trade, tariffs and Harley Davidson (HOG)

Modern economics has been founded in study of what caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, with an eye to preventing a recurrence of this devastating period.  We know very clearly that tariffs and quotas are, generally speaking, bad things.  They reduce overall economic activity in the countries that apply them.  Yes, politically favored industries do often get a benefit, but the cost to everybody else is many times larger.  We also know that the use of tariffs and quotas can snowball into a storm of retaliation and counter-retaliation that can do widespread damage for a long time.

My point is that it’s inconceivable that high-ranking public officials in Washington don’t know this.

 

HOG motorcycles are Baby Boomer counterculture icon.  The company’s traditional domestic male customer base is aging, however, and losing the strength and sense of balance required to operate these heavy machines.  At the same time, HOG has had difficulty in attracting younger customers, or women or minority groups to its offerings.  So it’s an economically more fragile firm, I think, than the consensus realizes.

HOG has been damaged to some degree by the Trump tariffs on aluminum and steel, which are important raw materials.  (As I understand them, the tariffs are ostensibly to address Chinese theft of US intellectual property, although they are being levied principally against Japan and the EU.  ???)

Completely predictably, the EU is retaliating against the tariffs.  In particular, it is levying its own 25% tariff on HOG motorcycles imported from the US.  This affects about 20% of Harley’s output.  HOG says the levy will cost it $100 million a year in lost income, implying that all of the EU-bound Harleys are now made in the US.  HOGs response is to shift production targeted for the EU to its overseas plants.  My guess is that this will take 1000+ jobs out of the US.

In contrast to the job loss from this one company, public reports indicate the total job gain from the steel/aluminum tariffs to be about 800 workers being recalled to previously idle steel/aluminum plants.

 

Mr. Trump’s response to the HOG announcement was to threaten punitive tariffs on any imports of foreign-made Harleys–a move that could threaten the viability of HOG’s network of around 700 independent dealerships.  7000 jobs at risk?

The stock market declined sharply on the day of the HOG announcement.  I think that’s because the HOG story is a shorthand illustration of how tariffs, and quotas, cause net losses to the country as a whole, although they may bring benefits to a politically favored few.

 

A second negative effect of trade protection is a long-term one.  My experience is that most often the protected industry, relieved of immediate competitive pressure, ceases to evolve.  After a few years, consumers become willing to pay the increased price to get a (better) imported product.  In my mind, General Motors is the poster child for this.

 

Stock market implications?  …avoid Industrials.  The obvious beneficiary of Washington’s ill-thought out trade policy is IT.  For the moment, however, I think that this group is expensive enough that Consumer Discretionary and Energy are better areas to pick through.

 

 

a rainy Friday in August in New York

August is the month when many senior portfolio managers are away from the office on vacation.  So big decisions on portfolio structure tend not to be made.

Friday is the day of the week when short-term traders’ thoughts turn to flattening their books so they won’t carry risk over the weekend.

It’s raining, which sparks thoughts in traders of sleeping in or leaving work early.

Add all that up, and the heavy betting should be that US stocks will likely move sideways in the morning and fade off toward the close.

That means this is a good day to stand on the sidelines and size up the tone of the market.

 

In pre-market trading, tech is up and bricks-and-mortar retailing (on the earnings miss by Foot Locker) is down.  …nothing new about this.  At some point there will doubtless be a fierce counter-trend rally.  But the negative earnings surprises are still provoking severe selloffs.  So I don’t think today is the day.

Pundits are speculating about the damaging effects on his political agenda of Mr. Trump’s apparent defense of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.  …but the Trump trade has been MIA since January, with the US a laggard among world stock markets during Mr. Trump’s time in office so far.  Yes, there may be residual hope for corporate tax reform from the administration, which this latest demonstration of the president’s ineptness as a executive could arguably undermine.  My guess is, however, that he is already well understood.

Two questions for today:

–will the market perform more strongly than the season and the weather are suggesting? This would be evidence that there’s still an untapped reservoir of bullishness waiting for somewhat better prices to express itself.

–should we be buying in the afternoon if it’s weaker than I expect?  My answer is No.  I think there is a lot of untapped bullishness, but we’re in a slowly rising channel whose present ceiling is less than 2500 on the S&P 500.   That’s not enough upside for me.  I’m also content to wait for any incipient bearishness to play itself out further.

It will be interesting to see how today plays out.

 

last Friday’s US stock movement

Last Friday the S&P 500 opened at 2436, rose to 2446, fell to 2416 and rallied at the end of the day to close little changed at 2432.  Volume was maybe 10% higher than normal.  Sounds ho-hum.

Look at Financials, Energy or Technology and the story isn’t one of a sleepy summer-like Friday.  It’s violent sector rotation instead.

According to Google Finance, the Energy sector was up by +1.4% for the day and Financials by +0.8%.  Technology fell by -2.7%.

But that understates what happened beneath the calm surface.

Oil exploration and production stocks, which have been in free fall recently, rallied by 4% or more.  Large internet-related names fell by an equal amount.  Market darling Invidia (NVDA) rose by 4% in early Friday trading, then reversed course to fall by 15%, and rallied late in the day to close “only” down by 7%+.  That came on 5x recent daily volume.

What’s going on?

Well, to state the obvious, Friday’s stock market action in the US runs counter to recent trends.  To my mind, the aggressive buying and selling are both based on relative valuation rather than any sudden change in the fundamental prospects for any of the companies whose stocks are gyrating around.  It’s an assertion by the market that no matter how grim the outlook for oil, the stocks are too cheap–and no matter how rosy the future for tech, the stocks are too expensive.

