Venezuela’s proposed “petro” cryptocurrency

the petro

Yesterday Venezuela began pre-sales of its petrocurrency, called the petro.  The idea is that each token the government creates will be freely exchangeable into Venezuelan bolivars at the previous day’s price of a barrel of a specified Venezuelan crude oil produced by the national oil company.  According to the Washington Post,  $735 million worth of the tokens were sold on the first day.

uses?

For people with money trapped inside Venezuela, the petro may have some utility, since it will be accepted by Caracas for any official payments.  For such potential users, the fact that the government determines the dollar/bolivar exchange rate and that a discount to the crude price will be applied are niggling worries.

perils

The wider issue, which remains unaddressed in this case, is that the spirit behind cryptocurrencies is a deep distrust of government, a strong belief that practically no ruling body will do the right thing to protect the fiscal well-being of users of its currency.

In Venezuela’s case, just look at the bolivar.  The official exchange rate says $US1 = B10.  But the actual rate, as far as I can tell, has fallen from that level over the past year or so to $US1 = B25000.

a little history

The more serious worry is that the history of commodity-backed currencies isn’t pretty.

Mexico

In the 1980s, for example a struggling Mexican government issued petrobonds.  The idea was that at maturity the holder could choose to receive either $1000 or the value of a specified number of barrels of Mexican state-produced crude.  Unfortunately for holders, Mexico reneged on the oil-price link.  My recollection (this happened pre-internet so I can’t find confirmation online) is the Mexico also declined to make the return of principal on time.

the US

The fate of gold-backed securities around the world during the 1930s isn’t so hot, either.  The US, for example, massively devalued (through depreciation of the gold exchange rate) the gold-backed currency it issued.  It also basically banned the private ownership of physical gold and forced holders to turn in the lion’s share of their holdings to Washington in return for paper currency.

 

In short, when the going gets tough, there’s a big risk that the terms of any government-backed financial instrument get drastically rewritten.  This recasting can come silently through inflation.  But, if history holds true, government backing of a commodity link to financial instruments gives more the illusion of protection than the reality–especially so in cases where the reality is needed.

 

 

 

inflation and stocks

wage inflation in the US?  …finally?

In my earlier post today, I didn’t mention that in the Employment Situation report from the Labor Department a week ago Friday, the annual rate of growth in wages rose from the 2.5% at which it had been stuck for a very long time, despite declining unemployment, to almost 3%.

an aside

Inflation in general is about prices in general increasing.  Deflation is when prices in general are actually falling.  Deflation is scarier than inflation both because it’s less common/harder to treat and because we have the object lesson of Japan, where a quarter-century of unchecked deflation has moved that country from penthouse to basement among world economic powers.

curing inflation

In developed countries, inflation is always about wages.

The garden variety, which seems to be what the Employment Situation may be signaling, is easy to cure.  …a little painful, but easy.

Raise interest rates.

The idea:  businesses want to expand.  To do that they need more workers.  But everyone is already employed somewhere.  So firms have to offer big wage boosts to poach workers from rivals.  Raising interest rates (eventually) stops that.  It increases the cost of expansion and also slows down demand.

Also nipping incipient inflation in the bud prevents consumer behavior from becoming all about defending oneself from it.

who wasn’t expecting this?

For years, economists have been anticipating a rise in inflation.  The first (false, then) alarms sounded maybe six years ago.

But, as they say, nothing is ever fully discounted until it happens.  In addition, Washington is arguably compounding the problem by enacting fiscal stimulus almost a decade too late–making it more likely that rates will go up sooner and more rapidly than if Washington had done nothing.  (Where did the deficit hawks disappear to?)

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.

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.

internet companies vs. state-owned enterprises in China

Recently Beijing announced it wants to take equity positions in the major internet companies in China and place Communist Party officials on their boards of directors.

What’s going on?

I see two general possibilities.

Some background first.

Deng’s economic reform

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping realized that the Chinese economy was too big to be controlled through central planning.   To grow it had to adopt Western economic (but not political) methods.  So he began to allow the market, not doctrinally-correct political cadres, to dictate the direction of expansion.

A major issue he faced in doing so was that, say, three-quarters of Chinese industry was owned by the state.  These companies were rudderless, and hopelessly inefficient–but they employed tons of people.  If large numbers lost their jobs all at once, the ensuing social instability might threaten the rule of the Party.  Therefore, economic progress had to be tempered by the need to avoid this outcome.  And this in a nation without sophisticated macroeconomic tools to control the pace of growth.

