their worst week since March, and they could remain in the crosshairs, particularly if the Trump administration unveils new tariffs on China. Strategists say inflation and trade are two major themes markets will have to navigate in the week ahead, after August's surprise jump in wage growth and as investors await the next move from Washington on the trade front. At any time, President Donald Trump could announce tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods, and he threatened Friday that he has plans for tariffs on another $267 billion ready to go. A late Friday afternoon news report that Apple warned the government that many of its products would be affected by tariffs hit that stock and sent ripples across the tech sector.

The market Friday was already weak as investors considered the prospect of higher inflation. Average hourly wages, up nearly 2.9 percent, put markets on notice that more normal income growth — and therefore inflation — could be at hand. Consistently higher inflation could help reinforce the Fed's rate-hiking plans, and markets will be particularly alert to both producer and consumer inflation reports in the week ahead. "I think it kind of reminds the markets that we could very quickly get back to February in a hurry, in the sense we've had this calm period here where inflation was dormant," said James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Leuthold Group.

The Apple report came at the end of a bad week for technology, with the S&P sector down nearly 3 percent. First, there was the specter of more regulation for social media stocks and Google, as Facebookand Twitter executives testified before Congress Wednesday. On Thursday, chip stocks were hit by signs of a slowdown in orders, which some analysts blamed in part on trade. The chip selloff also raised concerns for the sector as a whole, since chip weakness is sometimes seen as an early warning for computer makers and others. "To me, it's the piling on of information coming out of the technology sector," said Paulsen. "It's something that everyone owns. It's been leading the stock market for the last three years and it's going to make you [wonder] through the weekend [whether] that's ending…People did think Apple was immune from this." Apple, in a letter to the government, said the tariffs could result in higher prices for consumers and slower U.S. growth. It said products from the Apple Watch to MacMini would be affected by the proposed tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods. But there could also be positives for Apple in the week ahead, since it is unveiling new iPhone models and other products Wednesday. Other tech companies also warned the U.S. Trade Representative that the tariffs would have negative consequences, in reports after Friday's close. Agilent said the duties would financially impede its U.S. operations and end customers in the U.S. Intel said they would hurt advancements in telecommunications infrastructure, including next generation technologies, like 5G. Dell said tariffs, including on computer parts and switches, could do "serious damage" to the company and its employees. 

While tech was beaten down, the S&P 500 fell just 0.2 percent for the week to 2,871, and the Dow, also off 0.2 percent, was at 25,916. The Nasdaq lost 2.6 percent for the week, to 7,902. "I do believe the equity market remains vulnerable to trade risks, vulnerable to this big valuation gap" between other markets and the S&P 500, said David Bianco, chief investment strategist at DWS. "Investors have to remember this will affect the profitability of U.S. companies. This is not the kind of thing that's going to cause a U.S. recession or cause S&P earnings to decline, but these are things that make the earnings estimates for the fourth quarter and next year at risk." On the inflation front, inflation has already picked up above the Fed's 2 percent target, and the core consumer price index Thursday is expected to match July's 2.4 percent pace. The Fed's preferred inflation metric, the core PCE price index was at its target 2 percent last month, and analysts expect trade issues to complicate the inflation picture. "There's a lot of things about trade wars that boost inflation," said Paulsen. The Fed is expected to raise interest rates at the end of the month, but some market pros have been skeptical that it will hike again in December, or that it will raise rates the three times it has forecast for next year. But recent inflation reports have shown a more normal pace of price pressure, and Friday's report of more normal wage growth reinforced that. For the bond market, hotter inflation data could be a lever for higher rates, but if there are more threats or actual tariffs, those could put downward pressure on yields, which move opposite price. Treasury yields jumped Friday, after the jobs data, and the 2-yearyield jumped to 2.70 percent, a 10-year high. The 10-year rose to 2.93 percent. "3 percent [on the 10-year] could happen easily…assuming the trade thing doesn't explode. That would outweigh everything else," said Michael Schumacher, director rate strategy at Wells Fargo. "The theory that more inflation means a more aggressive Fed, you'd think would translate into higher 2-year yields."

Schumacher said besides the potential for a tug-of-war in the bond market from inflation and trade news, there are $73 billion in Treasury auctions next week which could also drive yields higher. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the Treasury auctions 3- and 10-year notes and 30-year bonds. PPI inflation is reported Wednesday, CPI is Thursday, and another important economic report, retail sales is released on Friday. "I would downplay inflation risks…We don't see inflation as a problem, and I don't think the 10-year Treasury gets much above 3 percent this year, or even next year," said Bianco. But Bianco has said he believes the stock market is at risk of a shakeout. "We think the equity market is vulnerable to a five to 10 percent decline…We're expecting a deceleration in earnings growth next year. Our estimate is S&P earning growth goes from 22 percent in 2018 to six percent in 2019," he said. Bianco said he expects companies to absorb tariff costs rather than raise prices because it's unclear how long the tariffs would be in place, and that could hurt margins.

Morgan Stanley also weighed in on tariffs Friday. "The duration of conflict will be measured in quarters, not weeks," wrote Morgan Stanley chief policy strategist Michael Zezas. "This can be a market event before it's an economic event given erosion of earnings growth [and] fiscal stimulus gains. In equities, US tech, US small caps, & Asia EM are most vulnerable. In fixed-income, we like UST duration & munis, but see risk in corporate credit."