The stock market fell precipitously on Thursday morning, responding to increasingly contentious rhetoric on the trade front between the U.S. and China. Chinese officials urged their American counterparts to change their attitude with respect to what they see as recent provocations, and that signaled the likelihood of continued gridlock and no potential trade deal for the foreseeable future. As of 11:45 a.m. EDT, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI) was down 366 points to 25,411. The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC) fell 38 points to 2,818, and the Nasdaq Composite (NASDAQINDEX: ^IXIC) lost 110 points to 7,641.
Companies across all industries are seeing an impact from the tensions between the world's two largest economic powers, and various markets are reacting in different ways. For ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), a big drop in crude oil prices could bring weaker financial results in the future, while Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG) faces a health-related threat that could make it harder for the restaurant chain to do business the way it wants.
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A crude awakening
Shares of ExxonMobil were down more than 2% on Thursday morning, leading most of its energy stock peers lower. The primary factor was a huge drop in the price of crude oil, with West Texas Intermediate prices falling more than $3 per barrel to just above the $58-per-barrel mark.
Energy traders attributed the move in oil to several factors. Broader trade-related conflict between the U.S. and China could worsen already weak economic conditions in many parts of the world, and that in turn could reduce demand for energy products. The latest readings on domestic energy supplies were also less supportive of the oil market, and some traders also believe that the relationship between the U.S. and Iran could prove less confrontational than originally feared.
For ExxonMobil's part, the oil giant has worked hard to set itself up for whatever the future brings. In its most recent earnings report, the company suffered a setback from especially difficult conditions in refining, but it's still investing substantial resources toward building up its reserves and finding new growth opportunities. Shareholders today don't seem convinced that ExxonMobil can weather a storm in the energy industry, but the global leader is in better condition than most to deal with a sustained period of low crude oil prices.
African swine flu could pressure Chipotle's profits
Meanwhile, Chipotle Mexican Grill saw its shares sink 6%. The Mexican fast-casual restaurant chain took heat from a stock analyst about the potential impact that animal-related diseases overseas could have on its supply chain.
Analysts at BMO Capital Markets downgraded Chipotle from market perform to underperform, pointing to the epidemic of African swine fever that's moving through several key pork production areas in Asia. In cutting their price target on the stock by $55 per share to $620, the BMO analysts noted that Chipotle has substantial needs for pork, and it's historically remained exposed to shifts in commodity prices very quickly after price movements occur. The concern is that if enough pigs die from the disease, remaining supplies will be inadequate to meet global demand.
For its part, Chipotle disputes BMO's analysis. A company representative told me that pork costs make up just 2% of the restaurant chain's total food expenses. Moreover, with pricing agreements in place and an emphasis on obtaining higher-quality pork rather than the commodity pork products that are most likely to be affected by the disease, Chipotle doesn't believe it has significant exposure to the problem.
Until now, Chipotle has mounted an impressive comeback, with CEO Brian Niccol having reinvigorated the burrito chain's business. Swine fever isn't likely to have any immediate impact on the positive things going on at Chipotle, including moves toward integrating technology, marketing, and new menu offerings into a package that appeals to customers. If BMO is right, then higher costs could eventually eat into the restaurant company's profit growth, and that'd be a tough pill to swallow for Chipotle shareholders. Yet the company itself doesn't expect any significant impact on overall costs from the disease. Investors will get confirmation one way or the other when the burrito giant next reports its quarterly results this summer.
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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments received from Chipotle following its initial publication.