the administration, the economy and the stock market

I’m taking off my hat as an American and putting on my hat as an investor for this post.

That is, I’m putting aside questions like whether the Trump agenda forms a coherent whole, whether Mr. Trump understands much/any of what he’s doing, whether Trump is implementing policies whispered in his ear by backers in the shadows–and why congressmen of both parties have been little more than rubber stamps for his proposals.

My main concern is the effect of his economic policies on stocks.

the tax cut

The top corporate tax rate was reduced from 35% to 21% late last year.  In addition, the wealthiest individuals received tax breaks, a continuation of the “trickle down” economics that has been the mainstay of Washington tax policy since the 1980s.

The new 21% rate is about average for the rest of the world.  This suggests that US corporations will no longer see much advantage in reincorporating abroad in low-tax jurisdictions.  The evidence so far is that they are also dismantling the elaborate tax avoidance schemes they have created by holding their intellectual property, and recognizing most of their profits, in foreign low-tax jurisdictions.  (An aside:  this should have a positive effect on the trade deficit since we are now recognizing the value of American IP as part of the cost of goods made by American companies overseas (think: smartphones.)

My view is that this development was fully discounted in share prices last year.

The original idea was that tax reform would also encompass tax simplification–the elimination of at least part of the rats nest of special interest tax breaks that plagues the federal tax code.  It’s conceivable that Mr. Trump could have used his enormous power over the majority Republican Party to achieve this laudable goal.  But he seems to have made no effort to do so.

Two important consequences of this last:

–the tax cut is a beg reduction in government income, meaning that it is a strong stimulus to economic activity.  That would have been extremely useful, say, nine years ago, but at full employment and above-trend growth, it puts the US at risk of overheating.

–who pays for this?  The bill’s proponents claim that the tax cut will pay for itself through higher growth.  The more likely outcome as things stand now, I think, is that Millennials will inherit a country with a least a trillion dollars more in sovereign debt than would otherwise be the case.

One positive consequence of the untimely fiscal stimulus is that it makes room for the Fed to remove its monetary stimulus (it now has rates at least 100 basis points lower than they should be) faster, and with greater confidence that will do no harm.

Two complications:  Mr. Trump has begun to jawbone the Fed not to do this, apparently thinking a supercharged, unstable economy will be to his advantage.  Also, higher rates raise the cost of borrowing to fund a higher government budget deficit + burgeoning government debt.

 

Tomorrow: the messy trade arena

Disney (DIS), Comcast (CMCSA) and Fox (FOX)

I started watching the Murdoch family in the mid-1980s, when I was managing a large Australian portfolio.  The original business of News Corp, the parent of FOX, was politically-oriented media targeted at right-of-center blue collar workers in Australia.  As I saw it, News consistently traded positive news coverage to its right-of-center audience in return for regulatory favors.  Rupert Murdoch’s genius was to replicate this model on successively larger stages, first in the UK and then in the US.

Today–again, as I see it–Rupert is moving to turn the family business over to his two sons, on the idea that they will follow in his footsteps as he did his father’s.  This desire has two implications for the bidding war between DIS and CMCSA for  the FOX media assets:

–the Murdoch family wants equity, not cash.  That’s only partly for tax reasons (because taking cash would presumably trigger a big capital gains bill, while taking equity in the successor company wouldn’t).  Just as important,

–the next generation of Murdochs wants to continue to have a seat at the media table.  The fact that they would own a lot of DIS stock and the fact that there’s no clear successor to the current DIS chairman make it an ideal landing spot.  Comcast, in contrast, is another family-controlled company.  The last thing Comcast wants is to let in a potentially powerful internal rival.  This means CMCSA issuing stock is probably out of the question–and certainly not the favored class of stock the Roberts family uses to maintain control.  So Comcast doesn’t suit the Murdochs at all.

 

Most institutional investors don’t pay taxes, so they’re indifferent to whether they get stock or cash.

