the fight over unemployment benefits

My cartoon version of US politics:

A generation ago the Democrats were the party of the working people and the Republicans the party of the wealthy, especially of inherited wealth.

The Democrats’ goal was to push for strong wage gains, to improve the lot of their supporters. They were also for wealth redistribution–taxing the rich to get the money for social welfare programs like Medicare or Social Security. High wage gains would also eventually create inflation, eroding the value of the assets supporting hereditary wealth–an added plus.

The aim of the Republicans was to defend the status quo, the value of their bonds and their industrial operations, by advocating low wages, low taxes (no redistribution) and low inflation.

Even though both parties have strayed far from their roots, this old picture has some relevance in explaining economic forces at work in the US today.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal budget deficit for 2020–the amount that government spending will exceed income–will come in at $3.7 trillion.

This is where the current debate on extension of unemployment benefits comes in. Democrats are calling for another $3 trillion in aid to out-of-work Americans; Republicans are arguing for $1 trillion. In simple terms, the difference is between continuing $600 a week in extra benefits vs. reducing that to $200.

In the former case, the federal deficit would come in at about $7 trillion and total government debt would rise to just under $30 trillion. This compares with GDP of about $19 trillion this year–with real GDP growth (even before the pandemic) reduced to close to zero due to Trump’s epic incompetence. That would put us higher than perennial poor soul Italy in terms of debt/GDP and into the same bracket with Greece and Lebanon. Only Japan, with debt of 2.5x GDP would be out of our reach–for now, anyway.

(An aside: hard to believe one man could do so much damage so quickly–and that’s not considering his white racism, environmental recklessness, the secret police roaming Democratic cities…)

Anyway, the question wealthy Republican backers seem to be asking is at what point will creditors balk at continuing to fund the Federal government. Their answer can be seen in the Republican negotiating stance–we’re already there. In my view, a lot depends on whether Trump is reelected despite his devastation of US aspirations and value. I think we’re already seeing the first indications of the world’s worries in the decline of the dollar vs the euro. For wealthy holders of dollar-denominated assets–real estate, industrial plants, fixed income securities–losses could be very large.

the Trump economy

Recent election polling seems to show that potential voters don’t approve of anything in the Trump administration except its handling of the economy. One might argue that in comparison with supporting white racism, subverting the Justice Department, causing tens of thousands of Americans to die needlessly from the coronavirus and trying to corrupt the military, blunting economic growth is the least bad thing Trump has done.

It appears, however, the common belief is that Trump has actually done good things for US economic growth during his time in office and that on economic grounds he would be a better presidential choice than Joe Biden. (Personally, I think it’s a sign of the extreme poverty of domestic politics that the Democrats can’t come up with a better candidate than Biden but that’s another issue.) My opinion is that Trump is worse than economically clueless; I think he has been doing potentially incalculable damage to the long-term economic prospects of the country. If so, why don’t people realize this?

I think the explanation is in the financial results of Walmart (WMT), the largest retailer in the US. WMT’s target market is Americans of average and somewhat below average income. The company started in the midwest. Political action by incumbent retailers in California and the Northeast have limited its exposure to those areas. So it’s a reasonable thermometer for economic health in the rest of the country.

EPS growth for WMT over the past seven years is as follows:

year yoy eps growth

2019 +6.3%

2018 +11.1%

2017 +2.3%

2016 -5.5%

2015 -9.9%

2014 -0.8%

2013 +1.8%.

Note: Like many retailers, WMT’s fiscal year runs from February through January of the following calendar year. So, for example, what I’ve labeled as 2019 is actually 2/19 – 1/20.

What I read from these numbers is that recovery from the financial crisis of 2007-09 didn’t reach the large chunks of America that WMT services until almost eight years after the overall economy bottomed. This coincided with Trump’s election.

Did Trump cause this pickup or is it simply the “trickle down” of recovery to a a part of the country neither major party cared that much about? I don’t see anything in Trump’s past or present performance record to make me think it’s the former.

Trump and TSMC (ii)

Over the weekend The Economist published an article about the administration’s attack on Huawei, denying Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) the use of US intellectual property in making chips for the Chinese telecom firm. The article basically paralleled my post from the 18th.  And it concluded that the ban could easily end up hurting the US far more than China.  In other words, it’s vintage Trump.

Although I didn’t mention it a week ago, I think it’s interesting to observe the behavior of the US companies affected by the initial order, which prevented them from supplying US-made chips to Huawei.

A basic fact about chip manufacturing is that although the output comes from gigantic, multi-billion dollar factories, the chips themselves are tiny and weigh next to nothing.  Output can easily and cheaply be shipped anywhere.  So plants don’t need to be located near customers.  They are highly automated, so no need for a large nearby workforce, either.  The key variables in locating a fab: areas where there are no earthquakes and where government tax breaks and subsidies are the highest.

Anyway, US firms continued to supply Huawei as usual after the initial directive, just from non-US facilities.

 

My point isn’t about administration ineptitude in taking months to realize this elementary workaround.  It’s that the chipmakers acted as businessmen.  They did what they thought was best for the long-term survival and prosperity of their firms.  Logically, it’s what they should have done as stewards of other peoples money.  More important, it’s what they did do.  That is, we have a reason to think that they will continue in this manner–to at least plan to put their operations out of the reach of Washington.  In addition, they will presumably pressure their suppliers of capital equipment–the semiconductor production equipment makers, some of which are heavily concentrated in the US–to do likewise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

depreciating the dollar

When a country is having economic problems–slow growth, outdated industrial base, weak educational system, balance of payments issues–there are generally speaking two ways to fix things:

–internal adjustment, meaning fixing the domestic problems through domestic government and private sector action, and

–external adjustment, meaning depreciating the currency.

