thinking out the end game (i)

The Trump presidency has been an almost incomprehensibly huge disaster so far, both in terms of core American values and the operation of the economy–even before Trump’s worst-in-the-world handling of the pandemic.

Looking solely at narrowly economic factors, real GDP had flatlined, pre-COVID, as a result of his senseless tariff and immigration policies (I’m not necssarily anti-tariff, but at least try to have an objective and think out possible consequences–like destroying US agricultural exports to Asia–before putting them in place). On a longer view, he’s continuously undermining global faith in the dollar and the American banking system, as well as sowing the seeds for Shanghai to replace Wall Street as the world’s stock market capital. This will “hurt” China by speeding its ascent to world economic leadership.

In vintage Trump fashion, those damaged most badly by him have been his supporters.

In addition, Trump’s cognitive fastball, never of more than sandlot quality, seems to me to have regressed over the past year or so to somewhere south of mid-level Little League and slightly north of tee ball.

Despite all this, and in spite of his deeply anti-American cultural values, he may still be reelected.

As a citizen, this is not the outcome I want. As an investor, however, the implications are more straightforward. As I see it, initially:

–the Fed would continue to compensate for Trump’s bungling by running extra-stimulative money policy. In fact, the Fed has just signaled that it would be willing to let inflation run for a considerable while (we should be so lucky) to make up for the damage done by years of price level stagnation

–voter endorsement of Trump’s racism would reduce the attractiveness of American consumer brands in foreign markets; we could no longer say we didn’t know what he stands for

–ultra-low interest rates will underwrite continuing stock market strength

–the pattern of strong performance of stocks with the least connection to domestic GDP and deeply sub-par performance from those with the greatest GDP ties, would continue–as domestic capital continues to flee his incompetence and racism

–technology companies will maintain their Wall Street listings but would begin to shift their highest value-added operations to other countries, if for no other reason than to be able to hire based on talent. If Trump’s current attack on domestic research universities continues, this move could be surprisingly swift. The only plus here is that Xi’s attack on Hong Kong removes the SAR, the obvious non-US destination, from consideration for dual listings by US firms. Singapore?

–investment in cutting edge plant and equipment in the US by multinationals would likely decline.

The stock market I’ve been using as a very rough template for the US today is Mexico in the 1980s. A second aspect of this model, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, is the eventual loss of faith in the local government. This shows itself in a number of types of financial behavior: the “capital flight” character of the stock market that we’re now seeing in the US; a deteriorating currency; and eventually, capital controls imposed to prevent citizens/residents from shifting assets out of the country. We’re not there yet. Signs for worry: accelerating trade/current account deficits, national debt so large that potential buyers no longer believe they’ll be repaid in full.

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.

 

 

capital flight and brain drain (II): Greece

what would Greek exit from the Eurozone look like?

I mean what happens in general terms, not the nitty-gritty details of how a sovereign debt default and currency devaluation would be put into place.

Several things would occur, I think:

1.  Greece would stop making principal and interest payments on its sovereign debt and open negotiations with creditors for new, more favorable, terms.

2.  The country would force conversion of all cash held by Greek citizens or Greek companies into a new currency–call it the drachma.

3.  Greece would prevent reconversion of drachmas into foreign currency.  It might ban citizens from holding foreign currency outright, for example.  It would certainly make it illegal for anyone to transport foreign currency in and (especially) out of the country.

4.  It might institute a crawling peg (a specified daily weakening of the exchange rate) or some other mechanism for continuing devaluation of the drachma vs. the €.

how would Greek citizens react?

This default/devaluation path is well-defined.  Look at Mexico in the early 1980s as an instance.  Knowing the roadmap far in advance, what can Greek citizens do to defend themselves against loss of wealth?  Again, the moves are pretty standard:

–move cash holdings to a bank outside of Greece

–raise cash locally–either by selling assets or by borrowing from a local bank (in the hope that your debt will subsequently be devalued)–and move that out of the country, too

–emigrate.

Businesses would presumably be thinking of similar measures.  In addition, they would likely begin to drag their feet on paying for stuff bought from Greece, while accelerating payment deadlines for Greek customers.

what about investors?

