publicly traded US companies have about $1 trillion in cash stashed abroad

That’s the best number I could come up with–admittedly through a fast internet search.

It’s not the exact figure that I find interesting, though, but the motives companies have for doing so.  Three of them are well-known, two less so.

the well-known

–Multinational companies have operations in many countries.  It may be that much of their growth–and all of their possible acquisitions–will be outside the US.  It makes no sense to move money back to the US, pay 35¢ on the dollar in Federal income tax and then resending the net amount abroad to make a foreign acquisition.  A CEO might, and probably should, lose his job for allowing this to happen.  Also the official reason companies cite for not returning cash to the US is that the funds are permanently invested internationally.

–Versus other countries, the IRS is unusually harsh in the way it taxes earnings repatriated from abroad.  There has already been one discount deal, the Homeland Investment Act of 2004, offered by the IRS to allow corporates to repatriate cash without the stiff tax bill.  The terms were:  tax at 5.25%, but all money brought back had to be invested in hiring new workers or building new plant.

As it turns out, aggregate hiring and plant construction didn’t rise during the amnesty period, even though about $300 billion was repatriated, making the case for another HIA a bit shaky.  Nevertheless, the possibility of a new HIA is a powerful deterrent to repatriation.  Who wants to be that idiot who paid $3.5 billion on a $10 billion repatriation a month before HIA II is enacted?

–Big corporates can borrow a ton of money very cheaply in the US.  APPL did it last year, for example, and the company seems to be warming up for another tranche in the near future.

the other two

–Companies have found a workaround.  It doesn’t count as repatriation if you keep the money in the US for less than 90 days and don’t get money again from the same source for a certain amount of time.  So multinationals have created daisychains of intracorporate loans, whose effect is to keep cash permanently in the US.  The first loan comes, say, from Hong Kong.  Three months later, it is repaid with cash from, say, Ireland.  That loan is repaid with money from, say, Switzerland.  And the Swiss loan is repaid with fresh funds from Hong Kong…  Ingenious, yes, but most owners would wish, I think, that corporate minds be put to more productive uses.

–In recent years, companies have boosted eps growth by tax planning, that is, by opting to recognize profits in low-tax jurisdictions.  A generation ago, investors wouldn’t have allowed this.  The market back then would only pay a discount PE for earnings that weren’t fully taxed at the rate prevailing in the firm’s home country.

No longer.  As far as I can see, investors are now indifferent to the tax rate firms pay.  The market no longer discounts earnings taxed at a low rate.  So managements have every incentive to recognize profits in low-tax countries.  After all, it takes $1.50 in pre-tax earnings in the US to produce a dollar of net.  That’s 50% more than a US firm needs to produce the same net from Hong Kong.

More than that, suppose a firm suddenly got it into its head to recognize all its earnings in the US.  What would happen to profits?  There’s an easy way to find out.  Just look at the actual corporate tax rate and adjust it to 35%.  If the actual rate is 25%, then each dollar of pre-tax becomes 75¢ of net.  At 35%, each dollar of pre-tax would be 65¢ of net–a 14% drop.  What CEO wants to report that earnings growth is slowing–or worse, disappearing–because he’s monkeying around with the tax rate?

 

 

 

 

 

average wages in the US are back to pre-recession levels …the point is?

Good news, but not great.

How so?

80% of the wage gains since 2008 have gone to the top 20% of wage earners, meaning those earning $190,000 a year or more (this is despite recent government allegations that top tech firms in Silicon Valley have conspired to hold down their employee wages).

In other words, the vast bulk of the workforce still isn’t as well off as six years ago.

In addition, the unemployment situation remains stubbornly high.

My conclusion is that what we have now is about as good as it gets in the domestic economy, without policy action from Washington.