The first approach is the fundamentally correct way.  But it requires skill and demands a shakeup of the status quo.  So it’s politically difficult.

Depreciating the currency, on the other hand, is a quick-fix, sugar-high kind of thing, of basically trying to shift the problem onto a country’s trading partners.  The most common result, however, is a temporary growth spurt, a big loss of national wealth, and resurfacing of the old, unresolved problems a few years down the road–often with a bout of unwanted inflation.  The main “pluses” of depreciation are that it’s politically easy, requires little skill and most people won’t understand who’s at fault for the ultimate unhappy ending.

Examples:

the Great Depression of the 1930s;

the huge depreciation of the yen under PM Abe, which has impoverished the average Japanese citizen, made Japan a big tourist destination (because it’s so cheap) and pumped a little life into the old zaibatsu industrial conglomerates.

 

It’s understandable that Donald Trump is a fan.  It’s not clear he has even a passing acquaintance with economic theory or history.  And in a very real sense depreciation would be a reprise of the disaster he created in Atlantic City, where he freed himself of personal liabilities and paid himself millions but the people who trusted and supported him lost their shirts.

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, is harder to fathom.  She appears to be intelligent, thoughtful and a careful planner.  It’s difficult to believe that she doesn’t know what she’s supporting.

 

 

 

Mexico in the 1980s vs. US today

bull market = strong economy?

Does stock market strength always mean a booming economy?

The short answer is no.

Mexico in the 1980s

The best illustration I can think of is Mexico in the 1980s.  That economy was a disaster, which played out first of all in the currency markets, where the peso lost 98% of its value vs. the US$ during that decade.  Despite this, in US$ terms the Mexican stock market was hands down the best in the world over the period, far outpacing the S&P 500.

How so?

…a domestic form of capital flight is the short story.

An incompetent and corrupt government in Mexico was spending much more than it was taking in in taxes but was loathe to raise interest rates to defend the peso.  Fearing  currency depreciation triggered by excessive debt, citizens began transferring massive amounts of money abroad, converting their pesos mostly into US$ and either buying property or depositing in a bank.  This added to downward pressure on the peso.  In September 1982 the government instituted capital controls to stem the outflow–basically making it illegal for citizens to convert their pesos into other currencies (Texas, which had been a big beneficiary of the money flow into the US, will remember the negative effect stemming it had).

With that door closed, Mexican savers turned to the national stock market as a way to preserve their wealth.  They avoided domestic-oriented companies that had revenues in pesos.  They especially shunned any with costs in dollars.  They focused instead on gold and silver mines or locally-listed industrial companies that had substantial earnings and assets outside Mexico.  The ideal situation was a multinational firm with revenues in dollars and costs in pesos.

today in the US

To be clear, I don’t think we’re anything close to 1980s Mexico.   But it trying to explain to myself what’s behind the huge divergence in performance between companies wedded to the US economy (bad) and multinational tech (good) I keep coming back to the Mexico experience.  Why?

I don’t see the US economic situation as especially rosy.   Evidently, the stock market doesn’t either.  In tone, administration economic policy looks to me like a reprise of Donald Trump’s disastrous foray into Atlantic City gambling–where he made money personally but where the supporters who financed and trusted him lost their shirts.

What catches my eye:

–tariff and immigration actions are suppressing current growth and discouraging US and foreign firms from building new plant and equipment here

–strong support of fossil fuels plus the roadblocks the administration is trying to create against renewables will likely make domestic companies non-starters in a post-carbon world outside the US.   Look at what similar “protection” did to Detroit’s business in the 1980s.

–threats to deny Chinese companies access to US financial markets and/or the US banking system are accelerating Beijing’s plans to create a digital renminbi alternative to the dollar

–the administration’s denial of access to US-made computer components by Chinese companies will spur creation of a competing business in China–the same way the tariff wars have already opened the door to Brazil in the soybean market, permanently damaging US farmers

–not a permanent issue but one that implies lack of planning:  isn’t it weird to create large tax-cut stimulus but then until it wears off to launch a trade war that will cause contraction?

Then there are Trump’s intangibles–his white racism, his sadism, his constant 1984-ish prevarication, his disdain for honest civil servants, his orange face paint, the simulacrum he appears to inhabit much of the time, the influence of Vladimir Putin…  None of these can be positives, either for stocks or for the country, even though it may not be clear how to quantify them.   (A saving grace may be that the EU can’t seem to get its act together and both China and the UK appear to be governed by Trump clones.)

 

my point?

Two of them:

1.If you were thinking all this, how would you invest your money?

Unlike the case with 1980s Mexico, there’s no foreign stock market destination that’s clearly better.  China through Hong Kong would be my first thought, except that Xi Jinping’s heavy-handed attempt to violate the 1984 handover treaty has deeply damaged the SAR.  So we’re probably limited to US-traded equities.

What to buy?

–multinationals

–that are structural change beneficiaries

–whose main attraction is intellectual property, the rights to which are held outside the US,

–with minimum physical plant and equipment owned inside the US, and

–building new operating infrastructure outside the US, say, across the border in Canada.

As I see it, this is pretty much what’s going on.

 

2.What happens if Mr. Trump is not reelected?

A lot depends on who may take his place.  But it could well mean that we return to a more “normal” economy, where the population increases, so too economic growth, corporate investment in the US resumes, domestic bricks-and-mortar firms do better–and some of the air comes out of the software companies’ stocks.