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Despite Trump's ‘fire and fury,’ U.S. economy holds steady

The U.S. stock market has kept on climbing since Mr. Trump’s election, following a now eight-year upward trend. Fear emerges, however, when one considers how the President might react to a bump.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

It's the darndest thing. Donald Trump, who thundered about currency manipulators during his campaign and vowed to name China as an offender on his first day in the White House, hasn't made much of the issue for months now.

For that matter, the U.S. President's vow to slap a 35-per-cent tariff on products made by U.S. companies that move jobs abroad also appears to have faded into the mist, where it can presumably live comfortably with his promise to prosecute Hillary Clinton.

Tote up the broken pledges, add in the Republican failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, and it's small wonder that financial markets indicate this presidency is at risk of becoming a non-factor, economically speaking. Several key indicators that jumped on Mr. Trump's election this past November have now slumped back to pretty much where they stood before the vote.

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To be sure, all of this could change dramatically if Mr. Trump follows through on his "fire and fury" rhetoric with North Korea. But, for now, what's remarkable is not how good or bad this high-bluster, high-drama administration has been for the markets, but how utterly inconsequential.

The U.S. dollar, for instance, has returned to nearly the same level it was at a year ago when measured against a basket of other major currencies. Gold has also reverted, in terms of U.S. dollars, to around where it was trading in the run-up to the election.

Bonds, too, suggest the world has not changed as much as investors initially thought it might after Mr. Trump won the presidency. The yields on long-dated U.S. Treasuries initially soared because markets figured Trumponomics would boost the economy. Since March, though, yields on the benchmark 10-year bond have fallen back despite the U.S. Federal Reserve's apparent intention to keep on raising interest rates. Fading yields suggest increasing skepticism about the administration's power to goose growth.

On a more positive note, the stock market has kept on climbing since Mr. Trump's election. It's difficult to know how to interpret that, however. The S&P 500's trajectory has been upward for eight years now and its recent gains continue a trend that began in early 2016.

S&P 500 companies derive more than 40 per cent of their revenue from outside the United States, so their recent results are being boosted by a pickup in European growth as well as the falling greenback, which makes foreign profits that much more valuable in U.S. dollar terms. Both factors have helped drive the S&P to a 9-per-cent gain since the start of the year.

In contrast, the smaller stocks that make up the Russell 2000 depend more on domestic earnings and have barely budged this year. They had jumped immediately after the election, probably because investors looked forward to the drastically lower taxes, huge infrastructure spending and "Buy America" policies that Mr. Trump had promised. As those pledges have receded into the distance, the small-cap index has stagnated.

The lack of headway underlines how difficult it is for any president to change an economy fundamentally in just a few months. Trump loyalists may find that to be discouraging evidence of the power of the "deep state" to thwart their plans. Critics will find it comforting confirmation that Trumponomics never made sense anyway. It's difficult, for instance, to label China as a manipulator bent on holding down the yuan when the recent evidence suggests it is actually trying to support the value of its currency.

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Investors, though, have to wonder how a President who craves attention will act as the Trump bump fades and his agenda remains mired in Congress. The easiest choice, especially if the jobs market remains strong, is for Mr. Trump to claim credit for the good times and blame the relative lack of bold new programs on incompetent legislators.

The scary scenario is if the economy hits a bump. Mr. Trump has given no indication that he's likely to take a calm approach to trouble on his watch. He's likely to lash out in unpredictable ways. In that case, we might find ourselves yearning for these pleasant days when he was all bluster and no action.

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About the Author

Ian McGugan is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and has been writing about investing, economics and business for more than 20 years. He joined the Globe and Mail in 2010. He has been executive editor of Canadian Business magazine and founding editor of MoneySense magazine. More

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