reading a financial newspaper

Early on in my investing career, I came to realize that it’s better to read financial newspapers by starting on the back page and working toward the front.

How so?

As investors, we’re searching for information that is potentially important but not yet well known.  Arguably, the best information won’t yet be in print.  But as it does appear, it will usually come in the form of small articles on the back pages.  Typically, when information is on the front page, or when it appears as a magazine cover, investors normally begin to think hard about adopting the contrary stance.

At first blush, reading from back to front is hard to do with online news services.  Worse,  the order of online news is constantly being curated, meaning that the most popular items are pushed toward the front.  The less well-received–that is, the more interesting for us–are progressively pushed toward the rear.

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times both have introduced what is being described as a “new” way of reading the newspaper, a digital form of the print newspaper.  Personally, I prefer the print newspaper.  But I find this digital form just as useful when I’m on the road.

US corporate tax reform (ii)

There are likely to be losers from corporate income tax reform.  They’re likely to be of two types:

–companies that currently have sweetheart tax deals, which, as things stand now (meaning:  subject to the success of intensive lobbying), will go away as part of reform.  A related group is multinationals who’ve twisted their corporate structures into pretzels to locate taxable income outside the US

–companies making losses currently and/or that have unused tax-loss carryforwards.  The value of those unused losses will likely be reduced by a lot.  This is a somewhat more complicated issue than it seems.  In their reports to public shareholders, money-losing firms can use anticipated future tax benefits to reduce the size of current losses.  The ins-and-outs of this are only important in isolated cases, so I’ll just say that for such firms book value is likely overstated

Another potential consequence of tax reform is that investors may begin to take a harder look at tax-related items on the income and cash flow statements.  Could markets will begin to apply a discount to the stocks of firms that use gimmicks to depress their tax rate?  Thinking some what more broadly, it may mean the markets will take a dimmer view of other sorts of financial engineering (share buybacks are what I personally hope for).  It might also be that companies themselves will reemphasize operation experience rather than financial sleight of hand when choosing their CEOs.

US corporate tax reform

 why look at the corporate tax rate?

As I’ve mentioned on occasion in other posts, one of the features of today’s US stock market is that it seems to pay no attention at all to the rate at which publicly traded companies pay tax.  All that counts is (after-tax) eps and eps growth.

A generation ago, when I entered the market, the opposite was the case.  Acting on the assumption that a company couldn’t sustain a super-low tax rate for a long time, analysts scrupulously adjusted, or “normalized,” a company’s tax rate, usually to the statutory maximum.  Of course, it has turned out that some firms–and some industries–have been able to maintain a sub-par tax rate for far longer than anyone imagined possible back then.

the US tax system

There are two main issues with the current US corporate tax system, as I see it.  The statutory rate of 35% is very high in comparison with the world average of around 20%.  So, if there isn’t a crucial reason to locate here, the US is financially a bad place for a company to have operations.  Also, politically savvy industries–oil and gas drilling, for example–have been able to lobby for special breaks that make the tax code unduly complex and the amount that the IRS collects less than it should be.

reform likely

President-elect Trump is promising to address this issue by lowering the federal corporate tax rate to perhaps 15%.  Implied, but not yet stated, is that the tax code will also be simplified by wiping out special exemptions for certain industries.  There seems to be widespread support for both parts of such reform.  So it seems to me that the effort, which has always previously been derailed by special interests, has a good chance to succeed.

market consequences

This means, though, that for the first time in a long while, analysts will be scrutinizing company financials to try to separate winners from losers.

potential winners

The obvious winners are firms that have large amounts of US taxable income and that pay cash taxes at the full 35% rate.  The pharmaceutical industry is one.  No surprise that most of the tax inversions of the recent past have been in pharma.

More tomorrow.

 

 

stocks in a 4% T-bond world

There are two questions here:

–what happens to stocks as interest rates rise? and

–what should the PE on the S&P 500 be if the main investment alternative for US investors, Treasury bonds, yield something around 4%?

