the euro, the US$ and the Swiss franc

With the beginning of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, the euro has slipped against the USD by about another 3% today to a value of 1 € = US$1.12.  That’s a decline in the euro of about 7.5% just since January 1st.  The EU currency has tumbled by more than 14% vs. the greenback over the past year, and by almost 20% since its high of $1.39+ last May.

This is an astounding fall for the world’s second most important currency.  It’s an enormous boost for EU-based enterprise overall and for exporters in particular–as well as a huge burden for their hard currency-based rivals. It would also be a mind-boggling loss of national wealth for EU citizens, were it not that Japan has depreciated the yen by a third over the past few years in a bid to regain global relevance for its manufacturing base.

Enough of this.   Down to brass tacks:

the euro/dollar

The income statements of US companies with EU exposure will be savaged by the currency decline.  Yes, in theory they may be able to raise prices to recover some of their depreciation-created losses.  But the general rule in this situation is that prices can only go up in line with overall inflation–which is non-existent in the EU at the moment.

My strong feeling is that Wall Street hasn’t fully worked this out yet.  So combing through our holdings to find euro victims should be a high priority for each of us.

the euro/Swiss franc (CHF)

The CHF has gained almost 25% against the euro since the Swiss central bank depegged its currency from the euro a little more than a week ago.  The speed of the move clearly shows what should have been apparent over the past year of euro depreciation–that the Swiss government was trying to maintain a peg that was miles away from where the cross rate would be without constant economy-distorting intervention.

We know this sort of thing can’t last.  If the forty-year history of floating exchange rates shows anything it’s that trying to maintain an artificial exchange rate always ends in disaster.  Yet what continues to come out in the press post-depegging is that:

–lots of EU property owners had decided it was a great idea to take out a CHF-denominated mortgage on their homes.  Short-term rates were negative, after all.  Ouch!

–a number of commodities brokers are in serious financial trouble because they allowed individual clients to build up short-CHF positions on margin that were so big there’s no chance they’ll ever be able to repay the losses they’ve incurred.

–there’s been a parade of currency trader departures from hedge funds caught out by the same short-CHF bet.

I guess this just shows that P T Barnum was right–that despite the examples of the collapse of the pre-euro Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, the Asian debt crisis later in that decade and all of the problems with one-size-fits-all Eurobonds, there are still tons of people willing to take what history shows is the losing side of a wager.

 

 

inflationary and deflationary mindsets

It’s fascinating to see how glibly and assuredly financial commentators and their guests have been talking about both inflation/deflation since the onset of the Great Recession.  What I keep thinking when I hear them is that to have practical experience of either phenomenon someone must either have lived in Japan or an emerging economy, or been an adult during the 1970s.  So most of these “experts” are just rehashing what they learned in a textbook.

What I think is important to consider about either inflation or deflation:

–what makes either dangerous is not simply that occasional spells of price rise/fall can happen.  It’s the possibility that people will begin to believe that inflation/deflation has become a permanent fact of life and alter their economic behavior to take this into account.  A mindset change, in other words.  Once that happens–and inflation/deflation is entrenched–it becomes extremely difficult to eradicate.  (In the inflation case, companies/consumers tend to favor hard assets over bonds or bank accounts, to consumer heavily and to avoid saving.  In deflation, they tend to hoard, underconsume and–again–favor hard assets like gold.)

–inflation and deflation are not mirror images of one another.  Historically, inflation has tended to spiral upward at ever-increasing velocity but can be cured by the monetary authority in a country boosting interest rates high into positive real territory.  Deflation, on the other hand, has tended to be a continuous downward grind.  Positive interest rates make borrowing a crushing burden.  The cure requires slower-to-act, less-likely-to-be-done fiscal stimulation or structural economic reform.

–in advanced economies, inflation and deflation are all about changes in wages.

–Japan is the current deflation poster child.  Its economic experience over the past quarter-century is the main reason, I think, that the word “deflation” strikes so much fear into global investors’ hearts.  Japan has recently devalued its currency by almost half in a so far vain attempt to get wages to rise.  In fact, real incomes for ordinary citizens have declined, because the local currency price of imported commodities like food and fuel has risen while wages have been relatively flat.