Two data points suggest that structural changes in the world economy are at the root of a lot of this:

–the decline in the fortunes of the middle class in the US coincides with an improvement in the lot of the middle class in emerging markets, and

–anecdotal accounts are circulating of firms filling their vacancies by poaching from rivals, which would suggest we’re close to full employment.  I heard economist Paul Krugman the other day saying that the basic problem in the US is that there are too few jobs.  He means that necessity isn’t forcing employers to hire unskilled workers and train them.  In a sense, that may be right.  On the other hand, how long will it take and how much will it cost to train an average high school graduate to become a statistician or a web designer?   Why not relocate to a place where skilled workers are more plentiful and corporate taxes are lower (the latter meaning just about anyplace else)?

investment implications

The current domestic economic situation says, I think, that we should continue to focus on companies with worldwide, rather than simply US, businesses.  We should also avoid firms that cater to domestic customers with average or below-average incomes.  These will only be able to grow revenues by “stealing” them from competitors–persistent price wars will break out, in other words.

At the same time, this state of affairs has been around long enough that we should also be scanning the horizon for evidence of change.  I suspect that changes in education/training will come informally–not through intelligent government action–and will sort of sneak up on us.  On the other hand, reduction of the Federal corporate tax rate to a level more in line with the rest of the world would probably give a surprisingly large spur to job formation (more about this tomorrow).

when quantitative investment strategies “add up to fraud”

Yesterday’s online Financial Times contains an article titled “When use of pseudo-maths adds up to fraud.”  It references an academic paper (which I haven’t read yet–and may never) which concludes that while quantitative management strategies may look impressive to neophytes, many are mathematically bogus.  This could be why they often fail deliver the superior investment performance they appear to promise.  Anyone with mathematical training needed to construct such a statistical stock-picking system should know this.

Quelle surprise!, as they say.

There’s a powerful cognitive urge to simplify and systematize data.  But that’ not why investment management companies typically create the mathematical apparatus they tout to clients.

The reality is that investment management has a large right-brain component to it.  It depends on individual judgment and intuition honed by experience.  This fact makes clients uncomfortable.

Typically the company treasurer, or other person in the finance department who is in charge of supervising the company pension plan, has little or no investment training or experience.  He may know corporate finance, but that’s a lot different from portfolio investing.  Suppose the manager I just hired begins to lose something off his fastball, he thinks.  He tells me he reads 10-Ks, but suppose he just goes into his office, takes an hallucinogen and picks stocks based on the visions he experiences.  How can I explain this to my boss if the pension plan returns go south?

That’s why his first step is to hire a third-party pension consultant.  It’s not necessarily that the consultant knows any more than the treasurer–in my experience, the consultant probably doesn’t.  Hiring an “expert” is a form of insurance.

Selecting a manager with a quantitative stock-picking system is another.  The supposed objectivity of the system itself–safe from emotions or other human foibles–is a second form of defense.

Up until now, the apparent safety net created by hiring the consultant and selecting a recommended manager who relies on “science” instead of intuition has been enough to clinch the deal for many quantitative managers.   Of course, while this decision may make the treasurer feel better–and may be an effective defense as/when the quantitative system in question blows up–it doesn’t eliminate the risk in manager selection.  It simply shifts the risk fulcrum away from the human portfolio manager to the statistician who has constructed the stock selection model.  The paper the FT references, “Pseudo-Mathematics and Financial Charlatanism,” argues that, empirically, this is a terrible idea.

I wonder if anything will come of it.

the Chinese economy (i): background

size by GDP

According to the CIA World Factbook, the US is the largest economic power on the globe, with 2013 GDP (calculated using the Purchasing Power Parity method) estimated at $16.7 trillion.

The EU is a close second, with GDP of $15.8 trillion.

China is in the #3 spot, with GDP of $13.4 trillion.

Together, the trio make up about half the world’s GDP.  (A quarter century of stagnation has left former co-#1, Japan, a mere shadow of its former self, with GDP of $4.7 trillion.)

China’s economic strategy

Since turning away from central planning toward a market economy under Deng Xiaoping, China has faced two related issues:

–creating enough new jobs to absorb new entrants to the workforce, thereby avoiding political instability, while at the same time,

–reining in the inefficient, loss making, often corrupt state-owned industrial sector, which accounted for three-quarters of all employment in the late 1970s.

