the case for Europe …and how to play

We can divide the mature stock markets of the world into three groups:  Japan, the US and Europe.

My long-held view is that Japan is a special situations market, where disastrous economic policy, hostility to foreign investors of all stripes a shrinking working population, make putting in the time to understand this intellectually fascinating culture not worth the effort for mainstream companies.

That leaves the US and UK/EU.

the case for Europe

Looking across the Atlantic, Europe appears to be a big mess.  It has, so far, not really recovered from the recession of 2008-09.  Grexit continues to be an issue, although relatively minor.  But there’s also Brexit, with the additional possibility that Scotland will vote to secede from the UK.  And there’s possibility that Marine Le Pen may become the next French president.  She advocates Frexit + repudiation of France’s euro-denominated debt.  In her stated social views, she’s the French version of Donald Trump.  On top of all this, the population of the EU is older, and is growing more slowly, than that of the US.  In a sense, the EU is the next Japan waiting for unfavorable demographics to take its toll.

What, then, could be the case for having exposure to Europe?

Three factors:

–the plus side of Donald Trump–tax reform, infrastructure, end to Congressional dysfunction–now appears to be at best a 2018 happening.  In a relative sense, then, Europe looks better than it did a few months ago

–the EU began its economic rescue operations several years later than the US did.  Because of this, one way of thinking about the EU is that it’s the US with, say, a three-year lag.  If that’s correct, we should expect growth there to be perking up–and it is–and to remain at a somewhat better than normal level for a while.

–the mass of Middle Eastern refugees pouring into the EU has produced near-term political and social problems.  However, many are young and well-educated.  So as they are assimilated, they will provide a boost to the workforce–and therefore to GDP growth.

how to play Europe

the UK

Brexit will be bad for the UK economy, I think.  Although much of the damage has already been done through depreciation of sterling, UK multinationals, especially those with exposure to the EU are, conceptually at least, the way to go.  Even here, though, it’s not yet clear how access to these markets will be restricted as the UK leaves the European Union.  So the UK probably isn’t the best way to participate.

the Continent

Since we’re talking about local GDP being unusually good, multinationals are likely to be underperformers.  EU-oriented firms will be the stars.  Small will likely outperform large.

the US and China

About a quarter of the profits of the S&P 500 are sourced in Europe.  So US-based, EU-oriented multinationals are also a way to play.

Another 10% or so of S&P earnings are China-related.  Because China’s largest trading partner is the EU, some of the glow from the EU will rub off on export-oriented Chinese firms.  Here I haven’t yet looked for names. But it may be possible to play the EU either through Chinese firms listed in the US or through US multinationals with China exposure.  I’d put this group at the tail end of any list, however.

 

the Trump rally and its aftermath (so far)

the Trump rally

From the surprise election of Donald Trump as president through late December 2016, the S&P 500 rose by 7.3%.  What was, to my mind, much more impressive, though less remarked on, was the 14% gain of the US$ vs the ¥ over that period and its 7% rise against the €.

the aftermath

Since the beginning of 2017, the S&P 500 has tacked on another +4.9%.  However, as the charts on my Keeping Score page show, Trump-related sectors (Materials, Industrials, Financials, Energy) have lagged badly.  The dollar has reversed course as well, losing about half its late-2016 gains against both the yen and euro.

How so?

Where to from here?

the S&P

The happy picture of late 2016 was that having one party control both Congress and the administration, and with a maverick president unwilling to tolerate government dysfunction, gridlock in Washington would end.  Tax reform and infrastructure spending would top the agenda.

The reality so far, however, is that discord within the Republican Party plus the President’s surprisingly limited grasp of the relevant economic and political issues have resulted in continuing inaction.  The latest pothole is Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns–that would reveal what he personally has to gain from the tax changes he is proposing.

On the other hand, disappointment about the potential for US profit advances generated by constructive fiscal policy has been offset by surprisingly strong growth indications from Continental Europe and, to a lesser extent, from China.

