the administration, the economy and the stock market

I’m taking off my hat as an American and putting on my hat as an investor for this post.

That is, I’m putting aside questions like whether the Trump agenda forms a coherent whole, whether Mr. Trump understands much/any of what he’s doing, whether Trump is implementing policies whispered in his ear by backers in the shadows–and why congressmen of both parties have been little more than rubber stamps for his proposals.

My main concern is the effect of his economic policies on stocks.

the tax cut

The top corporate tax rate was reduced from 35% to 21% late last year.  In addition, the wealthiest individuals received tax breaks, a continuation of the “trickle down” economics that has been the mainstay of Washington tax policy since the 1980s.

The new 21% rate is about average for the rest of the world.  This suggests that US corporations will no longer see much advantage in reincorporating abroad in low-tax jurisdictions.  The evidence so far is that they are also dismantling the elaborate tax avoidance schemes they have created by holding their intellectual property, and recognizing most of their profits, in foreign low-tax jurisdictions.  (An aside:  this should have a positive effect on the trade deficit since we are now recognizing the value of American IP as part of the cost of goods made by American companies overseas (think: smartphones.)

My view is that this development was fully discounted in share prices last year.

The original idea was that tax reform would also encompass tax simplification–the elimination of at least part of the rats nest of special interest tax breaks that plagues the federal tax code.  It’s conceivable that Mr. Trump could have used his enormous power over the majority Republican Party to achieve this laudable goal.  But he seems to have made no effort to do so.

Two important consequences of this last:

–the tax cut is a beg reduction in government income, meaning that it is a strong stimulus to economic activity.  That would have been extremely useful, say, nine years ago, but at full employment and above-trend growth, it puts the US at risk of overheating.

–who pays for this?  The bill’s proponents claim that the tax cut will pay for itself through higher growth.  The more likely outcome as things stand now, I think, is that Millennials will inherit a country with a least a trillion dollars more in sovereign debt than would otherwise be the case.

One positive consequence of the untimely fiscal stimulus is that it makes room for the Fed to remove its monetary stimulus (it now has rates at least 100 basis points lower than they should be) faster, and with greater confidence that will do no harm.

Two complications:  Mr. Trump has begun to jawbone the Fed not to do this, apparently thinking a supercharged, unstable economy will be to his advantage.  Also, higher rates raise the cost of borrowing to fund a higher government budget deficit + burgeoning government debt.

 

Tomorrow: the messy trade arena

trade, tariffs and Harley Davidson (HOG)

Modern economics has been founded in study of what caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, with an eye to preventing a recurrence of this devastating period.  We know very clearly that tariffs and quotas are, generally speaking, bad things.  They reduce overall economic activity in the countries that apply them.  Yes, politically favored industries do often get a benefit, but the cost to everybody else is many times larger.  We also know that the use of tariffs and quotas can snowball into a storm of retaliation and counter-retaliation that can do widespread damage for a long time.

My point is that it’s inconceivable that high-ranking public officials in Washington don’t know this.

 

HOG motorcycles are Baby Boomer counterculture icon.  The company’s traditional domestic male customer base is aging, however, and losing the strength and sense of balance required to operate these heavy machines.  At the same time, HOG has had difficulty in attracting younger customers, or women or minority groups to its offerings.  So it’s an economically more fragile firm, I think, than the consensus realizes.

HOG has been damaged to some degree by the Trump tariffs on aluminum and steel, which are important raw materials.  (As I understand them, the tariffs are ostensibly to address Chinese theft of US intellectual property, although they are being levied principally against Japan and the EU.  ???)

Completely predictably, the EU is retaliating against the tariffs.  In particular, it is levying its own 25% tariff on HOG motorcycles imported from the US.  This affects about 20% of Harley’s output.  HOG says the levy will cost it $100 million a year in lost income, implying that all of the EU-bound Harleys are now made in the US.  HOGs response is to shift production targeted for the EU to its overseas plants.  My guess is that this will take 1000+ jobs out of the US.

In contrast to the job loss from this one company, public reports indicate the total job gain from the steel/aluminum tariffs to be about 800 workers being recalled to previously idle steel/aluminum plants.

 

Mr. Trump’s response to the HOG announcement was to threaten punitive tariffs on any imports of foreign-made Harleys–a move that could threaten the viability of HOG’s network of around 700 independent dealerships.  7000 jobs at risk?

The stock market declined sharply on the day of the HOG announcement.  I think that’s because the HOG story is a shorthand illustration of how tariffs, and quotas, cause net losses to the country as a whole, although they may bring benefits to a politically favored few.

