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Investors want to know when a phase-one mini-trade deal with China can be signed

President Donald Trump will address the Economic Club of New York later today and investors want to know one thing: When can a so-called phase-one mini-trade deal with China be signed?

There’s not much time before the United States is scheduled to impose a new round of 15% tariffs on $156 billion in consumer-facing goods on December 15. Think clothing, footwear, and consumer electronics.

Urgency grows by the day to find an off-ramp.

Those December 15 tariffs will act like a $100 billion tax increase for consumers next year, figures Moody’s Analytics economist Mark Zandi.

“If the President does raise tariffs again in December, the United States and global economies will suffer recessions,” Zandi said.

Important context here: This is not the course correction the president promised would stop China from ripping off the United States. Since the Chinese walked away from a deal-in-principle earlier this spring, the goal posts have shifted. The negotiating teams are now working on a narrow deal to first address agriculture purchases, currency issues and better treatment for US financial firms. (Though the contours of the deal change by the day.) Tougher work on intellectual property rights, enforcement mechanisms, state subsidies and other thorny issues may be left for later.

Recently, markets have built in expectations for this smaller mini-deal. Trump has teased progress and even floated where a signing would happen. (Perhaps Iowa, where farmers have been the collateral damage in the trade war.) And the Chinese have pushed publicly for more tariffs to be dropped.

But is this progress real?

“So far, nothing has really changed,” said David Joy, chief market strategist for Ameriprise Financial. “The two sides almost seem content to simply talk past one another and string the process out indefinitely, while releasing the occasional statement that progress is being made.”

For investors, “the lack of anything tangible to show for the effort doesn’t seem to matter,” Joy added.

Major US stock market averages are at record highs, despite trade war headwinds, slowing global growth and a downtick in corporate earnings.

Market strategists believe Trump will wrap up a small trade deal to avoid political damage.

“If he fails to nail down phase one, he will have to spend time and money in states like Iowa and Missouri, which could be competitive in the election because farmers are angry over mixed messages on tariffs,” says Greg Valliere, chief US policy strategist at AGF Perspectives. “Trump has been told bluntly by his political and economic allies that he could lose re-election if there’s no trade deal.”

Given softening economic growth in the United States and the potential end to rate cuts from the Federal Reserve, Valliere sees a chance for another surprise in today’s speech.

“Trump needs to do more than bash the Federal Reserve,” Valliere writes in a note to clients. “So he has instructed Larry Kudlow and his economic advisers to come up with a tax cut.”

With trillion-dollar deficits, it’s unlikely more tax cuts would go anywhere in an impeachment-focused Congress. His 2017 tax cuts failed to deliver the consistent 3%-plus economic growth the White House promised. And early data show the wealthiest Americans and corporations benefited the most from tax reform. But the idea of further tax cuts could give Democrats ammunition that the “it’s the economy, stupid” president is out of touch.

The president will likely tout his other economic achievements: deregulation, the lowest jobless rate in 50 years, declines in poverty and a rise in household income.

But the market deliverable from this speech today is whether a trade.

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