what might cause a dollar swoon

government saving/spending–in theory

In theory, governments spend more than they take in to ease the pain and speed recovery during bad economic times. They spend less than they take in during booms to moderate growth and repay borrowings made during recession.

what really happens

In practice, this occurs less than one might hope. Even so, the Trump administration is one for the books. Despite coming into office after seven growth years in a row, Trump endorsed an immediate new dose of government stimulus–a bill that cut personal income tax for his ultra-wealthy backers and reduced the corporate tax rate from nosebleed levels to around the world average. While the latter was necessary to prevent US companies from reincorporating elsewhere, elimination of pork barrel tax breaks for favored industries that would have balanced the books was conspicuously absent.

The country suddenly sprouted a $1 trillion budget deficit at a time when that’s the last thing we needed.

Then came the coronavirus, Trump’s deer-in-the-headlights response and his continual exhortations to his followers to ignore healthcare protocols belatedly put in place have produced a worst-in-the-world outcome for the US. Huge economic damage and tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Vintage Trump. National income (and tax revenue to federal and state governments) is way down. And Washington has spent $2 trillion+ on fiscal stimulus, with doubtless more to come.

To make up a number, let’s say we end 2020 with $27 trillion in government debt (we cracked above $26 billion yesterday). That would be about 125% of GDP, up where a dubious credit like Italy has typically been. It would take 7.7 years worth of government cash flow to repay our federal debt completely. These are ugly numbers, especially in the 11th year of economic expansion.

At some point, potential buyers of government bonds will begin to question whether/when/how they’ll get their money, or their clients’ money, back. In academic theory, foreigners work this out faster than locals. In my experience with US financial markets, Wall Street is the first to head for the door. The result of buyers’ worry would be that the Treasury would need to offer higher interest rates to issue all the debt it will want. To the degree that the government has been borrowing short-term (to minimize its interest outlay) the deficit problem quickly becomes worse. Three solutions: raise taxes, cut services, find some way of not repaying borrowings.

not repaying

Historically, the path of least resistance for governments is to attempt the last of these. The standard route is to create inflation by running an excessively loose monetary policy. Gold bugs like to call this “debasing the currency.” The idea is that if prices are rising by, say, 5% annually and the stock of outstanding debt has been borrowed at 2%, holders will experience a 3% annual loss in the purchasing power of their bond principal.

The beauty of this solution in politicians’ eyes is the ability it gives them to blame someone else for what they are doing.

The downside is that international banks and professional investors will recognize this ploy and sell their holdings, creating a potentially large local currency decline.

The issue with the devaluation solution in today’s world is that sovereign debtors have been trying for at least the past decade to create local inflation–without success.

This would leave either tax increases or default as options. The slightest inkling of either would trigger large-scale flight from the country/currency, I think. Again, Wall Street would likely be the first. Holders of local currency would assume third-world-style capital controls would soon be put in place to stop this movement, adding to their flight impulse.

The most likely signal for capital flight to shift into high gear, in my view, would be Trump’s reelection.

depreciating the dollar

When a country is having economic problems–slow growth, outdated industrial base, weak educational system, balance of payments issues–there are generally speaking two ways to fix things:

–internal adjustment, meaning fixing the domestic problems through domestic government and private sector action, and

–external adjustment, meaning depreciating the currency.

The first approach is the fundamentally correct way.  But it requires skill and demands a shakeup of the status quo.  So it’s politically difficult.

Depreciating the currency, on the other hand, is a quick-fix, sugar-high kind of thing, of basically trying to shift the problem onto a country’s trading partners.  The most common result, however, is a temporary growth spurt, a big loss of national wealth, and resurfacing of the old, unresolved problems a few years down the road–often with a bout of unwanted inflation.  The main “pluses” of depreciation are that it’s politically easy, requires little skill and most people won’t understand who’s at fault for the ultimate unhappy ending.

Examples:

the Great Depression of the 1930s;

the huge depreciation of the yen under PM Abe, which has impoverished the average Japanese citizen, made Japan a big tourist destination (because it’s so cheap) and pumped a little life into the old zaibatsu industrial conglomerates.

 

It’s understandable that Donald Trump is a fan.  It’s not clear he has even a passing acquaintance with economic theory or history.  And in a very real sense depreciation would be a reprise of the disaster he created in Atlantic City, where he freed himself of personal liabilities and paid himself millions but the people who trusted and supported him lost their shirts.

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, is harder to fathom.  She appears to be intelligent, thoughtful and a careful planner.  It’s difficult to believe that she doesn’t know what she’s supporting.

 

 

 

America: a weakening brand

When I first became interested in Tiffany (TIF) as a stock years ago, one thing that stood out was that the company was doing a land office business in almost all facets of its rapid international expansion.  One exception:  the EU.  I quickly became convinced that the reason was because TIF is an American company.

For Europeans, France, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of the EU, are the font of all knowledge and culture.  As local literature and philosophy make clear, being situated on the sacred soil of (fill in any EU country) is the key to its superiority.  The US,  lacking requisite hallowed ground, is a semi-boorish johnny-come-lately.  Sporting a piece of jewelry from an American firm therefore implies one has suffered a devastating reversal of fortune that puts “authentic” jewelry out of reach.