They do pretty much the same.  They extract cash.  They stop making new investments.  Yes, they study what they might like to buy once devaluation occurs, but otherwise they sit on their hands.

taking a very long time…

…makes the situation worse.  While uncertainty remains high, an increasing number of citizens are likely to make and execute capital flight plans.  And the flow of new investment in the country drops to a trickle.  So the country sits in neutral and idles.

effects on the rest of the EU?

I perceive a sharp difference between the local reaction to debt problems in Italy and Spain, on the one hand, and Greece, on the other.

I think the former two have made it clear they accept responsibility for their weak economic situation and are taking action to fix their problems as quickly as they can.  In contrast, Greece seems to me to believe that its sovereign debt is basically an EU problem.  Its strategy appears to be to implement no reforms and instead bargain for ever better terms.

If that’s an accurate representation, one could argue that the contagion effects–the adverse impact on Spanish and Italian bond markets–of Greece leaving the Eurozone (and, presumably the EU) shouldn’t be severe.

In an investment world dominated by short-term chart-oriented traders, however, I don’t have a lot of confidence other investors will see things my way.  I certainly wouldn’t want to bet the farm that I’m right.

capital flight and “brain drain” (I): what they are

a Guatemalan airline

I got my first practical exposure to the phenomenon of capital flight when I started to work on Wall Street.  It came from a creative colleague at work who gave me a prospectus to read for a bond issue from a Central American airline.  Kind of like a puzzle, he asked me what I thought was unusual.

I had no idea what was going on…

…until he pointed out four things:

–the company was family-owned,

–it bought planes outright rather than leasing them (a much more expensive way of operating),

–it would sell perfectly serviceable planes when they were two or three years old and replace them with brand-new ones, plowing all the firm’s cash flow into this effort (again, very inefficient), and

–the planesalwaysspent the night in foreign airports, mostly in the US.

On the surface, this behavior seems crazy.

But think about it.  Most of the family wealth was tied up in the planes; they spent most of their time outside the country.

Perfect in case of a sharp change in the political winds.  And not obvious enough a move to catch the sitting government’s eye.

The airline was the family’s vehicle for capital flight (no puns intended).

two sides of one coin

“Brain drain” is the term coined in the UK for emigration of its highly skilled and educated citizens to the US after World War II.  It has become synonymous with the flight of human capital in general.

The term “capital flight” typically refers to the flight of financial capital.

why does capital flee a country?

Three main reasons:

–political repression, actual or feared

–limited economic prospects in the home country

–high taxes, either on current earnings or on accumulated wealth.

examples

politics

In the early 1980s, China announced it would not renew the UK lease on Hong Kong.  Therefore, the colony would revert to Chinese rule in 1997.  The UK then said it would not grant citizenship to anyone in Hong Kong (because they wouldn’t like the harsh UK climate).  So Hong Kong citizens began to look for other places in the Commonwealth to obtain passports and shift their wealth.

economic prospects

Emigration from Europe to the US post-WWII is a prime example of this phenomenon.  New Zealand or the Australia of twenty years ago might be others.

taxes

There has been a steady flow of people out of high-tax states in the US like California and New Jersey into neighboring areas like Nevada and Pennsylvania, where levies are lower. For decades, Ireland has attracted multinational corporations by offering very low tax rates.  One of the planks in the electoral platform of Mr. Hollande, the new head of government in France, was to raise income taxes on yearly earnings of over €1 million to 75%.  Reportedly, real estate agents in the UK have seen a surge in interest in London residences from French buyers.

fighting capital flight:  closing the borders

Generally speaking, there are two ways to stop capital flight/brain drain:  fix the problems that are causing the flight, or forcibly prevent capital from leaving.

Practically speaking, then, there’s only one way–closing the borders.

For financial capital, a government does this by limiting the amount of foreign currency a holder of the domestic currency can buy, or the amount of local currency he can transport out of the country.

For human capital, a country can restrict the ability of citizens, or their families, to leave.  In addition, a potential emigrant has to have someplace to emigrate to, which can make this issue a lot more complicated.

Tomorrow:  the situation in Greece.