Trump’s economic “plan”

So far the Trump administration has launched two countervailing economic thrusts:

income taxes.   

Starting in 2018, the corporate tax rate was reduced from a highest-in-the-world 35% to a more nearly average 21%.  The idea was to remove the incentive for highly taxed US-based multinationals, like pharmaceutical firms, to shift their businesses elsewhere.  In the same legislation the ultra-wealthy received a very large reduction in their income taxes, as well as retention of the carried interest provision, a tax dodge by which private equity managers convert ordinary income into less highly taxed capital gains (this despite Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to eliminate carried interest).  Average Americans made out less well, receiving a modest reduction in rates coupled with loss of real estate-related writeoffs that skewed the benefits away from heavily Democratic states like California and New York.

Washington made little, if any, attempt to end special interest tax breaks to offset the lower corporate rates.  The result in 2018 was a yoy increase in individual income tax collection of about $50 billion, more than offset by a drop in corporate tax payments of about $90 billion.  Given the strong economy in 2018, the IRS would likely have taken in $150 – $175 billion more under the old rules than it did under the new.

What I find most surprising about the income tax legislation is that the large deficit-increasing fiscal stimulus it provides came at a time when none was needed–after almost a decade of continuous GDP growth in the US and the economy at very close to full employment.

the tariff wars.

Right after his inauguration, Mr. Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade group aiming to, among other things, fight China’s theft of intellectual property.  However, exiting the TPP for a go-it-alone approach hurt US farmers, since it also meant higher (and escalating each year) tariffs on US agricultural exports to TPP members, notably Japan.

Next, Trump presented the tortured argument that: (1) that there could be no national security if the economy were not growing,  (2) that, therefore, the presence of foreign competition to US firms in the domestic marketplace threatens national security,  (3) that Congress has given the president power to act unilaterally to counter threats to national security, so (4) Trump had the authority to unilaterally impose tariffs on imports.  So he did, in escalating tranches.

No mention of the fact that tariffs slow GDP growth, so under the first axiom of Trump logic are themselves a threat to national security.

Not a peep from Congress, either.

Recently, Mr. Trump has announced that he also has Congressional authority, based on a 1977 law authorizing sanctions against Iran, to order all US-based entities to cease doing business with China.

Results so far:

–the predictable slowdown in economic growth in the US

–retaliatory tariffs that have slowed growth further

–higher prices to consumers that have for all but the ultra-wealthy eaten up the extra income brought by the new tax law

–a sharp drop in spending on new capital projects in the US by both foreign and domestic firms

–tremendous pressure by Trump on the Federal Reserve (in a most un-Republican fashion (yes, I know Nixon did the same thing, but still…)) to “debase” the dollar.

Why?

A falling currency can temporarily give the appearance of faster growth.  But it can also do serious, and permanent, damage to a country by reducing national wealth (Japan is a good example).  Its only “virtue” as a policy measure is that it’s hard to trace cause and effect–politicians can deny they are mortgaging the country’s heritage to cover up earlier mistakes, even though that’s what they’re doing.

–an apparent shift in the goal of US trade negotiators away from structural reform in China to resuming purchases of US soybeans

my take

–if there had been a plan to Trump’s actions, tariffs would have come first, the tax break later.  The fact that the reverse happened argues there is no master strategy.  Again no surprise, given Trump’s history–which people like us can see most clearly in his foray into Atlantic City gaming.

–what a mess!

A better way to combat China?    The orthodox strategies are to strengthen the education system, increase scientific research spending and court foreign researchers to come to the US.  Unfortunately, neither major domestic political party has much interest in education–Democrats refuse to fix broken schools in large urban areas and Republicans as a party are now against scientific inquiry.  The white racism of the current Washington power structure narrows the attraction of the US in the eyes of many skilled foreigners.   The ever-present, ever-shifting tariff threat–seemingly arbitrary levies on imported raw materials and possible retaliatory duties on exported final products–means it’s very risky to locate plant and equipment in the US.

For what it’s worth, I think that were the political situation in the US different there would be substantial Brexit-motivated relocation of multinationals from London to the east coast.

investment implications

To my mind, all this implies having a focus on software companies, on low-multiple consumer firms that focus on domestic consumers with average or below-average incomes, and on companies whose main business is in Asia.  Multinational manufacturers of physical things for whom the US and China are major markets are probably the least good place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fr

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.