Japan is unusual in two ways, however:

—-the population is significantly older than in the EU or the US.  The local workforce has been declining for many years because of retirements; the country is strongly opposed to immigration.

—-resistance to structural change of any sort, and particularly change led by foreigners, is extremely strong.  As far as I can see, Japanese industrial technology is stuck back in the 1980s, maybe for this cultural reason.

It’s possible, therefore, that Japan’s current woes are more a function of an aging, hidebound population than anything else.  If so, then generic treatment of deflation–monetary and fiscal expansion–isn’t going to have much of an effect.  Unfortunately for the EU, “aging, hidebound” also sounds an awful lot like Europe.  So the EU may be next in line for the lost-decade syndrome.

Two other caveats:

–historical instances of inflation and deflation in the US have come during times when fixed-interest-rate bank lending was the norm for raising debt finance.  A changing price level could alter the real cost of that debt significantly.  This is no longer the case.

–indexing of wages and prices was common in the US during the 1970s and could easily have acted as a transmission mechanism for inflation.  Again, this is no longer the case.

my bottom line

I think the current economic situation is a lot more complex than pundits are making it out to be.  I also think they’re making a fundamental mistake by failing to distinguish between transitory inflationary/deflationary influences, like commodity price changes, and more fundamental, mindset-changing ones.  My guess is that this is because they’ve only read about the phenomena in books.

 

 

 

 

 

the shrinking euro (and yen)

the shrinking euro

This time a year ago, it cost $1.36 to buy a euro.  It was $1.39 by March.   The euro then moved sideways vs. the greenback until early summer–when it began an almost continual descent that has the EU currency now trading at just above $1.19.  That figure is down 14% from the 2014 high, and off 12.5% from the year-ago level.

reasons?  

The surprising revelation last summer that the overall EU economy was slowing, not accelerating as most observers, myself included, had expected is the most important, I think.  Sanctions against Russia and recent worries that a new Greek government might repudiate its sovereign debt have just added to the funk.

The Japanese yen has tracked more or less the same course vs. the dollar as the euro–meaning that neither Japan nor the EU has gained/lost competitiveness vs. its main global manufacturing rival.

Looking at the situation from a more conceptual level, both Japan and the EU have relatively old populations and both give much higher priority to preserving their traditional social order than to achieving economic progress.  Neither characteristic argues for long-term economic/currency strength.

consequences

economic

In the short run, currency declines stimulate overall economic activity.  They also rearrange growth to favor exporters, import-competing industries and service industries like tourism.  This means that local currency profits for firms that have their costs in euros and revenues in harder currencies will likely be higher than generally anticipated.

The huge fall in oil prices will still be stimulative, but the edge will be taken off the benefit a bit by the currency decline.

Euro-oriented holders of dollar-denominated assets benefit; dollar-oriented holders of euro assets are hurt.

financial markets

I expect European bond managers will continue to boost their holdings of US Treasuries, figuring they’ll get both yield pickup and an anticipated currency gain.  This flow will keep long-term interest rates in the US a bit lower than they would be otherwise.

Equity managers will shift European holdings more toward multinational firms with dollar-denominated assets and earnings.  Some of this has happened already.  Many times, though, PMs will wait until they see the weak currency stabilize before reallocating.  Personally, I don’t think waiting makes any sense, but that’s what people seem to do.

US firms with European assets and earnings will face the double negative of slow growth in the EU and the diminished value of EU profits in dollars.   I think US-based manufacturers of consumer staples are particularly at risk.

hedging

While the extent of the decline of the euro may be a surprise, the fact that it’s a weak currency shouldn’t be.  This means many US companies that have euro exposure will have hedged away part of this risk.

I have conflicting thoughts on this issue.  Almost universally, investors ignore profits gained by hedging.  The idea, which I agree with, is that in short order the favorable hedges will run out, exposing the weaker unerlying profit stream.  There’s no sense in paying for profits that will be gone in a quarter or two.  On the other hand, while firms always reveal hedges that have gone wrong (and argue that investors should ignore these losses), they don’t always highlight hedging that has worked.  I guess I’m saying that I’d be leery of companies with EU exposure even if reported profits don’t show any unfavorable impact.

 

 

 

the Mainstay Marketfield fund (ii)

I’ve been thinking about the Mainstay Marketfield fund. The I shares (the ones with the longest track record) = MFLDX.

