more tariffs?

Wall Street woke up today to an announcement from Mr. Trump that he intends to place a tariff on all goods coming into the US from Mexico.  The levy will be in effect until that country prevents immigrants/asylum seekers from reaching its border with the US.  The initial rate will be 5%, escalating to 25% by October.

As an American, I think I can understand the issues the administration wants to address.  But I find it more than a little unsettling that there seems to be no coherent, well-reasoned plan being implemented.  I’m pretty sure tariffs are not the way to go.  Also, both sides of the aisle in Congress appear to be eerily content to watch from the sidelines, rather than make it clear that Mr. Trump does not have authority to levy tariffs without legislative consent (my personal view, for what it’s worth) or limit/revoke that authority if the president does have it now.

 

As an investor, however, my main concern is the much narrower question of how Washington will affect my portfolio.

As to Mexico:  let’s say the US sells $300 billion yearly to Mexico and buys $350 billion.  Most of that is food and car parts.  Even if we sell less to Mexico because of retaliatory tariffs and if imported goods are 15% more expensive–to pluck a figure out of the air–the total direct negative impact on the US + Mexican economies would probably be a loss of around $100 billion in GDP.  How that would be split between the two isn’t clear, but the aggregate figure is 8% of Mexican GDP and 0.5% of US GDP.  So, potentially much worse for Mexico than for the US.

Given the nature of US-Mexico trade, the negative economic impact in the US will be concentrated on lower-income Americans.  If earnings reports from Walmart and the dollar stores are to be believed (I think they are), these are people whose fortunes have finally, and only recently, begun to turn up post-recession.

From a US stock market point of view, neither autos nor food has large index representation.  My guess is the negative impact will be roughly equally divided between negative pressure on directly-affected stocks, including names that cater to the less affluent, and mild downward pressure on stocks in general from slower domestic growth.  Because small caps are more domestically focused than the S&P 500, only half of whose earnings come from the US, the Russell 2000 will likely suffer more than large caps.

 

There are deeper, long-term questions that Washington is raising–about whether the US is an attractive place to establish manufacturing businesses and whether it can be relied on as a supplier to buy from.  In addition, it’s hard to figure out what government policy today is–for example, how new tariffs on Mexican imports square with just-reworked NAFTA, or how imposing tariffs that hurt domestic car manufacturers square with the threat of tariffs on imported vehicles, which do the opposite.

Neither of these concerns are likely to have a significant impact on near-term trading.  But heightened Washington dysfunction must even now be becoming a red flag in multinationals’ planning.

 

 

the threat in Trump’s deficit spending

In an opinion piece in the Financial Times a few days ago, Gillian Tett points to and expands on a comment in a Wall Street advisory committee letter to the Treasury Secretary.  Although it may not have implications for financial markets today or tomorrow, it’s still worth keeping in mind, I think.

The comment concerns the changes in the income tax code the administration pushed through Congress in late 2017.  Touted as “reform,” the tax bill is such only because it brings down the top domestic corporate tax rate from 35%, the highest in the world, to about average at 21%.  This reduces the incentive for US-based multinationals (think: drug company “inversions”) to recognize profits abroad.  But special interest tax breaks remained untouched, and tax reductions for the ultra-wealthy were tossed in for good measure.  Because of this, the legislation results in a substantial reduction in tax money coming in to Uncle Sam.

Ms. Tett underlines the worry that there are no obvious buyers for the trillions of dollars in Treasury bonds that the government will have to issue over the coming years to cover the deficit the tax bill has created.

 

A generation ago Japan was an avid buyer of US government debt, but its economy has been dormant for a quarter-century.  Over the past twenty years, China has taken up the baton, as it placed the fruits of its trade surplus in US Treasuries.  But Washington is aggressively seeking to reduce the trade deficit with China; the Chinese economy, too, is starting to plateau; and Beijing, whatever its reasons, has already been trimming its Treasury holdings for some time.

