Apple is selling fewer iPhones in China and Caterpiller fewer bulldozers. Nvidia, a maker of graphics chips for video game consoles, reported a drop in its revenue. Intel and 3M are among the other big-name companies who've recently blamed circumstances in China for their worsening financial outlooks.
More broadly, any companies making the majority of their revenue outside the U.S. fared worse on earnings and revenue growth during the fourth quarter. They'll likely see further falls this year. China's economy grew at the weakest annual rate last year since 1990. Demand for Chinese exports faded last year and the International Monetary Fund expects China's growth to weaken further in 2019.
Much of the current trade uncertainty hinges on a deadline, just over a week away, that could see the U.S. hike its tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent on March 2.
President Donald Trump imposed the penalties last year over complaints Beijing steals or pressures foreign companies to hand over technology. Beijing retaliated with higher duties on U.S. goods and told its importers to find other suppliers. That led to a 40 percent drop in Chinese imports of American goods in January.
The dispute has already raised costs of goods for companies and consumers. An escalation of the trade fight would ripple through the global economy, said Mark Schofield, managing director at Citi Research.
Citi's base case for an immediate resolution involves a preliminary trade deal that would likely keep tariffs, and uncertainty in place. At worst, an escalation adds costs to companies and more volatility to the market, he said.
The two sides are meeting for talks Thursday and Friday in Washington, and Trump says he might be willing to push back the March 2 date if the talks go well. Even if a deal is struck, the broader retraction in China's economy will still be an issue.
Caterpillar was among the first companies to sound the alarm. Its fourth-quarter results fell well short of forecasts and the Deerfield, Illiniois-based company warned investors that sales in China will be flat in 2019 after two years of growth. Caterpillar gets between 10 percent and 15 percent of its construction industry sales there.
Apple warned investors about a slowdown in iPhone and other product sales in China as earnings season began. Nvidia blamed "deteriorating macroeconomic conditions" in China for a drop in revenue. Chipmaker Intel cited lower demand in China and industrial conglomerate 3M cited weak sales for several of its units.
While optimism over a trade deal seems to be the sentiment on Wall Street, investors may fare better by just holding out for a clearer view. "Nobody knows what's going to come," said Mark Stoeckle, CEO and portfolio manager of Adams Funds. "Investors are better served by waiting for data and facts."