On the first, over my 38+ year investment career stocks have gone mostly sideways when the Fed is raising short-term interest rates.  The standard explanation for this, which I think is correct, is that while stocks can show rising earnings to counter the effect of better yields on newly-issued bonds, existing bonds have no defense.

Put a different way, the market’s PE multiple should contract as rates rise, but rising earnings counter at least part of that effect.

The second question, which is not about how we get there but what it looks like when we arrive, is the subject of this post.

in a 4% world

The arithmetic solution to the question is straightforward.  Imagining that stocks are quasi-bonds, in the way traditional finance academics do, the equivalent of a bond coupon payment is the earnings yield. It’s the portion of a company’s profits that each share has a claim on ÷ the share price.  For example, if a stock is trading at $50 a share and eps are $2, the earnings yield is $2/$50 = 4%.  This is also 1/PE.

A complication:  Ex dividends, corporate profits don’t get deposited into our bank accounts; they remain with management.  So they’re somewhat different from an interest payment.  If management is a skillful user of capital, that’s good.  Otherwise…

If we take this proposed equivalence at face value, a 4% earnings yield and 4% T-bond annual interest payment should be more or less the same thing.  In the ivory tower universe, stocks should trade at 25x earnings if T-bonds are yielding 4%.  That’s almost exactly where the S&P 500 is trading now, based on trailing 12-months “as reported” earnings (meaning not factoring out one-time gains/losses).  Why this measure?   It’s the easiest to obtain.

More tomorrow.

 

is 4% real GDP growth possible in the US?

the 3% – 4% growth promise

One of Donald Trump’s campaign promises is to create 3% – 4% GDP growth in the US.  Is this possible?

The first thing to note is that this is real GDP growth, meaning after inflation has been subtracted out.  I’m not sure Mr. Trump has ever clarified this–or that he wouldn’t be nonplussed by the question–but his appointees to head the Treasury and Commerce departments have said real is what they mean.  Also, 4% nominal (that is, including inflation) growth is about what the US has been churning out in recent years.  So promising 4% nominal growth would be like P T Barnum putting up his “This way to the egress” sign.

where does growth come from?

Simple models are usually the best (as in this case, feeling embarrassed when calling them “models” is a good indicator of simplicity).  Growth can come either by having more people working or by having workers be more productive, meaning churning out more output per hour.

more workers

Having more people working is a function of demographics.

Each year, the population of the US rises by about 0.8%.  Half of that comes from children being born to people already residing in the US; half comes from immigration.  If we take increases in the population as a proxy for increases in the workforce, then demographics can generate a bit less than 1% trend growth in GDP.

This also means that if Mr. Trump carries through on his threat to deport 3% of the workforce and restrict entry of immigrants, not only will the social consequences be shameful, he will make it that much harder to achieve his GDP objective.

productivity

Given that demographics will likely either not change, or will change in a negative way, getting to the low end of the 3% – 4% range will only be possible if worker productivity rises.   Let’s make the optimistic assumptions that the Republicans’ white supremacy rhetoric doesn’t discourage any potential immigrants and that there’s no increase in deportations.  If so, productivity gains would have to be at least +2.2% per year to achieve the low end of the GDP growth goal.

If +4% growth isn’t simply “marketing” in the worst sense of that word, the Trump camp must believe that productivity can be boosted to +3.2% per year.

An aside:  My first stock market boss was a vintage 19th-century capitalist.  He believed that increasing worker productivity meant boosting the workload–and making employees work longer hours for the same pay.  (No, there was no company store where we were forced to buy meals; yes, we had to basically provide our own office supplies.)

That’s not correct, though.  Productivity improvement comes through better employee education/training and by employers investing in labor-enhancing machines (back then, it would have been computer workstations, or in my firm’s case, pencils).

productivity today

Productivity today has been stuck at around +1% per year growth for about a decade.  During the housing bubble, when the US was furiously churning out many more new dwellings than the country could afford and banks were making crazy no-documentation mortgage loans (websites were also sprouting up to show low-income renters how to buy a house and scam the system for a year of “free rent” before foreclosure), we got to maybe +2.8% for a number of years.  But the last time the US rose above 3% was in the 1950s, when industry in Europe and Japan had been destroyed by war.

my take

I hope Wilbur Ross can do what he says.