 

In the rest of the world, however, the US is a symbol of aspiration.  America stands for freedom, opportunity, cutting-edge technology, the best universities and an ethos that prizes accomplishment not heritage.  It’s “all men are created equal”  “give me your …huddled masses yearning to be free” and “I am not throwing away my shot.”  Wearing, or just owning, a piece of American jewelry becomes a symbolic linking of the holder to these national values.  It hasn’t hurt, either, particularly with an older generation (paradoxically, ex the EU) that the US made a monumental effort to help heal the world after WWII.

 

The “brand” of the United States has taken a real beating since Mr. Trump has become president.  Surveys, one of which is reported in INC magazine, show a sharp drop in US prestige right after his victory and continuing deterioration since.   I don’t think the biggest negative issue is the president’s insecurities, his constant prevarication, his very weak record as a real estate developer or his (hare-brained) economic policies while in office.  I see the worst damage coming instead from his love of leaders with poor human rights records and his disdain for women and people of color …plus the whiff of sadism detectable in his treatment of both.

 

Whatever the precise cause may be, the deterioration of the America’s reputation under Mr. Trump is a very real worry for domestic consumer companies.  Damage will likely show itself in two ways:  weaker sales to foreign tourists, and the absence of positive surprises from foreign subsidiaries.  For domestic retail firms, it seems clear that economic recovery has finally come to the less wealthy parts of the US over the past year or two–witness the profit performance of Walmart or the dollar stores.  On the other hand, it seems to me that people who have trusted Mr. Trump in the past–like the banks that lent him money, the contractors who built his casinos, those who bought DJT stock and bonds, farmers who voted for him–have all ended up considerably worse off than the more wary.  So while they may be good temporary hiding places, holders should be nimble.

One final thought:  brands don’t deteriorate overnight but the cumulative damage can be enormous.  The first to react will be younger consumers, who have the least experience with/of the “old” brand.   They will be the most difficult to win back.  As well, as time passes, their views will be increasingly important in commerce.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

a US market milestone, of sorts

rising interest rates

Yesterday interest rose in the US to the point where the 10-year Treasury yield cracked decisively above 3.00% (currently 3.09%).  Also, the combination of mild upward drift in six month T-bill yields and a rise in the S&P (which lowers the yield on the index) have conspired to lift the three-month bill yield, now 1.92%, above the 1.84% yield on the S&P.

What does this mean?

For me, the simple-minded reading is the best–this marks the end of the decade-long “no brainer” case for pure income investors to hold stocks instead of bonds.  No less, but also no more.

The reality is, of course, much more nuanced.  Investor risk preferences and beliefs play a huge role in determining the relationship between stocks and bonds.  For example:

–in the 1930s and 1940s, stocks were perceived (probably correctly) as being extremely risky as an asset class.  So listed companies tended to be very mature, PEs were low and the dividend yield on stocks exceeded the yield on Treasuries by a lot.

–when I began to work on Wall Street in 1978 (actually in midtown, where the industry gravitated as computers proliferated and buildings near the stock exchange aged), paying a high dividend was taken as a sign of lack of management imagination.  In those days, listed companies either expanded or bought rivals for cash rather than paid dividends.  So stock yields were low.

three important questions

dividend yield vs. earnings yield

During my investing career, the key relationship between long-dated investments has been the interest yield on bonds vs. the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.  For us as investors, it’s the anticipated cyclical peak in yields that counts more than the current yield.

Let’s say the real yield on bonds should be 2% and that inflation will also be 2% (+/-).  If so, then the nominal yield when the Fed finishes normalizing interest rates will be around 4%.  This would imply that the stock market (next year?) should be trading at 25x earnings.

At the moment, the S&P is trading at 24.8x trailing 12-month earnings, which is maybe 21x  2019 eps.  To my mind, this means that the index has already adjusted to the possibility of a hundred basis point rise in long-term rates over the coming year.  If so, as is usually the case, future earnings, not rates, will be the decisive force in determining whether stocks go up or down.

stocks vs. cash

This is a more subjective issue.  At what point does a money market fund offer competition for stocks?  Let’s say three-month T-bills will be yielding 2.75%-3.00% a year from now.  Is this enough to cause equity holders to reallocate away from stocks?   Even for me, a died-in-the-wool stock person, a 3% yield might cause me to switch, say, 5% away from stocks and into cash.  Maybe I’d also stop reinvesting dividends.

I doubt this kind of thinking is enough to make stocks decline.  But it would tend to slow their advance.

currency

Since the inauguration last year, the dollar has been in a steady, unusually steep, decline.  That’s the reason, despite heady local-currency gains, the US was the second-worst-performing major stock market in the world last year (the UK, clouded by Brexit folly, was last).

The dollar has stabilized over the past few weeks.  The major decision for domestic equity investors so far has been how heavily to weight foreign-currency earners.  Further currency decline could lessen overseas support for Treasury bonds, though, as well as signal higher levels of inflation.  Either could be bad for stocks.

my thoughts:  I don’t think that current developments in fixed income pose a threat to stocks.

My guess is that cash will be a viable alternative to equities sooner than bonds.

Continuing sharp currency declines, signaling the world’s further loss of faith in Washington, could ultimately do the most damage to US financial markets.  At this point, though, I think the odds are for slow further drift downward rather than plunge.