Two of the world’s largest economies, Germany and the United Kingdom, appear to be contracting even as the latter forges ahead with plans to leave the European Union. Growth also has slowed in China, which is in a bitter trade feud with the United States. Meanwhile, Argentina’s stock market fell nearly 50 percent earlier this week after its incumbent president was defeated by a left-wing opponent.
Whether the events presage an economic calamity or just an alarming spasm are unclear. But unlike during the Great Recession, global leaders are not working in unison to confront mounting problems and arrest the slowdown. Instead, they are increasingly at one another’s throats.
And President Trump has responded by both claiming the economy is still thriving while dramatically ramping up his attacks on Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell, seeking to deflect blame.
Wednesday’s sharp sell-off was caused by an unusual development in the bond market, called an “inverted yield curve,” that often foreshadows a recession.
For the first time since the run-up to the Great Recession, the yields — or returns — on short-term U.S. bonds eclipsed those of long-term bonds. Normally, the government needs to pay out higher rates to attract investors for its long-term bonds. But with so many losing confidence in the near-term prospects of the economy and rushing to buy longer-term bonds, the U.S. government now is paying more to attract buyers to its 2-year bond than its 10-year note.
This phenomenon, which suggests investor faith in the economy is faltering, has preceded every recession in the past 50 years.
“The stars are aligned across the curve that the economy is headed for a big fall,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank. “The yield curves are all crying timber that a recession is almost a reality, and investors are tripping over themselves to get out of the way.”
It’s the latest in a string of worrisome news about the U.S. economy. The government is expected to spend roughly $1 trillion more than it brings in through revenue this year, adding to a ballooning deficit. Business investment has begun to contract — largely because of the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s trade war — and manufacturing hiring has receded. The big hiring and investment announcements that piled up at the beginning of the Trump administration have ceased, as have the announcements of bonuses and pay increases that came after a tax cut law was passed in 2017.
Several White House officials have become concerned that the economy is weakening faster than expected, but they are not working on proactive plans to change its course. The Treasury Department has had an exodus of senior advisers in recent months, and the White House just announced a replacement for its chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Instead of rolling out new policies, Trump and other top aides have escalated their attacks on the Federal Reserve, trying to pin much of the United States’ problems on what Trump alleges is elevated interest rates that are strangling growth.
In a series of Twitter posts on Wednesday, Trump appeared to try to calm investors while also unloading vicious language aimed at Powell, whom he nominated in late 2017.
“China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping,” Trump wrote. “Our problem is with the Fed. Raised too much & too fast. Now too slow to cut...Spread is way too much as other countries say THANK YOU to clueless Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve. Germany, and many others, are playing the game! CRAZY INVERTED YIELD CURVE! We should easily be reaping big Rewards & Gains, but the Fed is holding us back. We will Win!”
The Twitter posts reflected a growing anxiety within the White House about problems in the economy, which many advisers believe will determine whether the president wins reelection. Just a few hours earlier, Trump offered a contradictory assessment, saying the inverted yield curve was a good sign because there was “Tremendous amounts of money pouring into the United States. People want safety!”
In the past, Democrats and Republicans in control of the White House have scrambled when there were signs of an economic downturn, worried about the political fallout. They would meet and consult with Congress about ways to protect the economy or advance some kind of economic stimulus, either through tax cuts or spending increases.
But the Trump administration has already cut taxes and boosted spending, and there appears to be little political appetite to do more of either this year or next. White House officials have discussed a plan to make changes to the way capital gains taxes are levied, but that would only affect certain investors and already has faced criticism from Democrats as being a boon to the rich.
Complicating matters, a number of investors and foreign leaders have blamed Trump’s trade war for causing the contraction in business investment and forcing companies to pull back, an accusation that has caught White House advisers off guard.
The U.S. economy has shown signs of weakening in recent months, but high levels of consumer spending in the United States have helped enormously. Still, the escalating trade war between Trump and Chinese leaders has stopped many businesses from investing. And there are signs that the large tariffs he has placed on many Chinese imports is costing U.S. businesses and consumers billions of dollars.
In a rare admission of the economic consequences of his adversarial trade approach, Trump on Tuesday announced he was delaying many of the tariffs he had promised on cellphones and laptop computers until Dec. 15. That announcement brought the stock market up sharply higher on Tuesday,
Some of the tariffs on the remaining $300 billion in Chinese goods will still go into effect Sept. 1 as planned, while the items covered under the delay won’t be affected by tariffs until Dec. 15. “Just in case they might have an impact on people, what we’ve done is delayed it so they won’t be relevant for the Christmas shopping season,” Trump told reporters Tuesday.
It was the first time Trump has publicly acknowledged that American people and businesses bear some of the burden from his tariffs.
The delay offered a glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim outlook in U.S.-China trade policy and was announced after a phone call between trade negotiators, which Trump lauded as productive. Chinese officials are planning to come to the United States in September to continue talks.
“The delay impacts around half of the $300 billion of imports and quite clearly focuses on popular consumer products that could have made the Christmas shopping period a lot more expensive for American consumers,” Craig Erlam, an analyst with OANDA, wrote in a note to investors Wednesday. “Trump’s decision to protect consumer’s from tariffs in such an important period makes a lot of sense, but it also recognizes that 2020 could become much more expensive for them if progress is not made.”
Wednesday’s stock session, however, quickly wiped all of Tuesday’s gains, amid fears about the inverted yield curve.
The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, a broader measure of stocks, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index both sank about 3 percent, matching the losses experienced by the Dow. Nearly all market sectors were in the red Wednesday, with energy, consumer staples and financial services leading the way.
Darkening skies overseas gave investors more to worry about. New data indicated Germany was slipping into recession, with the country’s economy shrinking 0.1 percent between April and June. If it experiences another contraction during this quarter, Germany officially would meet the definition of a recession. Officials blamed the drop-off on the U.S.-China trade war and the looming threat of a hard Brexit by Britain. On Wednesday, nervous investors also inverted the yield curve on British government bonds.
Argentina’s stock market plummeted 48 percent on Monday and then fell further this week, after incumbent President Mauricio Macri was defeated by a left-wing rival by a surprisingly wide margin.
Meanwhile, China is grappling with massive protests in Hong Kong, a key financial center in Asia. On Wednesday, China also reported more signs of a weakening economy, with factory output falling to a 17-year low and high unemployment. Many analysts said the country is feeling the consequences of the trade war with the United States.
“The big concern is around trade,” said Dan Ivascyn, group chief investment officer at Pimco. “The longer we remain in limbo, the more damage to the global economy.”