If you looked only at the weekly closing numbers for the S&P 500 stock index, you’d think the last few days were a cheerful Santa Claus rally. In reality, it was a wild and unnerving week in which stocks swung manically and traders struggled to figure out what caused it all.
Stocks opened the week with a 2.7% selloff on Christmas Eve. The next trading day, Dec. 26, stocks plunged again, but then reversed to end up 5%, more than offsetting the previous daily loss. Stocks eased higher the rest of the week, ending 2.9% higher, which sounds like a typical Santa Claus rally.
It’s an ominous upswing, however. Analysts warned that such extreme buying and selling suggests wavering confidence and more volatility ahead. On the whole, stocks seem likely to end December down around 10%. And for the year, the S&P 500 is down around 8%, the worst annual performance since 2008—the year Lehman Brothers failed.
President Donald Trump refrained from saying much about the stock market this week. But he was a factor nonetheless, in at least four ways that are adding to uncertainty just as doubts are creeping in about economic fundamentals. Since the markets don’t need destabilizing signals from Washington right now, this week’s Trump-o-meter reads FAILING, our second-worst reading.
We’re giving Trump a low grade in a week when the markets actually rose because of suspicions that stocks will turn down again soon, once year-end factors that seem to have boosted stocks are no longer at play. Here’s how Trump is weighing on markets right now:
The partial government shutdown, which Trump famously said he would take credit for, is denting consumer and business confidence at a time when the economy seems to be weakening slightly.
The Trump tariffs on Chinese imports and other foreign goods continue to raise costs for businesses and consumers. The longer they go on, the higher the cost, plus there’s the risk of even-larger tariffs if there’s no trade deal with China by Trump’s March 1 deadline.
For still inexplicable reasons, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Dec. 23 that he had checked with the six biggest U.S. banks and discovered there are no capital shortages to be worried about. Nobody knew Mnuchin was even thinking about capital shortages, so the assurance led some investors to wonder if Mnuchin knows something worrisome they don’t, like a shady dude who insists there’s no body in the trunk of that car over there. Mnuchin probably knew his unassuring assurance wouldn’t assure anybody but did it to show his boss, President Trump, that he’s doing his part to talk up (down) markets.
Continued browbeating of Fed chair Jay Powell, who Trump says is raising interest rates too fast. The Federal Reserve has raised rates a grand total of 2.25 percentage points since 2015, with rates for mortgages, car loans, and other types of consumer spending still below historical averages. Yet rates are too high for Trump, who, it turns out, has around $340 million worth of variable-rate loans that get more expensive when the Fed raises rates. Markets don’t think Trump’s attacks on Powell and the Fed are having any effect, but if it appears Trump really does begin to influence Fed policy, markets won’t react kindly.
Yahoo Finance’s Myles Udland thinks Trump deserves a lower grade this week—and there’s only one lower grade on the Trump-o-meter, which is SAD, our equivalent of an F. “What is it going to take to give him a SAD?” Myles pleads in the video above. “All of these things that are negative for the economy—so many of them are Trump-induced. The trade war is clearly the thing that’s freaking out the stock market the most.”
Myles is probably right—but we’re saving SAD for an actual recession or a bigger plunge in stocks than we’ve seen so far. The basic economy, after all, is still looking good, and stocks still haven’t entered an official bear market. Things can get considerably worse, in other words—which is precisely what stock investors seem to be worrying about.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman