Trumponomics and tariffs

Note:  I’ve been writing this in fits and starts over the past couple of weeks.  It doesn’t reflect whatever agreement the US and China made over the past weekend.  (More on that as/when details become available.)  But I’m realizing that it’s better to write something that’s less than perfect instead of nothing at all..  I think the administration’s economic plan, if that’s the right word for a string of ad hoc actions revealed by tweet, will have crucial impacts–mostly negative–for the US and for multinational corporations located here.  I’ll post about that in a day or two.

 

On the plus side, Mr. Trump has been able to get the corporate income tax rate in the US reduced from 35% to 21%, stemming the outflow of US industry to lower tax-rate jurisdictions (meaning just about anyplace else in the world).  Even that has a minus attached, though, since he failed to make good on his campaign pledge to eliminate the carried interest tax dodge that private equity uses.  The tax bill also contained new tax reductions for the ultra-wealthy and left pork-barrel tax relief for politically powerful businesses untouched.

 

At its core, international Trumponomics revolves around the imposition of import duties on other countries in the name of “national security,” on the dubious rationale that anything that increases GDP is a national security matter and that tariffs are an effective mechanism to force other countries to do what we want.  (Oddly, if this is correct, one of Mr. Trump’s first moves was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby triggering an escalating series of new tariffs on farm exports to Japan by  our “Patriot Farmers,” many of whom voted for Mr. Trump.  I assume he didn’t know.)

If the Trump tariff policy has a coherent purpose, it seems to me to be:

–to encourage primary industry (like smelting) and manual labor-intensive manufacturing now being done in developing countries to relocate to the US (fat chance, except for strip mining and factories run by robots)

–to encourage advanced manufacturing businesses abroad that serve US customers to build new operations in the US, and

–to retard the development of Chinese tech manufacturing by denying those companies access to US-made components.

 

The results so far:

–the portion of tariffs on imported goods (paid by US importers to the US customs authorities) passed on to consumers has offset (for all but the ultra-wealthy) the extra income from the 2017 tax cuts

–the arbitrary timing and nature of the tariffs Trump is imposing seems to be doing the expected —discouraging industry, foreign and domestic, from building new plants in the US.  BMW, for example, had been planning on building all its luxury cars for export to China here, because US labor costs less than EU labor.  The threat of retaliatory tariffs by China for those imposed by the US made this a non-starter.

–Huawei.  This story is just beginning.  It has a chance of turning really ugly.  For the moment, inferior US snd EU products become more attractive.  Typically, such protection also slows new product development rather than accelerating it.  (Look at the US auto industry of the mid-1970s, a tragic example of this phenomenon.)   US-based tech component suppliers are doing what companies always do in this situation:  they’re  finding ways around the ban:  selling to foreign middlemen who resell to Huawei, or supplying from their non-US factories.  Even if such loopholes remain open, Mr. Trump is establishing that the US can’t be relied on as a tech supplier. Two consequences:  much greater urgency for China to create local substitutes for US products; greater motivation for US-based multinationals to locate intellectual property and manufacturing outside the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

a new casino for Connecticut, good or bad?

Shortly after I retired as a portfolio manager, I went to work part-time at the Rutgers business school in Newark.  No, it wasn’t to teach investing or portfolio management–accreditation rules effectively rule this out for anyone without a PhD in (the alternate reality of) academic finance.  Instead, it was in a practical management consulting class run by adjuncts with real-world experience and advising mostly small businesses.  (We were all fired several years later and the program–the only profitable area in a school dripping red ink–dissolved.   …but that’s another story).

Anyway, one of the projects I mentored involved a casual dining restaurant.  A student had a connection with a very successful pizza restaurant whose approach might serve as a model for our client.  The pizza owner said he had superior results.  How so?  …he had cloth tablecloths and fresh flowers on each table; the food was good;  he spoke with every customer himself to make sure everyone knew they were welcome.  In fact, he drew customers from as far as 15 miles away.

How far was the closest competing pizza restaurant?   …30 miles.

Put a different way, in this state customers hungry for pizza went to the closest restaurant, despite what this owner thought was his special charm!

It’s the same with a lot of other things, including local casinos.

In the case of Connecticut, the two existing operators are coming under threat by the decision of Massachusetts to legalize gambling in that state.  In particular, it’s allowing MGM to open a casino just on the northern border of Connecticut in Springfield, MA.