Two other constraints:  China had to do this without an effective central bank and with a cadre of state and local government officials who thought (many still do) that the fastest and most lucrative road to the top was to create more labor intensive, inefficient (and corrupt) local analogues of big state-owned enterprises.

China has achieved spectacular economic growth by embracing capitalism.  To some degree, the remaining state-owned sector, which now accounts for just over one quarter of the economy, has also shaped up.  But while doing this, China has tended to lurch between periods of substantial credit restriction to try to force state-owned enterprises to become more efficient or die, followed by excessive expansion when layoffs become too severe.

the latest wrinkle

Emerging economies, following the post-WWII Japan model, start by offering cheap labor for simple manufacturing businesses, so that they can acquire training and technology from foreign firms.  At some point, a given country will run out of labor.  It must then transition to higher value-added endeavors.  Few succeed without a lot of heartache, because–I think–vested interests attached to the status quo are so powerful.

China now finds itself at this transition point, an issue which dominates its current economic policy.

More tomorrow.

 

why are former high fliers crashing?

There are two forces at work that are causing the weakness in former high-flying names in the US stock market:

1.  The lesser of the two, I think, is worry by predominantly European investors that Chinese will slow more than expected and that EU economic progress will be hurt by Russia’s expansionist tendencies.  It’s less those tendencies, in my view, than the fact that Russia supplies a lot of the natural gas the EU uses, and that the delivery pipeline goes through the Ukraine.

So EU portfolio managers are becoming defensive in a very conventional way.  This means moving money out of small caps and into large, pulling back from foreign markets to reinvest at home, and shifting away from issues whose attraction is strong future growth and toward (defensive) names that look more like bonds.

2.  More important is recent Fed action in continuing its very early steps toward normalization of domestic interest rates, despite apparent first-quarter slowdown in growth.  This affects stocks in a number of ways:

–during periods of interest rate rise after garden-variety recessions, stocks in general typically go sideways.  My guess is that this is the way events will play out this time around.  But the Great Recession was so deep–and Fed monetary accommodation so huge–that to some degree we’re currently in uncharted waters.  So Wall Street is nervous.

–rising interest rates are devastating to the valuation of stocks whose price is justified mostly by earnings far in the future.  If we calculate today’s value of $1 to be paid to us in five years using current 10-year Treasury bond rates, we find it’s worth $.90.  If we use an interest rate of 5%, which is what the Fed says it’s ultimately aiming for, then that future dollar is only worth $.78.  That’s about a 15% drop.  If the dollar is only going to be paid in ten years, then its present value shifts from $.81 to $60, a 25% fall.

For many “concept” stocks no one really knows for sure the timing of future earnings.  Even experienced Wall Street securities analysts struggle to forecast next year’s earnings, so in reality they only a general sense of the way future profits may be trending.   Still, whether we have precise figures or not, rising interest rates make future earnings much less valuable to an investor today.

–it’s a commonly held belief–and a correct one, I think–that when there’s too much money sloshing around in the economy it finds its way into highly speculative areas.  Highly leveraged transactions and “concept” stocks are two examples.  The Fed’s declared intention to syphon away some of this excess should provoke–and has–selling in the most speculative end of the stock market.  This is different from the more rational idea that future earnings are less valuable as interest rates rise.  This is more like the casino is closing, so no one can make crazy bets any more.

what now?

If you’re concerned and realize you have an asset allocation problem–meaning you have too much money in stocks that are way out on the risk spectrum–you should make your portfolio more conservative.  Maybe you shouldn’t do 100% today, but you should at least do some.

When will the selling stop?  …either when the negative emotion currently in the market dissipates (it’s hard to be very fearful for an extended period of time) and/or stocks that are being sold off begin to look very cheap.  In the case of stocks whose earnings payoff is, say, five years in the future, some are starting to look more reasonable.  the market overall cheap?    …not yet, in my view.  In normal times, we’d have to see the market testing the bottom of the channel we’re in before veteran traders would step in.  That’s 5% – 6% below where we are on the S&P 500 now.

 

 

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