Markets are starting to heat up, with an equity sell-off this week and the realization from markets that the new, elevated 10-year yield levels above 3 percent are really here to stay. In the midst of all that activity, we are still discussing trade policy, as it is starting to increasingly creep into business conversations.
Of course, trade has been a hot topic for a while. But what we are seeing more of these days is a resignation that trade conflicts are not going away anytime soon — and businesses need to start adjusting to a longer period of uncertainty than what they had hoped for.
One example of that is PPG Industries, a Fortune 500 company based in Pittsburgh that supplies paints, coatings and specialty materials for manufacturing globally. Early this week, the company warned investors that it is being hit from many sides - high raw materials prices, logistics, currency movements and softening demand from China. In one form or another, you can trace these struggles back to many of the issues going on with trade policy.
When you combine many of the events of the last few weeks — the announcement about the USMCA (new version of NAFTA), Vice President Mike Pence's recent speech critical of China — it becomes clearer that businesses are struggling to make plans amidst so much uncertainty.
This is what makes the upcoming earnings season a critical one for markets. We have been seeing hints in corporate statements that tariffs and trade barriers are having an impact, but with each passing quarter we will continue to get more detail about how companies are handling these issues.
One interesting angle is how companies have used the benefit from lower taxes in the wake of last year's tax reform legislation. There was a spate of high visibility, one-off bonuses and other employee benefits, and many companies used the windfall to pay off debt. A lot of the benefit has actually gone to stock buybacks, while relatively little of the money has gone to build new factories or other fixed-asset investments.
Is the reason for this limited fixed-asset investment attributable to uncertainty around exactly how to best deploy such financial capital? Maybe. It goes to show that the outcome of the trade wars are a critical factor in terms of moving American business forward.
My View: The world just got a lot more complex, with uncertainty on all sides: higher interest rates, more equity market volatility and higher commodity prices. The only certainty we have about trade is that we know it's a long process.
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