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.

 

 

 

navigating through confusion

a (very) simple sketch

I can’t recall a more complex, hard to read, time in the stock market than the present.  There have certainly been more panicky times–like October 1987 or early 2000 or late 2008.  But all of these, however frightening, were about financial markets building a speculative house of cards which ultimately collapsed of its own weight.  The basic framework in which the game was played remained more or less the same:  continuously declining interest rates, the growth of multinational companies, revolutionary developments in computer technology, the shift in developed economies from laborers to knowledge workers, continuing dominance of the US economy.

what has changed?

–the Internet is here, with its attendant powerful hardware (servers, smartphones) and software (the cloud, Amazon, Facebook…  e-commerce, information, entertainment) devices

–the aging–and, ex the US, increasing lifespans–of the populations of developed economies

–ultra-low interest rates, negative in parts of Europe

–the rise of China, and to a much lesser extent, India as global economic powers

–most recently, the Huawei moment, sort of like Sputnik, when the US realizes that a Chinese company is producing more advanced/ less expensive cutting-edge telecom equipment than it can

–fracturing of belief in the invisible hand aka trickle-down economics, the (ultimately religious/Enlightenment philosophical) belief that individuals acting in their own self-interest somehow create the best possible outcome, both for the world as a whole and for each individual.  This fracturing fuels the rise of the radical right in the US and Europe, I think.

 

more tomorrow

 

 

 

what to do on a rebound day

It doesn’t appear to me that the economic or political situation in the US has changed in any significant way overnight.  Yet stocks of most stripes are rising sharply.

What to do?   …or if you prefer, what am I doing?

Watching and analyzing.

A day like today contains lots of information, both about the tone of the market and about every portfolio’s holdings.  Over the past month, through 2:30 pm est today, the S&P is down by 4.8%.  The small-cap Russell 2000 has lost 7.7%, NASDAQ 7.8%.   All three important indices are up significantly so far today—NASDAQ +2.2%, Russell 2000 +1.9%, S&P 500 +1.8%.  So this is a general advance.  Everything is up by more or less the same amount, meaning investors aren’t homing in on size or foreign/domestic as indicators for their trading.

What we should all be looking for, I think, is what issues that should be going up–either because they’re high beta or have been beaten up recently–are shooting through the roof and which are lagging.  (“Lagging” means underperforming other similar companies or underperforming the overall market.)  The first category are probably keepers.  The poor price action for the latter says they should be subjects for further analysis to figure out why the market doesn’t appreciate their merits.  Maybe there aren’t any.  

We should also note defensive stocks that are at least keeping up with the S&P.  That’s better than they should be doing.  They may well be true defensives, meaning they stay with the market (more or less) on the way up and outperform on the way down.  This is a rare, and valuable, breed in today’s world, in my view, and can be a way to hedge downside risk.

 

 

Another topic:  Over the past few days, I’ve been in rural Pennsylvania filming my art school thesis project–yes, I’ve gone from stills to video–so I haven’t kept up with the news.  I’m surprised to see that the UK, which still remembers the enormous price it paid a generation ago resisting fascism, has done an abrupt about-face and allowed Mr. Trump to make a state visit.  The anticipated consequences of Brexit must be far more dire than the consensus expects.

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.

 

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.