The weakest supply-chain link?
U.S. tech stocks could be the among the most vulnerable to downside risk if President Donald Trump goes ahead with his threat to impose tariffs on $200 billion worth of China-made goods and officials in Beijing strike back with targeted disruptions to U.S. supply chains with "export restraints".
The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Trump Administration is ready to apply the 10% tariffs as early as today, taking the total amount of goods subject to new U.S. levies to $250 billion, with a further $267 billion worth of goods poised for inclusion if, as Trump has warned, China decides to retaliate.
Chinese officials, in fact, have said they would, with the state-run Global Times writing that the country was "looking forward to a more beautiful counter-attack and will keep increasing the pain felt by the U.S."
China imports around $130 billion of American-made goods each year, meaning any attempt to match Trump's new tariff plan would quickly run out of products to target, leaving Beijing with a broader option of changing industrial policy -- or even erecting higher barriers to entry -- in the world's second-largest economy.
U.S. tech stocks, however, may already be experiencing some of that discomfort: the S&P 500 Information Technology Index is down 1.15% so far this month, while the Philadelphia SE Semiconductor index, a benchmark for the chip sector, is down 1.7%, against a modestly 0.11% gain for the S&P 500
Technology stocks were the weakest in Europe today, as well, with the sector falling 0.39%, extending its month-to-date decline past 5%.
Earlier this month, CEOs from some of the biggest U.S. tech companies, including Cisco Systems (CSCO) , Dell Technologies (DELL) , Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) , urged U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to re-consider the White House's plan to impose tariffs of up to 25% on inbound goods from China, arguing the move would "cause broad, disproportionate economic harm to U.S. interests, including our companies and U.S. workers, our customers, U.S. consumers, and broader U.S. economic and strategic priorities" while slowing investment for the rollout of 5-G networks and advances in cloud computing.
"In addition to leaving us with less capital to invest in research and development, over time the reduced profits that the duties could cause could lead to hiring freezes, stagnant wages, and even job losses, as well as harm to investors such as reduced dividends and erosion of shareholder value," the companies said.
In fact, a recent Morgan Stanley research note estimated escalating tit-for-tat tariffs would have an increasingly large impact on global supply chains, as opposed to direct economic growth, and that equity market models were not capturing potential weakness due to lower margins, higher prices, hiring reductions and slowing household consumption.
"In other words, the related impact will not remain within domestic players in the economy being targeted, but spread far wider than the territorial constraints imposed by the trade barrier," said Morgan Stanley's global head of economics Chetan Ahya.
U.S. tech companies, including Action Alerts Plus holding Apple, which sold more iPhones in China than it has in the US for the past three years and generated 20% of its nearly $200 billion in annual revenues there, have important links to both mainland China and Taiwan.
China's insertion into the global tech supply chain wasn't an accident, according to a study from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission published earlier this year.
The Chinese government considers the ICT sector a "strategic sector" in which it has invested significant state capital and influence on behalf of state-owned (information and communications technology enterprises) and its influence has grown significantly over the past 20 years.
In 1997, for example, computers and telecommunication devices, electrical equipment, and related machinery imports from China accounted for around a third of the overall total. Last year, that same group of products measured 54% of America's $375 billion trade deficit.
The study found that seven major American tech companies -- Hewlett Packard (HP) , IBM (IBM) , Dell Inc, Cisco Systems, Unisys Corp (UIS) , Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Intel Inc (INTC) -- source more than half of their products and components from China.
"The U.S. government needs a national strategy for supply chain risk management of commercial supply chain vulnerabilities in U.S. federal information and communications technology, including procurement linked to China," the report said.
"This strategy must include supporting policies so that U.S. security posture is forward-leaning, rather than reactive and based on responding to vulnerabilities, breaches, and other incidents after they have already damaged U.S. national security, economic competitiveness, or the privacy of U.S. citizens."