Markets That Climbed the Trump Bump Are Tumbling Down From It

Posted April 2, 2018 11:14 p.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2018 11:18 p.m. EDT

The Trump Bump is becoming the Trump Slump.

In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, ebullient investors propelled stock markets to one record high after another. And Trump was the bull-in-chief, celebrating the record-breaking march as validation of his economic policies.

Those days are done.

Even after a fast start to 2018, stock markets finished the first quarter down for the year — the first quarterly decline since 2015. It suggested that a period of calm and steadily rising markets had given way to a turbulent new era with a bearish bent.

The plunge continued Monday, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 index sinking 2.2 percent. Investors jettisoned shares of financial, technology and many other businesses, spooked at least in part by a tweet from Trump aimed at one of the country’s biggest companies: Amazon.

Asian markets fell more modestly in early Tuesday trading.

Monday’s decline left stocks down more than 4 percent so far in 2018. They are now down more than 10 percent from their peak in late January. That means the market has entered a correction — a term used to indicate that the downward trend is more severe and lasting than simply a few days of bearish trading.

The stock market is still up more than 20 percent since Nov. 8, 2016, the day Trump won the White House — a roller-coaster ride driven in part by expectations about what a Trump presidency could bring to Washington.

At first, the prospect of Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress thrilled investors. They anticipated a wave of regulatory rollbacks and the slashing of corporate and personal tax rates. Many of those dreams have been realized, culminating in Trump signing a huge tax cut into law in December. When the S&P 500 notched its high-water mark of 2872.87 on Jan. 26, it represented a roughly 325 percent increase since the bull market began in March 2009.

But since February, a toxic stew of factors — many but certainly not all of them emanating from Washington — has polluted what had been the market’s placidly rising waters. And there’s little prospect of the messes dissipating anytime soon.

First there was the risk that the economy might be growing too fast, which could prompt central banks to hike interest rates sooner than expected. Then there was the risk of a trade war ignited by the White House imposing tariffs on certain products, an action that quickly prompted countries like China to erect trade barriers of their own. Next came the threat of a government crackdown on technology companies, after revelations of their misuse of customer data.

Monday’s dose of unnerving news was a presidential tweet aimed at Amazon, which Trump accused of hurting the United States Postal Service. Trump’s feud with the company has been going on sporadically since before he became president, but the onslaught has accelerated lately. On Monday, Trump tweeted that the Post Office loses money by working with Amazon “and this will be changed.”

In the face of these factors, the optimism of just two months ago has all but evaporated.

“It certainly adds to uncertainty, and the market doesn’t like uncertainty,” said Ed Clissold, chief U.S. strategist at Ned Davis Research, a stock market research firm.

One thing is clear: The days of calm markets marching steadily higher, shattering one record after another, are gone for now. That carries risks for Trump, who spent the first year of his presidency as a stock-market cheerleader but in recent months has been mostly silent about the market’s gyrations.

It also could be a danger for the U.S. economy. Academic research suggests that long-term market declines can rub off on consumers, leading them to feel less affluent and therefore spend less money. That is bad news for an economy that hinges largely on zesty consumer spending.

The market’s decline over the past two months has been broad based. Six of the 11 sectors included in the S&P 500 index are down more than 10 percent from the market high in late January.

On any given day, a particular sector might be clobbered. One day it could be industrial companies such as Boeing or Caterpillar, which export lots of products and therefore could be harmed in a trade war. Another day could bring declines to technology companies like Facebook and Twitter, whose profits are vulnerable to tougher government regulation of social media networks. The next day it could be energy and financial companies, whose fortunes would be diminished if the economy slows.

On Monday, just 13 stocks in the S&P 500 rose. The meat producer Tyson dropped more than 6 percent, after China imposed duties on pork and fruit from the United States in response to the tariffs that the Trump administration has imposed on products imported from China. China is one of Tyson’s most important export markets. Lean hog futures — which reflect the anticipated prices of pig carcasses — were down 3.9 percent.

After Trump’s complaint about Amazon, it too, was a big loser, falling 5.2 percent. Other giant tech firms were sucked into the downdraft. Microsoft dropped 3 percent. Facebook tumbled 2.8 percent, bringing its year-to-date decline to 14.4 percent. And Intel dove 6 percent after a Bloomberg News report that Apple was planning to use its own chips in its computers instead of Intel processors.

And Tesla, reeling amid doubts about its ability to churn out electric vehicles, tumbled more than 5 percent.

The tech sector has been the epicenter the stock market pain in recent weeks, hurt by concerns about trade friction with China — a key market and supplier for tech firms — and fears of tighter government regulation. Even before Monday’s fall, some $457 billion had been wiped off the sector’s total market value.

“People think that tech is going to go from the Wild West to a much more regulated, scrutinized environment,” said Dan Suzuki, an equity strategist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Even the shares of financial institutions — the companies that would most likely benefit from a looser regulatory environment favored by Republicans — have been battered. The sector dropped 2.1 percent Monday, with investors worried about an unfavorable lending environment.

For markets, nothing is for sure. They could rebound mightily later this week and shake off jitters about a trade war. But some observers believe conditions may have to get worse before they can get better — and there could be more declines before that happens.

“In order for the market to bottom, there probably has to be more consternation and more pessimism about the current environment,” Clissold said.