thinking about Walmart (WMT)

On August 16th, WMT reported very strong 2Q18 earnings (Chrome keeps warning me the Walmart investor web pages aren’t safe to access, so I’m not adding details).  Wall Street seems to have taken this result as evidence that the company makeover to become a more effective competitor to Amazon is bearing enough fruit that we should be thinking of a “new,” secular growth WMT.

Maybe that’s right.  But I think there’s a simpler, and likely more correct, interpretation.

WMT’s original aim was to provide affordable one-stop shopping to communities with a population of fewer than 250,000.  It has since expanded into supermarkets, warehouse stores and, most recently, online sales. Its store footprint is very faint in the affluent Northeast and in southern California, however.  And its core audience is not wealthy, standing somewhere below Target and above the dollar stores in terms of customer income.

This demographic has been hurt the worst by the one-two punch of recession and rapid technological change since 2000.   My read of the stellar WMT figures is that they show less WMT’s change in structure than that the company’s customers are just now–nine years after the worst of the financial collapse–feeling secure enough to begin spending less cautiously.

 

This interpretation has three consequences:  although Walmart is an extraordinary company, WMT may not be the growth vehicle that 2Q18 might suggest.  Other formats, like the dollar stores or even TGT, that cater to a similar demographic may be more interesting.  Finally, the idea that recovery is just now reaching the common man both justifies the Fed’s decade-long loose money policy–and suggests that at this point there’s little reason for it not to continue to raise short-term interest rates.

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 day like today

Stocks are down today.  The ostensible reasons are trade war fears + the administration’s distinctly un-American decision to seize and imprison the children of asylum seekers at the border.

It’s not clear to me that–important as these issues may be for the long-term attractiveness of the US as an investment destination–they are the reasons for the market’s decline.  (Personally, I think the mid-term elections will give us the first true read on whether ordinary Americans approve of the UK/Japan-like road Washington has set the country on.)

But I don’t want to write about macroeconomics or about politics.  Instead, I want to call attention to the useful purpose that down days, or strings of down days, for that matter, serve for portfolio management.

There are two:

 

–portfolio realignment.  This is as much about psychology as anything else.   Typically during a selloff stars go down more than the market and clunkers underperform.  Because of this, clunkers that have been hiding in the dark recesses of the portfolio (we all have them) become more visible.  At the same time, stars that we’ve thinking we should buy but have looked too expensive are suddenly trading a bit cheaper.  The reality is probably that we should have made the switch months ago, but a down day gives us a chance to tell ourselves we’re better off by, say, 5% than if we’d made the switch yesterday.

 

–looking for anomalies–that is, clunkers that are going down (for me, this is typically a sign that things are worse than I’ve thought, and a sharp spur to action), or stars that are going up.   Netflix, for example, is up by about 1.4% as I’m writing this, even though it has been a monster stock this year.  I already own enough that I’m not going to do anything.  But if I had none (and were comfortable with such a high-flier) I’d be tempted to buy a little bit and hope to fill out the position on decline.

 

 

$80 a barrel oil

cartel activity

About a week ago, Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the three largest oil producers in the world (the US is #1), announced they were discussing the mechanics of restoring half of the 1.8 million barrels of daily output foreign companies have been withholding from the market since 2016.

the objective? 

…to stop the price from advancing above $80.

To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that oil has gotten this high.  But producing countries have held to their cutback pledges to a far greater degree than they have in the past, with the result that the mammoth glut of oil in temporary storage a couple of years ago is mostly gone.  In addition, the economy of Venezuela is melting away, turning down that country’s output of heavy crude favored by US refiners.   Also, the world is worried that unilateral US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement may mean the loss of 500,000 daily barrels from that source.

On the other hand, short-term demand for oil is relatively inflexible.  Because of this, even small changes in supply or demand can result in large swings in price.   An extra 1% -2% in production drove the price from $100+ to $24 in 2014-15, for example.  The same amount of underproduction caused the current rebound.  So in hindsight, $80 shouldn’t have been so shocking.

Why $80?

Two factors, I think.  There must be significant internal pressure among producing countries to get even a small amount more foreign exchange by cheating on quotas.  Letting everyone get something may make it harder for one rogue nation to break ranks.

More importantly, a $100 price seems to trigger significant global conservation efforts, as well as to shift the search for petroleum substitutes into a higher gear.  So somewhere around $80 may be as good as it gets for producers.  And it leaves some headroom if efforts to hold the price at $80 fail.

the stocks

My guess is that most of the upward move for the oils is over.  I think there’s still some reason to be interested in financially leveraged shale oil producers in the US as they unwind the restrictions their lenders have placed on them.