 

 

 

yield curve inversion, external shock and recession

Stock markets around the world sold off yesterday in wicked fashion after the yield on the 10-year Treasury “inverted,”  that is, fell below the yield on the 2-year.  This has very often been the signal of an upcoming recession.  Typically, though, the inversion happens because the Fed is raising short-term interest rates in an attempt to slow too-rapid economic growth.  So it’s first and foremost a signal of aggressive Fed tightening, which has in the past almost always gone too far, causing an economic contraction.

In the present case, this is not the situation.  The Fed is signalling ease, not tightening.  Arguably, arbitrage between long-dated US and EU government bonds is suppressing the 10-year.

While trading robots, unleashed by the inversion, may have been behind the negative stock market action yesterday, my sense is that this is not all that’s going on.  I think the market is beginning to step back and focus on the bigger economic picture.  It may not like what it sees, namely:

–worldwide, economies are now being hit by a significant negative external shock.  It’s not a tripling of the oil price, as was the case in the 1970s, nor a collapsing financial system, as in 2008.  Instead, this time it’s the Trump tariffs, which appear to be reducing growth in the US by more than expected (not that anyone had extremely precise thoughts)

–the 2017 tax bill is not paying for itself, as the administration claimed at the time, but is adding to the government deficit instead–implying that further fiscal stimulation is less likely.  Giving extra cash to the ultra-rich, who tend to save rather than spend, and keeping tax breaks for industries of the past hasn’t bought much oomph to growth, either

–channeling his inner Herbert Hoover, Mr. Trump is trying to export the weakness he has created by devaluing the dollar.

 

Stepping back a bit to view the larger picture,

–pushing interest rates near to zero, depreciating the currency and defending the politically powerful industries of the 1970s all seem to mirror the game plan that has produced thirty years of stagnation in Japan and similar results in large parts of the EU.  Not pretty.

–on a smaller scale, this brings to mind Mr. Trump’s fundamentally misguided and ultimately disastrous foray into Atlantic City gaming, a venture where he appears to have profited personally but where those who supported and trusted him by owning DJT stock and bonds were financially decimated.

 

It seems to me that Wall Street is starting to come to grips with two possibilities:  that there may be only impulsiveness, and no master plan or end game to the Trump trade wars; and that Congresspeople of all stripes realize this but are unwilling to do anything to thwart the president’s whims.  In other words, the real issue being pondered is not recession but Trump-induced secular stagnation.

 

 

 

$30 billion in new tariffs–implications

Yesterday Mr. Trump announced by tweet that he intends to impose a 10% duty, effective next month, on all US imports from China that are not yet under tariff.  That’s about $300 billion worth, which would produce an extra $30 billion in tax revenue for the government, were imports to continue at the pre-tariff rates.

What’s different about the current move is that tariffs will be predominantly on final goods, that is, stuff that’s completely made and ready for sale, things like like toys and everyday clothing.  For the first time, tariffs won’t be disguised.  Up until now, they’ve been mostly on raw materials or parts, where the connection between the tax and price increases of the final product is obscured–the political fallout therefore milder.   The new round will be more visible.

 

Standard microeconomics will apply:

–the cost of the new tax will be borne in part by US companies and in part by consumers, depending on how much market power each has

–over some period of time, companies and consumers will both look for lower-price substitutes for items being taxed.  Firms will, say, offer lower quality merchandise at the current price point; consumers will either buy fewer items or shift to cheaper merchandise

 

The new tariff amounts to a subtraction of about $250 from family discretionary income, meaning income after taxes and all necessities are taken care of.  That’s not a big number.  As with the other Trump tariffs, however, average Americans will be disproportionately hurt.  The bottom 20% by income have less than nothing after necessities now, so they will be the worst off.  Residents of the poorest states–eight of the bottom ten voted for Trump–as well.  So too anyone on a fixed income.

 

Netting out the positive effect of the 2017 income tax cut, the only winners are the top 1%, traditional Republican voters.  Other Trump supporters appear to be the biggest losers, although far they don’t appear to have connected the dots.  Nor does anyone in Congress seem to be questioning the administration rationale that national security does not require better infrastructure and education but does demand more expensive t-shirts and toys.

