THE TICKER

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and stock market investors appear desperate for the same thing. 

Yet investors relearned Thursday that trade peace with China is still easier claimed than secured. 

The lesson came via a meta moment: Markets spiked after the Wall Street Journal reported Mnuchin is pushing to ratchet back tariffs on Chinese imports, in part to oblige markets. 

But the former Goldman Sachs executive is running into predictable resistance from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — a fact laid out in the third paragraph of the Journal story. In a mini-rally that lasted all of 13 minutes, the Dow Jones industrial average surged more than 1 percent. The index gave back most of those gains almost as fast, then drifted back up to close up about .6 percent on the day. 

“People have been looking for a reason to continue to buy the market,” says Brian Belski, chief investment strategist at BMO Capital Markets. “This has been a doubted rally. People have been waiting for some sort of news out of China.”

Indeed, the Dow has gained nearly 12 percent since it bottomed out the day before Christmas. But it is down nearly 6 percent since Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in early December to open a 90-day negotiation aimed at averting new trade hostilities. Investors still look to be pricing in a belief those talks won’t produce a ceasefire in time to head off a major escalation in tariff rates, from 10 to 25 percent, on March 1.

“From our standpoint, we think a deal is going to get done sooner rather than later. We need some good news out of China, especially with the government shutdown,” Belski says. But the market broadly is still in a “fire, aim, ready cycle of investing … It speaks to the behavior on Wall Street, that nobody wants to miss anything. This reactive buying and selling is troublesome.”

It could also help secure a trade deal, to the extent it demonstrates to President Trump that markets remain highly sensitive to trade war headlines — and ready to rally on any evidence of a breakthrough. 

From AEI’s Jim Pethokoukis: 

There’s still no evidence of concrete progress in the U.S.-China talks. “In past China discussions, Mr. Trump has sided with Mr. Lighthizer on tariffs, rather than Mr. Mnuchin. But this time, the president has made clear he wants a deal—and is pressing Mr. Lighthizer to deliver one, according to people familiar with the discussions,” the Journal’s Bob Davis and Lingling Wei reported. A senior administration official told CNBC, however, that “there's no discussion of lifting tariffs now,” and a Treasury spokesman said the talks are “nowhere near completion."

And some questioned the logic of the Trump administration loosening screws it applied to force major reforms from the Chinese before they have agreed to anything. 

From Matthew Klein, of Barrons: 

From longtime China watcher Bill Bishop: 

From Silvercrest Asset Management chief strategist Patrick Chovanec: 

Investors eager for a deal did see one solid development yesterday. China’s economic czar, Vice Premiere Liu He, will be heading to Washington for talks with Lighthizer on Jan.30 and 31.

That type of engagement suggests a new level of seriousness. It also means both sides will be digging into some of the tougher issues still dividing them, including U.S. demands that Beijing back off support for intellectual property theft and other abusive trade practices. 

TRUMP TRACKER

MELTDOWN WATCH: 

BUZZFEED BOMBSHELL: Trump reportedly directed Cohen to lie to Congress:  "Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter," Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier of the site report. "Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. 'Make it happen,' the sources said Trump told Cohen."

Mueller already knew: "The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office."

Mulitple Congressional Democrats are already pledging to investigate — and possibly move to impeach Trump — as a result. 

From Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which would take the lead on impeachment:

From House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) 

From Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.): 

MONEY ON THE HILL

Trump, Pelosi standoff deepens as shutdown grinds on. The Post's Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey: "The State Department ordered its employees to return to work next week, saying it has found money to cover a half-month in salary, as the Trump administration continued to grapple with a federal shutdown that shows no sign of ending. The unexpected yet temporary move came on a day when the White House and congressional Democrats halted even the pretense of negotiations.

"The political acrimony between [Trump] and Democratic leaders reached new levels, worrying members of both parties that the chance of a near-term resolution has moved far out of reach. Trump on Thursday sent Pelosi a letter informing her he was canceling her imminent flight to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This came one day after Pelosi suggested that Trump postpone his State of the Union address or present it in written form."

Trump cancels Davos delegation. More from The Post: "Facing his own questions about plans to send a delegation of top officials to Davos, Switzerland, next week for the World Economic Forum, Trump late Thursday announced he would scrap the trip '[o]ut of consideration for the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay.' Trump himself dropped out of the conference earlier this month but had planned to send top officials, including [Mnuchin] and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo."

