the threat in Trump’s deficit spending

In an opinion piece in the Financial Times a few days ago, Gillian Tett points to and expands on a comment in a Wall Street advisory committee letter to the Treasury Secretary.  Although it may not have implications for financial markets today or tomorrow, it’s still worth keeping in mind, I think.

The comment concerns the changes in the income tax code the administration pushed through Congress in late 2017.  Touted as “reform,” the tax bill is such only because it brings down the top domestic corporate tax rate from 35%, the highest in the world, to about average at 21%.  This reduces the incentive for US-based multinationals (think: drug company “inversions”) to recognize profits abroad.  But special interest tax breaks remained untouched, and tax reductions for the ultra-wealthy were tossed in for good measure.  Because of this, the legislation results in a substantial reduction in tax money coming in to Uncle Sam.

Ms. Tett underlines the worry that there are no obvious buyers for the trillions of dollars in Treasury bonds that the government will have to issue over the coming years to cover the deficit the tax bill has created.

 

A generation ago Japan was an avid buyer of US government debt, but its economy has been dormant for a quarter-century.  Over the past twenty years, China has taken up the baton, as it placed the fruits of its trade surplus in US Treasuries.  But Washington is aggressively seeking to reduce the trade deficit with China; the Chinese economy, too, is starting to plateau; and Beijing, whatever its reasons, has already been trimming its Treasury holdings for some time.

Who’s left to absorb the extra supply that’s on the way?   …US individuals and companies.

 

The obvious question is whether domestic buyers have a large enough appetite to soak up the increasing issue of Treasuries.  No one really knows.

Three additional observations (by me):

–the standard (and absolutely correct, in my view) analysis of deficit spending is that it isn’t free.  It is, in effect, a bill that’s passed along to be paid by future generations of Americans–diminishing the quality of life of Millennials while enhancing that of the top 0.1% of Boomers

–historically, domestic holders have been much more sensitive than foreign holders to creditworthiness-threatening developments from Washington like the Trump tax bill, and

–while foreign displeasure might be expressed mostly in currency weakness, and therefore be mostly invisible to dollar-oriented holders, domestic unhappiness would be reflected mostly in an increase in yields.  And that would immediately trigger stock market weakness.  If I’m correct, the decline in domestic financial markets what Washington folly would trigger implies that Washington would be on a much shorter leash than it is now.

 

tariffs and the stock market

The Trump administration has just triggered the latest round of tit-for-tat tariffs with China, declaring 10% duties on $200 billion of imports (the rate to be raised to 25% after the holiday shopping season).  China has responded with tariffs on $60 billion of its imports from the US.  Domestic firms affected by the Trump tariffs are already announcing price increases intended to pass on to consumers all of the new government levy.

It isn’t necessarily that simple, though.  The open question is about market power. Theory–and practical experience–show that if a manufacturer/supplier has all the market power, then it can pass along the entire cost increase.  To the degree that the customer has muscles to flex, however, the manufacturer will find it hard to increase prices without a significant loss of sales.  If so (and this is the usual case), the company will be forced to absorb some of the tariff cost, lowering profits.

From an analyst’s point of view, the worst case is the one where a company’s customers are especially price-sensitive and where substitutes are readily available–or where postponing a purchase is a realistic option.

 

Looking at the US stock market in general, as I see it, investors factored into stock prices in a substantial way last year the corporate tax cut that came into effect in January.  They seem to me to be discounting this development again (very unusual) as strong, tax reduction-fueled earnings are reported this year.  However, the tax cut is going to be “anniversaried” in short order–meaning that reported earnings gains in 2019 are likely going to be far smaller than this year’s.  The Fed will also presumably be continuing to raise short-term interest rates.  Tariffs will be at least another tap on the brakes, perhaps more than that.

Because of this, I find it hard to imagine big gains for the S&P 500 next year.  In fact, I’m imagining the market as kind of flattish.  Globally-oriented firms that deal in services rather than goods will be the most insulated from potential harm.  There will also be beneficiaries of Washington’s tariff actions, although the overall effect of the levies will doubtless be negative.  For suppliers to China or users of imported Chinese components, the key issues will be the extent of Chinese exposure and the market power they wield.

PS   Hong Kong-based China stocks have sold off very sharply over the past few months.  I’m beginning to make small buys.

 

 

figuring out price-earnings ratios (PEs)

One part of this is easy.

PE is industry jargon.  It’s a shorthand way of expressing the value of an individual stock, an industry group or a whole stock market, in terms of how many times one year’s earnings we’d be willing to pay to own whichever it is.

On the face of it, a low PE, say, 4x, would seem to be good; a high PE, say, 50x, bad.

But how do we know?  What factors enter into determining a PE?

