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Stock market plunges as Wall Street gives Trump’s China deal another look

The president calling himself “Tariff Man” didn’t help.

President Donald Trump on a television monitor at the New York Stock Exchange in March 2018 discussing steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by his administration.
President Donald Trump on a television monitor at the New York Stock Exchange in March 2018 discussing steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by his administration.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Stock market investors appear to be signaling they believe President Donald Trump’s trade compromise with China is a bit of a dud.

Wall Street was initially encouraged by Trump’s Saturday deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which both sides agreed to a 90-day timeout of the US-China trade war. Major United States stock indexes climbed on Monday amid optimism the US and China might strike a deal, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which Trump often touts, gaining nearly 300 points.

But after investors had a second day to think about US-China trade relations, they appear to have changed their minds on how optimistic they feel. The Dow plunged on Tuesday, falling nearly 800 points by market close, and the S&P 500 and Nasdaq saw deep declines as well. All three major indexes ended the day down by 3 percent or more.

Trump isn’t the only factor making markets edgy — there are concerns about a potential economic slowdown and the Federal Reserve’s interest rate path as well.

But Wall Street is sending a clear signal that, upon closer inspection, Trump’s trade war détente with China isn’t looking so hot — especially after a string of tweets from the president this morning indicated he has no problem going back to a trade war if a broader agreement isn’t reached in the next three months.

In one tweet, Trump referred to himself as a “Tariff Man.” The Wall Street Journal reports that after those tweets, the Dow fell by 200 points.

“The trade war between the United States and China has been put on hold for the holidays, but the respite will be brief given the 90-day deadline and inherent difficulty in addressing the fundamental factors driving trade tensions between the two countries,” Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at research firm Compass Point LLC, wrote in a note to clients ahead of the Trump tweets on Tuesday.

This China-US trade war pause doesn’t look so great in the light of day

On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Saturday, Trump agreed to hold off on increasing tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese-made goods in exchange for China purchasing a still-to-be-defined amount of American-made products. Trump said he would give China and Xi 90 days to fix the structural issues in US-China trade relations.

The president immediately took a victory lap, boasting on Twitter that China had agreed to reduce its current 40 percent tariffs on US auto imports to zero, and claiming that China would “start purchasing agricultural product immediately.”

The White House hasn’t been able to back up Trump’s claims, though, indicating the president is overselling what happened in Buenos Aires. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow acknowledged in a call with reporters on Monday that there was no “specific agreement” on auto tariffs. Kudlow also said he couldn’t “specifically” answer questions about China’s agricultural product purchases, saying his “expectation” is that China would roll back tariffs on goods “quickly.”

There also appeared to be some confusion on the timeline from the US: Kudlow initially told reporters the 90-day clock started on January 1, but the White House later put out a correction, saying it was actually December 1.

There’s also a different story coming out of China about what happened. As the Washington Post notes, state media outlets on Monday made no mention of Trump’s 90-day time frame or reducing tariffs on US cars. They didn’t offer specifics on buying American-made products, either.

Michael Antonelli, a managing director at Robert W Baird & Co., told Bloomberg the market was acting like a “scorned lover” in relation to Trump’s trade deal. “It had believed, for whatever reason, that progress was being made at the G20 and that turns out to be murky — it feels lied to,” he said.

Trump isn’t the only thing making Wall Street anxious lately. Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at investment research firm CFRA Research, said in an email that investors are also worried because of movements in the bond market that could signal an economic slowdown is coming.

The November jobs report is also coming out on Friday. A solid report would provide more cause for the Fed to continue raising interest rates, and when that happens, it can spook markets.

But skepticism over Trump’s China trade talks is playing a part as well — especially as it becomes increasingly obvious that no one seems to know exactly what’s going on, and this temporary timeout is no guarantee of anything substantive happening in the future.

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