The result over three+ decades has been a Chinese economy that lurches between boom and bust, depending on the temperature in the state-owned enterprises.  The strategy has generally been successful, I think, with the state-owned sector now representing less than a third of China’s overall output.

possibilities

–China’s internet companies have become large enough that their actions, intentional or not, can accelerate the speed at which state-owned companies shrink.  So they need to be monitored much more carefully than in the past.  This is the benign interpretation, and the one which share prices suggest the market has adopted

–China’s internet companies have become large enough to generate “creative destruction” in large enough amounts to threaten the economic control over China exercised by the Communist Party itself.  If this is the case, then the oversight over domestic internet conglomerates will be much more draconian than the consensus expects.  That would presumably result in considerable PE contraction for the firms being controlled.

My guess is that the first possibility is much more likely to be the case.  But I think we should watch the situation closely for new hints about Beijing’s intentions.

building a new company HQ–a sign of trouble ahead?

This is a long-standing Wall Street belief.  The basic idea is that as companies expand and mature, their leadership gradually turns from entrepreneurs into bureaucrats.  The ultimate warning bell that rough waters are ahead for corporate profits is the announcement that a firm will spend huge amounts of money on a grandiose new corporate headquarters.

An odd article in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of this a couple of days ago.  The company coming into question in it is Amazon, which has just initiated a search for the site of a second corporate HQ.

What’s odd:

–why no comment on Apple’s new over-the-top $5 billion HQ building?

–the headquarters idea was followed by a discussion of research results from a finance professor from Dartmouth, Kenneth French, which show that publicly traded firms with the highest levels of capital spending tend to have underperforming stocks.

I’ve looked on the internet for Prof. French’s work, much of which has been done in collaboration with Eugene Fama.  I couldn’t find the paper in question, although I did come across an interesting, and humorous, one that argues the lack of predictive value of the capital asset pricing model (CAPM)–despite it’s being the staple of the finance theory taught to MBAs.  (The business school idea is apparently that reality is too complicated for non-PhD students to understand so let’s teach them something that’s simple, even though it’s wrong.)

my thoughts

–money for creating/customizing computer software, which is one of the largest uses of corporate funds in the US, is typically written off as an expense.  From a financial accounting point of view, it doesn’t show up as capital spending.

–same thing with brand creation through advertising and public relations.  I’m not sure how Prof. French deals with this issue.

Over the past quarter-century, there’s been a tendency for companies to decrease their capital intensity.  In the semiconductor industry, this was the child of necessity, since each generation of fabs seems to be hugely more expensive than its predecessor.  Hence the rise of third-party fabs like TSMC.

For hotel companies, it has been a deliberate choice to divest their physical locations, while taking back management contracts.  For light manufacturing, it has been outsourcing to the developing world, but retaining marketing and distribution.

 

What’s left as capital-intensive, then?  Mining, oil and gas, ship transport, autos, steel, cement, public utilities…  Not exactly the cream of the capital appreciation crop.

 

At the very beginning of my investment career, the common belief was that high minimum effective plant size and correspondingly large spending requirements formed an anti-competitive “moat” for the industries in question.  But technological change, from the 1970s steel mini-mill that cost a tenth the price of a blast furnace onward, has shown capital spending to be more Maginot Line than effective defense.

So it may well be that the underperformance pointed to by Prof. French has less to do with profligate management, as the WSJ suggests, than simply the nature of today’s capital-intensive businesses–namely, the ones that have no other option.

 

 

 

 

 

 

the amazing shrinking dollar

So far this year, the US$ has fallen by about 14% against the €, and around 8% against the ¥ and £.

A substantial portion of this movement is giveback of the sharp dollar appreciation which happened last year after the surprise election of Donald Trump as president.  That was sparked by belief that a non-establishment chief executive would be able to get things done in Washington.  Reform of the income tax system and repair of aging infrastructure were supposed to be high on the agenda, with the resulting fiscal stimulus allowing the Fed to raise interest rates much more aggressively than the consensus had imagined.  Hence, continuing dollar strength on a booming economy and increasing interest rate differentials.

To date, none of that has happened.   So it makes sense that currency traders would begin to reverse their bets on.  However, last year’s move up in the dollar has been more than completely erased and the clear consensus is now on continuing dollar weakness.

 

Dollar weakness has caused stock market investors to shift their portfolios away from domestic-oriented firms toward multinationals and exporters.  This is the standard tactic.  It also makes sense:  a firm with costs in dollars and revenues in euros is in an ideal position at present.

It’s interesting to note, though, that over the weekend China lifted some restrictions imposed last year that limited the ability of its citizens to sell renminbi to buy dollars.

To my mind, this is the first sign that dollar weakness may have gone too far.

It’s too soon, in my view, to react to this possibility.  In particular, the appointment of a new head of the Federal Reserve could play a key role in the currency’s future path, given persistent Republican calls to curtail its independence.  Gary Cohn, the establishment choice, is rumored to have fallen out of favor with Mr. Trump after protesting the latter’s support of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Still, it’s not too early to plot out a potential strategy to benefit from a dollar reversal.