SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK: Wall Street's poor start to December has some investors bracing for a choppy end-of-year as fears about the U.S.-China trade war resurface.
The S&P 500 suffered its third successive decline on Tuesday, and is down almost 2per cent since closing at a record high last Wednesday. The latest selling came after U.S. President Donald Trump suggested a trade agreement with China might not happen before the U.S. presidential election in November 2020.
U.S. stock index futures staged a partial recovery early on Wednesday, following a report that the United States and China were moving closer to signing a 'phase-one' trade deal.
At 7:04 a.m. ET, S&P 500 e-minis were up 11.25 points, or 0.36per cent.
The overall uncertainty about the ultimate fate of a trade deal has led Wall Street investors to take to the equity options market to hedge against a downturn.
Investors are particularly sensitive about potential end-of-year weakness after the final month of 2018 was the worst December on Wall Street since the Great Depression.
"The narrative on trade has quickly been turned upside down as negative headlines on tariffs have ignited a risk averse tone in the markets," Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist for Allianz Investment Management, wrote in an email, referring to the bumpy start to the week.
The constant barrage of trade-related headlines - some positive, others negative - has left traders on edge.
"How can one tease reality out of the trade headlines when what we read could simply be leverage-seeking from each side?" Citigroup Inc analysts Bill O'Donnell and Ed Acton said in a note on Wednesday.
Wall Street has been shaken at times this year by trade-related tweets and comments by Trump, but the market overall has extended its decade-long rally, helped by low interest rates.
(GRAPHIC: U.S.-China trade war timeline Image - https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-STOCKS/0100B33L2BV/china-trade-timeline.png)
A basket of trade-related stocks has surged about 21per cent this year, although short of the S&P 500's 23per cent rally, reflecting investors' cautious optimism a deal would be reached.
(GRAPHIC: U.S. trade stocks trail - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/12/9457/9369/Tradeper cent20stocksper cent20trail.jpg)
Investment strategists recently polled by Reuters on average expected U.S. stocks to rise in 2020 at a modest pace, helped by low interest rates, stable global growth and a better-than-expected recovery in U.S. earnings.
Positioning in stock options appears to be cautious, however, particularly for those contracts expiring soon after December 15, when new U.S. tariffs on another US$300 billion worth of Chinese imports are set to kick in, including on cell phones, laptop computers and toys.
(GRAPHIC: S&P 500 options Dec open contracts - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/12/9452/9364/Pastedper cent20Image.jpg)
(GRAPHIC: SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust options Dec open contracts - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/12/9453/9365/Pastedper cent20Image.jpg)
It is not unusual to see a bias toward defensive options in broad index options. However, the overall put-to-call ratio of S&P 500 options is near the most defensive it has been in at least five years, according to Trade Alert data.
Defensive positioning into the year-end appears to stem from a combination of worries about a trade deal not coming to fruition and from investors protecting gains after Wall Street's strong performance this year, said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin.
"When you are up 25per cent year-to-date, you would almost be a fool to not put on some sort of downside hedge or do something to protect yourself, especially with this critical date coming up (Dec 15)," Frederick said.
(Reporting by Noel Randewich in San Francisco, additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak and Stephen Culp in New York; editing by Megan Davies and Bill Berkrot)