Business leaders are expressing frustration and uncertainty about the US-China trade war

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty ImagesU.S. President Donald Trump (R) looks on Chinese President Xi Jinping during the plenary session at the G20 Summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.
  • Executives at S&P 500 companies sounded off on the US-China trade war during their first-quarter conference calls.
  • Goldman Sachs equity strategists analysed a selection of executive commentary across S&P 500 earnings calls and found trade-related uncertainty to be a major theme plaguing business.
  • Visit Markets Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If there’s an elephant in the room that US multinational corporations are grappling with, it’s the ongoing trade war between the two largest economies in the world.

Executives at S&P 500 companies addressed how the US-China trade dispute impacted their company’s first-quarter earnings results, detailing a significant degree of uncertainty and the extent of their exposure.

It’s one of the three major themes highlighted by Goldman Sachs strategists in a quarterly report released this week analysing excerpts from 40 first-quarter conference calls.

Executives said the uncertainty over trade made it more difficult to navigate their relationship with China but did not have significant near-term ramifications.

“The decision by President Trump to raise tariffs surprised both managements and investors who had believed the trade friction was moving towards a resolution,” the strategists, led by David Kostin, wrote in a report to clients out Monday.

Downward pressure on profit margins remains a risk for many companies, the strategists said, while some corporations were already preparing to shift their supply chains away from China to minimise the impact.

“We’ve been very, very highly focused not only at fixing long-term problems by diversifying away from China our supply, but also by creating, through our procurement organisation and supply chain, a number of partnerships which are almost standby partnerships, ready to jump in as soon as we have issues,” Pierre Brondeau, the chairman and CEO the chemical manufacturer FMC, said on his company’s earnings call earlier this month.

It should be noted that the comments listed below were made before the most recent escalation in the trade war, which rocked global markets over the last week. China on Monday hiked tariffs on $US60 billion worth of US goods, sending markets plunging.

That followed President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last Friday that the US would raise tariffs on $US200 billion worth of Chinese imports to 25%. The announcement took investors by surprise after Trump earlier this month said Beijing and Washington’s trade talks were progressing.

Below is a selection of what companies about the trade war’s impact on business:

Electronic Arts

Ticker: EA

While the company hadn’t “heard anything or seen anything that would imply pressure,” an executive said on the earnings call earlier this month that the dispute was a source of uncertainty for the business.

“In terms of China, trade policy is a daily question in our mind when we see what tweets come out each morning, so it’s hard for us to gauge,” said Blake Jorgensen, chief operating officer and chief financial officer at Electronic Arts.

United Parcel Service

Rachel Premack/Business Insider

Ticker: UPS

UPS CEO and chairman David Abney said the US-China trade uncertainty has prompted “softer” industry forecasts throughout the first quarter.

“We certainly encourage leaders of the two countries to find solutions that support increased two-way trade, but also by ensuring many US companies have access to export to China,” he said.

Some UPS customers had adjusted their own supply chains to adapt to “changing trade dynamics,” he added.

Microchip Technology

Ticker: MCHP

“I think having seen the yo-yo sentiment on the trade talks, I would rather wait for the talks to conclude than analyse what that finality is, whether it ends up at 10% duty or something higher than that or goes all the way to 0%,” CEO and chairman Stephen Sanghi said earlier this month.

Sanghi said he wanted to wait to make an informed opinion about the trade war’s impact on the business by speaking with salespeople “rather than just throw something out.”

Church & Dwight

Ticker: CHD

“The other thing that’s hurting the business is the tariff war,” Matthew Farrell, president and CEO, said on the company’s first-quarter earnings call earlier this month.

He pointed to China being the No. 1 importer of whey protein from the United States, and that lower demand has in turn depressed milk prices.

“But long term, we still feel good about the business because we are effectively making the move diversifying away from dairy.”

Farrell made a similar comment on Church & Dwight’s quarterly earnings call last November.

Fortune Brands Home & Security

Getty/Oli Scarff

Ticker: FBHS

All of the Fortune Brands businesses are “attacking the tariff situation” through a combination of cost and pricing, said CFO Patrick Hallinan on the company’s first-quarter earnings call in late April.

“I would say, in the case of plumbing, more specifically, it’s more cost takeout in areas where we could accelerate it, pricing and some cost sharing with vendors more than getting out of China,” he said.

That’s been more difficult to do within its plumbing category than it has been within other areas like cabinets, where its wood-product business is already departing China.

International Paper

Ticker: IP

“I think we’re learning every time there’s a disruption with China how much of a role it plays in the global economy,” said chairman and CEO Mark Sutton on the company’s first-quarter earnings call in late April.

While International Paper has customers in 150 countries, Sutton said many of the company’s US-based packaging customers have faced uncertainty because they export a portion of their goods to China.

“It’s not a big part of their business, but it’s a meaningful part,” he said. “And it’s disruptive to some extent due to tariffs and other things.”

Aptiv PLC

Aptiv.comAptiv website.

Ticker: APTV

“We are certainly dealing with some of the FX and tariffs,” said Joseph Massaro, the chief financial officer of Aptiv, a Dublin-based global autoparts company that’s partnered with Lyft.

“We don’t give up on those. They’re hard to deal with in a particular quarter, over particular couple of quarters, depending on how significant the movement is,” he said, adding Aptiv would focus on cost structure to “work to offset those.”

More broadly, the company is facing a decline in vehicle production in China, said Kevin Clark, the chief executive officer.

Leggett & Platt & Platt website.

Ticker: LEG

“A lot of uncertainty” related to the trade dispute has negatively impacted consumer confidence through the back half of last year and into the first half of 2019, said chief operating officer J. Mitchell Dolloff on the company’s first-quarter earnings call in late April.

“Certainly retaliatory tariffs in China have reduced demand for inputs there,” Dolloff said, adding that steel and aluminium tariffs have raised transaction prices and slowed sales in the US. “Those are really coming through lower incentives that the consumer is having to absorb.”


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