Why a Trade War Shouldn't Wreck World Markets

An investor looks at the screen at the Dubai International Financial Market in Dubai

Investors should choose clean financial statements over attempting to predict geopolitics.

Geopolitical spats taking place in Syria, tensions over China’s militarization of the South China Sea, nuclear threats from North Korea, and daily tweets from President Trump have caused market turbulence in 2018. Yet the ten-year United States Treasury yield reached 3 percent for the first time in ten years, which is a sign of investor confidence and stable economic growth. The IMF also reiterated strong market fundamentals and U.S. jobless claims are at their lowest level in forty-eight years. Then why are markets considered so volatile at this time? The reason seems to be geopolitical-news-headlines-of-the-day trumping market sanity and strong macroeconomic fundamentals.

But it’s worse for investors within this latest round of geopolitical bluster when, “export-facing currencies, trade-sensitive emerging markets and government bonds have barely moved.” Yes, the CBOE volatility index (Wall Street’s fear gauge), measuring expected precariousness of the S&P 500 based on option prices has recently climbed 12 percent, but currencies are unmoved. The Deutsche Bank Currency Volatility Index is near its lowest level in three month; two points below its five-year average, and the Merrill Lynch Bond Volatility Index has declined, “since tariffs were signed.”

James Athey, senior investment manager at Aberdeen Standard Investments pointedly states, “This is headline risk and volatility-driven removal of positions rather than rational increase in the probability of trade wars.” Equity markets aren’t looking at stable income statements and balance sheets or even the basics of economic supply demand, instead short-term equity markets participants are allowing themselves to be slaves to news-driven investment strategies.

Goldman Sachs joined this bandwagon when they stoked fears about global markets by saying, “The Only Two Times We’ve Seen A Market Like This Was The Cuban Missile Crisis And The 1987 Crash,” on their way to record earnings. Even JP Morgan has been perplexed by this disconnect taking place between “volatility in asset classes,” when they stated in a strategic research note in early April:

“Most of what is passing for explanations are little more than post-facto rationalizations of price action. Our sense is that market participants are as perplexed about comatose [FX volatility] as we are.”

Here’s a sampling of recent overheated news headlines that haven’t made a dent in healthy markets or companies but give the impression we are heading towards World War III or the next Great Depression. Russia and Iran warn of “global chaos,” after the United States led strikes on Syria. Putin predicts chaos if more strikes occur in Syria. Saudi Arabia would send and assist leading an Arab coalition against Iran in Syria stoking further regional tensions.

China though seems to particularly rattle markets with the threat of a trade war that never materialized with the United States. While China is a geopolitical case study reminiscent of Japan in the 1930s, the danger China currently poses via “China's New Revolution” is excessive, according to historian Dr. Victor Davis Hanson. While President Xi is similar to Mao by having absolute control over China’s government and Communist Party, the Pentagon and its allies have plans to confront the Chinese army and Xi over their aggressive behavior in Southeast Asia.