Is this a risky fund?

A lot depends on what you mean by “risky.”  And a lot depends on the time frame you use.

The standard academic way of assessing risk is to equate it with the short-term volatility of returns.  The idea has some initial plausibility.  All other things being equal, and for everyone besides roller coaster junkies, a smooth ride is better than a bumpy one.  Greater assurance that the price tomorrow isn’t going to deviate much from the price today sounds good, as well.

The main virtue of risk-as-volatility, though, is that it’s easily quantifiable and the data for measuring it are readily available.  There’s no need to delve into the actual investments and make potentially messy judgments about what a security/portfolio is and how it works, either.

On this way of looking at things, MFLDX isn’t risky at all.

During late 2008 – early 2009 the fund declined less than the S&P 500.  From the beginning of the bull market in March 2009 until mid-2013 it tracked the S&P relatively closely.  Less volatile in down markets, average volatility in up markets.  Not a bad combination–if this is all risk is.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of this academic orthodoxy–which is, by the way, also universally accepted by the consultants who advise institutional pension plans.  It isn’t only that you don’t need any practical knowledge of the products you’re assessing–just a computer and a data feed.  Nor is it that my portfolios routinely had part of their excess returns explained away by their greater-then-average volatility.  No, it’s that, in my view, for an investor with a three-, five- or ten-year investment horizon whether a security goes up/down a little more or a little less than the market today and tomorrow has very little relevance.

Risk-as-volatility has done serious damage in financial markets in the past.  For years, academics and consultants regarded junk bonds as relatively safe because their volatility was close to zero.  They didn’t realize that the prices never moved  because the securities were highly illiquid and seldom traded.  In fact, during the 1990s, i.e., even after the junk bond collapse of the late 1980s, Morningstar continue to have junk bond funds in the same category as money market funds.  Since NAVs never moved, the former got all the highest ratings.

Back to MFLDX.

Suppose we look at the fund in a commonsense way.

Marketfield’s website portrays ithe firm as consisting of three principals who concentrate on macroeconomics.  The career descriptions indicate that only the director of research, who arrived in 2011, had any prior portfolio management experience.

The group runs a highly sectorally concentrated portfolio.  MFLDX can be both long and short.  It has a global reach.  It can own/sell short stocks, bonds, currencies, sectors, indices.

Despite having all these potentially return-enhancing weapons at its disposal, the fund was unable to outpace an S&P 500 index fund during the first four years of the bull market.

Yes, short-term price fluctuations were not extreme.  And I’m not saying that one could have predicted that MFLDX would be down 12% in 2014, in a market that is up 13%–sparking massive redemptions.  But it seems to me that risk-as-volatility didn’t come anywhere near to capturing the risk elements present in this fund.

 

 

 

St. Gobain and Sika: are there implications for the US?

The French building materials company St Gobain recently agreed to acquire control of a Swiss adhesive and sealant firm, Sika, for SF2.8 billion (US$2.8 billion).  The move has caused quite an uproar in Switzerland.

The issue isn’t the purchase itself.  It’s that Sika has two classes of stock:  shares (Namenaktien) held by descendants of the firm’s founder represent 16% of those outstanding, but 52% of the voting rights.  St. Gobain is buying out the family at a very large premium. But it has no intention of buying in the publicly held shares (Inhaberaktien)   …which have lost about a quarter of their stock market value since the acquisition was announced.

Another day in the life of holders of an inferior security in Europe.

 

What’s most interesting to me about this transaction is that it’s being offered as a cautionary tale for holders of shares in US internet companies like Google, Facebook…which also have a number of classes of stock, with voting control held by the founders.

 

While a repeat of the Sika experience might in theory occur in US social media, I can see three factors that argue against this:

1.  St. Gobain/Sika is a case of a large company swallowing a smaller one.  The US internet companies with voting control by insiders are by and large already whales.  Who’s big enough to be the buyer?

2.  In my experience, obtaining operational control either through a large minority interest or a small majority–and without the possibility of tax consolidation–is a particularly European phenomenon.  US firms typically strive for at least 80% ownership, which allows funds to pass between parent and subsidiary without triggering a tax bill.

