Last week, the stock market dove in part because President Trump appeared to be plunging ahead with new tariffs; on Monday, the market recouped that loss (and then some) as the conventional wisdom over the weekend was that Congress would never let that happen and so it is unlikely that tariffs will be implemented.
I’m always fascinated by market behavior around events like this. Investors seem to love to guess right, and to put 100% of their bet on an outcome that depends on being right. Here’s what I know about tariffs – prior to last week, if there was a risk that tariffs would be implemented that risk was not priced into the markets. And markets are supposed to price risks. Regardless of what you think the probability of that outcome is, surely the probability is non-zero and, therefore, ought to be worth something on the price. Putting it another way: if I was willing to pay X for the market when I wasn’t worried about the possibility of the detrimental effect of future tariffs, then assuredly I will pay less than X once I start to consider that possibility. Although the outcome may be binary (there will be increasing tariffs and decreasing free trade, or there won’t be), the risk doesn’t have to be either/or.
This is one of the things that irritates me about the whole “risk on/risk off” meme. There is no such thing as “risk off.” Risk is ever-present, and an investor’s job is not to guess at which risks will actually present themselves, but to efficiently preserve as much upside as possible while protecting against downside risks cheaply. Risk management is really, really important, but it often seems to get overlooked in the ‘storytime’ that 24-hour market news depends on.
To be sure, the risk of tariffs coming out of the Trump Administration is not new…it’s just that it has been ignored completely until now. Right after Trump’s election, in our Quarterly Inflation Outlook I wrote about which elements of Trump’s professed plans were a risk to steady inflation. The one area which I felt could be the real wildcard leading to higher inflation as a result of policy (as opposed to higher inflation from natural dynamics, which are also a risk as interest rates normalize) was the possibility of a Trump tariff. Here is what I wrote at that time – and it’s poignant today: