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Major US companies are facing the same China question, and their answers are slowly shedding light on Trump’s trade war impact



Workers are seen on scaffolding at a construction site in Nantong, Jiangsu province, China January 1, 2019.REUTERS/Stringer

  • The impact of the US-China trade war is one of the central themes for US corporations this earnings season.
  • While uncertainty around trade negotiations has been largely cited as a negative factor for companies and the market, a new FactSet report suggests the impact may not be so straightforward.
  • So far this earnings season, it’s been nearly an even split between S&P 500 companies citing a negative impact linked to either China or tariffs — or both — and those who have cited a positive one.

For months, uncertainty surrounding US-China trade relations has sent the market into a tizzy.

Heading into the new year, the Trump administration’s trade war with China was economists’ top concern. Apple’s recent revenue warning sparked fears of a slowdown in China — the world’s second-largest economy — and dragged down the whole market. Dozens of manufacturing companies testified before Congress in the fall about the trade war’s negative ramifications on their businesses.  

But a new report examining S&P 500 companies’ commentary alongside their quarterly results suggests the impact hasn’t been so straightforward. 

Read more: Stocks are falling after a fresh set of horrible data out of China reignited worries about the global economy

“It is interesting to note that the terms ‘China’ or ‘tariff’ (or both) have been mentioned during the earnings calls of 11 S&P 500 companies to date, with six of these 11 companies citing a negative impact linked to either China or tariffs (or both),” wrote John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet, the financial data and software company. “However, almost the same number of S&P 500 companies (5) have cited a positive impact or expressed a positive sentiment about China to date.”

Specifically, Butters honed in on the 11 firms this earnings season that have held conference calls through Monday. To be sure, just 4% of the S&P 500’s components have reported their results.

Here’s a breakdown of all the headwinds S&P 500 companies have cited this earnings season:

Number of S&P 500 companies citing negative impact on Q4 earnings calls.FactSet

So far, foreign exchange-related headwinds have been the top negative impact. The US dollar surged last year, which can have an adverse effect on multinational firms who need to convert local currencies back into dollars.  

More granularly, FactSet searched for specific terms related to China and trade, and then assessed what kind of sentiment surrounded those terms. Negativity could have been expressed with “volatility,” “uncertainty,” “pressure,” or “headwind.” Carnival, the international cruise line, fell into both buckets.

The companies so far that have expressed what FactSet categorizes as “negative” sentiment around China are: AutoZone, Costco, FedEx, Micron, Carnival, and Cintas.

Meanwhile, the companies FactSet said expressed “positive” commentary around China and trade are: Adobe, General Mills, Carnival, Accenture, and Nike.

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