The Trump administration's Dec. 15 deadline for new tariffs on China looms large, and while most strategists expect them to be delayed while talks continue, they don't rule out the unexpected.
"That's the biggest thing in the room next week. I don't think he's going to raise them. I think they'll find a reason," said James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Leuthold Group. But Paulsen said President Donald Trump's unpredictable nature makes it really impossible to tell what will happen as the deadline nears.
"He's the one off you're never sure about. It's not just tariffs. It could be damn near anything," Paulsen said. "I think he goes out of his way to be a wild card."
Just in the past week, Trump said he would put new tariffs on Brazil, Argentina and France. He rattled markets when he said he could wait until after the election for a trade deal with China.
Once dubbing himself "tariff man," Trump reminded markets that he sees tariffs as a way of getting what he wants from an opponent, and traders were reminded tariffs may be around for a long time.
Trade certainly could be the most important event for markets in the week ahead, which also includes a Fed interest rate decision Wednesday and the U.K.'s election that could set the course for Brexit. If there's no China deal, that could beat up stocks, send Treasury yields lower and send investors into other safe havens.
When Fed officials meet this week, they are not expected to change interest rates, but they are likely to discuss whether they believe their repo operations to drive liquidity in the short-term funding market are running smoothly, ahead of year end. Economic reports in the coming week include CPI inflation Wednesday, which could be an important input for the Fed.
As of Friday, the White House did not appear any closer to striking a deal with China, though officials say talks are going fine. Back in August, Trump said if there is no deal, Dec. 15 is the date for a new wave of tariffs on $156 billion in Chinese goods, including cell phones, toys and lap top computers.
Dan Clifton, head of policy research at Strategas, said it seems like a low probability there will be a deal in the coming week. "What the market is focused on right now is whether there's going to be tariffs that to into effect on Dec. 15, or not. It's being rated pretty binary," said Clifton. "I think what's happening here and the actions by China overnight looks like we're setting up for a kick."
China removed some tariffs from U.S. agricultural products Friday, and administration officials have been talking about discussions going fine.
Clifton said if tariffs are put on hold, it's unclear for how long. "Those are going to be larger questions that have to be answered. This is really now about politics. Is it a better idea for the president to cut a deal without major structural reforms, or should he walk away? That's the larger debate that has to happen after Dec. 15," Clifton said. "I'm getting worried that some in the administration... they're leaning toward no deal category."
Clifton said Trump's approval rating falls when the trade wars heat up, so that may motivate him to complete the deal with China even if he doesn't get everything he wants.
Michael Schumacher, director of rates strategy at Wells Fargo, said his base case is for a trade deal to be signed in the next couple of months, but even so, he said he can't entirely rule out another outcome. It would make sense for tariffs to be put on hold while talks continue.
"The tweeter-in-chief controls that one, " said Schumacher. "That's anybody's guess...I wouldn't be at all surprised if he suspends it for a few weeks. If he doesn't, that's a pretty unpleasant result. That's risk off. That's pretty clear."
Because the next group of tariffs would be on consumer goods, economists fear they could hit the economy through the consumer, the strongest and largest engine behind economic growth.
The Fed has moved to the sidelines and says it is monitoring economic data before deciding its next move. Friday's strong November jobs report, with 266,000 jobs added, reinforces the Fed's decision to move to neutral for now.
So the most important headlines from its meeting this week could be about the repo market, basically the plumbing for the financial system where financial institutions fund themselves. Interest rates in that somewhat obscure market spiked in September. Market pros said the issue was a cash crunch in the short term lending market, made better when the Fed started repo operations.
The Fed now has multiple operations running over year-end, and Schumacher said it has latitude to do more. Strategists expect there to be more pressure on the repo market as banks rein in operations to spruce up their balance sheets at year- end.
"No one is going to come to the Fed and say you did too much in the year-end funding," said Schumacher. "If repo happens to spike somewhat on one day, the Fed is going to hammer it the next day."
Paulsen said the markets will be attuned to this week's inflation numbers. Consumer inflation, the CPI is reported on Wednesday and producer prices are Thursday.
A pickup in inflation of any significance is one thing that could pull the Fed from the sidelines, and prod it to consider a rate hike.
"I think the inflation reports might start to get a little attention. Given the jobs numbers, the employment rate, growth picking up a little bit and a better tone in manufacturing. I do think if you get some hot CPI number, I don't know if the Fed can ignore it," he said. "Core CPI is 2.3%." He said it would get noticed if it jumped to 2.5% or better.
The Fed's inflation target is 2% but its preferred measure is the PCE inflation, and that remains under 2%.
Stocks were sharply higher Friday but ended the past week flattish. The S&P 500 was slightly higher, up 0.2% at 3,145, and the Dow was down 0.1% at 28,015. The Nasdaq was 0.1% lower, ending the week at 8,656.
no economic reports
FOMC begins two-day meeting
6:00 a.m. NFIB
8:30 am. Productivity and costs
8:30 a.m. CPI
10:00 a.m. QSS
2:00 p.m. Federal budget
2:00 p.m. FOMC statement
2:30 p.m. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell briefs media
8:30 a.m. Initial claims
8:30 a.m. PPI
8:30 a.m. Retail sales
8:30 a.m. Import prices
10:00 a.m. Business inventories