 

I don’t think it’s an accident that the Comcast offer for FOX is at a level that more than compensates any long-term holder of FOX for the tax he would owe on selling.  In other words, FOX directors can’t use the grounds that they’re “protecting” shareholders from tax by rejecting the Comcast offer in favor of DIS.  After the Supreme Court ruling allowing the ATT/Time Warner merger, they may not be able to argue that a Comcast/Fox merger would run afoul of regulators, either.

 

At first blush, the Comcast position seems a lot weaker than DIS’s.  The Murdochs want to sell to DIS and, I think, actively don’t want to sell to Comcast.  As for DIS, it faces a continuing problem finding places to reinvest its huge media cash flows.  And opportunities like FOX don’t turn up every day.

What is Comcast’s strategy?   My guess is that it’s hoping to raise the offer price to a point where DIS drops out and public pressure forces FOX to sell itself to Comcast.  From what I can tell, it would likely need a partner to do so.

I’ve got no desire to participate, but this will be an interesting battle to watch.

 

 

the state of play in US stocks

down by 12% 

From its intra-day high on January 28th, the S&P 500 dropped to an intraday low of 12% below that last Friday before recovering a bit near the close.

What’s going on?

As I see it, at any given time, liquid investments (i.e., stocks, fixed income, cash) are in a rough kind of equilibrium.  If the price of one of the three changes, sooner or later the price of the others will, too.

What I think the stock market is now (belatedly/finally) factoring into prices is the idea that the Fed is firmly committed to raising interest rates away from the intensive-care lows of the past decade.  That is, rates will continue to rise until they’re back to “normal” –in other words, until yields on fixed income not only provide compensation for inflation but a real return as well.  If we take the Fed target of 2% inflation as a guideline and think the 10-year Treasury should have a 2% real return, then the 10-yr yield needs to rise to 4%  — or 115 basis points from where it is this morning.  Cash needs to be yielding 150 basis points more than it does now.

One important result of this process is that as fixed income investments become more attractive (by rising in yield/falling in price), the stock market becomes less capable of sustaining the sky-high price-earnings ratio it achieved when it was the only game in town.  PEs contract.

Stocks are not totally defenseless during a period like this.  Typically, the Fed only raises rates when the economy is very healthy and therefore corporate earnings growth is especially strong.  If there is a typical path for stocks during a cyclical valuation shift for bonds, it’s that there’s an initial equity dip, followed by several months of going sideways, as strong reported earnings more or less neutralize the negative effect on PEs of competition from rising fixed income yields.

living in interesting times

Several factors make the situation more complicated than usual:

–the most similar period to the current one, I think, happened in the first half of the 1990s–more than 20 years ago.  So there are many working investment professionals who have never gone through a period like this before

–layoffs of senior investment staff during the recession, both in brokerage houses and investment managers, has eroded the collective wisdom of Wall Street

–trading algorithms, which seem not to discount future events (today’s situation has been strongly signaled by the Fed for at least a year) but to react after the fact to news releases and current trading patterns, are a much more important factor in daily trading now than in the past

–Washington continues to follow a bizarre economic program.  It refused to enact large-scale fiscal stimulus when it was needed as the economy was crumbling in 2008-9, but is doing so now, when the economy is very strong and we’re at full employment.   It’s hard to imagine the long-term consequences of, in effect, throwing gasoline on a roaring fire as being totally positive.  However, the action frees/forces the Fed to raise rates at a faster clip than it might otherwise have

an oddity

For the past year, the dollar has fallen by about 15%–at a time when by traditional economic measures it should be rising instead.  This represents a staggering loss of national wealth, as well as a reason that US stocks have been significant laggards in world terms over the past 12 months.  I’m assuming this trend doesn’t reverse itself, at least until the end of the summer.  But it’s something to keep an eye on.

my conclusion

A 4% long bond yield is arguably the equivalent of a 25x PE on stocks.  If so, and if foreign worries about Washington continue to be expressed principally through the currency, the fact that the current PE on the S&P 500 is 24.5x suggests that a large part of the realignment in value between stocks and bonds has already taken place.

