debasing the currency

what debasing is

“Debasing” is goldbug-speak. In past centuries, when gold was actually used as money everywhere, when countries minted gold coins and kept reserves of the yellow metal as symbols of their ability to repay borrowings, governments in trouble would sometimes dilute their gold by blending in inexpensive base metals. So they would repay creditors substantially less than they’d borrowed. That’s debasing.

The modern equivalent of physical debasement is running a highly stimulative money policy, the idea being to create lots of inflation, which would allow a government to repay borrowings in inflation-debased currency.

A report from Goldman Sachs strategists came out this week suggesting that this process is at work in Washington right now, as a consequence, intended or not, of pandemic-fighting fiscal and monetary stimulus. Its conclusion: buy gold.

relevance for us as investors

I haven’t seen the report itself. I’ve only seen coverage in the financial press. (I’m not a Goldman client. For what it’s worth, I think the firm does top-notch factual research but struggles to find interesting investment conclusions from what it unearths. For you and me, Merrill Edge is the best I’ve found.)

I wrote about the gold issue in May. Except for China and India, where gold is still money, I don’t think holding gold achieves much of anything. The fact that a major brokerage house, typically a stronghold of Republican political sentiment, is willing to suggest–and seek publicity for–this idea, with its implied criticism of Trump’s dumpster-fire handling of the economy, is the most interesting aspect of its publication.

I think inflation is the least of our worries. Last year the federal government took in $3.5 trillion in taxes. Pre-pandemic, Washington was thought to be on course to spend about $1 trillion more than in 2020, due in large part to Trump’s failure to offset tax cuts with removal of special interest tax breaks for politically connected swamp creatures. The actual deficit will more likely be around $8 trillion. This would mean a total federal debt of, say, $28 trillion, or about 135% of GDP. That would place us up there with Italy among the most indebted nations in the world.

Yes, debt this high creates worries about devaluation as a way of not paying creditors back in full. Historically, however, such high levels of government debt are also associated with much slower GDP growth and emigration of the best and the brightest to make a life where economic opportunities are greater.

From a purely financial point of view, Trump’s threats to renege on government debt held by foreigners (basically making us look like Argentina) and his use of the banking system to attack political enemies are also giving new impetus to the search for alternatives to the dollar as the go-to currency for international trade and as a store of value.

I could go on about the other ways Trump continues to severely damage the US, while failing to provide any support for the left-behind rural citizens who support him. But I think the key question for the rest of the world is whether the US electing a white racist incompetent was a disastrous mistake or whether he really represents what the country stands for. If the latter proves true in November, the currency and securities markets reaction will likely be strongly negative.

the MBA-ization of old school US

After last year’s crashes of the Boeing 737 Max caused the plane’s grounding worldwide, I decided to take a quick look at Boeing (BA) on the idea that the selloff might be an overreaction. BA is a stock I’ve never owned. And although I appreciate the power of the BA/Airbus commercial aircraft duopoly, it’s not an area I keep tabs on.

I was surprised to find that BA looked a lot like a US auto company to me–that is, an assembler of parts and components made by others (who own–my guess–the bulk of the engineering intellectual property I’d mistakenly thought was in BA). Billions spent on share buybacks, too. What’s left inside BA? …a brand name, a distribution network and a group of airline customers who have organized their maintenance operations around BA aircraft. My conclusion: BA is a shell of its former self, a product of MBA-ish financial legerdemain rather than a center of engineering excellence. Why is this bad? …because hollowing out the company creates good times now at the expense of diminishing ability to generate future profits. As with the auto industry in the US, innovation now resides with suppliers, who are where the superior profit growth is to be found.

