Is the Dow Jones decline a blip, or the start of a downward trend?

On Monday, February 5, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1175 points, or 4.6 percent, wiping out the market’s gains for the year. The stock market goes up and down, sometimes it’s just a momentary correction and at other times it sends a signal that the overall economy is about to move. So which one is this? It’s too early to say but there are a number of worrying factors.

The Republican tax reform bill passed late last year should have put the US on solid footing. However, there are reasons to doubt the outcomes they promised. The stock market has mostly been on the rise since 2009 and interest rates have been low. If companies wanted to expand, hire staff or make capital improvements, they’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so and the cash to do it with.

Still, unemployment is generally low, though it is climbing in some sectors of the population. Paychecks also got larger, by three percent, in half of US states last year. Some people may also see an increase in take-home pay from the tax bill. Those are the good news bullet points, but things are obviously more complicated than that.

While some people saw a small increase in pay and some will pay slightly less in taxes, the rate of inflation in 2016 and 2017 was at 2.1 percent, and 2017 saw a 10 percent decline in the US dollar index and most analysts expect it to decline further this year. That means that imported products are generally more expensive than they were in 2016. That would, in theory, be a benefit for US companies but it hasn’t worked out that way. The US trade deficit has actually widened to its highest level since 2012. So, for most people, even with a small raise and a small tax cut, the average American will likely have less buying power in 2018 than they did in 2016.

The weakness of the economy on the lower rungs is, in fact, starting to show. US banks saw a 20% jump in missed credit card payments in January when the first bills from the holidays came due. Mortgage delinquencies are also up in the Southern US, though down nationwide, in part due to the severe hurricane season. It is clear, despite low unemployment, that many Americans are on the brink of not being able to keep up anymore. According to a survey conducted by CareerBuilder in September of 2017, 80 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

So what does 2018 hold? It’s impossible to say. Predicting the future is always hard, but there are multiple X-factors at play, including Congress, the election, interest rates, the weather and Donald Trump. So, for example:

What will happen with immigration policy? Immigration is generally recognized as good for economic growth and the proposed restrictions on economic growth could threaten that. Current immigration crackdowns are already having an economic impact on the US agriculture sector and that could get much worse.

Will Trump start a trade war with China? He’s certainly on a path to doing so. The tariffs he announced in January could cost as many as 23,000 US jobs in the solar industry. China has responded with an attack on sorghum. Over 90% of China’s sorghum imports come, not just from the United States, but from the Trump friendly states of Texas and Kansas. Sorghum may not be the end of China’s retaliation. If this turns into a tit-for-tat trade war it could negatively impact untold parts of the US economy, drive down exports and further weaken the US dollar.

Will Trump start a hot war with North Korea? It seems unlikely but if Trump needs a distraction, or needs to score points with his base, he could do something. Even a limited strike on North Korea could escalate quickly into a war with disastrous implications for Asia, the United States and the world.

Will Trump end NAFTA? Trump has been complaining about the North American Free Trade Agreement since the 2016 campaign and negotiations have been a slow grind.  If NAFTA were to fall apart it could have an impact on the US similar to the short-term impact of the Brexit vote on the UK. The value of the dollar would take an immediate hit, the stock market would plunge, and thousands of jobs would disappear.

Will Trump continue to alienate the world? Trump’s policies on trade, immigration and his general disposition have hurt the US brand. Although global tourism is up, it was down four percent in the US last year. The number of international students applying to US universities has also gone down. That will force US universities to tighten their belts. There is also little doubt that people in many countries think twice when looking at US products and US companies in the current environment.

What will happen with the Russia probe? Will Robert Mueller indict the President, current members of his administration or his family? If he does will Congress act on it, or pretend it didn’t happen? Will Republicans continue to try to undermine the law enforcement and intelligence communities?

Will weather-related disasters continue? The Western US has had a dry winter, which means that another summer of water shortages and wildfires is not out of the question. It’s too early to say how 2018’s hurricane season will go, but there is every possibility that it will be as bad as 2017 was.

Will Congress ever get around to passing a budget? If they do, what will be in it? The US federal budget represents a sizable chunk of US gross domestic product (GDP) and whatever Congress does, it will have a serious impact on the economy. Whatever Congress does, they’ll do it with an eye toward the 2018 election and the outcome of that election will also have an impact on many things, but that impact won’t really factor in until 2019.

Will interest rates go up? Despite the recent turbulence in the stock markets, many are expecting interest rates to start to creep up in 2018. This might make banks and investors feel better but will have a negative impact on Americans living paycheck to paycheck when their mortgages and credit cards start to cost a little more.

Over the medium term, say the next 5 years, the US faces even more unknowns both economically and politically.

Every country faces unknown variables every year,. However, the US faces an awful lot of questions for a country that is trying to compete internationally for investment dollars. The EU certainly faces unknowns but also has a clear direction and a GDP growth rate roughly equal to that of the United States. Canada is vulnerable to US instability but has a clear direction, abundant resources and recently enacted a free trade agreement with Europe and signed the new Trans-Pacific Partnership. India has its challenges but has been consistently posting growth rates of more than 7 percent, more than twice the US rate. China’s growth rate is over 6 percent, with very few unknown variables and an infrastructure program which could establish them as the world’s dominant economic power.

If you were an international investor, not motivated by nationalism, is the US where you would put your money? If you were a corporate CEO, would you be pouring billions into US expansions in this climate? It seems to me that the US Government has successfully ensured that wealthy people have plenty of money to invest, but has failed to create an environment that would make them want to invest at home.

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