@theMarket: The 'Apprentice' Manages the Markets
Where to begin? The China trade deal, the UK elections, the impeachment of the president? Let's not forget the agreement on a new North American trade deal as well. It was a heck of a week and Donald Trump flawlessly controlled the news flow.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party leader and prime minister of England, won the greatest majority since Margaret Thatcher on Thursday evening. That is good news for the United Kingdom. His victory also supercharges hopes that a Brexit deal can finally be accomplished in 2020. The British pound skyrocketed over 3 percent on the news, and the London stock market was up 2 percent as well. Good news.
The replacement for NAFTA, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is also moving forward after over a year of negotiations between the Democrats and the White House. Environmental issues and U.S. safeguards concerning our labor force that worried the Democrats seemed to have been ironed out. Another good news development.
The next step will be for the Trump administration to submit ratifying legislation to Congress, so the new trade deal can finally be passed into law. After all the claims that NAFTA was the worst deal of the century by the president, the new deal is substantially the same as the old one. It may mean 50,000-75,000 additional jobs for the American auto sector over time, and some of our dairy producers will have a little more access to Canada. Overall, the deal, while positive, is simply another example of smoke and mirrors but should play well for both sides in the 2020 election campaign.
But the real news occurred simultaneously — the impeachment vote of the president and the on-again, off-again China trade deal. Announcements of both events occurred on Friday morning, almost at identical times. The Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee voted to proceed with the impeachment of President Donald Trump. He is only the third president in the history of our nation to be impeached. It was no accident that the House Judiciary Panel's vote was delayed until Friday morning when prime time television viewers were at their highest.
But the Apprentice was working behind the scenes. On Thursday afternoon, when the impeachment hearings at the House Judiciary Committee had reached a crescendo, Trump and his men met to ostensibly decide on whether to implement a new round of tariffs in the China trade war this weekend. Shortly thereafter, Trump once again announced (he did the same thing nine weeks ago) that a deal had been agreed to by both China and the U.S. The stock market exploded on the news and finished the day a percent higher. The event was pure theater.
Trump's strategy on Thursday, in my opinion, was to pre-empt the Judiciary Committee's televised vote on impeachment and switch the news focus back to him and to a trade deal, no matter how meaningless. But the Dems outsmarted him. They postponed the vote until Friday morning.
Wall Street (and the nation) has been snookered too many times by Trump and his tweets of misinformation and "fake" announcements on the trade deal to take anything at face value. At this point, Trump's words carry no weight, other than as a reason to move stocks up or down for a few hours. On Friday, investors were going to wait and see. There is no deal, they reasoned, until the Chinese agree, and the papers are signed.
Friday morning, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce in a press conference in Beijing, announced that there was a deal from their side. Trump confirmed the agreement a few minutes later in a tweet. Both sides said the U.S. would be rolling back the tariffs already in place over a period of time. The tariffs scheduled for Dec. 15 would also be canceled.
Investors were so busy following the trade news that hardly anyone noticed the House vote. Mission accomplished as far as the president was concerned. While the announcement is good news from a business sentiment point of view, the actual details will likely have little impact on the economy or earnings. The U.S. will still keep 25 percent tariffs on some imports and 7.5 percent on others. It does, however, give Trump another "victory" to run on in his 2020 campaign.
As for the markets, the final announcement proved to be less than bullish for the markets. Most investors saw right through the Phase One deal. As a result, markets reacted with a typical "sell on the news" event. By mid-day Friday, the markets were all down modestly. And so goes another day in this market. I still believe that we will continue to move higher into the New Year. Next year, however, may be another story.
@theMarket: Markets Broken Record
As the Dec. 15 deadline approaches, investors aren't sure whether the next tranche of tariffs on Chinese imports will be raised, lowered, or delayed. Given the importance of this event, markets are once again stuck betwixt and between.
If this sounds like a broken record on the China trade deal, you would be right. We have been here so many times before that just about everyone in the worldwide financial community is sick of it. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal, or so it would seem, because, many investors still have faith that there will be a breakthrough sometime in the next three weeks.
A senior executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Myron Brilliant, who is head of international affairs for the chamber, isn't holding out much hope. The Chinese, he believes, are adamant that all tariffs must be rolled back before a deal can be struck, while the U.S. is just as insistent that won't happen. At this point, President Trump is now threatening to increase tariffs again if the Chinese won't relent.
In addition, it's a bad time for making trade deal decisions. The president is not a happy camper at the moment and everyone in and out of the White House knows by now that emotions play a large part of his decision-making processes. The two-week long televised hearings on the impeachment inquiry, the almost-certainty that the House will vote for impeachment, and the likelihood that this circus will continue into the New Year (before it is defeated by the Republican-controlled Senate) is not, in my opinion, going to lighten his mood.
