Huawei is a Chinese telecom company. It makes niftier smartphones than Apple and has 5G technology that’s better than anything US companies can offer. The company is certainly a competitive threat to US cellphone makers, as well as to manufacturers of telephone equipment worldwide.
The question that arises with a firm like Huawei, also the perennial question raised about dominant US tech companies since WWII, is the degree to which Huawei will act in the national interest of China. That is, can/will Beijing eavesdrop on conversations or collect/alter data being carried on Huawei networks–maybe even stop them operating, if Beijing so chooses.
The Trump response to Huawei’s technological edge has been two-fold: to blacklist Huawei, and to aid its US rival, Qualcomm.
1.is this the proper response? …or is it like Mr. Trump’s invoking national security to price better-performing Asian and European cars to unaffordable levels, forcing citizens to buy US automobiles that three-quarters of the population now shun?
I’m guessing the former.
2. does Mr. Trump have a strategy? Has he thought out the consequences of what he’s doing?
Here my guess is no. Otherwise, he would have been promoting science education and welcoming skilled foreign scientists, rather than compelling tech firms to relocate their tech hubs to Canada and elsewhere.
(An aside, sort of: I was recently listening to a podcast which dealt with Mr. Trump’s weak record in real estate by saying that he was rich before he started in the family business and he remained rich after negotiating treacherous waters during the 1980s. Really?
My read of the president’s career: he ended (prior to licensing his name and performing in a reality show) with about as much money in real terms as he started with. So in that highly technical sense what the podcast said is right. Over the same period, however, a run-of-the-mill real estate developer made, adjusting for risk, four times what Trump did. A really competent real estate person might have made 10x. In achieving his result, Mr. Trump was also aided by the public listing, debt refinancing and subsequent bankruptcy declaration of his Atlantic City casinos. Although Mr. Trump prevailed in the litigation that ensued, as a professional investor I find this an eyebrow-raising episode.
Mr. Trump was “successful” in running a business in the sense that he went fishing during a time when tons of fish were jumping into the boat and he came back with the boat. Nothing in it …though he was in the area where the most fish were to be had …and he was soaking wet in a way that suggested he fell out at some point.
I’m also extrapolating from that.)
Throughout my investing career, politics has never made much of a difference. In fact, to my mind professional investors who based their decisions on reading Washington’s runes simply revealed the poverty of their thought. I think now is different. Mr. Trump has exposed the surprising weakness of Congress. The reality of China as a rival superpower to the US has been made clear.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump is executing an early twentieth-century strategy to solve a twenty-first century dilemma. Arguably, but not necessarily, this is a drama where the US is playing the role of post-WWI Britain and China is the 1920s US. We all know how that worked out. By simultaneously discouraging innovation at home and forcing China to up the pace of its own tech progress, I think the administration is auditioning for the UK part, and thereby potentially doing significant long-term harm to the economy. Ironically, those hurt most badly will likely be Mr. Trump’s most rabid supporters. Withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, for example, is already putting US farms at a disadvantage vs. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand rivals.
What to do?
I’m taking a two-pronged strategy in the US. I’m looking for companies with worldwide reach and innovative products. For domestically-oriented companies, I’m taking an approach that might be called, for lack of a better term, “value with a catalyst” (regular readers will likely know that I don’t believe traditional value works any more in the US). This term usually means a value stock where a turnaround has progressed far enough that the path for the firm to return to health can be identified. E.g., the stock is trading at 20% of book value in an environment where healthy firms are trading at book. Only “deep” value investors might be interested. Then the company recruits a CEO who’s a turnaround expert and the stock begins to trade at 30% of book–this is value with a catalyst. I’m not so interested in book, though. I’m looking at price/cash flow.
I’m also looking harder in the Pacific Basin. I’m even thinking about the EU, although that’s an area where market participants have a thorough value orientation and where lots of local market lore is needed to be successful. So I find it a bit scary–better said, the rewards not worth the effort.