 

The stock market selloff underway today doesn’t seem to me to be warranted by the new tariff.  And it’s not exactly news that Washington is dysfunctional:  we’re led by a man who thinks our independence was won by controlling the airports; the leading opposition candidate somehow mistakenly thought his businessman/repairman/car salesman father was a laborer in the Pennsylvania coal mines.  So the most likely explanation is that in August human traders/portfolio managers head for the beaches, leaving newspaper-reading robots in control of Wall Street.

If that’s correct, the thing to do is to look for stocks to buy where the selloff appears crazy, getting the money from clunkers, which typically hold up in times like this or from winners whose size has gotten too big.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Macroeconomics for Professionals

Starting-out note:  there’s an investment idea in here eventually.

I’ve been going through Macroeconomics for Professionals:  a Guide for Analysts and Those Who Need to Understand Them, written by two IMF professionals, with the intention of giving it, or something like it, to one of my children who’s getting more interested in stock market investing.  I’m not finished with the book, but so far, so good.

counter-cyclical government policy

The initial chapter of MfP is about counter-cyclical government policy, a topic I think is especially important right now.

Picture an upward sloping sine curve.  That’s a stylized version of the pattern of economic advance and contraction that market economies experience.  Left to their own devices, the size of economic booms and subsequent depressions tend to be very large.  The Great Depression of the 1930s that followed the Roaring Twenties–featuring a 25% drop in output in the US and a decade of unemployment that ranged between 14%-25%–is the prime example of this.  National governments around the world made that situation worse with tariff wars and attempts to weaken their currencies to gain a trade advantage.  A chief goal of post-WWII economics has been to avoid a recurrence of this tragedy.

The general idea is counter-cyclical government policy, meaning to slow economic growth when a country is expanding at a rate higher than its long-term potential (about 2% in the US) and to stimulate growth when expansion falls below potential.

 

applying theory in today’s Washington

Entering the ninth year of economic expansion–and with the economy already growing at potential–Washington, which had provided no fiscal stimulus in 2009 when it was desperately needed, decided to give the economy a boost with a large tax cut. Although pitched as a reform, with lower rates offset by the elimination of special interest tax breaks, none of the latter happened.  Then, just a few days ago, Washington gave the economy another fiscal boost.  Mr. Trump, channeling his inner Herbert Hoover, is also pressing for further interest rate cuts to achieve a trade advantage through a weakened dollar.

This is scary stuff for any American.  The country faced a similar situation during the Nixon administration, which exerted pressure on the Fed to keep rates too low during the early 1970s.  Serious economic problems that this brought on didn’t emerge until several years later, when they were compounded by the second oil shock in 1978 (that was my first year in the stock market; I was a fledgling oil analyst).

why??

Why, then, is Mr. Trump trying to juice the US economy when he should really be trying to wean it off the drug of ultra-low rates?

I think it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t understand the implications of what he’s doing (the thing Americans of all stripes recognize, and like the least, about Mr. Trump, a brilliant marketer, is how little he actually knows).   If so, I can think of two reasons:

–as with many presidents a generation ago, he may see ultra-loose money as helping his reelection bid, and/or

–the “easy to win” trade wars may be hurting the US economy much more deeply than he expected and he sees no way to reverse course.

If I had to guess, I suspect the latter is the case and that the former is an added bonus.  I think the main counter argument, i.e., that this is all about the 2020 election, is that the administration seems to be systematically eliminating any parties/agencies that want to investigate Russian interference in domestic politics.

Either would imply that software-based multinational tech companies that have led the stock market for a long time will continue to be Wall Street winners–and that the weakness they are currently experiencing is mostly an adjustment of the valuation gap (which has become too large) between them and the rest of the market.

In any event, interest rate-sensitives and fixed income are the main areas to avoid.  If the impact of tariffs is an important motivating factor, then domestic businesses that cater to families with average or below-average incomes will likely be hurt the worst.

 

 

 

 

Investing in an age of deglobalization

Rana Foroohar is one of my favorite Financial Times columnists.  The subtitle of her July 21st column about deglobalization is “The wisdom of relying on the equity of US multinationals is now suspect.”  Her conclusion is that in the years to come the real economic dynamism in the world is going to come from China and emerging markets.  The way for foreigners like us to participate is to own Chinese and other emerging markets equities themselves rather than use US multinationals as proxies.