If I’m right, we should spend the next few months concentrating on finding individual stocks with surprisingly strong earnings growth and on taking advantage of any  individual stock mispricing that algorithms may cause.

business line analysis and sum-of-the-parts

This is mostly a reply to reader Alex’s comment on a post from early 2017 about Disney (DIS).

The most common, and in my opinion, most reliable method securities analysts use to project future earnings for multi-business companies is doing a separate analysis for each business line.  This effort is aided by an SEC requirement that such publicly traded companies disclose operating revenues and profits for each line of business it is in.

In the case of DIS, it’s involved in:  broadcast, including ESPN; movie production and distribution; theme parks and resorts; and sales of merchandise related to the other business lines.

There is plenty of comparative data–from trade associations, government bodies and the financials of publicly traded single-business firms–to help with the analysis.  And every company has, in theory at least, an investor relations department that answers questions put to it by investors. ( My experience since retiring as a money manager for institutional clients is that many backward-thinking well-established companies–DIS and Intel come to mind–can be distinctly unhelpful to their most important supporters, you and me.  (To be fair, I haven’t spoken with DIS’s IR people for several years, so they may be better now.))

Analysis consists in projecting revenues/ profits for each business line and using the results as the key to constructing a series of whole-company income statements–one each for this year, next year and the year after that.

The trickiest part is to decide how to value this earnings stream.  The ability to do this well either comes with experience or from having worked for a professional investor who’s willing to teach.

 

More tomorrow, or in a day or two if I don’t get my film editing homework done today.

 

 

 

corporate taxes, consumer spending and the stock market

It looks as if the top Federal corporate tax rate will be declining from the current world-high 35% to a more median-ish 20% or so.  The consensus guess, which I think is as good as any, is that this change will mean about a 15% one-time increase in profits reported by S&P 500 stocks next year.

However, Wall Street has held the strong belief for a long time that this would happen in a Trump administration.  Arguably (and this is my opinion, too), one big reason for the strength in US publicly traded stocks this year has been that the benefits of corporate tax reform are being steadily, and increasingly, factored into stock quotes.  The action of computers reading news reports about passage is likely, I think, to be the last gasp of tax news bolstering stocks.  And even that bump is likely to be relatively mild.

In fact, one effect of the increased economic stimulus that may come from lower domestic corporate taxes is that the Federal Reserve will feel freer to lean against this strength by moving interest rates up from the current emergency-room lows more quickly than the consensus expects.  Although weening the economy from the addiction to very low-cost borrowing is an unambiguous long-term positive, the increasing attractiveness of fixed income will serve as a brake on nearer-term enthusiasm for stocks.

 

What I do find very bullish for stocks, though, is the surprising strength of consumer spending, both online and in physical stores, this holiday season.  We are now nine years past the worst of the recession, which saw deeply frightening and scarring events–bank failures, massive layoffs, the collapse of world trade.  It seems to me that the consumer spending we are now seeing in the US means that, after almost a decade, people are seeing recession in the rear view mirror for the first time.  I think this has very positive implications for the Consumer discretionary sector–and retail in particular–in 2018.

Broadcom (AVGO) and Qualcomm (QCOM)

(Note:  the company formerly known as Avago agreed to buy Broadcom for $37 billion in mid-2015.  Avago retained its ticker symbol:  AVGO, but took on the Broadcom name.  Hence, the mismatch between name and ticker.  That deal is on the verge of closing now. Presumably AVGO’s recent decision to move its corporate headquarters from Singapore to the US is a condition for approval by Washington.)

AVGO and QCOM

AVGO is a company that has very successfully grown by acquisition (my family and I have owned shares for some time).  Its specialty, as I see it, is to find firms with excellent technology that are somehow unable to make money from either their intellectual property or their processing knowhow.  AVGO straightens them out.

