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Trade war: US-China trade dispute took executives by surprise

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If there’s an elephant in the room that US multinational corporations are grappling with, it’s the ongoing trade war between the two largest economies in the world.

Executives at S&P 500 companies addressed how the US-China trade dispute impacted their company’s first-quarter earnings results, detailing a significant degree of uncertainty and the extent of their exposure.

It’s one of the three major themes highlighted by Goldman Sachs strategists in a quarterly report released this week analyzing excerpts from 40 first-quarter conference calls.

Executives said the uncertainty over trade made it more difficult to navigate their relationship with China but did not have significant near-term ramifications.

“The decision by President Trump to raise tariffs surprised both managements and investors who had believed the trade friction was moving towards a resolution,” the strategists, led by David Kostin, wrote in a report to clients out Monday.

Downward pressure on profit margins remains a risk for many companies, the strategists said, while some corporations were already preparing to shift their supply chains away from China to minimize the impact.

“We’ve been very, very highly focused not only at fixing long-term problems by diversifying away from China our supply, but also by creating, through our procurement organization and supply chain, a number of partnerships which are almost standby partnerships, ready to jump in as soon as we have issues,” Pierre Brondeau, the chairman and CEO the chemical manufacturer FMC, said on his company’s earnings call earlier this month.

It should be noted that the comments listed below were made before the most recent escalation in the trade war, which rocked global markets over the last week. China on Monday hiked tariffs on $60 billion worth of US goods, sending markets plunging.

That followed President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last Friday that the US would raise tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports to 25%. The announcement took investors by surprise after Trump earlier this month said Beijing and Washington’s trade talks were progressing.

Below is a selection of what companies about the trade war’s impact on business:

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