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Thursday December 12th, 2019 7:29PM

Stocks slump after US expands trade war to Mexico

By The Associated Press
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Stocks tumbled on Wall Street Friday after the U.S. announced plans to expand its trade war to Mexico, its third-biggest trading partner.

The slump all but guarantees the market will end May with its first monthly loss of 2019. The S&P 500 index was on track for its fourth straight weekly decline. The benchmark index has lost about 6.5% this month.

Bond prices rose again, sending yields lower. Oil and gas prices fell sharply.

The new front in the trade war is hitting automakers particularly hard. Many of them import vehicles into the U.S. from Mexico. General Motors and Fiat Chrysler were each down at least 4%.

Technology stocks suffered some of the heaviest losses. They have been hurt the most by escalating rhetoric and tariffs in the U.S. trade war with China. Cisco fell 2.4% and Microsoft slid 1.4%.

Banks also declined as higher bond prices pushed yields lower. Investors have been shifting money into bonds over concerns that economic growth will be crimped by the ongoing trade war. Lower bond yields drag down interest rates, making lending less profitable for banks. Citigroup fell 1.9% and Bank of America lost 1.6%.

Energy companies sank following another broad slide in oil prices. Occidental Petroleum fell 3.8% and Valero Energy dropped 3.4%.

Real estate and utilities fared better than most sectors. They are considered less risky by investors when economic growth is threatened.

Investors have been fleeing to safer holdings all month. The shift to utilities and bonds quickened earlier in May after the U.S. and China broke off negotiations. The U.S. then pushed more tariffs on Chinese goods along with a ban on technology sales. That prompted retaliatory tariffs from China and threats over other key resources.

A smattering of late season earnings reports are also helping to move certain stocks. Williams-Sonoma rose on a solid first quarter financial report while retailer Gap plunged on weak results.

KEEPING SCORE: The S&P 500 index was down 1.2% as of 3:05 p.m. Eastern Time. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 308 points, or 1.2%, to 24,861. The Nasdaq slid 1.4% and the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was 1.3% lower.

Major stock indexes in Europe also fell.

The U.S. stock market's slump in May reversed a four-month run for the S&P 500 that culminated in an all-time high on April 30. The benchmark index is still up about 10% for the year.

ANALYST'S TAKE: The new tariffs on Mexican goods shocked investors who were already nervous about a global trade war crimping economic growth.

"Clearly the markets were blindsided and completely caught off guard," said Cliff Hodge, director of investments for Cornerstone Wealth.

The major risk, he said, is that continued trade spats could bring on a global recession. Auto companies and agricultural companies will have a harder time passing costs off to consumers. Also, investors are worried about further escalation of global trade spats.

"The fact that the president is willing to use tariffs as a weapon can really cause damage to business confidence," Hodge said. "You've got to be wondering, who's next?"

TRADE WAR WOES: The new front in the U.S. trade war will have a wide impact on companies making everything from cars to beer and tacos.

General Motors skidded 3.7%, Ford dropped 2.6% and Fiat Chrysler gave up 4.8%. Those companies import vehicles from Mexico to the U.S.

Railroad operators were also getting squeezed. Kansas City Southern fell 4.6%. The company gets almost half its revenue from Mexico each year. Union Pacific shed 1.6%.

Chipotle fell 2.4%. Rising avocado prices could hurt the Mexican restaurant chain. Constellation Brands, which makes Corona and Modelo, dropped 6.1%.

MAYDAY, MAYDAY: May marks the first monthly loss for the market in 2019. That's a sharp shift from stocks' record setting run so far this year. The S&P 500 hit an all-time high on April 30, back when investors had factored in a resolution to Trump's trade wars.

"You had a market that was feeling as though President Trump would want to do a deal so that the economy would not be hurt," said Tom Martin, senior portfolio manager with Globalt Investments. "And now the behavior is indicating that he will use (tariffs) to accomplish his goals and seems less concerned about the actual economic impact."

Since the end of April, investors have fled to safe play holdings like utilities and bonds. Technology stocks, which led gains all year, were among the biggest losers in May. The technology heavy Nasdaq has shed 7.7%, while technology companies within the S&P 500 have lost 8.6%.

Utilities, which have lagged the market, fell only 1.2% in May, making them among the month's best performers. Meanwhile, real estate stocks posted a 1.5% gain, the only winners this month.

STUCK IN A GAP: Clothing and apparel retailer Gap plunged 10.3% after the company gave investors a weak earnings report and slashed its full-year profit forecast.

The disappointing results and estimates come three months after the retailer said it was creating two independent publicly traded companies: low-priced juggernaut Old Navy and a yet-to-be named company that will encompass the iconic Gap brand and Banana Republic, as well as the lesser known names Athleta, Intermix and Hill City.

Overall sales and sales at established stores fell during the quarter. Sales at its namesake Gap stores plunged 10%.

"This quarter was extremely challenging, and we are not at all satisfied with our results," said Art Peck, president and CEO of Gap in a statement.

CUSHY RESULTS: Williams-Sonoma jumped 12% after the seller of cookware and home furnishings reported surprisingly strong first quarter financial results and raised its profit forecast for the year.

The company also attracted a surge of customers to its stores during the quarter. Sales at established stores rose 3.5%, blowing away Wall Street forecasts of a 1.6% increase.

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