 

A second negative effect of trade protection is a long-term one.  My experience is that most often the protected industry, relieved of immediate competitive pressure, ceases to evolve.  After a few years, consumers become willing to pay the increased price to get a (better) imported product.  In my mind, General Motors is the poster child for this.

 

Stock market implications?  …avoid Industrials.  The obvious beneficiary of Washington’s ill-thought out trade policy is IT.  For the moment, however, I think that this group is expensive enough that Consumer Discretionary and Energy are better areas to pick through.

 

 

trade wars

Recently President Trump announced plans to impose tariffs of 25% on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminum, citing national security reasons.  He followed this up with a Twitter comment that, for the US, trade wars are good–and easy to win.

My take:

–much of modern economics stems from study of the causes of the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The key factors:  the wrong fiscal and monetary response, world wide; and the imposition of tariffs to “protect” local industry.  These did substantial economic damage, deepening and prolonging the global slump instead.  The idea that Mr. Trump may not be aware of this is the really worrisome aspect of the current situation.

 

–the first-order effects of the proposed tariffs will, in themselves, likely be miniscule.  Domestic prices for both metals will rise.  As a result of that, and of possible tariff payments to the government, income will shift from the users of the two metals to Washington and to domestic producers of steel/aluminum.  Because of this, at least some metal fabrication will shift away from the US to other countries.  One EU-based maker of appliances has already suspended plans to increase its manufacturing capacity in the US.

–second-order effects will likely be larger.  The EU, for example, is indicating it will retaliate by placing large tariffs on several billion dollars worth of goods that it imports from the US.   Presumably, other affected countries will do so as well.

 

–there was a similar incident during the Obama administration involving Chinese-made truck tires.  Economists estimate that it resulted in the loss of 3,000 American jobs.  If there was anything good about that situation, it was that it was isolated–Washington understood this was a one-off payment to a domestic union for its political support.  Today’s concern is that, despite overwhelming economic evidence to the contrary, Mr. Trump actually believes that trade wars are good–and will continue to act on that belief.

 

 

Chinese economic growth

China, the largest economy in the world (by Purchasing Power Parity measurement), reported 1Q17 economic growth of 6.9% earlier today.  The best analysis of what’s going on that I’ve read appears in the New York Times.

The bottom line, though, is that this is a slight uptick from previous quarters–and good news for the rest of the world, since one of the big factors that is driving growth is exports.

Traditionally, the first question with Chinese statistics has been whether they attempt to represent what is happening in the economy or whether they’re the rose-colored view that central planning bosses insist must be shown, whatever the underlying reality may be.

I think this is a much less worrisome issue now than, say, ten years ago.  But in addition to greater faith in statisticians, we also have other useful indicators about the state of China’s health.  They’re all positive:

–As I wrote about a short while ago, demand for oil in China is rising.

–Last week, port operators reported an activity pickup, led by exports.

–And Macau casino patronage, which bottomed last summer, is showing surprising increases–with middle class customers, not wealthy VIPs, in the vanguard.

While I think that consumer spending in the US is probably better than recent flattish indicators would suggest (on the view that statistics are catching all of the pain of establishment losers but much less of the joy of new retail entrants), my guess is that increasing export demand for Chinese goods is coming from Continental Europe.

More tomorrow.

Employment Situation, February 2017

This morning at 8:30 est, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department issued its Employment Situation report for February 2017.

The Bureau estimates the economy added 235,000 new jobs last month.  This is a very strong result.  However,it is most likely influenced by unseasonable warm temperatures in February, which typically allow outdoor construction work to get started earlier than  usual.  So maybe the “real” figure should be 200,000–which would still signal significant economic strength.

Revisions to the prior two months’ data were +9,000 positions.  Most other data–like the labor participation rate, the number of long-term unemployed…–were relatively unchanged.

The unemployment rate fell to 4.7%, a level that twenty years ago would have set off alarm bells warning of incipient wage inflation.  Nevertheless, wages grew at the same steady yearly rate of +2.8% we have been seeing for a while, and are showing none of the acceleration that labor economists fear.

We know from the BLS’s Job Opening and Labor Turnover (JOLT) survey that the number of current job openings is more than 20% higher than at the pre-recession economic peak in 2007.  This makes the lack of wage acceleration look even more peculiar (more about this on Monday).

Nevertheless, the Fed has made it clear that it thinks there’s nothing further that maintaining emergency-room low interest rates can do to stimulate the economy.  That ball in in the court of fiscal policy, the province of Congress and the administration, where it has resided unmoved for several years.

