Market Extra: How a tariff-rattled stock market is reacting to Cohn’s resignation from the Trump White House

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U.S. stock benchmarks looked set to open sharply lower after Gary Cohn, the head of President Donald Trump’s National Economic Council, resigned late Tuesday.

Wall Street has viewed Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. GS, +1.45%  executive, as a level head within an administration that has been seen by some critics as in turmoil.

Cohn is regarded as the chief architect of business-friendly corporate tax cuts signed into law last year. His decision to leave the role as the president’s top economic adviser underlines a fear that Trump, who last week announced tariffs on aluminum and steel, is increasingly adopting a protectionist stance. Many strategists and traders view that as a threat to the economic expansion should they spark a global trade war.

Cohn was increasingly on the outs, according to multiple published reports. He also was viewed as part of a so-called globalist faction in the Trump administration, attempting to moderate efforts to impose protectionist policies.

Cohn had lost an intense battle over trade with Peter Navarro, another key presidential adviser seen as a chief proponent of the tariff plan, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Bloomberg News late Tuesday claimed that Trump requested that Cohn publicly endorse a plan to implement tariffs hours before the adviser announced his departure, further adding credence to expectations that import duties—a 25% tariff on steel and 10% on aluminum—will be levied in coming days.

Investors fretted last year over Cohn’s fate. Stocks temporarily dipped in August on fears he would leave the White House after disagreeing with Trump’s remarks in the wake of deadly violence surrounding a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

How market participants responded

“Since the Trump administration came into being, Gary Cohn was seen as being supportive for the stock market, and the thought was that if Gary Cohn wasn’t in the White House, the stock market would collapse,” said Douglas Borthwick, managing director at Chapdelaine Foreign Exchange.

Borthwick, however, said he disagrees with that assessment and doesn’t think the departure will do lasting damage. “Investors will pay attention to who will be chosen to succeed Cohn, but the market doesn’t appear to be focused on any individual,” he said.

“Obviously, S&P 500 futures down shows that the market had a lot of trust in [ Cohn’s] judgment and he built a lot of credibility on Wall Street over the years,” said J.J. Kinahan, chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade. “He was viewed as the calmer head that would prevail in the [Trump administration],” he said.

“Right now, the market is disappointed, but one player’s not going to change the outlook for the economy,” said Doug Cote, chief market strategist at Voya Investment Management. “I would say the market is overreacting and I would buy the dip.”

“Sorry to lose him but life goes on,” Cote added.

Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer at Independent Advisor Alliance, was more downbeat on Cohn’s departure.

“The initial market reaction should be very negative,” Zaccarelli said. “It signals that the Trump administration is absolutely going to move forward with tariffs and the risk of a trade war is now more elevated.” The move also represents “the loss of a market-savvy and well-regarded voice of reason within Trump’s inner circle,” he added.

Via Twitter late Tuesday, Cohn’s former boss, Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, said Cohn “deserves credit for serving his country in a first-class way. I’m sure I join many others who are disappointed to see him leave.”

How market benchmarks reacted

Futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average YMH8, -1.19%  were recently down 296 points, or 1.2% , to 24,556. They had earlier fallen by more than 400 points to as low as 24,410, according to FactSet data. S&P 500 futures ESH8, -0.84% retreated 23.15 points, or 0.9%, at 2,700.75. Nasdaq-100 futures NQH8, -0.80% declined by 56 points, or 0.8%, to 6,851.75.

If they hold, the declines are set to erase year-to-date gains for the Dow DJIA, +0.04% which rose 9.36 points to 24,884.12 in regular trade Tuesday, while the S&P 500 SPX, +0.26% climbed 7.18 points, or 0.3%, to 2,728.12. The Nasdaq Composite Index COMP, +0.56% , meanwhile, gained 41.30 points, or 0.6%, to 7,372.01.

The U.S. dollar, as gauged by the ICE U.S. Dollar Index DXY, +0.14% , which measures the buck against a half-dozen currencies, was recently down less than 0.1% to 89.58. It had fallen as much as 0.7% to 89.43, before the index erased much of its loss.