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.

 

US corporate income tax reform (ii)

To summarize yesterday’s post:

firms with taxable income

Lowering the corporate tax rate in the US, while eliminating special interest tax preferences/exemptions, will benefit companies that have a high current tax rate.  It will boost such a firm’s earnings by as much as 30%.

On the other hand, companies that have a low income tax rate will receive little or no benefit.  Continuing to spend resources on what are in effect tax shelters for themselves will make no sense.  To the extent that they are able to unwind these arrangements, they will benefit by doing so.  If, however, they are recipients of special interest tax reduction deals, they may be absolute losers, as well as relative ones, if/when these special preferences are eliminated.

The greatest uncertainty here is whether industries that are recipients of large tax breaks, like real estate and oil and gas, will have their special interest preferences eliminated.  This will be a key indicator of whether the “Drain the Swamp” rhetoric is more than an empty slogan.

firms with losses

This case is not as straightforward, thanks to wrinkles in the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles used by publicly traded companies in their reports to shareholders.

for the IRS

Let’s assume a firm makes a pre-tax loss in the current year.

 

The company has a limited ability to use this loss to offset taxes paid in past years ( it carries the loss back).  It restates its past returns and gets a refund.

If it still has a portion of the loss that can’t be used in this way, it carries the loss forward to potentially use to shield income in future years from tax.

If the corporate income tax rate drops from 35% to 15%, the amount of pre-tax income that can be sheltered from tax by loss carryforwards remains the same.  But the value of the carryforward is reduced by 60%.

for financial reporting

That’s tomorrow’s topic.

 

US corporate tax reform: stock market implications (i)

high US corporate taxes

The headline rate for US federal tax on corporate profits is 35%.  That’s higher than just about anyplace else on the planet and, in itself, a deterrent to business formation in the United States.  It’s also the reason for the big business of advising corporations on how to finesse the tax code that has sprung up over the past decade or so.  In addition, it’s also why tax havens such as Ireland, Switzerland, Hong Kong and assorted islands in the Atlantic Ocean have become so popular with Americans.

A generation ago, world stock markets paid particular attention the rate at which a given company paid corporate tax.  The assumption back then, which has turned out to be incorrect, was that a firm could only sustain a low tax rate for a limited period of time.  So no matter what the rate shown in the financial statements, professional securities analysts would “normalize” it  to the top marginal rate.  Portfolio managers wouldn’t pay a full price for a low tax payer, either.

Not so in today’s world.  As far as I can see, Wall Street has long since stopped believing that the “quality” of earnings taxed at below the statutory tax rate is less than those same earnings taxed at a higher one.

Trump’s proposed reform

Given that the Republican party controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, it seems to me that the corporate tax reform championed by Donald Trump has a good chance for becoming law.  This would mean that for a company having $100 in fully-taxed pretax US income, after-tax profit would rise from $65 to $85–a 30+% boost.

big stock market implications

A change like this would have enormous implications for US-traded stocks.  In particular:

–investor interest would rotate toward purely domestic companies.  This would favor mid- and small-caps over large, and dollar earners over multinationals.  I think this is already starting to happen

–to the degree that they could be, elaborate tax avoidance schemes that have become common for US firms will be unwound.  Tax havens will suffer.  On the other hand, profits from future earnings that would otherwise be held in tax-haven banks will begin to be repatriated to the US.  Trump is also proposing to allow money now “trapped” in tax havens to be brought back to the US on payment of a 10% income tax.

–tax inversions by US-based companies–that is, flight of high-rate US taxpayers to tax havens abroad (or, actually, just about anywhere else) will come to a halt.  Arguably, companies that have recently inverted may begin to trade at discounts to un-inverted peers

–the price US firms would be willing to pay for foreign companies using funds parked abroad should fall

–it’s possible that US investors will begin to become interested once again in the ins and outs of the tax line on the income statement.  That might mean that 1980-style quality-of-earnings differentials will be in vogue again

–there are also possible negative implications for firms that have substantial tax loss carryforwards or who benefit from the many industry-specific tax preferences of the current tax code.

 

More tomorrow.

Brexit vs. the Trump election

Trump and Brexit

Right before election day, Donald Trump predicted his victory by saying that it would be just like Brexit, only more so.