What made me think of BA now is the surprising announcement from Intel (INTC) that it has not only lost the big engineering lead it had over the rest of the semiconductor fabricating industry just a few years ago but also is now about a year behind TSMC (yes, the nm numbers are different between the two, but that’s not so important). More than that, the company is mulling over whether to outsource manufacturing to TSMC. When I owned INTC shares in 2012-14, the company was trading at book value of $19 and yielding 3%. Yes, the world was passing the company’s x86 design by. But manufacturing was still excellent. I thought there was limited downside and that INTC was working to catch up with semiconductor rivals. The stock doubled while I owned it. At some point, though, it looks like INTC, too, opted for the business school financial engineering solution, which would be the really bad news in the INTC announcement.

Why do companies abandon the technical excellence that made them great in the first place? I think there are three related reasons:

–in an established company, the status quo is very powerful. This is even more true if the founding management is still around.

–CEO tenure is usually very short. Pay is astronomical, and is tied both to profit growth and the stock price. Someone who has spent thirty years getting to the top hoping for a gigantic payoff has little incentive to lead a (necessary) restructuring that will produce, say, two years of losses and a potentially depressed stock price

–in mature companies, CEOs tend to be marketers who have little technical background or understanding. They emphasize what they know.

the dollar, gold and bitcoin

the dollar

The biggest influences by far in the currency markets are the large global banks. I view them as playing a very sophisticated game that looks much farther into the future than the one the typical equity person like me is involved in. One consequence is that significant changes in the economic environment often start to play out in the currency markets before spreading elsewhere.

The currency markets aren’t infallible indicators. The dollar dropped by 20% against the euro (which is not a stellar currency, either) during the first year of Trump as president. Since then the euro has been sliding back, as Europe’s internal problems–Brexit, Italy, early, very deadly arrival of the coronavirus–came to the fore.

Despite all this European ugliness, since mid-May the US dollar has been dropping, steadily and sharply, against the euro. It’s now down by about 9% against the EU currency.

How so? mostly Trump’s incompetence, I think. Europe used US medical science to control the pandemic, while Trump’s urging his supporters to flaunt medical recommendations has it raging again domestically. I don’t think the currency markets are as much concerned about the deaths as about the second round of fiscal stimulus that his bungling has made necessary and its effect on the national budget deficit/national debt.

Trump has also compounded the risk of holding Treasuries by his suggestions that the the US may choose not to repay holders he doesn’t like.

There’s no reason to think the bad news is over, either. Trump is insisting that schools reopen on schedule without pandemic safeguards–creating the worry that a third multi-trillion dollar support payment may ultimately be needed. He’s also intensified his campaign of race hatred, drawing comparisons with Hitler’s rise in the 1930s. Then, there’s the test to detect signs of dementia that he keeps mentioning–which can be seen itself as a sign of the disease he insists he is not suffering from.

implications

Currency weakness is good for exporters and bad for importers. It’s also good for the many S&P 500 companies that have foreign subsidiaries.

gold

Gold is up about 12% since mid-May. An old, but still useful, rule about the gold price is that it remains stable in the stronger of the two currencies, US$ and DM (now the euro). In other words, most of the price rise is due to the decline of the dollar. Still, there has been a small upward movement. My interpretation–and I’m about as far away from being a gold bug as one can get–is that this is more a reflection of how pricey everything else is than a genuine desire to own gold

bitcoin

Personally, I think there’s a better case for bitcoin than for gold. There’s been a sharp spike in bitcoin this week, again more, I think, a result of how expensive other things are. Were Trump to be reelected and his fracturing of the US economy to continue, I imagine bitcoin would draw a lot more interest.

Trump underpins tech stocks …for now

The EU has a third more people than the US, has an older population and was in worse Covid shape than the US in early April. Today, however, US daily new cases are about 15x those in the EU; daily new deaths here are 7x those in the EU. The difference? The EU followed the recommendations of US medical scientists; Trump urged his supporters to ignore them.

The economic result for the US is a deeper, longer-lasting downturn than elsewhere in the OECD, huge amounts of Federal government assistance to keep the economy afloat–with a resulting budget deficit that could soon reach $6.0 trillion, vs. $0.6 trillion when he took office.