3.  This is an especially nasty sellout of minority shareholders in Sika by the controlling Berkard family.  Perfectly legal perhaps, and a possibility minority shareholders should have contemplated before buying, but nasty nonetheless.   For a firm that makes industrial forms of glue, there’s not likely to be significant negative fallout for the business.  In the case of GOOG or FB, treating loyal user/shareholders this poorly would be bound to have severe negative business consequences.

 

Shaping a portfolio for 2015 (vii): putting the pieces together

I expect 2015 to be a “normal” year, in contrast to the past six.  This is important.

Over the past six recovery-from-recession years, global stock markets have had a strong upward bias.  Yes, outperformance required the usual good sector and individual security selection.  But if “bad” meant up 12% instead of up 15%, most of us would be happy enough with the former.

This year, though, is more uncertain, I thin.  Whether the S&P 500 ends the year in the plus column or the minus depends on importantly on four factors:

–PE expansion.  Unlikely, in my view.  

–interest rates.   Arguably, rising rates may cause PE contraction, ash or bonds become more attractive investment alternatives to stocks

currency changes.  A rising currency acts much like an increase in interest rates.

profit growth.  In a normal year, earnings per share growth is the primary driver of index gains/losses.  It will be so for 2015, in my view.

Another point.  Four moving parts is an unusually large number.  There are other strong forces acting on sectors like Energy and Consumer discretionary, as well.  Because of this, unlike the past few years, where one could make a plan in January and take the rest of the year off, it will be important in 2015 to monitor plans frequently and be prepared to make mid-course corrections.

profit growth

Here’s my starting point (read:  the numbers I’ve made up):

US = 50% of S&P 500 profits.  Growth at +10% will mean a contribution of +5% to overall index growth

EU = 25% of S&P 500 profits.  Growth of 0 (due to euro weakness vs. the dollar) will mean no contribution to index profit growth

emerging markets = 25% of S&P 500 profits.  Growth of +10% (really, who knows what the number will be) will mean a contribution of +2.5% to             index growth.

Therefore, I expect S&P 500 profits for 2015 to be up by about 7% – 8%.

interest rates

The Fed says it will raise short-term rates, relatively aggressively, in my view, from 0 to +1.5% by yearend 2015, on the way to +3.5% by yearend 2017.  This plan has been public for a long time, so presumably at least part of the news has already been factored into today’s stock and bond prices.  What we don’t know now is:

–how much has already been discounted

–what the Fed will do if stocks and junk bonds begin to wobble, or emerging market securities fall through the floor, because rates are rising.  My belief:  the Fed slows down.

–is the final target too aggressive for a low-inflation world?  My take:  yes it is, meaning the Fed’s ultimate goal of removing the US from monetary intensive care may be achieved at a Fed Funds rate of, say, 2.75%.

My bottom line (remember, I’m an optimist):  while rising rates can’t be considered a good thing, they’ll have little PE contractionary effect.  Just as important, they won’t affect sector/stock selection.  The major way I can see that I might be wrong on this latter score would be that Financials–particularly regional banks–are better performers than I now anticipate.

If rising rates do have a contractionary effect on PEs, the loss of one PE point will offset the positive impact on the index of +6% -7% in earnings growth.  So the idea that the Fed will slow down if stocks begin to suffer is a crucial assumption.

 

currency effects

The dollar strength we’ve already seen in 2014 will make 2015 earnings comparisons for US companies with foreign currency asset/earnings exposure difficult.  Rising rates in the US may well cause further dollar appreciation next year.  Even if the dollar’s ascent is over, it’s hard for me to see the greenback giving back any of its gains.

Generally speaking, a rising currency acts like a hike in interest rates;  it slows economic activity.  It also redistributes growth away from exporters and import-competing firms toward importers and purely domestic companies (the latter indirectly).

The reverse is true for weak currency countries.  At some point, therefore, companies in weak currency countries begin to exhibit surprisingly strong earnings growth–something to watch for.

growth, not value

Typically, value stocks make their best showing as the business cycle turns from recession into recovery.  During more mature phases (read: now) growth stocks typically shine.

themes

–Millennials, not Baby Boomers

–disruptive effects of the internet on traditional businesses.  For example: Uber, malls, peer-to-peer lending.  Consider an ETF for this kind of exposure.

