Our Family of Companies
western & southern financial group logo
western & southern life logo
columbus life logo
eagle realty group logo
Fabric by Gerber Life
fort washington logo
gerber life logo
integrity life logo
lafayette life logo
national integrity life logo
touchstone investments logo
w&s financial group distributors logo

Mexico & China: New Front in Tariff War Raises a Red Flag

By Richard "Crit" Thomas, CFA, CAIA
Economy & Markets
red flags trade usa road sign
  • The opening of a new tariff war with Mexico dampens our expectations for risk assets.
  • We question the assumption that U.S. equities will provide downside protection in a trade war as this premise is based on economic framing as opposed to market realities.
  • While we have an inherent bias toward active management, we believe that this broadening tariff war makes it even more imperative to avoid a pure beta,1 basket approach to the equity markets.  There will be clear winners and losers, something an index is not adept at sorting out.

We have noted in our past communications this year, that one of the risks to our forecast would be an escalation in the tariff war. It has been our belief that given the economic cost of a tariff war that the Trump administration would be hesitant to ramp up tariffs on multiple fronts in advance of election season. Given the latest tariff threat with Mexico - the U.S.’ second largest trading partner - it appears that we have misjudged President’s Trump’s resolve. Perceived economic strength, as implied by 3.1% GDP growth in the first quarter, may have created some false confidence. We question whether this type of resolve can be maintained as economic growth slows which is likely over the remainder of the year.

While we continue to believe that we will begin to see a de-escalation in the tariff war later this year, given recent events we need to consider the alternative. Since the creation of the NAFTA our manufacturing supply chains with Mexico have become deeply intertwined with many parts and products crossing the border numerous times. Placing tariffs on this complex system will create significant strains. Our largest imports from Mexico include motor vehicles, oil, electronics, machinery and fruit. This tariff threat also puts the new proposed tariff agreement (USMCA) in doubt and could even lead to the demise of NAFTA (something Trump campaigned on). More importantly it creates significant uncertainty for corporate America with respect to capital spending and hiring plans, important ingredients to future growth. We note with some concern that through April, layoff announcements have increased by 31% versus a year ago as reported by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

On the China front we are seeing signs of further fraying of our relationship and it could be nearing a point of irreparable damage. In response to the Trump administration's Huawei ban, China has implied that it may limit U.S. access to China’s production of rare earths and has threatened to blacklist foreign enterprises, organizations and individuals. While we haven’t arrived at a point of no return, we need to begin considering its ramifications.

Certainly an escalating tariff war with our two largest trading partners is not a positive backdrop for risk assets. Equities, both U.S .and international, are likely to continue to sell off with each turn of the tariff screw. While our economy is less dependent upon trade, we believe this economic lens is not the correct way to frame the tariffs with respect to U.S. equities. Sales outside of the U.S. for corporate America is a much larger figure than what is counted in exports. Exports only count products that are delivered from the U.S. and do not count sales of foreign affiliates. For example, shipments of soybeans out of the U.S. are counted as exports, but sales of GM cars produced in China are not. GM sells more cars in China than any other market, though most of those sales are not counted as exports. While slowing sales of GM cars in China would have little to no impact on our economy, it would have a dramatic impact on GM. This economic lens has led some investors to believe that our equity market should provide cover from a tariff war. This has been true year-to-date, though we note that the performance gap has been rapidly narrowing just as the trade picture has become darker. Given late cycle conditions, all-time high profit margins, and higher relative valuations we would suggest that U.S. equities will provide little cushion if the tariff war escalates. We have been advocating a cautious approach to U.S. equities and continue to do so. We suggest investors consider shifting towards areas of unwarranted underperformance where stocks have underperformed while earnings have improved. These would include large cap value stocks and mid-cap stocks.

Positioning within the Emerging Markets has become even more important as the tariff war escalates. The distribution of returns by country, sector, and stock has been increasing, highlighting the importance of active positioning within this large and disparate universe. While we believe a tariff war diminishes the opportunity for the Emerging Markets index in an absolute return perspective, we continue to see opportunity within the index and on a relative basis versus domestic equities.

1 Beta is a measure of the volatility of a fund relative to its benchmark. The beta of a benchmark is 1.00.

The information provided represents Touchstone’s views and observations regarding past and current market conditions and investor behaviors. The information and statements provided herein are believed to be true and accurate. There can be no assurance however that the beliefs expressed herein will be consistent with future market conditions and investor behaviors. This material is not intended to serve as the primary or sole basis for any investment decision. Discuss your investment objectives with your financial professional.

Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of the fund carefully before investing. The prospectus and the summary prospectus contain this and other information about the Fund. To obtain a prospectus or a summary prospectus, contact your financial professional or download and/or request one on the resources section or call Touchstone at 800-638-8194. Please read the prospectus and/or summary prospectus carefully before investing.

Touchstone Funds are distributed by Touchstone Securities, Inc.*
*A registered broker-dealer and member FINRA/SIPC.

Not FDIC Insured | No Bank Guarantee | May Lose Value

crit thomas global market strategist

Richard "Crit" Thomas, CFA, CAIA

Global Market Strategist
Crit is responsible for examining and evaluating economic conditions, generating insights and providing a sharpened perspective on investment strategies for enriched portfolio construction.

Related Insights