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Stocks are tanking as investors fear an escalation of the U.S.-China trade war, but many market pros believe there's a rescue plan that could calm the market.
That "rescue" has to do with what the Trump administration will say about the tariffs on $200 billion in goods that are expected to be raised to 25% from 10% just after midnight. President Donald Trump first warned of the tariffs in tweets on Sunday, when he said China was attempting to renegotiate aspects of trade talks.
"I think that's the most likely thing by the end of the day, pushing off tariffs," said Peter Boockvar, chief investment strategist at Bleakley Advisory Group. "There's going to be an announcement. I have to believe by the end of the day, they're going to say, they're going to continue this conversation for the next few weeks and put the tariffs on hold."
But if there is no announcement, analysts expect more selling.
While not quite what traders were looking for, Trump spoke to the press just after midday, saying he would probably be speaking to China President Xi Jinping soon and there was still hope for a deal.
Trump said that he had received a letter from Xi. But he also added if there was no deal, then tariffs are "an excellent alternative." The Dow erased more than 150 points in losses and was down about 185 points in afternoon trading.
The president also said China can't be renegotiating the deal, and he was starting the paperwork on another $325 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods that have not been subject to tariffs previously.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and other members of the Trump administration are expected to have dinner with China's Vice Premier Liu He, who until Thursday was seen as the potential "deal closer" but now no deal was expected Thursday evening. Liu reportedly no longer has the title of "special envoy."
"There's a lot of conflicting things out there. ... There's rumors the vice premier's power has been limited," said Art Cashin, UBS' director of floor operations at the New York Stock Exchange. "You're living in a world where one Trump tweet can change everything."
The Dow was down as much as 449 points in midmorning trading, and Cashin said there was some thinking in the market that Trump will take some action to stop the decline. He noted that Trump tweeted positive comments about China's commitment to a deal Wednesday, which helped temporarily lift stocks.
The bond market, meanwhile, was seeing a surge of buying, which drove the 10-year yield to 2.43% and its yield is now lower than that of the 3-month bill. That is called an inverted yield curve, meaning the longer-dated security yield is below the shorter. That's a reliable sign of pending recession if it the inversion lingers. It had been inverted earlier this year, but reversed on better economic data and signs trade talks were progressing.
"I think there's a general feeling here ... the bears are a little nervous he's going to come in and say something, like conversations are cooperating and maybe we can postpone this for a week, or something like that, and it could have an impact on the market," said Cashin.
But State Street's Michael Arone said the Trump administration can still move forward with tariffs but then take its time implementing them.
"If they have dinner, and the U.S. side isn't satisfied with the Chinese response, and they pursue the tariffs beginning at 12:01, I still think in the end, over the next few weeks, the two sides will hash out some kind of mutual agreement where they can move forward. Both sides do not want a prolonged trade war," said Arone, his firm's chief investment strategist.
Arone said the market is likely to continue selling if it looks like negotiations will be extended for a lengthy period. "If it's concluded that the U.S. and China will not reach a trade agreement any time soon, you could have your typical correction, between 5 and 8%. That's not my expectation. I think cooler heads will prevail," he said.
Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial, said the market is hoping to hear that nobody walked out of talks and that the negotiations will continue.
"There's just too much uncertainty embedded in these negotiations. You could just sit there in cash and wait," she said, adding that the market is watching for comments from the trade representative for a better read on the situation.
"When the doves from the administration communicate optimism, the market has grown weary of that. [Investors] are actually following Lighthizer," she said. She added that there's been talk that he has been meeting with members of Congress to discuss the talks and tariffs.
Analysts have said the increase in tariffs and any retaliatory response from China threaten to hurt the global economy and corporate profits, making stocks around the world appear overpriced. The impact would be less on the U.S. economy, but there is concern the situation will escalate. Trump has threatened to put tariffs on another $300 billion of Chinese goods, though the administration has taken no action on that.
Arone said Trump no doubt was empowered by the strength of the U.S. market, and the fact that until this week, stocks were near highs. He said he didn't put a lot of faith in a report that the Chinese felt emboldened by Trump's tweet calling for a Fed rate cut because it made the U.S. economy look weak.
"More likely to have happened is Trump felt like this economy grew more quickly in the first quarter, the employment numbers prior to his tweets over the weekend were very strong. The rumor I was hearing was Lighthizer and folks suggested China was backing away from their previous promises, and Trump reacted," Arone said.