Markets try to weigh behind-the-scenes pragmatism against public saber-rattling on trade.

When the two biggest economies in the world go head-to-head on trade, no one should be surprised that financial markets don’t like it.

The short week just gone was one of volatile consolidation, after the previous five sessions posted equity-market losses on a scale not seen since the winter of 2016. During the week ending on March 23, the S&P 500 Index plummeted by almost 6% and the export-driven Japanese Topix and German DAX indices were down around 6% and 4%, respectively.

Noisier and More Public

As Erik Knutzen noted in last week’s Perspectives, a lot has been going on. Investors sold big-tech stocks as the data-security scandal broke around Facebook. The G20 meeting passed with little more to buttress global trade than a weak statement about recognizing “the need for further dialogue and actions.” China wrapped up its National People’s Congress (NPC). The new Fed chairman made his debut with the press. The latest Flash Purchasing Managers’ Indices disappointed. And on Thursday, President Donald Trump set the tone for last week by announcing plans for tariffs on some $60 billion worth of Chinese imports.

I happened to be visiting our offices in China as all this unfolded. My colleague, our Head of China Equities, Bin Yu, was sanguine. As he pointed out, exports have only modestly featured in China’s GDP growth since 2012, contributing just 0.6 percentage points last year. Data from the China International Capital Corporation (CICC) indicate that the direct U.S. revenue exposure of listed Chinese companies is just 5%. Outside of specific areas such as the Apple supply chain, China equities appear likely to suffer little impact, in his view. It is notable that the Shanghai Composite Index has declined less sharply recently than U.S., European and Japanese equity markets.

It is also possible that what we are seeing now is just a noisier, more public version of the give and take that has always characterized U.S. – China economic relations. Two important decision-makers for China’s economy, the Harvard-educated Vice Premier Liu He and Vice President Wang Qishan, appear to be taking a pragmatic, globalist approach. Both leaders are well known in the West and quite experienced on the global stage.

Li Keqiang, the current Premier, somewhat anticipated President Trump’s announcement when he said, during the NPC, that “there are no winners in a trade war.” In addition, the People’s Bank of China announced a faster pace to financial reform and liberalization. By the middle of last week, U.S. officials were toning down the trade-war talk and looking for a deal to avoid tariffs. In the wake of all the media coverage and talk of trade wars, the U.S. and South Korea actually shook hands on changes to their own bilateral trade agreement.

A Motivating Theme in Markets

Even if all this goes to plan, trade tensions are unlikely to ease in the near term. There is no guarantee of Chinese pragmatism. Furthermore, the U.S. and Mexico are in the middle of talks on changes to NAFTA. Complicating matters in Mexico is a Presidential election scheduled for July. The leading candidate, with 38% of popular support in the latest poll and ahead by eight percentage points, is Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He is much more skeptical of NAFTA than the incumbent, Enrique Peña Nieto, and has threatened to put Donald Trump “in his place” and the “Mexican people first.” With a large part of the electorate apparently undecided, there is a lot of uncertainty south of the U.S. border.

The rising tide of economic nationalism is likely to be a motivating theme in markets for the foreseeable future. There is scope for behind-the-scenes pragmatism while sabers get rattled in public, and that is probably the most likely outcome. But the fact is that when sabers get rattled, blood sometimes gets spilled.

Joseph V. Amato is President of Neuberger Berman Group LLC and Chief Investment Officer—Equities at Neuberger Berman. He is also a member of the firm’s Board of Directors and its Audit Committee. To learn more, see Mr. Amato's bio or visit

In Case You Missed It

  • U.S. Consumer Confidence:  -2.3 to 127.7 in March
  • Case-Shiller Home Prices:  January home prices increased 0.3% month-over-month and increased 6.4% year-over-year (NSA); +0.8% month-over-month (SA)
  • U.S. 4Q17 GPD (final):  +2.9% annualized rate
  • U.S. Personal Income and Outlays:  Personal spending increased 0.2%, income increased 0.4%, and the savings rate decreased to 3.4% in February

What to Watch For

  • Monday, 4/2:
    • ISM Manufacturing Index
  • Tuesday, 4/3:
    • Japan Purchasing Manager Index
  • Wednesday, 4/4:
    • ISM Non-Manufacturing Index
    • U.S. Durable Goods Orders
    • Euro Zone Consumer Price Index
  • Thursday, 4/5:
    • Euro Zone Purchasing Manager Index
  • Friday, 4/6:
    • U.S. Employment Report

– Andrew White, Investment Strategy Group

Statistics on the Current State of the Market – as of March 29, 2018

Market Index WTD MTD YTD
S&P 500 Index 2.1% -2.5% -0.8%
Russell 1000 Index 2.0% -2.3% -0.7%
Russell 1000 Growth Index 1.6% -2.7% 1.4%
Russell 1000 Value Index 2.5% -1.8% -2.8%
Russell 2000 Index 1.3% 1.3% -0.1%
MSCI World Index 1.6% -2.1% -1.2%
MSCI EAFE Index 1.1% -1.7% -1.4%
MSCI Emerging Markets Index 0.0% -1.8% 1.5%
STOXX Europe 600 0.9% -1.2% -1.8%
FTSE 100 Index 2.0% -2.0% -7.2%
TOPIX 4.0% -2.0% -4.7%
CSI 300 Index -0.3% -3.2% -3.4%
Fixed Income & Currency      
Citigroup 2-Year Treasury Index 0.0% 0.2% -0.1%
Citigroup 10-Year Treasury Index 0.8% 1.3% -2.4%
Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index 0.3% 0.4% -1.1%
Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index 0.5% 0.6% -1.5%
Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index -0.1% 1.1% 1.4%
S&P/LSTA U.S. Leveraged Loan 100 Index 0.0% 0.3% 1.4%
ICE BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Index 0.1% -0.6% -0.9%
ICE BofA Merrill Lynch Global High Yield Index 0.0% -0.3% -0.2%
JP Morgan EMBI Global Diversified Index 0.8% 0.3% -1.7%
JP Morgan GBI-EM Global Diversified Index 0.6% 1.0% 4.4%
U.S. Dollar per British Pounds -0.9% 1.8% 3.7%
U.S. Dollar per Euro -0.5% 0.8% 2.4%
U.S. Dollar per Japanese Yen -1.4% 0.3% 5.9%
Real & Alternative Assets      
Alerian MLP Index 0.5% -6.9% -11.1%
FTSE EPRA/NAREIT North America Index 4.0% 3.7% -7.5%
FTSE EPRA/NAREIT Global Index 2.2% 2.4% -3.3%
Bloomberg Commodity Index 0.1% -0.6% -0.4%
Gold (NYM $/ozt) Continuous Future -1.7% 0.7% 1.4%
Crude Oil (NYM $/bbl) Continuous Future -1.4% 5.4% 7.5%

Source: FactSet, Neuberger Berman.