I think +4% growth is simply hype–and that Mr. Ross, if not Mr. Trump, knows the situation.

The trend in manufacturing is to replace humans with robots. That’s the most straightforward way to achieve productivity gains. Output climbs steadily; output per worker goes up faster.  However, the number of employees shrinks drastically.   For many displaced workers supporting Mr. Trump, this may be a case of being careful about what you wish for.

 

 

 

 

 

interest rates: how high?

the speed of interest rate rises

The best indicator of how fast the Fed will raise the Fed Funds rate will likely be the pace of wage gains and new job creation, as shown in the monthly Employment Situation report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Infrastructure investment legislation that may be passed by the new Congress next year may also factor into the Fed’s thinking.  On the other hand, the continuing example of Japan, whose quarter-century of no economic growth is due in part to premature tightening of economic policy is also likely to play a part in decision making.

Much of that will be hard to be certain about in advance.  Current Wall Street thinking, for what it’s worth, is that the pace will be north of glacial but not fast at all–maybe a move of +0.50% next year, after a boost of +0.25% later this month.

The endpoint of policy, however, may be somewhat easier to forecast.

the final policy goal

 

Fed policy is aimed at holding inflation at +2.0% per year.  Its main problem recently is that it can’t get inflation that high, in spite of having flooded the economy with money for the past eight years.  So let’s say we’ll have inflation at 2%, but not higher, some time in the future.

cash

If so, and if the return on cash-like investments during normal times continues to provide protection against inflation and little else, then the final target for the Fed Funds rate is 2%.

bonds

If we consider the 30-year bond and say that the normal annual return should be inflation protection + 2% per year, then the target yield for it would be 4%–vs slightly over 3% today.

The 10-year?  subtract 50 basis points from the 30-year annual yield.  That would mean 3.5% as the target yield.

If this is correct, the important thing about the domestic bond market since the US election is the substantial steepening of the yield curve.  While cash has another 150 bp to rise to get to 2%, the long bond is within 100bp of where I think it will eventually settle in.

In other words, a substantial amount of readjustment has already occurred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

US corporate tax reform (iii)

For years ago I wrote in detail about today’s topic, which is deferred taxes.

The basics:

–deferred taxes are an accounting device that reconciles the cheery face a company typically present to shareholders with the more down-at-the-heels look it gives the IRS, while accurately reporting to both parties the cash taxes paid

–look at the cash flow statement, which, as the name implies, shows the cash moving in and out of the company or in the income tax footnote to get the particulars for a firm you may be interested in.

accounting for a loss

The issue I’m concerned about in this post is what happens when a company makes a loss.

reporting to the IRS

The income statement  for the IRS looks like this:

pre-tax income (loss)      ($100)

income tax due                          0

after-tax income (loss)     ($100).

reporting to shareholders

Financial accounting books, in contrast, look like this:

pre-tax income (loss)         ($100)

deferred tax, at 35%                 $35

after-tax income (loss)        ($65).

what’s going on

The financial accounting idea, other than to cosmetically soften the blow of a loss, is that at some future date the company in question will again be making money.  If so, it will be able to use the loss being incurred now to offset otherwise taxable future income.  Financial accounting rules allow the company to take the future benefit today.

It’s important to note, however, that the deferred tax is an estimate of future tax relief, based on today’s tax rates.

why does this matter?

Profits add to shareholders’ equity; losses subtract from it.  Under the GAAP accounting used for reports to stockholders, a loss-making company only has to write down its shareholders’ equity (aka net worth, book value) by about two-thirds of the actual loss.  To the casual observer, and to the value investor using computer screening, it looks stronger than it probably should.

Financial stocks typically trade on price/book.  This is also the sector that took devastatingly large losses during the financial crisis (that they caused, I might add).

Suppose the corporate tax rate is reduced to 15%.

This diminishes the value of any tax loss carryforwards a firm may have.  It also may require a substantial writedown of book value, making that figure more accurate.  But the writedown may also underline that the stock isn’t as cheap as it appears.