Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S.(Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

S&P 500 Bends But Doesn't Break With Trade War Specter Re-Emerging

(Bloomberg) -- Markets can ignore Wall Street when they want to.

They’ve largely disregarded warnings from equity strategists at some of the biggest banks. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. this week cautioned about the dire effect of a full-blown trade war -- fears stoked by news that President Donald Trump had instructed aides to impose additional tariffs on Chinese products. A week earlier, Citigroup Inc. and UBS Group AG said another pullback in U.S. stocks may be in the offing.

But the S&P 500 Index keeps churning higher. The benchmark rose 1.2 percent in the five days through Friday to cap its longest winning streak since February.

Months of trade wrangling, rising interest rates and emerging-market uncertainty have left the bulls immune to one-off geopolitical headlines and have instead kept them focused on economic fundamentals.

“You can only hit something so many times before it stops caring,” said Michael Antonelli, an institutional equity sales trader and managing director at Robert W. Baird & Co. “Longer-term, trade can be a big problem, but this is the point where the more trade headlines and trade uncertainty, the less impact on the markets.”

S&P 500 Bends But Doesn't Break With Trade War Specter Re-Emerging

U.S. stocks dipped midday Friday amid reports that Trump sought to proceed with tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese products, only to snap back late in the session. Geopolitics remains the big unknown as optimism over the resumption of trade talks with China soured when Trump tweeted that the U.S. isn’t under any pressure to reach an agreement. But there’s no rush for the exits yet.

“We take the president’s tweet to just be another negotiation tactic, something the market appears to have sniffed out as well,” said Andrew Adams, a strategist at Raymond James & Associates Inc.

That doesn’t mean things will always work out. Stocks can plunge into a bear market if the government slaps 10 percent tariffs on all imports, Goldman Sachs chief strategist David Kostin said in a note to clients. His concerns echoed those of JPMorgan strategists who estimated that the combined per-share earnings for S&P 500 companies could drop by as much as $10 if bilateral tariffs of 25 percent are imposed.

What’s helped lift spirits is an unexpected cooling in inflation for August, boosting bets that a more persistent slowdown in prices could affect policymakers’ outlook for future rate hikes. Energy shares rallied after a drop in crude inventories added to the optimism, while semiconductors bounced back from their dive earlier in the week. The Nasdaq 100 Index advanced 1.6 percent for the week, while small caps gained 0.5 percent.

This calm surface may nevertheless mask brewing anxiety over individual stocks. Even as the Cboe Volatility Index approaches a three-week low and the S&P 500 trades just off its record high, the Cboe put-to-call ratio for equities, which tracks volume in bearish versus bullish bets, has bounced higher after hitting its lowest level since June. Investors pulled $2.3 billion from U.S. equity funds in the week ended Sept. 12, according to EPFR data, the biggest withdrawal in four weeks.

S&P 500 Bends But Doesn't Break With Trade War Specter Re-Emerging

Still, bulls are guiding investor sentiment, at least for now. Fueling their optimism is confidence in economic fundamentals, according to Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors. Data this week showed inflation slowing to a 2.7 percent annual rate from 2.9 percent, while consumer sentiment jumped to a six-month high.

“It’s easy to get whipsawed by trade headlines, and investors need something to hold on to,” Ablin said by phone. “And that’s fundamental inputs that are showing the economy is doing just fine.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.