That turned out to be correct, in the sense that in both cases the pre-election polls were incorrect and that the result turned on the votes of older, disaffected, less-educated citizens who came out in large numbers in response to a call to roll back the clock to days of former glory.

post-Brexit

The immediate UK stock market response to the Brexit vote was to drop through the floor, with the multinational-laden large-cap FTSE 100 index faring far better than generally domestic-focused small caps.  The FTSE has rallied since, with the index now sitting about 6% higher than its level when the election results were announced.

That does not mean, however, that the Brexit vote turned out to be a plus for UK stock market participants.  By far the largest amount of damage to their wealth was done in the 15% drop vs. the dollar that the UK currency has experienced since June.

post-Election Day

Despite the voting similarity between UK and US, the currency and stock market outcomes have been very different.  In the week+ since the US presidential election,

–the dollar has risen by about 3% against both the euro and the yen since the election result became known

–the S&P 500 is up by a bit less than 2%, with small caps significantly better than that.  Potential beneficiaries of Trump policies–oil and gas, construction, banks, pharma, prisons–have all done much better than that.

Why the difference?

Brexit

Brexit was a simple, binding in-or-out vote on an economic issue (recent legal action seems to show it’s not so clear-cut as that, however).  Leaving, which is the action voters selected, has immediate, easily predictable, severely negative economic consequences.  Hence, the continuing slide in the currency.

Trump

The Trump vote, on the other hand,  was for a charismatic reality show star with unacceptable social views, very limited economic or policy knowledge/interests and a questionable record of business (other than show business) success.   Not good.

The US vote was for a person, however flawed, not necessarily for policies.  In addition, the  legislative logjam in Washington has potentially been broken, since Republicans will control both houses and the Oval Office.

The general economic tone Trump seems to be setting is for fiscal stimulation through tax reform and deficit spending on infrastructure.  Both would relieve the extraordinary burden that has been placed on the Fed (the only adult in the Washington room).  This will likely mean larger, and faster, interest rate hikes.  Hence the rise in the currency.

knock-on effects

Democrats seem to realize the folly of having a cultural program without an economic one; a substantial restructuring of that party may now be under way.  Bipartisan cooperation in Congress seems to once again be in the air, if for no other reason than to act as a check on Mr. Trump’s more economically questionable impulses.   Trump’s “basket of deplorables” social views may make Americans more vividly aware of the issues at stake, and what progress needs to be made   …and serve as a call to arms for activism, as well.

Another thought:  yesterday’s news showed the Trump brand name being removed from several apartment buildings on the West Side of Manhattan.  Based on feedback from tenants, the owner, who licenses the Trump name, concluded that retaining the buildings’ branding would result in lower rents/higher vacancies.  Given that Trump does not intend to have his business interests run by an independent third party while he is in office, the public would seem to me to have an unusually large ability to influence his presidential actions by its attitude toward Trump-branded products.  I’m not sure whether this is good or bad   …but “good” would be my guess.

All in all, the UK seems to be lost in dreams of the days when it ruled the oceans.  The US is less clear.  We may be in the early days of a renaissance.

 

REITs when interest rates are rising

Finally, to the question of REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts).

A REIT is a specialized type of corporation that accepts restrictions on the kind of business it can do and limits to how concentrated its ownership structure can be.  It must also distribute virtually all its profits to shareholders.  In return it gets an exemption from corporate income tax.  It’s basically the same legal structure as mutual funds or ETFs.

Traditionally, REITs have concentrated on owning income-generating real estate.  But they are also allowed to to develop and manage new projects, provided they do so to hold as part of their portfolios instead of to resell.

Because they must distribute basically all of their profits, and to the degree that their property development efforts are small relative to their overall asset size, REITs look an awful lot like bonds.  That is to say, their main attraction is their relatively steady income.  Yes, they hold tangible assets of a type that should not be badly affected by inflation.  But current holders, I think, view them as bond substitutes.

As I suggested in Monday’s post, that’s bad in a time of rising interest rates.  Both newly-issued bonds–and eventually cash as well–become increasingly attractive as lower-risk substitutes.  This is the reason REITs have underperformed the S&P by about 5 percentage points so far this month, and by 9 points since the end of September.  I don’t think we’ve yet reached the back half of this game.

How can an investor fight the negative influence of interest rate rises in the REIT sector?   …by finding REITs that look as much as they can like stocks.  That is, by finding REITs that are able to achieve earnings–that therefore distributable income–growth.

This means finding REITs that can raise rents steadily or whose development of new properties is large relative to their current asset size.