QCOM, a firm I’ve known since the mid-1990s, seems to fit the bill.  The company makes mobile processors for cellphones.  It also collects license fees for allowing others to use its fundamental and important cellphone intellectual property.  QCOM has been in public disputes over the past couple of years with the Chinese government, which has forced lower royalty payments, and with key customer Apple, which is threatening to design out QCOM chips from its future phones.  As I see it, these disputes are the reason the QCOM stock price has stagnated over the recent past.

the offer

AVGO is offering $70 a share in cash and stock for QCOM, a substantial premium to where QCOM shares were trading before rumors of the offer began to circulate.  The current price for QCOM (I’m writing this at around 10:30) of $63.90 suggests that the market has doubts about the chances for AVGO’s success.

Standard tactics would be for QCOM to seek another buyer, one that would keep current management in place.  Since an overly pugnacious management has arguably been QCOM’s main problem, my guess is that a second bidder is unlikely to emerge.

If I were to try to participate in this contest (I don’t think I will), it would be to buy more AVGO.  I believe AVGO’s assertion that the acquisition would be accretive in year one.  So it’s likely to go up if the bid is successful.  If not, downward pressure from arbitrageurs would abate.  On the other hand, I don’t see 10% upside as enough to take the risk QCOM will find a way to derail the bid.  After all, it has already found a way to anger Beijing and 1 Infinite Loop.

the stock market crash of 1987

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today on the birth of the ETF–and the index fund, for that matter.

Two factors stand out to me as being missing from the account, however:

–when the S&P 500 peaked in August 1987, it was trading at 20x earnings.  This compared very unfavorably with the then 10% yield on the long Treasury bond.  A 10% Treasury yield would imply a PE multiple on the S&P of 10x–meaning either that bonds were dirt cheap or that the stock market was wildly overvalued vs. the bond market.

–a new product, called at the time portfolio insurance, a form of dynamic hedging, had very recently been created and sold to institutional investors by entrepreneurs steeped in academic efficient markets theory.  Roughly speaking, the “insurance” consisted in the intention to stabilize equity portfolio values by overlaying a program of buying and selling futures against the physical stock.  Buy futures as/if the market rises; sell futures as/if the market falls.

One of the key assumptions of the insurers was that willing/eager counterparties for their futures transactions could be found at all times and at theoretically predictable prices.  On the Friday before Black Monday–itself a down day–the insurers’ model required them to sell a large number of futures contracts.  Few buyers were available, though.  Those who were willing to transact were bidding far below the theoretical contract value.  Whoops.

On Monday morning, the insurers, who appear to have had negligible actual market experience, capitulated and began selling futures contracts at whatever price they could get.  This put downward pressure both on futures and on the physical market.  At the same time, pension funds, noting the large gap between the price of futures and the (much higher) price of the underlying stocks, began to buy futures.  But to counterbalance the added risk to their portfolios, they sold correspondingly large amounts of stocks.  A mess.

Arguably, we would shrug off at least part of this today as just being crazy hedge funds or algorithmic traders.  Back in 1987, however, equity portfolio managers had never before seen derivatives exerting such a powerful influence on the physical market.  It was VERY scary.

conclusions for today

Stocks and bonds are nowhere near as out of whack with one another as they were back in 1987.  The nearest we have today to a comparable issue is what happens as worldwide excess liquidity is drained by central banks from money markets.

The trigger for the Black Monday collapse came from an area that was little understood, even by those involved in it–activity that had severe negative unexpected consequences.  The investors who did the best after the crash, I think, were those who understood the most quickly what had happened.

Collateral damage:  one of the most important results of Black Monday, I think, was the loss of confidence in traditional investment advisers working for the big brokerage houses that it created.  This was, I think, partly because of individuals’ market losses, but partly, too, to the generally horrible executions received when they sold stocks in the aftermath.  This was the start of a significant acceleration of the shift to discount brokers and to mutual fund products.