As the Trump Administration rolls out steel and aluminum tariffs and preps a list of Chinese tech products to impose tariffs on, there's likely a lot of concern within the offices of big U.S. tech firms about retaliatory measures -- both official and unofficial -- that could sting their top and bottom lines.
Indeed, many tech giants followed the overall market's sharp decline on Thursday on concerns about a trade war, with Alphabet (GOOGL) falling 3.8%, Netflix (NFLX) stumbling 3.1%, Microsoft (MSFT) dropping 2.9% and Amazon (AMZN) declining 2.4%.
But in some circles, there might also be some hope that the Administration's actions will eventually yield some kind of compromise that puts them on better footing in a giant market that many large U.S. tech firms have found difficult to navigate.
On Thursday, two weeks after signing off on steel and aluminum tariffs that exempt some U.S. allies, President Trump signed an executive memorandum calling for tariffs on an estimated $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. The tariffs, which will be spelled out in 15 days and then subject to a 30-day comment period, are said to be in retaliation for intellectual property (IP) theft by China, and will target tech products in areas where China is deemed to have an advantage.
In comments made to the Senate, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer indicated aeronautics and rail products would be among the ones targeted by the tariffs, as would "new energy vehicles" -- presumably a reference to electric and hybrid cars/buses. Trump will reportedly weigh further actions against China in two weeks.
China's WTO ambassador says his country is thinking of filing a WTO complaint regarding the tariffs, as well as taking other unspecified actions. Lighthizer has said that China -- perhaps wanting a response that will disproportionately affect states that Trump won in the 2016 election -- is likely to retaliate by imposing tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports.
Naturally, many firms are worried about the impact of the tariffs on the prices they pay for Chinese materials, components and goods. By increasing prices for finished goods, the steel and aluminum tariffs could impact everyone from PC makers such as HP (HPQ) to online retailers such as Amazon.com to EV makers such as Tesla (TSLA) .
And depending on what products are covered by the Chinese tech tariffs, there could be additional fallout. If Chinese-manufactured chips and electronics components make the list, then hardware makers and component distributors would pay a price, while some U.S. chipmakers would benefit. And if finished goods from contract manufacturers are on the list, then Apple (AAPL) would be hurt, while a U.S.-based contract manufacturer such as Jabil (JBL) might not be as upset.
Meanwhile, even if initial Chinese retaliation targets agricultural goods, future measures could hit tech exports. Semiconductors are one possible target, given the massive orders Chinese manufacturers place with Intel (INTC) , Qualcomm (QCOM) , Skyworks (SWKS) and many other U.S. chipmakers. Tariffs on exports from Apple, Tesla and/or enterprise IT hardware makers are also conceivable. However, in some cases (such as Apple's), the fact that U.S. hardware makers rely on Chinese contract manufacturers would make such measures a dual-edged sword.
The risk of informal retaliation also needs to be appreciated. U.S. IT hardware makers such as Cisco Systems (CSCO) and IBM (IBM) got a taste of this a few years ago, when the Chinese government pushed local firms not to buy American IT products following the NSA spying uproar. Something similar could happen in response to tariffs placed on Chinese tech exports; calls for consumer boycotts of U.S. tech products are also conceivable.
Greater regulatory pressure on U.S. tech firms is another avenue for informal retaliation. Qualcomm, whose pending acquisition of NXP Semiconductors (NXPI) has received every needed regulatory approval outside of China, could be a casualty of this. Earlier this week, China's Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) said it wants Qualcomm to offer more protections for local firms before approving the NXP deal. Qualcomm also has an outstanding patent-licensing dispute with Chinese tech/electronics giant Huawei; however, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month the companies are in settlement talks.
But for all the direct and indirect headaches that a trade battle with China could cause, a U.S. government push for China to crack down on IP theft has to be music to the ears of some tech companies. Microsoft, whose Chinese Windows and Office sales have been badly hurt by piracy, might not object to such a push. The same goes for chipmakers who have been hesitant to have their most advanced products manufactured in China for fear that designs and trade secrets will be stolen.
In addition, Internet giants such as Alphabet/Google , Facebook and Netflix, whose offerings have been blocked or severely restricted in China, might hope that trade talks will open the door to greater Chinese availability for their apps and services. That said, the fact that some (though not all) of these restrictions have to do with an unwillingness to comply with China's harsh censorship laws presents a unique complication.
We should have more clarity in a couple of weeks about both what Chinese tech products the Trump Administration wants to take aim at, and what Beijing's response will look like. As the battle plays out, it's worth keeping in mind that while many tech giants are understandably worried about the impact of a full-scale trade war between the world's two largest economies, many are also less than thrilled with the status quo.
Jim Cramer and the AAP team hold a position in Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft for their Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells AAPL? Learn more now.