Wall Street ends volatile month in major test for Trump

Wall Street ended a wild August with the Dow up slightly on Friday, capping a tumultuous month for the global economy that spurred a wave of volatility in financial markets and posed a challenge for President TrumpDonald John TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 index and Nasdaq closed the final day of August trading little changed from their Friday opens, with the Dow and S&P up only 0.2 and 0.1 percent, respectively.

But the three indices were well below their levels at the start of the month after a notoriously rough stretch for Wall Street. The Dow fell 1.76 percent in August, down 474 points. The index this month suffered two of its seven largest point losses, falling by 800 points on Aug. 14 and 767 points on Aug. 5.

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The S&P suffered a similar 1.84 percent decline, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq sunk 2.6 percent for August ahead of new tariffs on Chinese-made consumer electronics and parts. Overall, major U.S. indexes are still close to the record highs they notched earlier in the summer, and stocks in general have skyrocketed since President Trump took office in 2017.

But the whiplash August for Wall Street appears likely to stretch into autumn, a troubling prospect for Trump.

The president is depending on a strong economy to woo voters in the swing states critical to his 2020 reelection campaign. An unemployment rate near historic lows, solid economic growth, rising wages and booming consumer spending gives Trump ample data to bolster his case.

The recent turmoil also threatens to undermine that, as Trump has often tied the success of his economic agenda to the daily ups and downs of the stock market. And the roller-coaster August comes at a critical time for the president with growing worries about his trade wars with China and Europe and concerns about an impending recession.

Trump has attempted to soothe anxious traders by talking up progress toward a deal with China. 

“Stocks were boosted as China said it wants to resolve the trade issues with the U.S. with a ‘calm” attitude,” wrote Ryan Sweet, director of real-time economics at Moody’s Analytics, in a Thursday research note. “We have seen these cease fires prove to be short-lived. Therefore, this doesn’t alter our subjective odds of a deal being struck, which remains low.”

The president has also brushed off or even joked about some of Wall Street’s bloodiest August losses.

When asked by reporters at the Group of Seven (G-7) summit about the financial market turmoil caused by his trade policy, Trump replied “Sorry, that’s how I negotiate.”

Last Friday, as the Dow Jones closed with a 2.4 percent loss on Aug. 23 after China announced new tariffs, the president joked that stocks were falling because Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Wall Street ends volatile month in major test for Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Hurricane headed for Florida changes Trump's travel plans MORE (D-Mass.) suspended his 2020 presidential campaign. 

While Trump has scrambled to contain rising fears of a recession, the U.S. economy has shown unmistakable signs of slowing down amid global headwinds and the rising costs of his trade battles. Retractions in the United Kingdom and Germany, fading growth in China and a slew of geopolitical risks have also dampened the U.S. economic outlook.

The stream of dire headlines and massive swings on Wall Street during August have led to the steepest drop in consumer confidence since 2012, according to the closely watched University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey. 

“While the overall level of sentiment is still consistent with modest gains in consumption during the year ahead, the data nonetheless increased the likelihood that consumers could be pushed off the tariff cliff in the months ahead," said Richard Curtin, the University of Michigan economist and director of the consumer sentiment survey.

"This could result in a much slower growth in consumption and the overall economy,” he added.

Trump is also taking a greater share of blame for the obstacles facing the economy. In a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters released Wednesday, 41 percent of respondents blamed the president’s policies for damaging the economy, the highest level since Trump took office.

Consumer spending makes up roughly 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and households have fueled the strong economy with ample spending even amid rising anxiety. That dynamic makes a decline in consumer confidence a crucial warning of a broader economic slowdown.

“Consumers dipped into their savings to spend more in July,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, in a Friday research note. “It is unclear how long they will continue to do so, given the slowdown in incomes and prospect of more tariffs on the horizon.”

As sliding stocks drive anxiety higher, Trump has remained defiant under growing pressure from businesses, farmers, and his own party to end his trade war with China.

The president has dismissed fears of a recession, accusing Democrats and the media of attempting to sabotage the economy to derail his campaign. He’s also intensified his pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates to the near-zero levels of European countries facing deeper threats.

“If the Fed would cut, we would have one of the biggest Stock Market increases in a long time,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Badly run and weak companies are smartly blaming these small Tariffs instead of themselves for bad management... and who can really blame them for doing that? Excuses!”

Tomas Philipson, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), said reporters who’ve written about the slowing economy appeared “to want people to lose jobs” and “become not economically self-sufficient.”

“The way the media reports the weather won’t impact whether the sun shines tomorrow,” Philipson told the New York Times in a Thursday interview. “But the way the media reports on our economy weighs on consumer sentiment, which feeds into consumer purchases and investments.”

Even as Trump and his top aides deflect blame and downplay concerns, the president has explored several ways to shield consumers from the damage of a slowing economy. 

Trump delayed the implementation of some new tariffs on Chinese goods from Sept. 1 to Dec. 15, a move that he said was intended to protect consumers from higher holiday shopping costs.

The president has also explored a potential tax cut equal to the costs of rising tariffs on consumer goods from China, an idea floated by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) in a conversation with Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE.

"There's nothing you can do but tariffs," Trump said Thursday. "And I'm doing other things also, by the way."

But the president has also insisted that his trade approach will reap benefits, an approach that has market watchers worried of more volatility ahead.

"The primary thing is tariffs," Trump said Thursday about winning the trade fight with China. "It's having a devastating effect and they're coming to the table and we'll see whether or not they make a deal."