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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

For much of the year, equity bulls bought stocks on even the faintest hint of good news about companies or the economy, pushing U.S. indexes to new all-time highs despite a slowing economy and negligible earnings growth.

Why it matters: But with the S&P 500 approaching 20% gains for the year and no real signs of growth to be found, a spirit of pessimism and increased caution looks to be gripping the market.

What's happening: Stocks have been driven higher by 3 main catalysts: hope for a resolution of the U.S.-China trade war, expectations for easier central bank policy and a strong American consumer. It's still possible that all 3 come through to boost asset prices this year, but downside risks have come to overpower optimism in recent weeks.

  • The trade war is having a clear impact on not just manufacturing, but business and consumer confidence as well as capital expenditures and investment.
  • Data shows countries around the globe are seeing slowing GDP growth, with some going into reverse, including in Germany and the U.K., 2 of the world's 5 largest economies.
  • Extremely loose global central bank policy is failing to offset the negative impacts of slowing trade, growing uncertainty and weakening population demographics.

What they're saying:

  • "The disappointing data is only fanning long-standing fears of slowing global growth," Alec Young, managing director of global markets research at FTSE Russell, wrote in a note to clients.
  • "And with U.S.-China trade expected to produce little in the way of near-term breakthroughs, investors continue to favor countercyclical, defensive stocks with high dividend yields as weak data pushes interest rates ever lower," Young said.
  • “Fed rate cuts are not likely to fuel equities higher as they did in the 1990s,” UBS equity strategist Francois Trahan said in a note.
  • “The Fed-easing rallies of the 1990s were made possible by a strong inverse correlation between interest rates and [price-to-earnings ratios]. This relationship no longer exists today,” Trahan added.

The big picture: While most economists caution they are not expecting a global or U.S. recession in the next year, there is little on the horizon in the way of good news.

  • Third quarter corporate earnings are expected to be negative for the second quarter in a row and likely will slump again in the fourth, analysts say.

The bottom line: U.S. equity investors are now seeing a brand new stock market. In this market, traders sell companies with bad balance sheets and no profitability plans, and the market goes down when leading economic indicators point toward recession.

Go deeper

AP: Justice Dept. rescinds "zero tolerance" policy

A young girl waves to onlookers through the fence at the US-Mexico border wall at Friendship Park in San Ysidro, California in Nov. 2018. Photo: Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson issued a memo on Tuesday to revoke the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, which separated thousands of migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, AP first reported.

Driving the news: A recent report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz emphasized the internal chaos at the agency over the implementation of the policy, which resulted in 545 parents separated from their children as of October 2020.

Biden picks up his pen to change the tone on racial equity

Vice President Harris looks on as President Biden signs executives orders related to his racial equity agenda. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden is making a down payment on racial equity in a series of executive orders dealing with everything from private prisons to housing discrimination, treatment of Asian Americans and relations with indigenous tribes.

The big picture: Police reform and voting rights legislation will take time to pass in Congress. But with the stroke of his pen, one week into the job Biden is taking steps within his power as he seeks to change the tone on racial justice from former President Trump.

Most Senate Republicans join Rand Paul effort to dismiss Trump's 2nd impeachment trial

Photo: Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

Forty-five Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, supported an effort to dismiss former President Trump's second impeachment trial.

Why it matters: The vote serves as a precursor to how senators will approach next month's impeachment trial, making it highly unlikely the Senate will vote to convict. The House impeached Trump for a second time for "incitement of insurrection" following events from Jan 6. when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.