Especially given Mr. Trump’s promises of corporate income tax reform and renewed infrastructure spending, the biggest economic hazards lie in not continuing to normalize interest rates.

So I think we can pencil in three hikes of 25 basis points each in the Fed Funds rate both this year and next.

 

 

the French election?

French elections

As I mentioned yesterday, there’s at least some chance that control of the French government will fall in the Spring to a party that vows to:

–leave the euro,

–engineer a depreciation of the newly-resurrected French franc and

–repudiate euro-denominated French national debt.

This is not just like Brexit, since Brexit didn’t involve government refusal to repay previously incurred financial obligations.  It’s way worse.  This is more like Argentina or Cuba.

Sounds crazy, but so did Brexit and so did Trump.

What to do?

…particularly since it’s hard for me to figure the chances of any of this happening, and I no longer know that much about French stocks.

Two lines of thought:

–avoiding being hurt, and

–trying to make money.

Both will be brief, since I don’t know enough to say any more.

avoiding being hurt

Currency depreciation would have effects much like what’s happened in Japan during the Abe administration.  National wealth and the standard of living of ordinary citizens could take a substantial beating.  Export-oriented industries would thrive.

It’s likely that French companies would have a more difficult time raising money in global capital markets, if France refuses to honor its existing euro-denominated debt.  Companys’ repayment of debt not denominated in francs would become more costly.

Knock-on effects:  my guess is that Italy wouldn’t be far behind France in leaving the euro.  The currency union would likely end up being Germany plus bells and whistles.

The way bond investors are now taking defensive measures is by selling their French government-issued euro bonds for German issues, giving up 0.4% in annual yield to avoid a potential currency loss.

We, as equity investors, can do something similar now, by avoiding non-French multinationals with large exposure to the French economy.  If we want to/need to have some French exposure, it should be in companies that will benefit from possible devaluation–that is, firms with costs in France but revenues elsewhere.  Here the performance of Japanese stocks should be a good guide, except that I’d avoid French companies with a lot of foreign debt.

trying to make money

I consider betting on future political developments to be a dubious enterprise.  If Marine Le Pen makes an unusually good showing in the first round (of two) in French voting in April, and if the French market sells off sharply on that result, I’d be tempted to look for beaten down French multinationals, on the thought that Le Pen would lose in the second round.  I’m not sure I’d actually do anything, but I’d be willing to think about it.  This would imply beginning to study potential purchase candidates, or a suitable ETF, now.

 

 

 

should the US dollar be strong or weak?

This is the question President Trump purportedly called his adviser, Michael Flynn, to ask at 3am one recent morning.  Flynn, to his credit, said he didn’t know.

Perhaps the genesis of the inquiry is the odd position Mr. Trump has put himself in of criticizing Germany (and by implication the EU as a whole) for damaging the US by having a currency that’s too strong while berating China for damaging us by doing the opposite.

It may also be economists’ comments that the Republican Congressional proposal to introduce a value added tax on imports could trigger a sharp appreciation in the dollar, thereby making exports from the US that much less attractive.

What is the best strategy for the US?

First of all, we should recognize that there’s no generally accepted economic framework that deals with currency.  There are lots of theories for particular aspects of currency relationships, but no one go-to theory.

Also, the US is in the unusual position of being the only universally accepted reserve currency, making the US is in effect the banker to the world.  So rules that apply rigorously to others may not, for good or ill, hold so firmly for us.

 

In 30+ years of dealing with foreign currencies as an equity investor, I think the issue can be summed up in practical terms to the question:  “If this country were a person, would I feel comfortable lending money to him?”

The factors that have meant the most to me are:  political stability, the rule of law, growth-oriented government policies, no excessive government debt, prudent government spending, and no restrictions on being able to repatriate my funds.  All other things being equal, mild appreciation of the foreign currency would be nice.  But I would trade that away in a nanosecond for assurance I wouldn’t have a currency loss.

All this implies that the value of a country’s currency isn’t determined by a deliberate currency policy.  Instead, it’s the result of overall conditions for doing business in that place, and of the effectiveness of government in providing a backdrop conducive for corporations to locate there.

One instructive recent example of what not to do:  massive government-engineered currency depreciation has been the cornerstone of Abenomics in Japan.  The main results so far have been to revive the fortunes of near-obsolete manufacturers, while retarding innovation and inducing an epic fall in the standard of living of ordinary citizens.

My advice for Mr. Trump?   Press forward on tax reform and infrastructure spending.  Establish meaningful vocational training to replace the VA-like stuff we have now.  Don’t try to weaken the dollar; that’s a recipe for disaster.