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).

 

 

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.

is the S&P expensive?

I’ve been reading a lot of commentary recently that maintains stocks are generally expensive.  Sometimes the commentators even recommend selling, although in true Wall Street strategist style, they’re not very specific about how much to sell or how deep they think the downside risk is.

The standard argument is that if you compare the PE ratio of the S&P today with its past, the current number, just about 25x, is unusually high.

That’s correct.

What I haven’t see anyone do, however, is consider the price of stocks against the price of alternative liquid investments–cash and bonds.  That would tell you what to do with the money if you sell stocks.  It would also tell you that bonds are much more expensive than stocks.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury is currently 2.23%.  That’s the equivalent of a PE of about 44x.  The return on cash is worse.  Cash, however, protects principal from capital loss, except in the most dire circumstances–ones where you’re thinking you should have bought canned goods and a cabin in the woods..

In addition, I think the most likely course for interest rates in the US is for them to rise.  When this has happened in the past, bond prices have fallen while stocks have gone basically sideways.  There’s no guarantee this will happen with stocks again.  But rising rates are always bad news for bonds.

What is surprising to me about current market movements is that stocks continue to be so strong during a time of typical seasonal weakness.