This is part and parcel of equity investing.  There’s always someone, usually with a long investment horizon, who is willing to bet against the current trend, on grounds that current price movements are being driven by too much emotion and not enough by dollars and cents.

what’s unusual

What’s unusual about last Friday, to my mind, is how sharp the division between winning and losing sub-sectors has been and how aggressively stocks have been both sold and bought.

For what it’s worth, I also think it’s odd that this should happen on a Friday. Human buyers/sellers of this size tend, in my experience, to worry about whether they can execute their plans in one day, preferring not to let the competition mull the situation over on the weekend.  But that’s a minor point.  (One could equally argue that if the buyers/sells were looking for maximum surprise, Friday would be the ideal day to act.)

If this is indeed a counter-trend rally, meaning that after a period of valuation adjustment the prior trend will reassert itself (which is what I think), the most important investment question is how long–and how severe–the pro-energy, anti-tech rotation will be.

My experience is that it’s never just one day and that a counter-trend movement can run for a month.  On the other hand, this doesn’t look like the typical work of traditional human portfolio managers.  It looks to me more like trading done by computers.  If that’s correct, I’d imagine the buying/selling will cut deep and be over relatively quickly.  But that’s just a guess.  And I know my tendency in situations like this is to act too soon.

For myself, I’ve been thinking for some time that US oil exploration companies have been battered down too much.  As for tech, I still think it will be the most important sector for this year.  So I’m happy to use this weakness to rearrange my overall holdings, nibbling at the fallen tech names and offloading a couple of REITS I own that I think are fully valued.

 

 

the fiduciary rule; the UK election

advisers as fiduciaries

The fiduciary rule for retirement assets issued by the Labor Department goes into effect today, despite intense lobbying against it by the brokerage industry.

The rule requires financial advisers involved with retirement assets–with the notable exception of the 403b pension assets of government workers–to put their clients’ interest ahead of their own in dispensing investment advice.

In essence, this means that the financial adviser will no longer be permitted to recommend high-cost products with poor performance records to clients simply because they pay a high commission or that the broker gets an “educational” weekend for two at a beach resort for doing so.

The conceptual defense (such as it is) for such practices, which are still allowed for non-retirement assets, by the way, is that while the client is still not well off, he’s better off than if he had no advice at all.

No wonder Millennials are willing to take a chance on robo advice.

the British election

The British prime minister, Theresa May, called the election held yesterday with the intention of increasing her party’s four-seat majority in Parliament in advance of the first Brexit talks with the rest of the EU.

With one seat not yet decided, the Conservatives have lost 12 seats instead, according to the Financial Times.

As exit polls came out overnight predicting this unfavorable result, both Asian stocks with interests in the UK and sterling weakened.

Interestingly, as I’m writing this an hour before the US open, both sterling and the FTSE 100 are up slightly.  S&P 500 futures, which had also dipped slightly in Asian trading as the UK news broke, are trading two points higher this morning.

To me as an outsider, it looks like UK citizens are having serious second thoughts about Brexit (politicians in Scotland advocating it’s breaking with the rest of the UK lost, as well).  My point, though, is that except in extreme circumstances–like when Republican opposition torpedoed a proposed economic rescue plan in early 2009 and the S&P dropped 7%–politics make little day-to-day difference to stocks.

negotiating tactics

Early in my career as a global manager, the CEO of the Japanese company Casio came to visit.  That was during the endaka (rising yen) period of the 1980s, so a weak-yen beneficiary like Casio didn’t have a particularly compelling story.  But I was very interested in hearing about the company’s experience establishing manufacturing operations in China.

When I asked the chairman, he made a sour face (not what I had expected).  He said that the Chinese government was very difficult to negotiate with.  Discussions took a long time, so that the company had an increasingly large investment in their success.  An agreement would finally be reached and a signing date set for contracts.  On that day, after all parties had sat down for what Casio expected to be a purely ritual occasion, Beijing would reopen negotiations and demand further concessions (the Chinese side might also contend that these were due as reparations for WWII war crimes like those in Nanjing, a particular vulnerability of  Japanese on that vintage).

Even though both labor costs and capital costs were lower than in Japan (another aside:  this almost never happens), Casio was already concluding it couldn’t make a profit in China.

Relevance?

The tactic of striking a deal and then reopening negotiations isn’t a very popular one. And, in my experience, it’s not commonly employed when companies negotiate.   The one who employs it shatters any illusion the other might be developing that he cares about either the venture’s success or the other’s welfare.  There also overtones of not wanting or expecting to do business with the other again–or, what may amount to the same thing, that the one side will always have the upper hand, and never need a favor from the other.

 

What reminded me of the Casio visit was Senator McCain’s complaint on Sunday that both parties had reached an agreement last Thursday to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling–but that the administration had demanded more concessions after an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was released showing Republicans falling to a twenty-year low in public esteem.  If press reports are accurate, this is the second time the administration has employed this tactic.

As I’ve written before, I don’t like talking about politics.  The investment conclusion I draw from Washington’s bickering is that both sides think the other will be swept out in the next election.  At least until then we can expect recurring confrontations, with the trading opportunities that they bring.  Yes, this means potential profits.  But it also means ulcers.  So the behavior diminishes the attractiveness–and lowers the potential returns–of US securities markets.