Who’s left to absorb the extra supply that’s on the way?   …US individuals and companies.

 

The obvious question is whether domestic buyers have a large enough appetite to soak up the increasing issue of Treasuries.  No one really knows.

Three additional observations (by me):

–the standard (and absolutely correct, in my view) analysis of deficit spending is that it isn’t free.  It is, in effect, a bill that’s passed along to be paid by future generations of Americans–diminishing the quality of life of Millennials while enhancing that of the top 0.1% of Boomers

–historically, domestic holders have been much more sensitive than foreign holders to creditworthiness-threatening developments from Washington like the Trump tax bill, and

–while foreign displeasure might be expressed mostly in currency weakness, and therefore be mostly invisible to dollar-oriented holders, domestic unhappiness would be reflected mostly in an increase in yields.  And that would immediately trigger stock market weakness.  If I’m correct, the decline in domestic financial markets what Washington folly would trigger implies that Washington would be on a much shorter leash than it is now.

 

Trump on trade: unintended consequences?

A straightforward analysis of what Mr. Trump is doing would be:

–tariffs slow overall growth and rearrange it to favor protected industries.  There’s no reason I can see to believe something different might happen in the US

–apart from the third world, protected industries tend to have domestic political clout but to be in economic trouble.  In my experience, these woes come more from bad management than from foreigners’ actions

–the go-it-alone approach is a weak one, since it provides ample scope for a target country to shop tariffed goods through an intermediary

–the apparently arbitrary way the administration is acting will cause both domestic and foreign corporations to reconsider future capital investment in the US.

 

There are, however, two other issues that I think have long-term implications but which aren’t discussed much.

–tariffs may cause industries that have moved abroad to retain labor-intensive work practices (and continue to use dated industrial machinery) in a lower labor-cost environment to return to the home country.  If such firms come back to the US, it won’t be with the old machinery.  New operations will be very highly mechanized. In other words, one likely response to the Trump tariffs will be to accelerate the replacement of humans with robots in the US.

–as I see it, China is at the key stage of economic development where, to grow, it must leave behind labor-intensive work and develop higher value-added industries.  This is very hard to do.  The owners of low value-added enterprises have become very wealthy and powerful.  They employ lots of people.  They have considerable political influence.   And they strongly favor the status quo.  The result is typically that the economy in question plateaus as labor-intensive industries block progress.  In the case of China, however, the threat that the US will effectively deny such firms access to a major market will kickstart progress and deflect blame from Beijing.

 

If I’m correct, the effect of trying to restore WWII-era industry in the US will, ironically, achieve the opposite.  It will accelerate domestic change in the nature of work away from manual labor.  And it will run interference against the status quo in China, allowing Beijing’s efforts to become a cutting-edge industrial power to gather speed.

 

 

threatening Federal Reserve independence

trying to intimidate the Fed?

Just before Christmas, news reports surfaced that President Trump was discussing how to go about firing Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, ten months after having him appointed to the post.  The purported reason:  Mr. Trump was blaming stock market turbulence–not on his tax bill, which failed to reform the system and increased the government deficit, nor on the negative effect of his tariffs–but on Mr. Powell’s continuing to gradually raise short-term interest rates from their financial crisis lows back toward normal.

Ironically, the S&P 500 plunged by about 10%, making what I think will be seen as an important low, as the president’s deliberations became public.

why this is scary

The highest-level economic aim of the US is maximum sustainable GDP growth, with low inflation.  In today’s world, the burden of achieving this falls almost entirely on the Fed (even I realize I write this too much, but: the rest of Washington is dysfunctional).  The unwritten agreement within government is that the Fed will do things that are economically necessary but not politically popular, accepting associated blame, and the rest of Washington will leave it alone.

Mr. Trump seems, despite his Wharton diploma, not to have gotten the memo.  This despite the likelihood that his strange mix of crony-oriented tax cuts and trade protection has made so few negative ripples in financial markets because participants believe the Fed will act as an economic stabilizer.

