China has balked at previous agreements that it felt were too lopsided and the removal of tariffs was a top priority. Without that, this deal would appear to be less of a “phase-one” agreement and more of a “phase 0.5” deal. But assuming some semblance of an accord finally limps across the finish line, where do industrial stocks go from here?
Manufacturers bore the brunt of the initial tariff crossfire, while the uncertainty wrought by the upheaval in relations between the world’s two biggest economies has slowed customer spending to a crawl. Large manufacturers have been relatively constrained so far in their efforts to cut costs, a sign that they believe demand is being artificially restrained by the trade tensions and could bounce back meaningfully in short order. At the same time, the S&P 500 Industrial Index hit reached an all-time high on Nov. 26 and the actual slowdown in most manufacturers’ sales has been relatively shallow. Industrial distributor Fastenal Co., which sits on the front lines of any economic swings, last week said November daily sales rose 5.7% from a year earlier. That’s a deceleration from the pace of growth at the start of the year, but still relatively healthy, meaning there may not be much room to bounce higher.
It’s worth remembering that Caterpillar Inc.’s infamous warning of the “high water-mark” for profits actually came in April 2018, and its guidance at the time excluded potential impacts from increased trade restrictions. The immediately subsequent share plunge was as much a reflection of fears around cyclical peaks as it was the trade war. Since then, tariffs have obviously compounded concerns about an industrial slowdown, but there’s an argument to be made that they also added noise and distraction to a slowdown that was already in the process of happening naturally. Point being, there has been nothing normal about this industrial business cycle and the recovery from here remains a question mark.
Trade deal or not, tariff rollback or not, plenty of uncertainty still lingers. Left out of the initial agreement are any commitments around the U.S.’s primary reasons for starting this trade war in the first place, including reforms to China’s industrial subsidies, improved foreign access to certain markets and a loosening of technology-transfer requirements. If I was an industrial CEO — or head of any company, frankly, with substantial business operations in China — plan A would not be to assume the waters remain calm. This trade war will continue to unleash a rethinking of supply chains as companies try to gird against future skirmishes, and that may continue to hinder purchasing decisions. And while settlement of Brexit would be a positive development, the impeachment inquiry in the U.S. is still progressing and the 2020 presidential election looms large.
After aggressively buying rumor after rumor on the trade front, this may be a situation where industrial investors should sell the actual news.
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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