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.

 

 

Trump on trade: unintended consequences?

A straightforward analysis of what Mr. Trump is doing would be:

–tariffs slow overall growth and rearrange it to favor protected industries.  There’s no reason I can see to believe something different might happen in the US

–apart from the third world, protected industries tend to have domestic political clout but to be in economic trouble.  In my experience, these woes come more from bad management than from foreigners’ actions

–the go-it-alone approach is a weak one, since it provides ample scope for a target country to shop tariffed goods through an intermediary

–the apparently arbitrary way the administration is acting will cause both domestic and foreign corporations to reconsider future capital investment in the US.

 

There are, however, two other issues that I think have long-term implications but which aren’t discussed much.

–tariffs may cause industries that have moved abroad to retain labor-intensive work practices (and continue to use dated industrial machinery) in a lower labor-cost environment to return to the home country.  If such firms come back to the US, it won’t be with the old machinery.  New operations will be very highly mechanized. In other words, one likely response to the Trump tariffs will be to accelerate the replacement of humans with robots in the US.

–as I see it, China is at the key stage of economic development where, to grow, it must leave behind labor-intensive work and develop higher value-added industries.  This is very hard to do.  The owners of low value-added enterprises have become very wealthy and powerful.  They employ lots of people.  They have considerable political influence.   And they strongly favor the status quo.  The result is typically that the economy in question plateaus as labor-intensive industries block progress.  In the case of China, however, the threat that the US will effectively deny such firms access to a major market will kickstart progress and deflect blame from Beijing.

 

If I’m correct, the effect of trying to restore WWII-era industry in the US will, ironically, achieve the opposite.  It will accelerate domestic change in the nature of work away from manual labor.  And it will run interference against the status quo in China, allowing Beijing’s efforts to become a cutting-edge industrial power to gather speed.

 

 

slowdown in China

In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping was forced to tackle the gigantic mess that central planning had made of the Chinese economy during Mao’s rule.  The problem:  highly inefficient, loss-making, corruption-infested, Soviet-style (feel free to add more negative, hyphenated adjectives) state-owned enterprises dominated the industrial base.  The products were poor;  the books more fiction than not.  Deng’s solution was to adopt Western-style capitalism under the banner of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  This meant pulling the plug on bank credit and political favor for state-owned enterprises and redirecting support toward the private sector.

The result has been 30+ years of economic growth so strong that it has vaulted China from nowhere into first place among world economies.  In fact, the PRC is now 10%+ larger than #2, the US, using Purchasing Power Parity as the yardstick.

According to an astute observer of China, Nicholas Lardy, writing in the Financial Times, however, current Chinese leader Xi Jinping has not simply been cracking down on the cumulative excesses of the private sector over the past couple of years.  He has also reversed Deng’s policy in favor of building up the state-owned sector again.  Lardy thinks this decision is reducing China’s annual GDP growth rate by a whopping two percentage points.

I’m not sure why this is happening.  But for China, the highest economic principle has never been about achieving maximum sustainable GDP growth.  Rather, it’s whatever is necessary to maintain the Communist Party in power.  Reduction in GDP growth is a secondary concern.

 

I don’t know how this affects China’s stance in tariff negotiations with the US, especially since White House economists seem to be suggesting that the US economy is already beginning to contract under the weigh of current tariffs plus the government shutdown   (increased tariffs slated for March will only deepen any decline).  From a longer-term point of view, though–and assuming Chinese policy doesn’t change–for a company to simply have exposure to China will no longer be any guarantee of success.

 

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.

the curious case of Toshiba and the Mitsui keiretsu

The Financial Times, now owned by the Nihon Keisai Shimbun (the Nikkei newspaper)–and which should therefore have a particularly sharp insight into goings on in corporate Japan, had an interesting article the other day about Toshiba.

Toshiba is facing possible bankruptcy and potential delisting from the Tokyo Stock Exchange as a result of the disastrous performance of its nuclear power business.  To avoid this fate, it has decided to sell its flash memory business, which is a world leader in this important class of semiconductor devices and owns essential intellectual property for their manufacture.

The Japanese government is intervening in the matter, with the aim of ensuring that this important asset remains in Japanese hands.  What is distinctly not happening, as pointed out in an FT article two days ago, is any aid being offered by other members of the Mitsui industrial group.  This is very unusual.

background

At the core of Japanese economy in the first half of the twentieth century stood a number of powerful industrial conglomerates, called zaibatsu, which emerged from the samurai culture of shogun-era Tokyo.  The zaibatsu were outlawed after WWII for their role in Japan’s participation in that conflict.  But their dissolution was in name only.  The groups continue to exist in substance but were referred to as keiretsu.

One of the principal features of the keiretsu is mutual assistance in times of trouble.

For example,

Some years ago, Mistubishi Motors tried to buy its way into the US car market with a “0-0-0” financing campaign.  That meant zero down, a zero interest rate on 100% financing, and no loan repayment for the first year.  As it turned out, there was also a fourth zero–no credit checks.  And very large number of buyers (if you can call them that) simply made no payments when the time came.  They continued to drive the cars until they were repossessed.  Mitsubishi Motors as a whole, not just the US subsidiary, was faced with financial failure as a result.

What happened?

The other members of the Mitsubishi group injected hundreds of billions of yen into the auto company so that it remained afloat.  I remember speaking about this at the time with the chairman of Mitsubishi Corp, the group’s trading company.  He was deeply unhappy about having to invest in the auto arm of the group, and knew that this made no economic sense, but felt that his honor demanded that he do so.

today

Fast-forwarding to today and Toshiba     …not a peep from other Mitsui group members.

There may be something unusual about Toshiba.  More likely, the zaibatsu concept, a vital aspect of the samurai culture, may have finally passed its best-by date.  Interesting, too, that this should come while a descendant of the samurai is the prime minister.