What happens, though, if the Fed is politicized in the way Mr. Trump appears to want?

The straightforward US example is the 1970s, when the Fed succumbed to Nixonian pressure for a too-easy monetary policy.  That resulted in runaway inflation and a plunging currency.  By 1978, foreigners were requiring that Treasury bonds be denominated in German marks or Swiss francs rather than dollars before they would purchase.   The Fed Funds rate rose 20% in 1981 as the monetary authority struggled to get inflation under control.

The point is the negative effects are very bad and happen surprisingly quickly.  This is more problematic for the US than for, say, Japan because about half the Treasuries in public hands are owned by foreigners, for who currency effects are immediately apparent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

looking at today’s market

In an ideal world, portfolio investing is all about comparing the returns available among the three liquid asset classes–stocks, bonds and cash–and choosing the mix that best suits one’s needs and risk preferences.

In the real world, the markets are sometimes gripped instead by almost overwhelming waves of greed or fear that blot out rational thought about potential future returns.  Once in a while, these strong emotions presage (where did that word come from?) a significant change in market direction.  Most often, however, they’re more like white noise.

In the white noise case, which I think this is an instance of, my experience is that people can sustain a feeling of utter panic for only a short time.  Three weeks?  …a month?  The best way I’ve found to gauge how far along we are in the process of exhausting this emotion is to look at charts (that is, sinking pretty low).  What I want to see is previous levels where previously selloffs have ended, where significant new buying has emerged.

I typically use the S&P 500.  Because this selloff has, to my mind, been mostly about the NASDAQ, I’ve looked at that, too.  Two observations:  as I’m writing this late Tuesday morning both indices are right at the level where selling stopped in June;  both are about 5% above the February lows.

My conclusion:  if this is a “normal” correction, it may have a little further to go, but it’s mostly over.  Personally, I own a lot of what has suffered the most damage, so I’m not doing anything.  Otherwise, I’d be selling stocks that have held up relatively well and buying interesting names that have been sold off a lot.

 

What’s the argument for this being a downturn of the second sort–a marker of a substantial change in market direction?  As far as the stock market goes, there are two, as I see it:

–Wall Street loves to see accelerating earnings.  A yearly pattern of +10%, +12%, +15% is better than +15%, +30%, +15%.  That’s despite the fact that the earnings level in the second case will be much higher in year three than in the first.

Why is this?  I really don’t know.  Maybe it’s that in the first case I can dream that future years will be even better.  In the second case, it looks like the stock in question has run into a brick wall that will stop/limit earnings advance.

What’s in question here is how Wall Street will react to the fact that 2018 earnings are receiving a large one-time boost from the reduction in the Federal corporate tax rate.  So next year almost every stock’s pattern in will look like case #2.

A human being will presumably look at pre-tax earnings to remove the one-time distortion.  But will an algorithm?

 

–Washington is going deeply into debt to reduce taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations, thereby revving the economy up.  It also sounds like it wants the Fed to maintain an emergency room-low level of interest rates, which will intensify the effect.  At the same time, it is acting to raise the price of petroleum and industrial metals, as well as everything imported from China–which will slow the economy down (at least for ordinary people).  It’s possible that Washington figures that the two impulses will cancel each other out.  On the other hand, it’s at least as likely, in my view, that both impulses create inflation fears that trigger a substantial decline in the dollar.  The resulting inflation could get 1970s-style ugly.

 

My sense is that the algorithm worry is too simple to be what’s behind the market decline, the economic worry too complicated.  If this is the seasonal selling I believe it to be, time is a factor as well as stock market levels.  To get the books to close in an orderly way, accountants would like portfolio managers not to trade next week.

Trump on trade

so far:

intellectual property…

One of Mr. Trump’s first actions as president was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a consortium of world nations seeking, among other things, to halt Chinese theft of intellectual property.