–implications of lower oil prices.  Consider direct and indirect effects.  A plus for users of oil, a minus for owners of oil.  Sounds stupidly simple, but investing isn’t rocket science.  Sometimes it’s more like getting out of the way of the oncoming bus.

At some point, it will be important to play the contrary position.  Not yet, though, in my view.

–rent vs. buy.  Examples:  MSFT and ADBE (I’ve just sold my ADBE, though, and am looking for lower prices to buy back).  Two weird aspects to this: (1) when a company shifts from buy to rent, customers are willing to pay a lot more for services (some of this has to do with eliminating counterfeiting/stealing); (2) although accounting for rental operations is straightforward, Wall Street seems to have no clue, so it’s constantly being positively surprised.

 

 

Shaping a portfolio for 2015 (vi): the rest of the world

world GDP

A recent World Bank study ranks the largest countries in the world by 2013 GDP.  The biggest are:

1.   USA         $16.8 trillion

2.  China         $9.2 trillion

3.  Japan          $4.9 trillion

4.  Germany          $3.6 trillion.

The EU countries taken together are about equal in size to the US.

stock markets

From a stock market investor’s point of view, we can divide the world outside the US into four parts:  Europe, greater China, Japan and emerging markets.

Japan

In the 1990s, Japan choked off incipient economic recovery twice by tightening economic policy too soon–once by raising interest rates, once by increasing its tax on consumer goods.  It appears to have done the same thing again this year when it upped consumption tax in April.

More important, Tokyo appears to me to have made no substantive progress on eliminating structural industrial and bureaucratic impediments to growth.  As a result, and unfortunately for citizens of Japan, the current decade can easily turn out to be the third consecutive ten-year period of economic stagnation.

In US$ terms, Japan’s 2014 GDP will have shrunk considerably, due to yen depreciation.

If Abenomics is somehow ultimately successful, a surge in Japanese growth might be a pleasant surprise next year.  Realistically, though, Japan is now so small a factor in world terms that, absent a catastrophe, it no longer affects world economic prospects very much.

China

In the post-WWII era, successful emerging economies have by and large followed the Japanese model of keeping labor cheap and encouraging export-oriented manufacturing.  Eventually, however, everyone reaches a point where this formula no longer works.  How so?    …some combination of running out of workers, unacceptable levels of environmental damage or pressure from trading partners.  The growth path then becomes shifting to higher value-added manufacturing and a reorientation toward the domestic economy.  This is where China is now.

Historically, this transition is extremely difficult.  Resistance from those who have made fortunes the old way is invariably extremely high.  I read the current “anti-corruption” campaign as Beijing acting to remove this opposition.

I find the Chinese political situation very opaque.  Nevertheless, a few things stand out.  To my mind, China is not likely to go back to being the mammoth consumer of natural resources it was through most of the last decade.  My guess is that GDP growth in 2015 will come in at about the same +7%or so China will achieve this year.  In other words, China won’t provide either positive or negative surprises.

For most foreigners, the main way of getting exposure to the Chinese economy is through Hong Kong.  Personally, I own China Merchants and several of the Macau casinos.  The latter group looks very cheap to me but will likely only begin to perform when the Hong Kong market is convinced the anti-corruption campaign is nearing an end.

EU

In many ways, the EU resembles the Japan of, say, 20 years ago.  It, too, has an aging population, low growth and significant structural rigidity.  The major Continental countries also have, like Japan, strong cultural resistance to change.  These are long-term issues well-known to most investors.

For 2015, the EU stands to benefit economically from a 10% depreciation of the euro vs. the US$.  As well, it is a major beneficiary of the decline in crude oil prices.  My guess is that growth will be surprisingly good for the EU next year.  I think the main focus for equity investors should be EU multinationals with large exposure to the US.

emerging markets

I’m content to invest in China through Hong Kong.  I worry about other emerging Asian markets, as well as Latin America (ex Mexico) and Africa.  Foreigners from the developed world provide most of the liquidity in this “other” class.  If an improving economy in the US and higher yields on US fixed income cause a shift in investor preferences, foreigners will likely try to extract funds from many emerging market in order to reposition them.  That will probably prove surprisingly difficult.  Prices will have a very hard time not falling in such a situation.

 

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