U.S.-China trade uncertainty weighs on stock market

The New York Stock Exchange.
The New York Stock Exchange.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

U.S. stocks mostly fell Monday as uncertainty continued to hang over U.S.-China trade talks, or at least over investors’ perception of them.

The stock market has been rallying for five weeks, in part on optimism that the United States and China are nearing a stopgap deal to calm their dispute. But President Trump said over the weekend that reports about U.S. willingness to lift tariffs were “incorrect,” only days after a Chinese official — and White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow — said the two sides agreed that there would be rollbacks if talks progress.

Stocks dropped as soon as trading began Monday. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index ended the day down 6.07 points, or 0.2%, at 3,087.01. The Nasdaq composite slipped 11.04, or 0.1%, to 8,464.28.

The Dow Jones industrial average edged up, eking out another record high, in large part because of a big gain for Boeing. The index rose 10.25 points, or less than 0.1%, to 27,691.49.


A still-strong job market, interest-rate cuts by the Federal Reserve and better-than-expected corporate earnings in the summer have all contributed to a nearly 9% leap for the S&P 500 since late August. The market’s focus, though, has lately seemed to be the U.S.-China trade negotiations.

Stocks in the financial and energy sectors have been generally rising since Trump said last month that the United States and China were negotiating “Phase 1” of a trade deal. But these “cyclical” stocks, whose profits are closely tied to the economic cycle, were among Monday’s losers. Such sudden snaps in movement are frustrating for investors who prefer looking at the longer term.

“The market is myopically focused on the next minute,” said Michael Liss, senior portfolio manager at American Century Investments.

“If I own Chevron or Total, which I do, and we don’t get a ‘Phase 1’ signing before the end of the year, I’m not going to sell those stocks,” he said. “I just don’t think that over a three- or five-year time frame, oil demand is going to be dented because of that” even if it “flies in the face of everyone selling cyclicals because we don’t have a trade deal.”

The next hints on progress in negotiations with China may come Tuesday, when Trump is scheduled to deliver a speech on trade and economic policy at the Economic Club of New York.

Monday’s best-performing stocks were real-estate investment trusts, which rose 0.2% — the biggest gain among the 11 sectors that make up the S&P 500. The group pays relatively big dividends, and investors have flocked to those stocks and away from “cyclical” ones when worries are high that the trade war will hurt the economy.

Boeing soared 4.5% after it said it hopes to resume deliveries of its 737 Max jet next month.

On the losing end were energy stocks, which had some of the market’s sharpest losses as the price of oil weakened. Cabot Oil & Gas dropped 3.4%, and Occidental Petroleum and Marathon Oil each fell 3%.

Bond markets were closed in observance of Veterans Day.

Low interest rates have been a big driver for the stock market’s rally, and Wednesday the market’s spotlight will shine on Capitol Hill, where Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will give testimony about the economy. Most investors expect the Fed to keep interest rates steady for now after cutting them three times since the summer.

Later this week, the Labor Department will also give updates on inflation at both the consumer and wholesale levels. On Friday, economists expect a government report to show that retail sales returned to growth in October. That would bolster expectations that the economy can keep driving higher as strong consumer spending makes up for manufacturing declines caused by the trade war.

Earnings season is close to complete, and nearly 90% of the companies in the S&P 500 have reported their profits for the July-through-September quarter, according to FactSet. Results have been weak due in part to the slowing global economy, with earnings per share down 2.4% from a year earlier. But they haven’t been as bad as Wall Street expected.

Benchmark crude oil fell 38 cents to settle at $56.86 a barrel. Brent crude oil, the international standard, fell 33 cents to $62.18 a barrel. Wholesale gasoline fell 2 cents to $1.61 a gallon. Heating oil declined 1 cent to $1.91 a gallon. Natural gas fell 15 cents to $2.64 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Gold fell $5.80 to $1,455.50 an ounce. Silver fell 2 cents to $16.76 an ounce. Copper fell 2 cents to $2.66 a pound.