Concern about Trump's trade war has 'spiked tremendously' among America's largest companies

  • President Donald Trump launched a months-long trade war in March by imposing various tariffs.
  • Companies in the S&P 500 are starting to take notice of the trade battles.
  • According to analysts, mentions of the word "tariff" on S&P 500 earnings calls has skyrocketed to the highest in recent history.

President Donald Trump's trade war has started to grab the attention of some of America's largest companies.

Throughout the second-quarter earnings season, S&P 500 firms across the spectrum have weighed in on the president's tariffs on steel, aluminum, Chinese goods, and more. Companies ranging from Apple, to Stanley Black & Decker, to BlackRock have discussed the tariffs on their quarterly conference calls with investors and analysts.

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Impact of trade tensions between US and China
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Impact of trade tensions between US and China

Head chef Liang Xin poses with a piece of beef imported from the U.S. in the kitchen at Wolfgang's, a high-end steak house in East Beijing's Sanlitun district, China, April 6, 2018. Liang said U.S. beef has always been limited in China, so he doesn't know how customers would react if the restaurant has to raise prices.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Liu Anqi rolls dough in flour made from imported grain at the baking studio she runs with friends, in Beijing, China, April 12, 2018. Liu has just opened a bakery in Beijing with her friend. She also teaches customers how to make cakes with a brand of flour that uses only wheat from the United States and Canada. "Flour is one of the most important ingredients in baking and its quality varies with different brands," Liu said, adding that finding a new brand would be time-consuming and higher taxes on this wheat would force her to raise cake prices and tuition fees, which could turn customers away. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A detail of the Harley-Davidson brand name is photographed on the motorcycle of Guo Qingshan in his village outside Beijing, China, April 7, 2018. "I love the sound of the engine and the muscle of the motor. When I ride it, I feel free and proud," Guo said. However, Guo has his limits. If prices rise, Guo said he wouldn't contemplate buying another Harley. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Fried vegetables are seen in the kitchen of the restaurant where chef Liu Ming works, in Beijing, China, April 11, 2018. Liu said the oil that his restaurant uses is produced with soybeans imported from the United States, and the business won't change the brand even if prices rise. "We use this oil because it gives the food a bright colour and does not leave a strange smell or taste," he said. "We don't know what will happen to our dishes if we change the oil."

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Xie Guoqiang, who runs the Vin Place wine and liquors store, poses for a photograph inside the shop in Beijing, China, April 10, 2018. Xie said in an interview that the tariffs would have little impact on his business, as the shop mostly imports wine and liquors from France, Chile, Austria and Argentina.

(REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

A bottle of Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey is seen on a shelf at the Vin Place wine and liquors store in Beijing, China April 10, 2018. Xie Guoqiang, who runs Vin Place, said in an interview that the tariffs would have little impact on his business, as the shop mostly imports wine and liquors from France, Chile, Austria and Argentina.

(REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Liu Ming, a chef at a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing, poses for a picture at the back door of the kitchen where he works in Beijing, China, April 11, 2018. Liu said the oil that his restaurant uses is produced with soybeans imported from the United States, and the business won't change the brand even if prices rise. "We use this oil because it gives the food a bright colour and does not leave a strange smell or taste," he said. "We don't know what will happen to our dishes if we change the oil." 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Liu Anqi uses flour made from imported grain at the baking studio she runs with friends, in Beijing, China, April 12, 2018. Liu has just opened a bakery in Beijing with her friend. She also teaches customers how to make cakes with a brand of flour that uses only wheat from the United States and Canada. "Flour is one of the most important ingredients in baking and its quality varies with different brands," Liu said, adding that finding a new brand would be time-consuming and higher taxes on this wheat would force her to raise cake prices and tuition fees, which could turn customers away. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A bottle of oil is seen in the kitchen of the restaurant where chef Liu Ming works, in Beijing, China, April 11, 2018. Liu said the oil that his restaurant uses is produced with soybeans imported from the United States, and the business won't change the brand even if prices rise. "We use this oil because it gives the food a bright colour and does not leave a strange smell or taste," he said. "We don't know what will happen to our dishes if we change the oil." 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Zang Yi poses for a picture as her Tesla car is charging at a charging point in Beijing, China, April 13, 2018. Zang said if the trade tensions resulted in pricier U.S. imports, she wouldn't consider American brands when the time comes to buy a new car. "With the tariff, I would have to pay tax of 100,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan if I were to buy a new Tesla," she said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Zang Yi charges her Tesla car at a charging point in Beijing, China, April 13, 2018. Zang said if the trade tensions resulted in pricier U.S. imports, she wouldn't consider American brands when the time comes to buy a new car. "With the tariff, I would have to pay tax of 100,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan if I were to buy a new Tesla," she said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A Chinese woman tastes wine during a wine seminar in Beijing, China, April 14, 2018.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Shan Yuliang, salesperson at a cigarette and wine shop, poses with a carton of Marlboro cigarettes in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. "The moment I saw the news about the trade war on the internet, I felt something big was coming. Previously I would not think about what brand to buy. Now I will give it a second thought and avoid buying American products to defend my country," Shan said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Wine tasting teacher Li Yangang poses for a picture during a wine seminar in Beijing, China, April 14, 2018. Li said in an interview that reduced sales of American wine in China would not hurt the local market because of its relatively small market share. "Australian wine and French wine would have a bigger impact," he said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Cartons of Marlboro cigarettes are seen stacked up on a shelf between Chinese cigarettes at a cigarette and wine shop in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Student He Bingzhang lights a Marlboro cigarette in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. "I don't think the trade war would change my behaviour. I don't smoke a lot, probably one pack a month. Even if it costs 100 yuan, I would still buy Marlboro because it is affordable," He said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Student He Bingzhang poses for a picture as he smokes a Marlboro cigarette in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. "I don't think the trade war would change my behaviour. I don't smoke a lot, probably one pack a month. Even if it costs 100 yuan, I would still buy Marlboro because it is affordable," He said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Guo Qingshan poses on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his village outside Beijing, China, April 7, 2018. "I love the sound of the engine and the muscle of the motor. When I ride it, I feel free and proud," Guo said. However, Guo has his limits. If prices rise, Guo said he wouldn't contemplate buying another Harley. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Beef imported from the U.S. is seen at Wolfgang's, a high-end steak house in East Beijing's Sanlitun district, China, April 6, 2018. A 15-kg whole cut of beef from the United States is around 20 percent more expensive than its Australian counterpart, said Daniel Sui, deputy general manager at Wolfgang's. "Customers like U.S. beef because it tastes juicy and tender, but Wolfgang's only sells around seven to eight pieces of U.S. imported beef steak each day," Sui said. "The limited supply is because the Chinese government bans feed additives and only 5 percent of U.S. beef is qualified for export." 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

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According to an analysis by CB Insights, mentions of the word "tariff" on earnings calls hit a record high on second-quarter earnings calls, even before the most recent round of threats between Trump and China.

"Mentions of tariffs in earnings calls reached a historic high this past quarter," the report said. "Mentions of the words 'trade war' have also spiked tremendously."

According to Bespoke Investment Group, mentions of tariffs have more than doubled compared to first-quarter earnings.

"For the entire Q1 earnings season, the word 'tariff' came up 290 different times in S&P 500 conference calls (in some calls, the word came up more than once), while during this earnings season, the term has already come up 609 different times," Bespoke said in a note Wednesday.

The tariff mentions mostly came up during calls for companies in the sectors of industrials (mentioned on 65% of calls), materials (57% of calls), and consumer staples (56%), according to Bespoke. The mentions in these sectors make sense, considering Trump's tariffs so far have focused mainly on industrial machinery, materials like steel or aluminum, and large appliances like washing machines.

The corporate concern reflects similar comments from various business surveys over the past few months. For instance, many businesses brought up concerns about Trump's trade policies in Wednesday's Institute of Supply Management, or ISM, manufacturing purchasing managers index.

"The so-called trade war is now taking its toll on business activity, resulting in substantial reductions to new export orders," one manager at a wood products company told ISM. "China has all but stopped taking orders, causing inventories to build up in the US."

The steel and aluminum tariffs also concerned the respondents.

"We have already seen steel prices increase due to the threat of the tariffs and are seeing kickback from our customers due to the higher prices," a fabricated metal products producer said. "We are concerned that the end customer will go to off shore to purchase the finished product."

The ISM survey contains similar comments to various Federal Reserve surveys and consumer confidence indexes. In each of those surveys, Americans reported increasing price pressures and worries about the future of Trump's trade war.

While the concern from large companies is starting to boil up, the pain appears to be limited to certain sectors and has not slowed down the broader economy yet. But that could change soon.

Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on another $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, including many consumer products, as well as imports of cars. Either move would represent a major escalation of the trade war and would ensnare a much larger swath of companies in the tariff fights.

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