I think Ms. Foroohar’s conclusion is correct, although I don’t think the reasons she gives are.  That’s a surprising departure from her usual incisiveness.  For what it’s worth, here’s my take:

–over the past thirty or forty years, economic expansions in the US and Europe were especially robust because they were fueled not only by reviving domestic demand but also by high-beta growth in international trade.  That period is now over.  The main reason, in my opinion, is that the large, relatively open, stable economies in the Pacific have already been fully penetrated by multinationals, so there’s no extra cyclical oomph to be had.  In addition, the developed world has also become more protectionist.  And the increasingly overt racism of the administration in the US is making American goods and services things to be avoided rather than aspirationally purchased.

–the 1980s-style argument of US investment managers with no knowledge of foreign markets and no inclination to learn is that US-based multinationals are an adequate substitute.  By and large, this has been incorrect, although there have been periods, like the 1990s, when Japan was collapsing and the US was king.

–Ms. Foroohar cites Warren Buffett, a holder of American Express, Proctor and Gamble, Kraft Heinz and Coca-Cola, as an advocate of the approach in the paragraph above–and as a case study of why buying US-based multinationals no longer works.  But as I see it, these are all names with sclerotic corporate managements who have been pretending that Millennials and the internet don’t exist.  Add IBM, a former big Buffett holding, to that pile.   Multinationals like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Disney haven’t had the same issues.  Note, too, that both MSFT and DIS had to toss out backward-looking managements before achieving their recent success.

–I do think that China should be a key element of any long-term-oriented stock portfolio.  In addition to the secular growth story, the current Washington strategy of forcing US-based multinationals to move low-end manufacturing out of China will likely end up giving China a substantial economic boost.  Similarly, the use of the dollar as a political weapon–the arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter on money laundering charges, for example–creates a big incentive for China to speed development of its domestic capital markets, making finance easier to obtain for fledging firms there.

However, as with any other foreign market, there is a price to be paid for entry.  The rules of the investing game–the investment preferences of locals, the reliability of accounting statements and regulatory filings–are likely different from those in the home market.  All this needs to be learned.  My approach with China far has been to stick with Hong Kong-listed names, where these risks are lower.  Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that there will be greater opportunities for knowledgeable investors on mainland exchanges.  Sooner or later we’ll all have to teach ourselves, or find an expert manager to rely on.

 

 

cutting the fed funds rate

The main value you and me in Mohamed El-Erian’s observations on financial markets is that he has a knack for framing accurately, if longwindedly, the consensus view of financial professionals on topics of the day.  Nothing profound, but a solid base for figuring out how to fashion contrary bets.

In a piece for Yahoo Finance this week, however, Mr. El-Erian has neatly made a number of points about the fed funds rate cut that seems to be on the cards for later this month:

–there’s little justification for the cut on traditional economic grounds

–the reduction will likely have little impact on the real economy

–the cut won’t weaken the dollar, because other nations will reduce their equivalent rates

–at a time when financial speculation is already running hot, a rate cut risks adding accelerant to the fire

–cuts reduce the scope for the Fed to act in case of a real financial emergency

–the Fed will lose at least some credibility as an independent body whose signals should be followed by financial markets (my note: in fact, the parallels are already being drawn between Trump and Nixon, whose meddling with the Fed for political reasons in the early 1970s led to financial disaster later in that decade).

no good reason to cut, so why?

If everything’s going so well, why bully the Fed into easing?

I think it has to do with stock market earnings growth.  Last year overall eps for the S&P 500 grew by about 18%.  My back-of-the-envelope estimation is that operating earnings grew by 8% and the other 10% was a one-time upward adjustment for lower US taxes.  A reasonable guess for 2019–without including the negative effect of tariffs–would have been another 8% growth for the US portion of S&P earnings and, say, 6% for the foreign component.  Figuring that both are roughly equal in size, that would imply +7% for 2019 eps.

So far, though, eps are coming in about flat. And analyst predictions, always on the sunny side, are now for slight year-on-year dips for the June and September quarters.  Yes, Europe is weaker than one might have thought.  So that’s a (small) part of the disappointment.  But it seems to me the Trump tariffs + retaliation to them must be biting much deeper into the domestic economy than Wall Street (or I) had been expecting.   …and that’s without considering the longer-term structural harm I think they are likely to do.

If so, the solution is to find a face-saving way to reduce or eliminate tariffs.  it is certainly not to introduce further distortions into fixed income markets.

PS:  it seems to me that the best way to compete with China is to strengthen the education system and to support government-assisted scientific research.   Both are non-starters in today’s domestic politics.