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Investment Ideas Impact of trade tensions on U.S. markets set to become clearer

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on April 20. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

BRENDAN MCDERMID/Reuters

The potential for an intensifying trade dispute to undercut the U.S. stock market could become clearer next week when a host of multinational companies reports quarterly results that may provide a glimpse into the impact of those global tensions.

A broad trade war scaled up a list of worries for Corporate America and equity investors after U.S. President Donald Trump imposed tariffs last month on imports of steel and aluminum. His comments and posts on Twitter about unfair behavior by U.S. trade partners have rattled the market, which has pulled back from record highs early this year.

China has responded with tariffs of its own, leading to fears about a full-blown trade war and injecting fresh volatility into a stock market that has been more jittery over the past two months.

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Of 25 U.S. companies seen by Credit Suisse as most exposed to a trade war, more than half will report their results in the coming week. They include Halliburton Co on Monday, 3M Co and Texas Instruments Inc on Tuesday, Boeing Co on Wednesday, Intel Corp on Thursday and Chevron Corp on Friday.

Overall, more than 180 companies in the benchmark S&P 500 index are due to report results next week. Some companies have already weighed in on trade tensions in the early stages of earnings season.

“Management has to walk a fine line between flapping their arms and lobbying against tariffs, and presenting themselves as vulnerable to tariffs,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors in Chicago.

Of particular concern will be executives’ views about their exposure to China, the world’s No. 2 economy and an important market for many U.S. companies.

“I’d like to know if things do deteriorate with China, how much it would affect them,” said David Joy, chief market strategist at Ameriprise in Boston.

Omar Aguilar, chief investment officer of equities at Charles Schwab Investment Management in San Francisco, said he expects companies to start discussing how they may alter their budget for capital expenditure “depending on the outlook of policies related to trade.”

Company comments about tariffs and trade could blemish what is expected otherwise to be a stellar earnings season, which includes the first full quarter with the recently passed U.S. corporate tax cuts. With 87 companies having reported so far, S&P 500 profits in the first quarter are expected to have increased a whopping 20 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

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With investors focused on earnings, the S&P 500 was set to rise by almost 1 percent for the week, but the benchmark index is little changed from where it ended 2017.

Trade tensions cast a shadow on an otherwise rosy report about U.S. economic growth from the U.S. Federal Reserve this week.

In the latest “Beige Book,” the Fed’s periodic summary of contacts with businesses, the words “tariff” or “tariffs” were mentioned 36 times, compared to zero mentions in the March 7 Beige Book.

“Contacts in various sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation expressed concern about the newly imposed and/or proposed tariffs,” according to the report, which covered the period from March to early April.

Martin Anstice, the chief executive of Lam Research , said this week that the chip equipment maker had yet to see an impact on its business from tariffs, but was watching for any dampening of consumer confidence or changes to domestic equipment company agendas.

“If things got a little bit tit-for-tat, then there are obviously risks at a minimum that we need to be attentive to,” Anstice told analysts on a conference call.

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Honeywell Chief Financial Officer Tom Szlosek called the China tariffs “a fluid situation,” and that the diversified industrial manufacturer was assessing its exposure “while also actively developing mitigation plans.”

Any trade war would erode economic growth and affect its business, said Hamid Moghadam, CEO of Prologis Inc, a real estate company specializing in warehouses, but he added that “I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

“All of our customers that I’m aware of have basically had their head down doing their business and not paying too much attention to what comes out in the tweets in the morning until there’s something specific they can react to,” Moghadam said on his company’s call.

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