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Wall Street's alarm on trade spreads with Goldman's bear warning

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While US equity investors have kept their cool during this year's escalation of trade tensions, the warnings from Wall Street are only getting louder.

[NEW YORK] While US equity investors have kept their cool during this year's escalation of trade tensions, the warnings from Wall Street are only getting louder.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc and JPMorgan Chase & Co have weighed in, highlighting the potential danger to corporate America if a full-blown trade war erupts. In separate notes this week, strategists at the firms estimated the possible hit to earnings. Goldman chief strategist David Kostin went as far as to call for a bear market under a scenario where the US imposed 10 per cent tariffs on all imports.

The concerns echo those of UBS Group AG strategist Keith Parker, who last week alerted investors that the standout resilience of US stocks is under threat with US President Donald Trump mulling a new round of levies against China. Amid the global retreat from monetary stimulus, Morgan Stanley has also soured on equities.

"We're not that bullish on equities anywhere globally at Morgan Stanley right now," Jonathan Garner, chief strategist for Asia and emerging markets, said in Hong Kong on Thursday. "The latest move that we made on the US side was to recommend reducing positions in U.S. equities," he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

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Morgan Stanley is instead recommending securitised products linked to Libor, "to take advantage of those higher short yields", Mr Garner said.

While all the anxiety seems to be at odds with investor attitudes - considering they've pushed the S&P 500 Index towards its best year since 2014 versus the rest of the world - it coincides with growing unease among corporate executives.

Trade associations are mobilising to advocate a de-escalation in the trade war - read about that here.

After studying more than 7,000 earnings transcripts and conference calls, JPMorgan found that trade tariffs surpassed tax cuts as a more frequent topic during the last reporting season, with 35 per cent of companies citing them as a threat. The firm's strategists led by Dubravko Lakos-Bujas estimate that the combined per-share earnings for S&P 500 companies could drop by as much as US$10 if bi-lateral tariffs of 25 per cent are imposed. This year's earnings forecast for the benchmark is US$165 per share.

"Trade escalation could be a significant drag on forward EPS (earnings per share), especially next year," Mr Lakos-Bujas wrote.

Goldman's Mr Kostin painted a more dire picture. A 25 per cent tariff on Chinese goods could wipe out growth for S&P 500 companies next year. And in a more extreme case, where the US imposed levies on all global imports, earnings could drop 10 percent as costs went up for Americans, the firm estimated.

Investor sentiment could also suffer, driving down valuations. As a result, the worst-case scenario could result in the S&P 500 falling to 2,230, Mr Kostin wrote in a note earlier this week. That would represent a 23 per cent decline from the record 2,914 reached last month, meeting the traditional definition of a bear market.

The S&P 500 briefly rebounded on Wednesday on news that the US is proposing new round of trade talks with China in the near future. The benchmark gauge has climbed about 8 per cent this year, compared with a 6 per cent decline in the MSCI World ex-US Index.

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