Hartford has just responded by authorizing a new casino in East Windsor just on the Connecticut side of the border from Springfield, to be jointly run by the two incumbent operators.

This is an interesting case.  Let’s take a (simple) look:

My pizza rule says customers go to the closest casino.   If that’s correct, the new Massachusetts casino will reduce the existing Connecticut casinos’ revenue by a substantial amount.  Hartford estimates that amount at a quarter of the current business, about $1.6 billion.   If they want to keep the remaining 75%, however, it seems unlikely to me that the casino operators will be able to reduce their costs by much.  So their profits could easily be cut in half.

And when the proposed East Windsor casino opens?

Figure that East Windsor will take back from Springfield half of the revenue initially lost.   That’s $200 million a year.  From the state’s point of view, any revenue gain means higher tax collections–in this case, about another $35 million a year.  So it’s understandable why East Windsor has gotten a legislative seal of approval.  It’s not clear, however, that the casino operators are going to be better off–because they’re taking on the expense of a third location in order to protect 12% of their current revenue.

 

We’ve also seen this movie before in the northeast US, with the effect on Atlantic City of gambling legalization in Pennsylvania, and on Pennsylvania of legalization in Ohio and Maryland.  One additional complication in this instance is that both of the incumbent operators are Native American tribes, for whom maintaining/expanding employment may be more important than profits.  A second is that the new CT casino will be run by two in-state rivals.  That should be interesting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

P&G (PG) and Gillette

Gillette

P&G acquired Gillette in 2005 for $57 billion in stock.  The idea, as I understand it, was not only to acquire an attractive business in itself but also to use the Gillette brand name for PG to expand into men’s health and beauty products.  More or less, PG’s a big chunk of PG’s extensive women’s line would be repackaged, reformulated a bit if necessary, and sold under the Gillette label.

Unfortunately for PG, millennial men decided to stop shaving about ten years ago.  The big expansion of new Gillette product categories hasn’t happened.  And PG announced two months ago that it was slashing the price of its higher-end shaving products by up to 20%, effective late last month.

It’s this last that I want to write about today.

pricing

The Gillette situation reminds me of what happened with cigarette companies in the 1980s.  I’m no fan of tobacco firms, but what happened to them back then is instructive.

the iron law of microeconomics

The iron law of microeconomics: price is determined by the availability of substitutes.   But what counts as a substitute?  For a non-branded product, it’s anything that’s functionally equivalent and at the same, or lower, price.  The purpose of marketing to create a brand is, however, not only to reach more potential users.  It’s also to imbue the product with intangible attributes that hake it harder for competitors to offer something that counts as a substitute.

cigarettes

In the case of cigarettes, they’re addictive.  It should arguably be easy for firms with powerful marketing and distribution to continually raise prices in real terms.  And that’s what the tobacco companies did consistently–until the early 1980s.

By that time, despite all the advantages of Big Tobacco, it had raised prices so much that branding no longer offered protection.  Suddenly even no-name generics became acceptable substitutes.  This was a terrible strategic error, although one where there was little tangible evidence to serve as advance warning.  As it turns out, in my experience there never is.

The competitive response?  …cut prices for premium brands and launch their own generics.  There certainly have been additional legal and tax issues since, and because I won’t buy tobacco companies I don’t follow the industry closely.  Still, it seems to me that tobacco has yet to recover from its 30+ year ago pricing mistake.

razor blades

The same pattern.

Over the past few years, Gillette’s market share has fallen from 71% to 59%.  Upstart subscription services like the Dollar Shave Club (bought for $1 billion by Unilever nine months ago) and and its smaller clone Harry’s (which I use) have emerged.

Gillette has, I think, done the only things it can to repair the damage from creating a pricing umbrella under which competitors can prosper.  It is reducing prices.  It has already established its own mail order blade service.  On the other hand, Harry’s is now available in Target stores.   Unilever will likely use the Dollar Shave Club platform to distribute other grooming products.  So the potential damage is contained but not eliminated.  Competition may also spread.

The lesson from the story:  the cost of preventing competitors from entering a market is always far less than the expense of minimizing the damage once a rival has emerged.  That’s often only evident in hindsight.  Part of the problem is that once a competitor has spent money to create a toehold, it will act to protect the investment it has already made.  So its cost of exit becomes an additional barrier to its withdrawal from the market.