…and metals

Trump has apparently since discovered that this is a serious issue but has decided that the US will go it alone in addressing it.  His approach of choice is to place tariffs on goods imported from China–steel and aluminum to start with–on the idea that the harm done to China by the tax will bring that country to the negotiating table.  In what seems to me to be his signature non-sequitur-ish move, Mr. Trump has also placed tariffs on imports of these metals from Canada and from the EU.

This action has prompted the imposition of retaliatory tariffs on imports from the US.

the effect of tariffs

–the industry being “protected’ by tariffs usually raises prices

–if it has inferior products, which is often the case, it also tends to slow its pace of innovation (think:  US pickup trucks, some of which still use engine technology from the 1940s)

–some producers will leave the market, meaning fewer choices for consumers;  certainly there will be fewer affordable choices

–overall economic growth slows.  The relatively small number of people in the protected industry benefit substantially, but the aggregate harm, spread out among the general population, outweighs this–usually by a lot

is there a plan?

If so, Mr. Trump has been unable/unwilling to explain it in a coherent way.  In a political sense, it seems to me that his focus is on rewarding participants in sunset industries who form the most solid part of his support–and gaining new potential voters through trade protection of new areas.

automobiles next?

Mr. Trump has proposed/threatened to place tariffs on automobile imports into the US.  This is a much bigger deal than what he has done to date.   How so?

–Yearly new car sales in the US exceed $500 billion in value, for one thing.  So tariffs that raise car prices stand to have important and widespread (negative) economic effects.

–For another, automobile manufacturing supply chains are complex:  many US-brand vehicles are substantially made outside the US; many foreign-brand vehicles are made mostly domestically.

–In addition, US car makers are all multi-nationals, so they face the risk that any politically-created gains domestically would be offset (or more than offset) by penalties in large growth markets like China.  Toyota has already announced that it is putting proposed expansion of its US production, intended for export to China, on hold.  It will send cars from Japan instead.  [Q: Who is the largest exporter of US-made cars to China?  A:  BMW  –illustrating the potential for unintended effects with automotive tariffs.]

 

More significant for the long term, the world is in a gradual transition toward electric vehicles.  They will likely prove to be especially important in China, the world’s largest car market, which has already prioritized electric vehicles as a way of dealing with its serious air pollution problem.

This is an area where the US is now a world leader.  Trade retaliation that would slow domestic development of electric vehicles, or which would prevent export of US-made electric cars to China, could be particularly damaging.

This has already happened once to the US auto industry during the heavily protected 1980s.  The enhanced profitability that quotas on imported vehicles created back then induced an atmosphere of complacency.  The relative market position of the Big Three deteriorated a lot.  During that decade alone, GM lost a quarter of its market share, mostly to foreign brands.  Just as bad, the Big Three continued to damage their own brand image by offering a parade of high-cost, low-reliability vehicles.  GM has been the poster child for this.  It controlled almost half the US car market in 1980; its current market share is about a third of that.

In sum, I think Mr. Trump is playing with fire with his tariff policy.  I’m not sure whether he understands just how much long-term damage he may inadvertently do.

stock market implications

One of the quirks of the US stock market is that autos and housing are key industries for the economy but neither has significant representation in the S&P 500–or any other general domestic index, for that matter.

Tariffs applied so far will have little direct negative impact on S&P 500 earnings, although eventually consumer spending will slow a bit.  So far, fears about the direction in which Mr. Trump may be taking the country–and the failure of Congress to act as a counterweight–have expressed themselves in two ways.  They are:

–currency weakness and

–an emphasis on IT sector in the S&P 500.  Within IT, the favorites have been those with the greatest international reach, and those that provide services rather than physical products.  My guess is that if auto tariffs are put in place, this trend will intensify.  Industrial stocks + specific areas of retaliation will, I think, join the areas to be avoided.

 

Of course, intended or not (I think “not”), this drag on growth would be coming after a supercharging of domestic growth through an unfunded tax cut.   This arguably means that the eventual train wreck being orchestrated by Mr. Trump will be too far down the line to be discounted in stock prices right away.