This is why equity investors in the US have shifted their interest away from Trump stocks and toward multinationals, world-leading tech stocks and beneficiaries of demographic change.

the dollar

The case for dollar strength has been based on the idea that new fiscal stimulus emanating from Washington would allow the Fed to raise interest rates at a faster clip this year than previously anticipated.  Washington’s continuing ineptness, however, is giving fixed income and currency investors second thoughts.  Hence, the dollar’s reversal of form.

tactics

Absent a reversal of form in Washington that permits substantial corporate tax reform, it’s hard for me to argue that the S&P is going up.  Yes, we probably get some support from a slower interest rate increase program by the Fed, as well as from continuing grass-roots political action that threatens recalcitrant legislators with replacement in the next election.  The dollar probably slides a bit, as well–a plus for the 50% or so of S&P earnings sourced abroad.  But sideways is both the most likely and the best I think ws can hope for.  Secular growth themes probably continue to predominate, with beneficiaries of fiscal stimulation lagging.

Having written that, I still think shale oil is interesting   …and the contrarian in me says that at some point there will be a valuation case for things like shipping and basic materials.  On the latter, I don’t think there’s any need to do more than nibble right now, though.

 

 

Chinese economic growth

China, the largest economy in the world (by Purchasing Power Parity measurement), reported 1Q17 economic growth of 6.9% earlier today.  The best analysis of what’s going on that I’ve read appears in the New York Times.

The bottom line, though, is that this is a slight uptick from previous quarters–and good news for the rest of the world, since one of the big factors that is driving growth is exports.

Traditionally, the first question with Chinese statistics has been whether they attempt to represent what is happening in the economy or whether they’re the rose-colored view that central planning bosses insist must be shown, whatever the underlying reality may be.

I think this is a much less worrisome issue now than, say, ten years ago.  But in addition to greater faith in statisticians, we also have other useful indicators about the state of China’s health.  They’re all positive:

–As I wrote about a short while ago, demand for oil in China is rising.

–Last week, port operators reported an activity pickup, led by exports.

–And Macau casino patronage, which bottomed last summer, is showing surprising increases–with middle class customers, not wealthy VIPs, in the vanguard.

While I think that consumer spending in the US is probably better than recent flattish indicators would suggest (on the view that statistics are catching all of the pain of establishment losers but much less of the joy of new retail entrants), my guess is that increasing export demand for Chinese goods is coming from Continental Europe.

More tomorrow.

United (UAL) and overbooking

overbooking

Overbooking itself is an airline industry staple.  It’s also a sensible practice.

That’s partly because there’s always someone who doesn’t show up for a flight.  For example, business people who travel often may book seats on three or four different flights to their next destination on a given day.  No matter what time their morning client meeting ends they’ll be able to get away easily.  They just cancel the ones they won’t use as the day develops.

operating leverage = large profit for the last seats sold

A plane that takes off with unused seats is a lost revenue opportunity.  Like unused hotel rooms, there’s no way to sell them later on.  And both hotels and airlines have a ton of operating leverage–there’s maybe $10 in marginal cost associated with an incremental seat/room.  So the profit contribution left on the table from non-use is immense.

UAL’s overbooking algorithm

I’ve noticed with UAL, which I’ve used regularly for years, that all of the last half-dozen or so flights I’ve been on recently have been overbooked.  That’s after seeing maybe one overbooked flight in the prior year.

My (unscientific) guess is that UAL tweaked its overbooking algorithm a few months ago in an effort to squeeze a bit more profit out of its flights.

My experience is that when companies begin to operate by trying to figure out where the the line is that marks the minimum a customer will accept–and then tries to get as close to that line as possible without crossing it, disaster inevitably happens.

I first encountered this phenomenon with a former management at Marriott that later went on to wreak havoc at Disney and at Northwest Air.  Their idea was that no one would notice if they lowered the room ceilings on newly-constructed hotels by an inch or two and shrank the room square footage by, say, 5%.  Yes, construction costs were a bit lower.  But I remember those rooms as being vaguely unsettling when I entered.  Business customers, the heart of a hotel chain’s profits, fled in droves.

If I’m correct, the remedy for UAL is simple.  Just go back to the former algorithm.  If, however, the corporate culture at UAL is to provide customers with the minimum acceptable service–and, to be clear, I don’t know that it is–more trouble is likely brewing.

 

P&G (PG) and Gillette

Gillette

P&G acquired Gillette in 2005 for $57 billion in stock.  The idea, as I understand it, was not only to acquire an attractive business in itself but also to use the Gillette brand name for PG to expand into men’s health and beauty products.  More or less, PG’s a big chunk of PG’s extensive women’s line would be repackaged, reformulated a bit if necessary, and sold under the Gillette label.