And yet the war of words continues. Friday, President Xi Jinping of China, while greeting some international visitors, including Henry Kissinger, in Beijing, said he wants to come to a phase one agreement as long as the deal is on the basis of mutual respect and equality. The markets immediately moved higher after three days of losses.
While that cheered markets for a short time, the facts are that Xi has been saying the same thing for weeks. Note the words "respect," which is short for "stop bashing us, our companies, and our handling of the Hong Kong riots, Mr. President." "Equality" to the Chinese means "the U.S. must rollback its tariffs in exchange for a phase one deal." To me, there is nothing new here, just the same old song with a slightly different beat than last week.
As I wrote last in my last column, I have been expecting some congestion in the markets. The China trade charade is simply the excuse. We are overbought and extended, so a little pullback would be a good thing. This week the profit-taking has been minuscule, with the S&P 500 Index down less than 1 percent from the highs. That doesn't mean it won't correct further, but if the majority of market participants are expecting stocks to go one way, the chances are they will go the other way.
Let's give things another week or two to shake out before we start looking for that traditional end-of-year rally. Some might say that Santa Claus has already come to Wall Street, filling our stockings with capital gains from all these double-digit returns this year. With the Fed on hold, the economy still growing (even though the rate of growth is slowing), and most analysts and economists optimistic about next year, you could see further gains in the weeks ahead, unless Trump becomes the Grinch that stole Christmas.
@theMarket: Record Highs Again & Again
It has been one of those weeks where just about every day the stock market opened lower. But by the end of the day, one or more of the three main averages would rebound and close higher, usually close to, or at a minor new high. I expect it should continue.
And as stocks grind higher, more and more equity players are calling for a minor 2-3 percent pullback. Is that something that we should even care about? My answer would be no.
We are in a news-driven market. Most investors only seem to care about the latest news on a China trade deal; that said, being out of the market appears to be riskier than being in it.
Many believe we are only one tweet away from a 5 percent upside move in the markets. Of course, we could also experience a 5 percent downdraft just as quickly, if things fall apart with China at this stage. Remember, too, that Chinese officials have also learned how to play the tweet game.
The president no longer has a monopoly on fake news. For every outlandish claim coming from the White House on a China deal, the Chinese media responds with fake news of their own. As a result, I imagine those algorithmic trading shops and their headline-driven, software computer models are having a hard time keeping up.
Of course, no one seems to care that this Phase One agreement was supposed to be a done deal a month ago. Either our deal-making president, par excellence, has been hood-winked once again by the Chinese in the negotiations, or the president is deliberately manipulating the truth to suite his own purposes. Given the president's long history of self-vaunted integrity, that might be hard to believe, but readers can make up their own mind on that point.
Given that we don't know if or even when this joke of a deal will be signed, all the markets can do is hope for better news in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, investor sentiment is being supported by the central bank Chairman, Jerome Powell.
Powell assured markets this week that the economy seemed to him to be in a good place, neither too hot nor too cold. Once again, he ignored remarks by the the president, who voiced continued disgust at Chairman Powell's refusal to obey his wishes and lower interest rates even further.
There are also some issues that have yet to be addressed. One that has received a reprieve is the budget negotiations. Set to expire on November 21, Congressional leaders have agreed to extend the budget negations for another month, until December 20th. The president, evidently chastened by last year's horrendous holiday government shutdown, has indicated he would sign a spending bill as long as it allowed for construction of his Wall.
The media's main event this week, the impeachment hearings, have been met with a great big yawn on Wall Street. The thinking among investors is that whatever the results, the chances that a vote to impeach would pass the Senate is just too small to calculate.
In a similar vein, the socialist rhetoric of some Democratic candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, is just hot air, since investors are still convinced that (barring something dreadful that happens to the economy) Donald Trump will win in 2020.
Granted, prevailing opinion can change in a heartbeat, but for now, that is how the wind is blowing. The stock market appears to be in good shape. These "tactical" calls for a pullback would suit me just fine, if it were to occur. A minor dip in the markets would be just the excuse I would need to advise adding more equity to portfolios.
@theMarket: Phase One Deal Keeps Markets Bullish
It was all about the trade deal this week. Both sides seem to want a resolution to the crippling tariffs that have sent the world's economies to the brink of recession. The relief that investors feel is reflected in the new highs we are enjoying at the moment.
I say "at the moment" because anything can change with a tweet. However, given the mounting problems of the Trump presidency, I believe he needs something positive (and fairly soon) to divert the nation's attention away from the impeachment hearings next week.
Trump appears willing to drop, or at least roll back, some (or all) of the tariffs he put in place, but he can't be seen as too "soft" in the negotiations. That's why it was no surprise that on Friday Trump tweeted that he still has not agreed to grant tariff relief to the China, a sticking point in the negotiations. That took some wind out of the market's sails, but I see it as just more of the same Trump tactics that have become increasingly obvious and predictable.
