Did the “Trump put” on U.S. stocks expire — or did it ever exist?
A steep Friday selloff inspired by an angry presidential tweet storm aimed at Beijing, as well as Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, has analysts recalibrating whether an equity market meltdown would moderate Donald Trump’s tactics in the U.S.-China trade war.
“The conventional wisdom that stock index levels provide a meaningful check on the president’s trade policies has not been a valid investment thesis since early August,” wrote analysts at Macquarie, in a Monday note, saying that investors “learned again that there is no Trump put, but there is a Fed put.”
In real life, a put option is an instrument that gives the holder the right, but not the obligation, to sell an underlying asset at a set price before a certain time — a potentially valuable hedge if a bullish bet on the asset goes south. The metaphorical Trump put and the Fed put are references to the belief held by some traders that either the White House or the central bank would alter policy or otherwise take action to bolster stocks and other asset markets in the event of a shock.
Trump early Monday did appear to calm markets, saying that Chinese authorities had been in contact with U.S. officials seeking resume trade talks — even as China disputed the nature of the contacts. But that comes after a Friday selloff that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average
Trump’s favored measure of the stock market, drop more than 600 points on Friday, or 2.4%, while the benchmark S&P 500 Index
Moreover, Trump followed through on the Friday selloff by announcing a further increase in tariffs on imports from China after Friday’s market close.
“An important corollary to last week’s events is that the strike price on the fabled Trump put may be lower than commonly believed,” wrote Neil Dutta, head of economics at Renaissance Macro Research, in a Monday note.
For the month-to-date through Friday, the Dow was down 4.6%, while the S&P 500 has retreated 4.5%. The August selloff began after Trump took investors by surprise with the announcement of 10% tariffs on $300 billion of imports from China due to take effect on Sept. 1. Trump subsequently delayed a chunk of those tariffs until mid-December, but cited concerns about the impact on the U.S. Christmas shopping season rather than any desire to offer an olive branch to Beijing.
China early Friday announced it would implement retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion of imports from the U.S., prompting a series of tweets from Trump who said the U.S. didn’t need China, and that he “hereby ordered” U.S. firms to look for alternatives to the country and to begin bringing operations home.
The tweets came after Powell had delivered a speech at a symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that had appeared to somewhat cheer markets by leaving the door open to interest rate cuts, but didn’t appear to go far enough to satisfy Trump, who has continually blasted the Fed for not cutting rates more aggressively. In a tweet, Trump asked whether Chinese leader Xi Jinping or Powell was a bigger “enemy” of the U.S.
Trump’s criticism of the independent central bank notwithstanding, the Macquarie analysts said the case for a Fed put remains, “although there is disagreement on how effective it will be.”
Powell has effectively put the Fed on autopilot, they said, ready to cut interest rates as trade-war risks intensify. Moreover, the Fed has more room to act, and can, therefore, do more than the Bank of Japan or European Central Banks, where rates are already in negative territory, if needed.
Indeed, Dutta argued that with additional tariffs on the way, the U.K. seemingly on course for a “hard Brexit” from the European Union, and global growth continuing to soften, the risk of a “bolder move” seems relatively low.
“The market sees just a one-in-five chance of a 50 basis point cut in September,” he wrote. “We think the odds are somewhat higher. The Fed can pull a cut from the future to the present.”