“What does it mean for trade?”
That question continued to guide Wall Street on Wednesday, leading stocks to a mixed finish after President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser resigned after opposing the administration’s planned tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.
Stocks fell in the morning as investors reacted to the departure of Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive who was seen as a proponent of free trade.
The losses deepened after Mr Trump suggested on Twitter the US may impose penalties on China as part of intellectual property disputes. The Dow Jones industrial average fell as much as 349 points.
Mr Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, was known to disagree with the tariff plan, which has also drawn criticism from Republicans in Congress as well as from much of corporate America.
“He was seen as a key proponent of free trade to balance some of the other more protectionist-type advisers in the administration,” said Keith Parker, US Equity Strategist for UBS. Mr Cohn was also considered one of the architects of last year’s corporate tax cut.
The market bounced back late in the afternoon after the White House said some countries, including Canada and Mexico, might be granted exemptions to the tariffs.
That suggested a lighter touch that will not affect the global economy and corporate profits as much as a broader tariff would, and would not result in as much retaliation from other countries.
Industrial companies like Caterpillar and Boeing whipsawed on the news. Technology and health care companies ended higher, while energy companies fell with oil prices.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell as much as 1% during the day but finished with a loss of just 1.32 points, less than 0.1%, at 2,726.80. The Dow Jones industrial average declined 82.76 points, or 0.3%, to 24,801.36.
The Nasdaq composite gained 24.64 points, or 0.3%, to 7,396.65. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks added 12.33 points, or 0.8%, to 1,574.53.
It has fared better than the S&P and Dow over the last week as the companies on that index are far more US-focused and would stand to lose less from a flare-up in global trade tensions.
In response to the planned steel and aluminium tariffs, the European Union has proposed tariffs on US exports including motorcycles and bourbon.
Jack Daniel’s maker Brown-Forman sank after CEO Paul Varga said his company “could be an unfortunate and unintended victim” of more hostile trade.
Mr Varga said the company has been selling more lower-priced liquors in Europe, a strategy that leaves it more vulnerable to higher costs.
The company also forecast a smaller-than-expected annual profit and its stock dropped 3.15 dollars, or 5.6%, to 52.89 dollars. Motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson slid 43 cents, or 1%, to 43.90 dollars.
Discount retailer Dollar Tree’s fourth quarter results disappointed investors, and so did its forecasts for the current year. It tumbled 15.11 dollars, or 14.5%, to 89.25 dollars. Competitor Ross Stores lost 5.11 dollars, or 6.3%, to 75.40 dollars following its report.
Benchmark US crude dropped 1.45 dollars, or 2.3%, to 61.15 dollars a barrel in New York after the Energy Department reported that US oil production rose last week. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 1.45 dollars, or 2.2%, to 64.34 dollars a barrel in London. Exxon Mobil tumbled 1.92 dollars, or 2.5%, to 74.26 dollars and Hess lost 2 dollars, or 4.1%, to 46.48 dollars.
On Twitter, Mr Trump said the government is “acting swiftly on intellectual property theft”. The US Trade Representative is investigating whether Chinese intellectual property rules are “unreasonable or discriminatory” to American business.
Mr Parker said the tariffs could reduce corporate profits by about 10 billion dollars, far less than the boost corporations will get from the tax cut that was signed into law in December.
However he said steps against China, and retaliation by the Chinese government, could raise the cost of items including phones, technology goods, and clothing.
“The risk is that given China policy and actions that there could be something specific placed on Chinese goods, which would potentially lead to a retaliatory action,” he said.
While most investors interpreted the departure of Mr Cohn as a loss, Mr Parker said the resignation might keep some of the administration’s protectionist plans in check when combined with criticism from Republicans in Congress and the generally negative stock market reaction.
In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline lost two cents to 1.91 dollars a gallon. Heating oil declined three cents to 1.87 dollars a gallon. Natural gas rose three cents to 2.78 dollars per 1,000 cubic feet.
Bond prices edged higher. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.88% from 2.89%.
Metals prices gave back some of Tuesday’s gains. Gold fell 7.60 dollars to 1,327.60 dollars an ounce. Silver slid 29 cents, or 1.7%, to 16.49 dollars an ounce. Copper lost two cents to 3.14 dollars a pound.
The dollar dipped to 106.07 yen from 106.21 yen. The euro edged down to 1.2403 dollars from 1.240 dollars.
Germany’s DAX rose 1.1% and Britain’s FTSE 100 gained 0.2% while the French CAC 40 added 0.3%.
Asian markets started flat but losses widened in the afternoon. The Japanese Nikkei 225 dropped 0.8% while South Korea’s Kospi fell 0.4%. The Hang Seng of Hong Kong sank 1%.