 

A point that I’m maybe too fond of making is that, strictly speaking, there’s no demand for stocks.  There is demand for liquid investments, though (for most people in the US, it’s so they can save to send their children to college and to retire).  Bonds and cash are the other two big categories of liquid investments.  The apparent hair-splitting distinction is important, however, because each fixed income markets is much larger in size than stocks.  They’re also less risky.  The potential returns on these alternatives have a deep influence on what people are willing to pay for stocks.  In fact, academics turn the PE upside down (1/PE) to get what they call the earnings yield on stocks.  If you make the assumption that $1 in earnings in the hands of company management is more or less the equivalent as $1 in interest paid to you by the US Treasury, then the yield on Treasury bonds should (and virtually always does) have a powerful influence on what the earnings yield, and PE of stocks should be.  Why pay 20x for stocks if bonds are yielding 10%?

As I’m writing this, the 10-year Treasury bond is yielding 2.68%.  That’s the equivalent of a PE of 37.  This compares with a PE of 26 on the S&P 500, based on current earnings.   So either stocks are cheap or bonds are overpriced.

Today’s situation is very unusual, given that the financial meltdown in 2007-08 compelled the Federal Reserve to push interest rates down to intensive-care lows.  The consensus judgment of financial professionals, which I think is correct, is that bonds are unusually expensive today, not that stocks are dirt cheap.  If the 10-year is on the way to a 3.5% yield as the Fed returns rates to normal over the next year or two, then the equivalent PE on the S&P would be 28.5x.

That’s about where US stocks are now priced vs. bonds, which suggests that stocks are fully valued if we factor in the likely course of the Fed.  This suggests that only new positive information will move the overall market higher.

Now the going gets harder.

The second important point is the the stock market is a futures market.  That is, it is always pricing in tomorrow’s prospects as well as current earnings.  Willingness to pay for future earnings ebbs and flows with the business cycle, however.  During recessions, investors play their cards very close to the chest and look at most a few months into the future when pricing stocks.  In normal times, the market begins to price in the following year’s earnings in June or July.  In a very buoyant market, investors may pay for earnings two or three years into the future.

 

A third consideration, related to the second, and applying to individual stocks, is the rate of earnings growth.  The importance of this factor changes from time to time.  But a useful general rule is that the PE based on this year’s earnings can reach as high as the long-term growth rate of the company.  In other words, if earnings per share are growing at a 50% annual clip–and will likely continue to do so for the next several years (or at least there’s no easily visible bar to growth like this)–then the PE can be as high as 50x.

 

Generally speaking, the US economy can probably grow at about 4%-5% a year in nominal terms (meaning, including inflation).  If so, publicly traded companies, which are arguably the cream of the crop, will grow earnings per share by about 8% – 10% annually.  All other things being equal, this latter figure should be the trend growth for stocks in general.Put a different way, a company that can sustain growth of 50% a year in an economic environment like this must have something extra special going for it.

This rule of thumb doesn’t work for many “value” stocks, since no growth/earnings declines would imply a zero multiple–which in most (academics would say “all”) cases is clearly wrong (Academics say every stock retains at least a kind of option value).

 

 

deferred taxes and corporate tax reform

I wrote a couple of posts several years ago explaining in some detail what deferred taxes are.  The short version: when a company makes a gigantic loss, the loss itself has an economic value.  That’s because the firm can almost always use it to shield future earnings from income tax.

 

The IRS and the Financial Accounting Standards Board have different ways of accounting for deferred taxes.  For the IRS, they only appear on a return when the company has sufficient otherwise taxable income to use them.  At the other extreme, financial accounting rules allow the company to recognize the entire value of these potential savings immediately.  That’s even though the actual use of tax losses may be far in the future.

An example:

A company has pre-tax income of $1,000,000 from ordinary operations.  It also closes down a subsidiary, incurring a pre-tax loss of $11,000,000.  For IRS purposes, the firm has a total pre-tax loss of $10,000,000.  Ignoring the possibility of carrybacks (recovery of previous years’ tax payments because of the current loss), the company has no taxable income.  It also has a loss in the current year of $10,000,000, which it can potentially use to shield future income from taxes.

Financial accounting presents a much rosier picture.  The pre-tax loss of $10,000,000 is the same.  But financial accounting allows the company to recognize the possibility of future tax recovery right away, as a reduction of the current loss.

The financial accounting income statement reads like this:

pre-tax loss        ($10,000,000)

deferred taxes    +$3,500,000

net loss                 ($6,500,000).

The $3.5 million is carried as a deferred tax asset on the balance sheet until used.

Auditors are supposed to certify that it’s actually possible for the company to generate enough future income to use up the tax losses during the limited period of years tax law allows.  I can’t think of a company where auditors have held a firm’s feet to the fire on this point, though.

Where does the  tax bill come in?  The tax rate assumed in writeoffs up until now is 35%.  However, from now on, the top tax rate in the US is going to be 21%.  Therefore, deferred tax assets now being held on corporate balance sheets are only worth 21/35ths (about 57%) of their current carrying value.  Because they’re clearly, and significantly,  overvalued, they must be written down.

