the Fed’s dilemma

history

From almost my first day in the stock market, domestic macroeconomic policy has been implemented by and large by the Federal Reserve.  Two reasons:  a theoretical argument that fiscal policy is subject to long lead times–that by the time Congress acts to stimulate the economy through increased spending, circumstances will have changed enough to warrant the opposite; and ( my view), until very recently neither Democrats nor Republicans have had coherent or relevant macroeconomic platforms.

If pressed, Wall Streeters would likely say that Washington has historically represented a net drag on the country’s economic performance of, say, 1% yearly, but that it was ok with financial markets if politicians didn’t do anything crazily negative–the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930, for example.

During the Volcker years (1979-87), money policy was severely restrictive because the country was struggling to control runaway inflation spawned by misguided policy decisions of the 1970s (Mr. Nixon pressuring the Fed to keep policy too loose).  Since then, the stock market has operated under the belief that the Fed’s mandate also includes mitigating stock market losses by loosening policy, the so-called Greenspan, Bernanke and Yellen “puts.”

recent past

We’ve learned that monetary policy is not the miracle cure-all that we once thought.  We could have figured this out from Japan’s experience in the 1980s.  But the message came home in spectacular fashion domestically during the financial crisis last decade.  As rates go lower and policy loosens, lots of “extra” money starts sloshing around.   Fixed income managers gravitate toward increasingly arcane and illiquid markets.  In their eagerness to not be left out of the latest fad product, they begin to take on risks they really don’t understand as  well as to forego standard protective covenants.

We could almost hear the sigh of relief from the Fed as the tax bill of 2017, which reduced payments for the ultra-rich and brought the corporate tax rate down to about the world average, passed.  Because the bill was so stimulative, it gave the Fed the chance to raise rates as an offset, meaning it could tamp down the speculative fires.

today

Enter the Trump tariffs.

Two preliminaries:

–tariffs are taxes.  Strictly speaking, importers, not foreign suppliers (as the president maintains (could it be he actually believes this?)) pay them to customs officials.  But the importer tries to ease his pain by asking for price reductions from suppliers and for selling price increases from customers.  How this all settles out depends on who has market power.  In this case,it looks like virtually all the cost will be borne by domestic parties.  Domestic economic growth will slow.  The relevant stock market question is how much of the pain consumers will bear and how much will be concentrated in a reduction of import business profits.

–I think Mr. Trump is correct that the US subsidy of NATO is excessive.  It represents the situation at the end of WWII, when the US left standing–or at best the time when the USSR began to disintegrate into today’s Russia (whose GDP = Pennsylvania + Ohio, or California/2).  I also think that China, with a population five times ours and an economy 1.25x as big as the US (using PPP), is a more serious economic rival than we have seen in decades.  It doesn’t have the post-WWII sense of obligation to us that we have seen elsewhere.  So we have to rethink our relationship.

Having written that, I don’t see that Mr. Trump has even the vaguest clue about how the country should proceed, given these insights.

To my mind, tariffs + retaliation mean both domestic and foreign companies will be reluctant to locate new operations in the US.  Tariffs on Chinese handicrafts may bring industries of the past back to the US, at the same time they force China to increase emphasis on industries of the future.  I don’t get how either of these moves should be a US strategic goal….

the dilemma

The question for the Fed:  should it enable the president’s spate of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot tariff policies by lowering rates?  …or should it let the economy slide into recession, hoping this will jar Congress into action?

 

the Huawei questions

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.

Two questions:

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.)

investment implications?

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.

 

 

 

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Simply put, MMT is the idea that for a country that issues government debt in its own currency budget deficits don’t matter.   The government can simply print more money if it wants to spend more than it collects in taxes.

Although the theory has been around for a while (the first Google result I got was a critical opinion piece from almost a decade ago), it’s been revived recently by “progressive” Democrats arguing for dramatically increasing social welfare spending.  For them, the answer to the question “What about the Federal deficit?,”  is “MMT,” the government can always issue more debt/print more money.

MMT reminds me a bit of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which was crafted in the 1970s and “proved” that the wild gyrations going on in world stock markets in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s were impossible.

 

Four issues come to mind:

–20th century economic history–the UK, Greece, Italy, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, lots of Latin America…   demonstrates that really bad things happen once government debt gets to the level where investors begin to suspect they won’t be repaid in full.

This has already happened three times in the US: during the Carter administration, when Washington was forced to issue Treasury bonds denominated in foreign currency; during the government debt crisis of 1987, which caused a bond market collapse that triggered, in turn, the Black Monday stock market swoon a few months later; and during the Great Bond Massacre of 1993-94.

In other words, as with MPT, the briefest glance outside through an ivory tower window would show the theory doesn’t describe reality very well

–the traditional case for gold–and, lately, for cryptocurrencies–is to hedge against the government tendency to repay debt in inflation-debased currency.  In other words, every investor’s checklist includes guarding against print-more-money governments

–excessive spending today is conventionally (and correctly, in my view) seen as leaving today’s banquet check to be picked up by one’s children or grandchildren.  In the contemporary cautionary tale of Japan, the tab in question has included massive loss of national wealth, a sharp drop in living standards and economic stagnation for a third of a century.  No wonder Japanese Millennials have a hard time dealing with their elders.

Why would the US be different?  Why are Millennial legislators, of all people, advocating this strategy?

–conventional wisdom is that the first indication that a government is losing its creditworthiness is that foreigners stop buying.  This is arguably not a big deal, since foreigners come and go; locals typically make up the heart of the market.  During the US bond market crisis of 1987, however, the biggest domestic bond market participants staged the buyers strike.  Something very similar happened in 1993-94.  I don’t see any reason to believe that the culture of the “bond vigilante” has disappeared.  So, in my opinion, the negative reaction to a policy of constant deficit spending in the US is likely to be severe and to come very quickly.