 

stocks vs. bonds when interest rates are rising (ii)

yesterday’s post: bonds

To summarize yesterday’s post, when interest rates are rising, newly-issued bonds bear higher coupons than ones issued in the recent past. Older bonds look less attractive, because they provide less return.  So they have to go down in price until they’re trading at equivalent returns to new ones.

Other than inflation-indexed bonds, Treasuries have no defense against this.

What about stocks?

Here the issue is a bit more complicated.

Let’s make the useful, and more or less correct, assumption that stocks and bonds are in equilibrium before rates start to rise.  If so, if bonds get cheaper, stocks will also have to get cheaper in order to compete for investor money against now-higher-yielding bonds.

This means rising rates puts downward pressure on stocks, too.

But stocks do have a defense.  It has to do with why rates are rising.

In most cases, rates begin to rise when either bond investors or the Fed sense incipient inflation that threatens to erode the purchasing power of money.  This is what triggers the impulse to raise rates.  Since in advanced economies, inflation is always an issue of wage inflation, its early warning signs are that the economy is reaching full employment and/or wages are beginning to rise at an accelerating rate.  In the US, that’s where we are now.

But more workers employed and wages rising at a healthy clip imply that consumer spending is likely to rise at an accelerating rate.  This implies accelerating profit growth for, in sequence, retailers, their suppliers and the providers of capital goods to both retailers and suppliers.  To the extent that a given stock market represents the local economy (which about half of the S&P 500 does), profits of publicly traded companies will start to go up at an unexpectedly sharp rate.

Rising profits create upward pressure on stock prices that serves as at least a partial counter to the downward pressure created by rising rates.

currency

A second issue that will affect stocks directly is how the combination of inflation and higher rates affects the local currency.

If the currency falls, which is the most common case, export-oriented or import-competing companies will have the best results.  Purely domestic firms, and domestic firms that use foreign inputs, will fare relatively poorly.

If the currency rises, the opposite will most likely happen.

the S&P 500 in past times of rising rates

In the US in the past, the upward pressure from rising profits and the downward pressure from rising interest rates have most often neutralized each other.  There have certainly been diverse sector and industry performances, based on currency, technology, government fiscal policy and the overall state of the world economy.  So there have typically been substantial outperformance opportunities even in a sideways market.  But the overall market tendency in the early year or so of rising rates has typically been sideways, not down.

 

Tomorrow, REITs.

 

 

stocks vs. bonds when interest rates are rising

A regular reader asked what I think about REITs in a comment last Friday.  I thought I’d answer him here, starting in a more general way.

One of the safer conclusions we can draw from the US election results is that interest rates are going to be rising over the next couple of years.  Most likely this will happen at a more rapid rate than under the Washington gridlock scenario a Hillary victory would probably have perpetuated.

Two reasons:

–the US appears to be at or near full employment, as evidenced by recent wage gain acceleration, so rates would be rising to fend off future inflation in any event, and

–Republicans, who have been blocking Obama’s infrastructure spending proposals (for no good economic reason), are in favor of fiscal stimulus now that they will get the credit. This will remove some of the pressure the Fed is now under to compensate for congressional failure to do its part to restore economic stability.

 

What happens to stocks and bonds as rates go up?

cash

— a point of merely academic interest right now, but something to tuck away in the back of our minds, there could come a time when the returns on cash are high enough to draw money to it that would otherwise have gone to stocks and bonds.  I don’t know what that point might be, just that it’s a long time away.  The question to answer is:  if the expected return for stocks is 8% a year and I can get, say, 4% in a savings account, am I willing to take the greater risk of owning stocks?

government bonds

–if we take the simplest case, a government bond is a high-quality promise (i) to pay a specified amount of interest for a set period of time, and (ii) to return the principal at the end of the bond’s term.

The annual return on a bond should be the return on cash + a premium to compensate for tying one’s money up for a long period of time.  At the moment, the rate for a 10-year Treasury bond is about 2.16%.  That compares with, say, 0.5% for overnight money.

Suppose the rate on overnight money rises to 2.0%.  A newly-issued 10-year would likely have to yield at a minimum, say, 3.25% to draw buyers (yes, the time premium normally fades as rates rise).  This implies that an already-existing 10-year yielding 2.16% must be worth less than par (since the going rate for a bond at par is 3.25%).

In other words, as interest rates go up, the value of an existing bond goes down.  There’s nothing the issuer can do to change that dynamic.  Since the issuer has the use of what is now cheap money, he will presumably have no desire to change it, either.

 

More tomorrow.