Trade War Fears: A good time to exit pricey U.S. stocks? (est read time: 6 mins)

Kyle Cox, Investment Analyst, EMEA
Dan Kemp, Chief Investment Officer, EMEA

Key Takeaways

With the Trump administration starting a purported trade war with China on July 5, questions have
grown into fears over how tariffs may affect the global economy. However, we offer a more nuanced
response to the question, posed in the title, which is on many investors’ minds today: We do think U.S.
stocks are overpriced now and believe selling overpriced assets is a good discipline. But selling should
not be driven by fears, macro events, and the like. In fact, over the long run, investors usually perform
better when they ignore these market tremors and stay focused on their financial goals.

A Nasty Trade War Is Possible, But How Likely?
Investors seem spooked by the recently announced tariffs and the possibility that all of this may lead to
an ugly trade war. The subject has clearly grabbed attention and headlines. As illustrated in the exhibit
below, Google searches in the U.S. for “trade war” and “tariffs” spiked in recent months as the Trump
administration began an effort to renegotiate terms with its trade partners, starting with tariffs on steel
and aluminum announced in March. That move was aimed at China, but also impacted many other
countries.

Unsurprisingly, China prepared countermeasures by proposing tariffs on imports of American soybeans,
sending commodity prices tumbling. Mexico and Canada faced challenges as the U.S. administration
sought to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. European countries confronted the
U.S. over tariff threats on autos. Retaliatory measures from all sides raised the probability of an
extended conflict that may hamper global economic growth.

We don’t believe that the announced tariffs present a major threat to global economies. The proposed
tariffs are significant and would affect 23% of U.S. imports, primarily hitting auto imports. However, we
believe the U.S. economy, in particular, is large enough and domestically oriented enough to not feel too
much pain from current measures.

Of course, trade tensions and tariffs could become more severe and, at worst, tip the global economy
toward a recession. But getting too focused on a worst-case scenario ignores the possibility that
tensions cool, compromise is reached, and investors go back to focusing on strong earnings. It wasn’t
too long ago that presumed nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula sent tremors through global
markets, but that seems to have been laid to rest for now.

Should Investors React?
The short answer: no. We focus on long-term valuations—the true and durable value of an asset class,
rather than its market price. Having a long-term perspective makes the next turn in the trade spat less
concerning to us. Instead, we ask, “How might this affect fundamentals over the next several years?”
Investors who trade on emotion and market reactions are more likely to sell when markets are low and
buy when they’re high. We seek to do the opposite, in part by sticking to our principled approach to
investing, which is designed to keep us rational in a sometimes irrational world.

Because we’re defensive now, we are prepared to be buyers if this or other concerns provide an
attractive buying opportunity. That point isn’t here yet. The effects of trade-war fears on U.S. stocks
have been minimal to date, with the post-crisis rally still up 15.3% on average for each of the last eight
years.

This long bull run has made U.S. stocks pricey, we believe, so we’re expecting below-average returns
from U.S. stocks over the next five to 10 years. But that does not mean we would ever sell stocks—or
any asset—based solely on newspaper headlines, the macro view, or fears. In fact, if anything, fearbased
price declines alert us to possible buying opportunities.

What Should Investors Do About Macro Events?
Perhaps the easiest thing to do is to do nothing. Ignore the headlines and stay focused on the long term.
But really the best investment advice is saving advice: develop a plan to reach your financial goals, then
stick to it. When you get an itch to do something different, try saving more—that’s probably the best
move to improve the chances of an investor reaching their goals. 

 

 

This document is issued by Morningstar Investment Management Australia Limited (ABN 54 071 808 501, AFS Licence No. 228986) (‘Morningstar’). Morningstar is the Responsible Entity and issuer of interests in the Morningstar investment funds referred to in this report. © Copyright of this document is owned by Morningstar and any related bodies corporate that are involved in the document’s creation. As such the document, or any part of it, should not be copied, reproduced, scanned or embodied in any other document or distributed to another party without the prior written consent of Morningstar. The information provided is for general use only. In compiling this document, Morningstar has relied on information and data supplied by third parties including information providers (such as Standard and Poor’s, MSCI, Barclays, FTSE). Whilst all reasonable care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of information provided, neither Morningstar nor its third parties accept responsibility for any inaccuracy or for investment decisions or any other actions taken by any person on the basis or context of the information included. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Morningstar does not guarantee the performance of any investment or the return of capital. Morningstar warns that (a) Morningstar has not considered any individual person’s objectives, financial situation or particular needs, and (b) individuals should seek advice and consider whether the advice is appropriate in light of their goals, objectives and current situation. Refer to our Financial Services Guide (FSG) for more information at morningstarinvestments.com.au/fsg.  Before making any decision about whether to invest in a financial product, individuals should obtain and consider the disclosure document. For a copy of the relevant disclosure document, please contact our Adviser Distribution Team on 02 9276 4550.