Chaos continues to spread. "The political standoff is leading to turmoil throughout the federal government, in thousands of households and in pockets of the economy, prompting frantic calls from families and business groups looking for short-term assistance. The TSA acknowledged Thursday that the lengthy shutdown had affected its employees’ ability to come to work, with many calling in sick... And some agencies have had to deal with small-scale rebellions among the employees they are requiring to continue showing up for work."

Mnuchin declines to testify. Reuters: "Mnuchin on Thursday declined a request by the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives tax committee to testify next week about the partial government shutdown’s impact on the upcoming federal tax filing season. In a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, the Treasury Department offered to send senior officials 'who are most knowledgeable' about the department’s plans during the shutdown."

Next week's New Yorker cover: 

Gridlock
The agency detailed the impact of the federal government shutdown in a letter to the region's U.S. senators. Average daily ridership is down 16 percent; Metrobus ridership is down 8 percent, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said.
Faiz Siddiqui
MARKET MOVERS

 — Shutdown starts to rattle investors. Bloomberg’s Reade Pickert: “A growing group of analysts and investors is warning that the U.S. government shutdown could soon hurt stocks. Already confronting an increase in volatility, an uncertain outlook for interest rates and a trade war that threatens to damp global growth, traders now have to factor in the economic effects of the partial closure… There are already some nascent signs of market impact from the shutdown, with an index of airline shares underperforming broader gauges amid concerns that slowdowns in airport screenings will hurt demand for tickets.”

Economic expectations now singing the shutdown blues. Bloomberg’s Chibuike Oguh: “U.S. consumers this month were the most downbeat on the economy since November 2016, a third straight drop after expectations reached a 16-year high just three months earlier, as the partial government shutdown wears on toward a fourth week. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index’s monthly expectations gauge fell for a third month to 44.5 in January as more respondents said the U.S. economy is getting worse, according to a report on Thursday. Meanwhile, the weekly comfort measure declined to a four-month low of 58.1 as sentiment on the buying climate fell to its lowest since November.”

— Morgan Stanley’s rough quarter raises eyebrows. CNBC’s Hugh Son: Banks’ trading desks ended 2018 with a whimper – and nowhere as much as at Morgan Stanley. The New York-based firm had the worst bond trading performance among the big five Wall Street investment banks, a precipitous 30 percent decline to $564 million. It was one of the most meager hauls since Morgan Stanley revamped the struggling business at the end of 2015, prompting a flurry of questions from analysts. … After the 2008 crisis reordered the banking world, Wall Street firms sought to reduce the volatility of results across trading and advisory businesses. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, where trading still makes up a bigger slice of revenue than peers, have sought new sources of revenue in consumer banking or wealth management. But the sharp declines in December showed that, while they’ve made progress, banks are still exposed to the whims of the market.

May makes no progress on Brexit. FT's Jim Pickard and co.: "Theresa May’s talks with opposition parties about a Brexit plan B descended into acrimony on Thursday after she told MPs she could not make substantial changes to her existing plan despite it being overwhelmingly rejected by the Commons. Smaller opposition parties who attended talks with Mrs May were left bewildered after Downing Street made clear it would resist demands to shift towards a softer form of Brexit following MPs’ emphatic vote against her withdrawal agreement on Tuesday. Following a separate defeat at the hands of MPs this month, Mrs May is obliged to outline a Brexit plan B on Monday, but a Commons vote on it will not take place until January 29 — two months before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU."

Popular definitions for “bear markets” aren’t scientifically based, the economist Robert Shiller says, yet they can contribute to downward spirals.
Robert Shiller, in the NYT

TRADE FLY-AROUND:

— China’s soybean slowdown is bad news for American farmers. CNBC’s Tom DiChristopher: “China’s soybean imports in the opening weeks of 2019 have plunged from recent years, raising concerns for American farmers who were hoping that a trade deal would offer swift relief. Soybean shipments offloaded in China this year are down about 37 percent from the first two weeks of 2018, according to tanker-tracking firm ClipperData. To be sure, a couple weeks of data represent a small sample size, but the drop is very concerning in light of market conditions and trade tensions …  The faltering imports are a major red flag for demand. Meanwhile, the world’s top three soybean suppliers — the United States, Brazil and Argentina — have all produced sizable crops.”

— No, China isn’t “paying” Trump’s tariffs. Bloomberg’s Mark Niquette: “Trump is right to say that his tariffs are generating billions of dollars for the U.S. But China and other countries aren’t paying them as he’s suggested. … more than $13 billion in duties imposed by the Trump administration were assessed on imported goods as of Dec. 18. Actual collections could lag and be lower because of refunds and other factors, but Treasury Department reports show receipts from all customs duties have risen sharply since the tariffs took effect. While Trump has suggested on Twitter and in public comments that tariffs are somehow being charged to or paid by China and other countries, trade economists say that’s generally misleading. U.S. importers of record are responsible for the duties, and ultimately U.S. businesses and consumers could pay through higher costs.”

— Tariffs forcing hard choices onto U.S. auto suppliers. Nick Carey at Reuters: “Bob Roth makes no bones about his feelings towards U.S. manufacturing. … His procurement team has been under long-standing orders to source all parts and materials as near as possible to his western Michigan factory, even with [Trump’s] tariffs on steel and aluminum. But with those tariffs dragging into a new year and steel comprising a quarter of RoMan’s fixed costs, Roth says his company has now begun the lengthy process of switching from its U.S. suppliers to an Israeli company for a key component for its products. It is a strategic decision that RoMan and other auto suppliers have put off since the tariffs kicked in last spring. With tariffs firmly part of the landscape, some are now starting to shift their own supply chain to keep costs in check.”

POCKET CHANGE

— Moonves to fight for his $120 million severance. WSJ’s Joe Flint: “Former CBS Corp. head Leslie Moonves is challenging the company’s decision last month to deny him a severance package of $120 million, CBS said Thursday, a move that will further prolong a monthslong drama at the media conglomerate. Mr. Moonves, who was forced to resign as chairman and chief executive amid accusations of sexual harassment in September, was denied his severance after a CBS board investigation concluded that he had violated company policies, breached his employment contract and intentionally failed to fully cooperate with the investigation. The terms of his exit agreement from CBS allow Mr. Moonves to challenge the board’s decision in arbitration.”

Elizabeth Warren: Kick Wells Fargo off campuses. Bloomberg's Hannah Levitt: "Elizabeth Warren is demanding that Wells Fargo & Co. be kicked off college campuses, a market the bank has said is among its fastest-growing. The Democratic senator from Massachusetts and likely presidential candidate said Thursday that she requested more information from Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer Tim Sloan and from 31 colleges where the bank does business. The inquiry follows a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report said that Wells Fargo charged students the highest fees of 573 banks examined.

Malaysia could drop charges against Goldman for $7.5 billion. Bloomberg's Anisah Sukry: "An apology from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. doesn’t cut it for Malaysia, which said it may consider a discussion to absolve the bank of blame for its role in the 1MDB scandal for $7.5 billion. The country filed criminal charges against the lender in December, the first for Goldman, and may discuss dropping those allegations if the bank pays the sum, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng told reporters on Friday. Units of the bank were accused of making false statements in documents submitted to a local regulator in arranging $6.5 billion bond offers for troubled state fund 1MDB.

— Americans are drinking less beer. Now, Molson is making kombucha. WSJ’s Saabira Chaudhuri and Jennifer Maloney: “Americans are increasingly laying off the booze, prompting the world’s biggest brewers and liquor companies to push beyond their traditional fare and roll out teas, energy drinks and nonalcoholic spirits. New data show that U.S. alcohol volumes dropped 0.8% last year, slightly steeper than the 0.7% decline in 2017. Beer was worst hit, with volumes down 1.5% in 2018, compared with a 1.1% decline in 2017, while growth in wine and spirits slowed ... The fall in alcohol volumes reflects ‘a growing trend toward mindful drinking or complete abstinence, particularly among the millennial cohort’ ... In response to the slowdown, alcohol makers are trying to diversify. Molson Coors Brewing Co. has turned to kombucha, Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev sells a spiked coconut water, and Smirnoff maker Diageo PLC wants teetotalers to start mixing cocktails with a pricey, alcohol-free gin alternative.”

DAYBOOK

COMING SOON: 

THE FUNNIES

— From The New Yorker's Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell

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BULL SESSION

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