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Tax, trade uncertainties give Wall Street jitters

Although corporate tax cuts goosed economic activity for a brief period, experts said that window is closing.
Image: A view of the New York Stock Exchange in New York City
A view of the New York Stock Exchange in New York City.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Wall Street began the week on the same roller coaster it rode for the last several trading sessions as investors tried to interpret a raft of confusing, sometimes conflicting data.

Despite a better-than-expected 3.5 percent GDP growth for the quarter, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down roughly 6.7 percent for the month, and the broad-based S&P 500 is on track to have its worst month since February 2009. Critics of the Trump administration’s trade policies suggest that the GDP number could reflect businesses’ stockpiling of inventories in advance of the implementation of additional tariffs.

The Commerce Department said Monday that both personal and disposable income each rose 0.2 percent last month, half of what those figures were in the month prior. Personal spending rose by 0.4 percent, compared to 0.5 percent in August.

Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital Securities, predicted more volatility leading to a market correction, but said the economy is unlikely to hit a tipping point that would drive it into a downturn. “Stocks will likely avert a bear market that would extend losses to more than 20 percent in spite of future higher interest rates,” he wrote in a research note published Monday.

Fed policy also plays a role, economists say. “We know that the Federal Reserve is really moving to the stage where it’s no longer looking at maintaining so-called accommodative monetary policy,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at “Having been conditioned to rely on that monetary policy for the better part of a decade now, there is a logical adjustment for markets to engage in,” he said.

There is some evidence that this adjustment is starting to show up in business activity. According to the National Association for Business Economics Business Conditions Survey for October, the number of businesses reporting an increase in prices charged rose at a rate not seen since early 2006.

Despite the corporate tax cuts, more than eight in 10 respondents said their plans for hiring or investment has not changed. “The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has not broadly impacted hiring and investment plans at panelists’ firms,” NABE Business Conditions Survey Chair Sara Rutledge wrote in the survey report. NABE found these impacts were especially pronounced in the goods-producing sector of the U.S. economy.

Although the tax cuts goosed economic activity for a brief period, experts said that window is closing. “In terms of the short-run stimulus, that’s probably at its high point now and will tend to fade over time, going forward,” said Benjamin Page, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

Page said that in the longer run, the effects of a higher deficit could be more pronounced, particularly if the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is not amended by Congress in the future. ”To attract investors requires a higher interest rate — that effect will be more persistent,” he said.

Economists suggest this is because the tax cuts also increased the deficit, which is contributing to an environment of rising interest rates, which makes companies skittish about investing.

“The fact that corporate America has held back capital spending suggests that the trade dispute, if left to linger on, will take an even greater bite out of the economy,” Cardillo said.