Trade war threat is now Wall Street's top economic fear, survey says

March 20, 2018
  • Nearly two-thirds of the survey’s respondents see Trump’s trade policies as negative for overall economic growth.
  • A plurality of 48 percent say the steel and aluminum tariffs that the president will implement will result in fewer U.S. jobs overall.

Sparked by the Trump administration’s recent tariffs, nearly three-quarters of respondents to the CNBC Fed Survey say they are now worried about a trade war.

Protectionism tops the list of worries on Wall Street, the survey shows, far outpacing concerns over inflation, terrorism and even the Fed itself.

“The market has shifted from a fear of a monetary policy misstep, tightening too aggressively, to a trade policy mistake, escalating into a trade war with China,” Art Hogan, chief market strategist at B. Riley FBR, wrote in his response to the survey. “The balance of risk for equities has moved from the Fed to the White House.”

Added David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors, “One man’s income is another man’s expenses. No one wins a trade war.”

President Donald Trump in recent weeks announced sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum tariffs, and then exempted Canada and Mexico pending the outcome of talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement. The president has allowed for other exemptions, setting off a flurry of lobbying by countries and companies in the U.S. and abroad. The outcome of the exemption process is unclear so far.

Despite the exemptions, nearly two-thirds of the 40 survey respondents, including economists, fund managers and strategists, see the president’s trade policies as negative for overall economic growth, with 23 percent saying it’s too soon to tell.

“The U.S. economy is doing well, the manufacturing sector is gaining ground, the economy is at full employment, but inflation pressures are rising,” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics.I couldn’t imagine a worse time to impose tariffs.”

A plurality of 48 percent say the steel and aluminum tariffs that the president will implement will result in fewer U.S. jobs overall, with 35 percent seeing no effect on employment. Just 13 percent said they believe the tariffs will increase jobs.

More than 80 percent said it would be negative for the U.S. to leave NAFTA, including 48 percent who say it would be “very negative.”

Significantly, a 48 percent plurality supports the president’s handling of the economy overall. Only 23 percent disapprove and 20 percent are neutral. Looking at only the president’s supporters on the economy, about half of this group disapprove of his trade policies.

That could suggest that for some, at least, the negative trade policies are outweighed by other presidential initiatives, for example, his tax cuts.

“A trade war could hurt growth, but if productivity rebounds as we think it might, this economic growth cycle and bull market might have more years to run,” said Ed Keon, chief investment strategist at QMA, a PGIM Company.

Respondents to the survey also marked down their outlook for the S&P 500 in March for the first time since July.

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