The three major domestic equity indexes closed higher on Thursday after President Donald Trump appeared to soften his stance on trade tariffs, easing trade war fears that had had the market on edge for a week.
The White House announced import tariffs on steel and aluminum but said Canada and Mexico would be exempt and that other countries could apply for exemptions, although details of when they would be granted were thin.
Ahead of the news that trickled out from the White House in the last hour and a half of the trading day, the S&P had zig-zagged in a tight range between positive and negative territory as investors were uncertain about what Trump would say.
Worries that the tariffs would ignite a global trade war have dominated markets since he announced the tariff plan last Thursday, and the exit of chief economic adviser Gary Cohn late Tuesday intensified the concerns.
But not everybody was pleased with the latest trade news. Century Aluminum shares fell 7.5 percent after the news as it had been seen benefiting from higher prices if the tariffs were put in place. Shares in U.S. Steel fell 2.9 percent while AK Steel ended the trading day down 4 percent.
The energy index was the only one of the S&P’s 11 sectors to end the day lower, with a 0.1 percent drop as oil prices declined.
Approximately 6.38 billion shares changed hands on the major domestic equity exchanges, as compared to the 7.65 billion share average over the last 20 trading days.
Trump Proceeds with Tariffs
President Donald Trump pressed ahead with the imposition of 25 percent tariffs on steel imports and 10 percent for aluminum on Thursday but exempted Canada and Mexico, backtracking from earlier pledges of tariffs on all countries.
Describing the dumping of steel and aluminum in the United States as “an assault on our country,” Trump told a news conference that the best outcome would for companies to move here and insisted that domestic production was needed for national security reasons.
Details of the plan came from a briefing by administration officials ahead of Trump’s speech. Other countries can apply for exemptions, according to the administration, although details of when they would be granted were thin.
Trump has offered relief from steel and aluminum tariffs to countries that “treat us fairly on trade,” a gesture aimed at putting pressure on Canada and Mexico to give ground in separate talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which appear to have stalled.
Trump has also demanded concessions from the European Union, complaining that it treated American cars unfairly and has threatened to hike tariffs on auto imports from Europe.
Mexico rejected any linkage to NAFTA in robust terms on Thursday. Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo told Reuters, “Under no circumstance will we be subject to any type of pressure.”
Canadian Trade Minister Francois-Phillippe Champagne told Reuters his country would not accept any duties or quotas from the United States.
Many observers take a dimmer view of the six-month-old talks, saying little progress has been made and the negotiations are stalled over issues such as autos. Car manufacturing’s contribution to the U.S., Mexican and Canadian economies far outweighs that of steel and aluminum production.
Several major trading partners have said they will respond to the tariffs with direct action.
Countermeasures would include European tariffs on U.S. oranges, tobacco and bourbon, he said. Harley Davidson Inc motorcycles have also been mentioned, targeting House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin.
Even as Trump threatened tariffs and prodded his NAFTA partners, 11 nations gathered in Chile to sign a landmark Asia-Pacific trade pact, one that Trump withdrew from on his first day in office.
Beijing, which until now had kept largely silent on the issue, sharpened its rhetoric significantly. One lever that China has is U.S. agricultural exports and it has said in the past that it could target soybeans.
China had a record $375.2 billion goods surplus with the United States last year.
Trade tensions between the world’s two largest economies have risen since Trump took office, and although China accounts for only a small fraction of U.S. steel imports, its massive industrial expansion has helped create a global glut of steel that has driven down prices.
Most economists and trade specialists say they doubt the steel and aluminum tariffs alone would trigger a global trade war but point to the risk of further measures against China as a major tipping point. Trump has also threatened to impose hefty tariffs on European car exports if the EU does take retaliatory measures.
Jobless Claims Above 48-Year Low
The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefit claims rebounded last week from a 48-year low, but the trend continued to point to robust labor market conditions.
That was underscored by other data on Thursday showing job reductions fell 20 percent in February. Federal Reserve officials consider the labor market to be near or a little beyond full employment. The tight jobs market is seen raising wage growth and spurring inflation.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased by 21,000 claims to seasonally adjusted 231,000 claims for the week ended March 3, the Labor Department reported. Claims fell to 210,000 claims in the prior week, which was the lowest level since December 1969.
It was the 157th straight week that claims remained below the 300,000 level, which is associated with a strong labor market. That is the longest such stretch since 1970, when the labor market was much smaller.
The claims data has no impact on February’s employment report, which is scheduled for release on Friday, as it falls outside the survey period. Claims mostly declined in February, leading economists to expect another month of strong job growth.
According to a Reuters survey of economists, the Labor Department’s closely followed employment report will likely show that nonfarm payrolls increased by 200,000 jobs last month, matching January’s gains. The unemployment rate is forecast falling one-tenth of a percentage point to 4.0 percent, which would be the lowest level since December 2000.
In a separate report, global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas said employers announced 35,369 job cuts in February, down 20 percent from January.
So far this year, employers have announced 80,022 layoffs, the lowest number of planned job cuts between January and February since 1995. Planned layoffs have been below 50,000 a month for the last 22 months, the longest streak since the company started tracking the series.
The Labor Department report showed the four-week moving average of initial claims, viewed as a better measure of labor market trends because it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 2,000 to 222,500 last week.
It also indicated the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid decreased 64,000 to 1.87 million in the week ended Feb. 24. The four-week moving average of so-called continuing claims fell 14,250 to 1.91 million.