Rather than try to mitigate the suffering the US is going through, Trump appears to have decided to try to shift national attention away from his central role in creating this tragedy by creating a second, competing disaster. After the armed forces refused to help, Trump organized a gang of from other Federal agencies. Members wear identical camouflage combat gear and carry weapons. No identification on their bodies or vehicles, however. Not a thought about probable cause or excessive use of force, either. In other words, they’re shaped on the Gestapo/KGB/Stasi secret police model. Empowered by executive order and against the wishes of state and local officials, Trump envisions sending these groups into Democratic-leaning cities to instigate violence. Portland is his test case. News reports of the Navy veteran beaten in Portland (he decided to remind Trump’s minions they took an oath to defend the Constitution) show what’s going on. Kristallnacht in America is something no one would have believed possible four years ago. Talk about the banality of evil.

Relevance for the stock market? …a lot.

I’ve been writing for a while about the divergence between NASDAQ and the Russell 2000. The former is the part of the US stock market least tethered to the US by customers, revenues or physical assets; the latter represents the part most closely linked to domestic economic health. NASDAQ is up by about 55% since the beginning of 2018; the Russell 2000 is down by 4% over the same span. I read this 60 percentage point divergence as the stock market’s response to the ongoing economic damage Trump is doing to the US. The spread is very long in the tooth. It’s also so wide that it is begging for at least a temporary reversal of form. So far, however, every attempt at a counter-trend rally has been nipped in the bud.

How so? I think the pro-NASDAQ portfolio configuration has a second motivation. It is also the first step in capital flight from a country moving in the wrong direction.

Recently, coinciding with Trump’s more explicit white racist actions and the resurgence of Covid in the South and Midwest, we’ve begun to see a second aspect of capital flight–a 5%+ decline of the dollar vs. the euro over the past few weeks. The US currency has even lost ground to perennial weaklings sterling and the yen.

It’s hard to know how this all will play out. A Trump win in November is the easier case. I imagine it would create a seismic negative shift in global attitudes toward the US. That would result in a steady outflow of our most productive human and financial capital. The dollar would continue its decline. Maybe, government bonds would begin to sag, too. At some point, Washington would presumably close the border to outflows, a la Mexico 1982. NASDAQ would likely go up, led by firms announcing the relocation of intellectual property-creating operations abroad. Maybe dual listings in New York and China. China and the EU stand to be the big long-term winners.

I think a Trump loss would much more complicated. There’s the issue of repairing the enormous economic, financial and cultural damage he has done to the country. There are also the former heavy industry areas, core sources of Trump strength, which have been ignored by both parties for decades at great national cost. A counter-trend rally might finally happen–maybe even pre-election if a pro-Biden outcome were clear. Would it have legs, if so?

playing cyclical recovery

Yet another slow-motion human catastrophe seems to be starting to play itself out in the US. Yes, Trump’s strange attempt to undermine the finances of the American university system, one of our crown jewels, by barring its highest-paying students from attending, disappeared almost as soon as it was unveiled (to be fair, my guess is Trump had no idea what he was doing; he just wanted to burnish his xenophobe credentials). But the real economic/social issue is the rolling start to the national school year next month. Just as with mask wearing, Trump appears to be insisting on resuming school in person and on schedule, which seems to me to be a recipe for another surge in coronavirus cases, similar to the one resulting from Trump’s urging southern and western states to reopen too early.

I think the stock market reaction to this will be twofold: to stop the rotation away from secular growth to domestic cyclicals, and to reconsider whether or not the latter’s current prices are too high.

What I have tended to forget is that, possibly ex the UK, the US response to the coronavirus has been by a mile the worst in the world. Europe and Asia are already starting to rebound at the same time equity investors are coming to grips with the fact that Washington–and a number of state governors–are about to inflict another round of damage to GDP.

Anyway, my thought is to reduce my exposure to what I see as very expensive tech names and build up cyclical exposure–in the EU and Asia.