Unfortunately for PG, millennial men decided to stop shaving about ten years ago.  The big expansion of new Gillette product categories hasn’t happened.  And PG announced two months ago that it was slashing the price of its higher-end shaving products by up to 20%, effective late last month.

It’s this last that I want to write about today.

pricing

The Gillette situation reminds me of what happened with cigarette companies in the 1980s.  I’m no fan of tobacco firms, but what happened to them back then is instructive.

the iron law of microeconomics

The iron law of microeconomics: price is determined by the availability of substitutes.   But what counts as a substitute?  For a non-branded product, it’s anything that’s functionally equivalent and at the same, or lower, price.  The purpose of marketing to create a brand is, however, not only to reach more potential users.  It’s also to imbue the product with intangible attributes that hake it harder for competitors to offer something that counts as a substitute.

cigarettes

In the case of cigarettes, they’re addictive.  It should arguably be easy for firms with powerful marketing and distribution to continually raise prices in real terms.  And that’s what the tobacco companies did consistently–until the early 1980s.

By that time, despite all the advantages of Big Tobacco, it had raised prices so much that branding no longer offered protection.  Suddenly even no-name generics became acceptable substitutes.  This was a terrible strategic error, although one where there was little tangible evidence to serve as advance warning.  As it turns out, in my experience there never is.

The competitive response?  …cut prices for premium brands and launch their own generics.  There certainly have been additional legal and tax issues since, and because I won’t buy tobacco companies I don’t follow the industry closely.  Still, it seems to me that tobacco has yet to recover from its 30+ year ago pricing mistake.

razor blades

The same pattern.

Over the past few years, Gillette’s market share has fallen from 71% to 59%.  Upstart subscription services like the Dollar Shave Club (bought for $1 billion by Unilever nine months ago) and and its smaller clone Harry’s (which I use) have emerged.

Gillette has, I think, done the only things it can to repair the damage from creating a pricing umbrella under which competitors can prosper.  It is reducing prices.  It has already established its own mail order blade service.  On the other hand, Harry’s is now available in Target stores.   Unilever will likely use the Dollar Shave Club platform to distribute other grooming products.  So the potential damage is contained but not eliminated.  Competition may also spread.

The lesson from the story:  the cost of preventing competitors from entering a market is always far less than the expense of minimizing the damage once a rival has emerged.  That’s often only evident in hindsight.  Part of the problem is that once a competitor has spent money to create a toehold, it will act to protect the investment it has already made.  So its cost of exit becomes an additional barrier to its withdrawal from the market.

 

 

 

more trouble for active managers

When I started in the investment business in the late 1970s, fees of all types were, by today’s standards, almost incomprehensibly high.  Upfront sales charges for mutual funds, for example, were as high as 8.5% of the money placed in them.  And commissions paid even by institutional investors for trades could exceed 1% of the principal.

Competition from discount brokers like Fidelity offering no-load funds addressed the first issue.  The tripling of stocks in the 1980s fixed the second.  Managers reasoned that the brokers they were dealing with were neither providing better information nor handling trades with more finesse in 1989 than in 1980, yet the absolute amount of money paid to them for trading had tripled.  So buy-side institutions stopped paying a percentage and instead put caps on the absolute amount they would pay for a trade or for access to brokerage research.

All the while, however, management fees as a percentage of assets remained untouched.

 

That appears about to change, however.  The impetus comes from Europe, where fees are unusually high and where active management results have been, as I read them, unusually poor.

The argument is the same one active managers used in the 1980s in the US.  Stock markets have tripled from their 2009 lows and are up by 50% from their 2007 highs.  All this while investors have been getting the same weak relative performance, only now they’re paying 1.5x- 3x what they used to–simply because the markets have risen.

So let’s pay managers a fixed amount for the dubious services they provide rather than rewarding them for the fact that over time GDP has a tendency to rise, taking corporate profits–and thereby markets–with it.

The European proposal to decouple manager pay from asset size comes on the heels of one to force managers to make public the amount of customer money they use to purchase third-party research by allowing higher-than-normal trading commissions.  Most likely, customer outrage will put an end to this widespread practice.

Both changes will doubtless quickly migrate to the US, once they’re adopted elsewhere.