And if I see it, so does China. From their point of view, why not sign a deal? They expect to get everything they want and nothing they don't want. China will allow more financial services companies to set up there, but they were already planning on that before the tariff war. They also get to import all the agricultural products they need, but U.S. farmers will only increase exports back to the level they were before the trade war. At the same time, the Chinese remain steadfast in not giving in to anything more despite Trump's demands and threats over the last two years.
What, you may ask, was the purpose of all this bravado, these tariffs, and such? The administration will say that this is "only" Phase One. The real substantive issues will be tackled "later." No one has issued a timetable on Phase 2 or, if there is one, a Phase 3. China is not giving any indication that they are ready to do more than they have already agreed upon.
If it were any other politician but Donald Trump, I would say that further progress on a comprehensive trade deal (that would truly benefit the U.S.) would be tied to the 2020 election results. In the meantime, the president can stump the country, claiming a trade deal victory.
Only the fake news could possibly see this Phase One for what it might be — simply a way to keep the suffering farmers and ranchers within the president's base from flying the coop come next November. But, as we all know, our president is not a politician. Our president is an honest, truthful man that is simply misunderstood by the majority of Americans.
And China is not the only country that may see some relief from American tariff threats. The president has until Nov. 13 (his self-imposed deadline) to decide whether he will levy additional tariffs on European autos. You see, the president believes that EU auto imports to the U.S. pose a serious security threat. But I'm betting that won't happen. I would expect a surprise announcement to coincide with the televised impeachment hearings next week. As for the security threat, well, that was then, and this is now, right?
Where do the markets go from here? I remain bullish, possibly through the end of the year. Saying that, however, I believe we are overdue for a minor pullback of 3-5 percent or so, but it would be a dip to buy, not to sell.
@theMarket: Will Record Highs Beget Record Highs?
As third-quarter earnings wind down, the Fed cut interest rates again this week. Since both events seemingly matched investor expectations, what, then, will investors worry about in the coming months?
As predicted, the S&P 500 Index hit a modest new high this week based on the central bank's one quarter-point cut of the short-term Federal Funds interest rate on Wednesday. Robust earnings from certain favored companies, like Apple and Facebook, also helped sentiment and so the averages ground higher.
"You would think," said one miffed investor, "that after two years trapped in a trading range, we would have had a little more enthusiasm over this break-out."
Instead, traders simply took it in stride and actually took profits. One reason for the lack of enthusiasm could have been that investor sentiment was already bullish. The averages simply confirmed what we all expected would happen. Investor sentiment seems to confirm that.
The U.S. Advisors Sentiment indicators released this week had market bulls pegged at 54.2 percent versus 52.8 percent last week. From a contrarian point of view, any reading above 50 percent should invoke some caution among the trading crowd. At the same time, the number of pros who are expecting a market correction declined to 28 percent from 29.3 percent. Readings under 30 percent also signal a more cautious approach to the markets.
On the plus side for the markets, we are now over the September-October period when stocks usually do their worst. November through January is normally the best of the best months for positive stock market performance. The question is whether historical data matters at all, given markets where politics mean more than fundamentals.
The trade war, in my opinion, will continue to cast a sobering shadow over the stock markets in the months ahead. As readers are aware, I thought this "skinny" deal between China and the U.S. was a joke. It seems that more investors are now realizing the same thing. The president's latest "phase one trade deal" is much more a public relations stunt and less a meaningful breakthrough. The Chinese seem to agree.
The hope of signing even this paltry deal has now been postponed, since Chile canceled the upcoming November conference (due to political unrest) where Xi and Trump were supposed to meet, greet and sign the deal. Investors worry and wonder whether any deal will be signed at all. In my opinion, it is simply more of the same drama we have been putting up with for the last two years.
Thursday, for example, "unnamed officials" in China let it be known that they did not hold out much hope that any substantive deal with Trump would ever be signed. The markets dropped immediately. So, what's next? We should expect either Trump (through tweets or an impromptu Q&A with the fake news) or some administrative official (it is usually former CNBC fake newsman, Larry Kudlow) to run out and to assure us all that everything is just perfect, that the economy is great, that negotiations are going better than expected, yada, yada, yada.
It comes down to this: investors and the nation are ping pong balls in this global trade game. How you deal with that depends on your level of cynicism. Should you believe those "no good Chinese," or in the honesty and sincerity of the self-described "greatest president in the history of the United States?"
Aside from that drama, we have the impeachment inquiry that is heating up and coming to the attention of more and more Americans. I expect that Trump, in an effort to strike back at the Democrats and change the focus of the nation away from impeachment, may create a confrontation with the outcome being a possible government shutdown later this month. I warned readers in my column last week that there is a high probability that the president will use funding for his wall as a pretext to shut down the government once again -- just in time for Thanksgiving.