In fear of FANGs, volatile markets look for reasons to bite: Don Pittis

From fear of FANG stocks to trade war terror, the market's hair-trigger reveals something seems to have changed.

Is it Trump bad-mouthing Amazon and threatening China that moved markets or has the investor mood changed?

Just choosing a name like FANGs for the world's top U.S. tech stocks may a sign that some traders fear the market has got ahead of itself. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

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.

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. 

FANGs exposed?

Another story had electric car company Tesla in retreat after Elon Musk joked the company was heading for bankruptcy.

Suddenly the market was in terror of FANG stocks, an acronym for a group of tech stocks led by Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (sometimes called faangs to include Apple).
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in better times, before the company was forced to acknowledge its data had been used in a way that may have undermined democracy. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

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.

Tariff tantrum

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.)

Recently Canada breathed a sigh of relief that we had been excused from Trump's promised tariffs on steel and aluminum. But as the list of those being excused from the tariff grew, China could not help noticing that it was the one left paying Trump's protectionist tax on trade. 
President Donald Trump, joined by head of the U.S. navy dressed as an Easter Bunny. Trump's tweets have been blamed for destabilizing trade. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

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.

Cooler heads

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.

Market mood

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 the past, a cluster of stocks pulling ahead of the rest of the market has been a signal that traders have become a little too exuberant. 

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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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.