This may well throw algorithmic value investors for a loop, since the writeoff of deferred taxes will be reductions to book value.

What sector does this change affect the most?

Major banks.

Banks took major writeoffs in 2008-09 because of speculative trading and lending losses piled up after the Glass Steagall Act was repealed in the late 1990s. These losses were gigantic enough to require a huge government bailout of the industry in 2009.

Note:  Glass-Steagall was passed in the 1930s to prevent a recurrence of the financial meltdown that triggered the Great Depression.  Banks claimed in the 1990s that they were too mature to do anything like this again.  In this instance, it took over a half-century for Washington to forget why the law was in place.  However–and oddly–Washington already appears eager to to dismantle Dodd-Frank.

 

 

corporate taxes, consumer spending and the stock market

It looks as if the top Federal corporate tax rate will be declining from the current world-high 35% to a more median-ish 20% or so.  The consensus guess, which I think is as good as any, is that this change will mean about a 15% one-time increase in profits reported by S&P 500 stocks next year.

However, Wall Street has held the strong belief for a long time that this would happen in a Trump administration.  Arguably (and this is my opinion, too), one big reason for the strength in US publicly traded stocks this year has been that the benefits of corporate tax reform are being steadily, and increasingly, factored into stock quotes.  The action of computers reading news reports about passage is likely, I think, to be the last gasp of tax news bolstering stocks.  And even that bump is likely to be relatively mild.

In fact, one effect of the increased economic stimulus that may come from lower domestic corporate taxes is that the Federal Reserve will feel freer to lean against this strength by moving interest rates up from the current emergency-room lows more quickly than the consensus expects.  Although weening the economy from the addiction to very low-cost borrowing is an unambiguous long-term positive, the increasing attractiveness of fixed income will serve as a brake on nearer-term enthusiasm for stocks.

 

What I do find very bullish for stocks, though, is the surprising strength of consumer spending, both online and in physical stores, this holiday season.  We are now nine years past the worst of the recession, which saw deeply frightening and scarring events–bank failures, massive layoffs, the collapse of world trade.  It seems to me that the consumer spending we are now seeing in the US means that, after almost a decade, people are seeing recession in the rear view mirror for the first time.  I think this has very positive implications for the Consumer discretionary sector–and retail in particular–in 2018.

the structure of the S&P 500, and why it matters…

…to us as individual investors, for the portion of our assets we choose to manage actively.

As of the close of trade in New York last Friday, the Standard and Poors 500 was weighted, by sector, as follows:

IT      24.0%

Financials      14.8%

Healthcare      14.1%

Consumer discretionary     12.1%

Industrials     10.1%

Staples      8.1%

Energy      5.8%

Utilities         3.1%

Materials     3.0%

Real estate     2.9%

Telecom      2.0%.

The goal of active managers is to have better results than the index (I could say “an index fund,” but the two are the same, less the small fees an index fund purveyor charges).  We’ll only have different results if we have different holdings than the S&P.  And if our holdings aren’t different–either different names or different weightings (or both)–we can’t be better.  In order to be different our first job is to know what the index looks like.  The list above is a first cut.

Let’s rearrange it to show the sectors in order from the most sensitive to general economic activity to the least.  I’m going to divide the sectors into three groups, from those that do best in a red-hot world economy, those that will still do well with so-so growth, and those that have the most defensive characteristics–meaning they do their best relative to the index when economies are contracting.

 

most economically sensitive

Materials      3.0%

Industrials      10.1%

Energy     5.8%

————————————-total = 18.9%

economically sensitive

IT      24%

Consumer discretionary     12.1%

Financials      14.1%

Real estate         2.9%

————————————-total = 53.1%

defensive

Healthcare     14.1%

Staples     8.1%

Telecom      2.0%

Utilities     3.1%

————————————-total = 27.3%.

I’ve stuck Energy in the most sensitive segment.  Recently it’s been marching to its own drummer, as the big integrated oils restructure and as the crude oil price yo-yos up and down.  Ultimately, though, I think in today’s world oil is just another industrial commodity that’s not that different from steel or aluminum.  Put it somewhere else if you disagree.

This isn’t the only reordering we could make.  We could also arrange the index by market capitalization in order to either emphasize big stocks or small ones in our holdings.  But this is the most common one professionals, and their institutional customers, use.  Personally, I think it’s also the most useful way to think about the index.

 

To my mind, the most striking thing about the S&P 500 is that it is mostly geared to a rising economy.  If we think recession is brewing, tiny changes in holdings aren’t going to make much of a difference in relative performance.

Another–very important–point is that if you have a portfolio that’s, say, 10% Healthcare, and your benchmark is the S&P 500, you’re betting against Healthcare as a sector, not on it.