In fear of FANGs, volatile markets look for reasons to bite: Don Pittis
Is it Trump bad-mouthing Amazon and threatening China that moved markets or has the investor mood changed?
According to one calculation earlier this week, by Monday President Donald Trump's Twitter attack on Amazon had cost the company's boss Jeff Bezos $16 billion US, as the high technology retailer plunged in market value.
It was just one of a series of apparently unrelated stories that had traders unloading technology stocks.
As the week began, a new round of trade war threats added to the tech news to set off market nerves, at one point sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 700 points.
So has an outbreak of world news really made things so much more dangerous for investors or is there something else afoot?
Making Amazon pay
Looked at individually, the market-moving news seemed laden with doom.
With his attacks on Amazon — he was at it again yesterday — Trump seemed to be implying that one of his country's top technology champions would face a legislative attack, led by the executive branch of the U.S. government, to make the company pay more tax or contribute more to the postal service.
"Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments," he tweeted.
I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election. Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!—@realDonaldTrump
But Amazon wasn't the only tech giant facing a fright.
Many reports predicted Facebook users would abandon the site in droves after it was revealed data from the social media titan may have helped Russia swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election that put Trump in office.
Another story had electric car company Tesla in retreat after Elon Musk joked the company was heading for bankruptcy.
There's no T for Tesla in FANG, and no U for Uber, but both companies got unwelcome attention for car crashes that appeared to discredit their self-driving technology.
As well as weighing in on Amazon, the U.S. president had a second contribution to destabilizing markets, as the trade war he has been calling for actually seemed to be underway.
While some analysts blamed Monday's stock market sell-off on FANGs, others insisted the cause was what they called a "tariff tantrum" as the U.S. S&P 500 index headed into correction territory for the second time this year. (In market parlance, a correction is when stocks fall more than 10 per cent from a recent peak.)
China's Easter weekend response was to slap trade duties of up to 25 per cent on 128 U.S. products, including pork, apples and scrap aluminum, affecting $3 billion worth of U.S. goods.
Perhaps more worrying was the thought that Trump would react the same way he did in disputes with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, responding to China's retaliation with threats of an even bigger counter-retaliation, as he did last night with new tariffs on 1,300 Chinese products.
But by Tuesday cooler heads had prevailed in stock markets. Even Amazon shares were up despite the fresh Trump Twitter attack.
Taken one by one it seems traders realized there may have been less to all those gloomy news stories than the headlines implied.
There's little doubt that Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who also owns the influential Washington Post, sees Trump as a political adversary, but his company is doing fine. The rates he pays to the U.S. postal service that Trump has complained about were negotiated by contract, and it is no secret that Amazon is in the process of setting up its own delivery service.
While Facebook is currently taking flak on security, a chat with anyone addicted to the social media platform will indicate that, while casual users and activists might be participating in the "delete Facebook" campaign, diehards are going nowhere.
In the self-driving car business you can expect plenty more crashes and deaths before the systems are perfected, but road deaths — around 30,000 per year in the U.S. — have never stood in the way of driving technology or automotive profits.
And trade? Trump may have convinced his supporters that China's a cheat, but many of those same supporters could make their anger known in the midterms if the president's loose talk means they lose their jobs. Republicans in Congress are getting one more reminder that a trade war benefits no one.
Clearly having such erratic leadership doesn't help, but even while Trump tweets threats linking NAFTA with his promised border wall, the latest word from those in the know is that the deal could be completed within the month, news that sent the loonie sharply higher yesterday.
Yesterday the Dow regained most of its Monday losses, but this week's return to volatility is a reminder that it is not necessarily the individual pieces of news that matter.
Instead, it may be that telling a market story based on tweets and car crashes misses the point.
In March before Trump began his attacks, Amazon shares had almost doubled in a year. Other tech giants have followed a similar trajectory.
With a feeling of uncertainty over trade and the confusing leadership of President Trump, it is not the individual news stories but the nervousness of investors that is the common feature as small scares trigger the impulse of anxious investors looking for reasons to sell.
Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis
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