end game (iii): if Biden wins…

As I mentioned earlier in the week, the investment implications of a Trump reelection are straightforward. As an American, I’d be deeply shocked and disappointed by the implied repudiation of traditional American values. As an investor, I’d expect a continuation of the “flight capital” market we have been in for some time, with a return of the domestic economy-centric Russell 2000 names to the bear market they had been in for most of Trump’s time in office, until late March of this year.

I find the stock market consequences of a Biden victory much harder to handicap. My thoughts so far:

–the transition of power might not be smooth. Trump has already declined to say he will accept the election result if he loses. He has begun to disrupt mail service on the, perhaps mistaken, idea that this will suppress more votes for Biden than for him. More “dirty tricks” may be in the offing. He may also end up testing the limits of the law by pardoning himself for any crimes he may have committed before or while in office.

Worries about abuse of power may have some negative effect on stocks around election time. It’s equally possible, though, that, sensing defeat, traditional Republicans will distance themselves from Trump in advance (as some seem to me to be already doing this), signalling that party loyalists should no longer follow Trump, thereby minimizing the damage he might otherwise do. It’s hard to know, but it says volumes about Trump that musing about what amounts to a post-election coup attempt doesn’t sound totally crazy. Can we be even remotely similar to Moscow 1991?

–interest rates will likely remain low for a long time. This is a distinct plus for stocks, for three reasons: they will remain attractive vs. the two other liquid asset classes, cash and bonds; bonds are unlikely to fall in price because of rising short-term interest rates, a development that would lead investors of all stripes to rebalance away from stocks; and the cost of carrying the mammoth amount of debt run up under Trump–with more possibly needed to repair damage he has done–will remain low. In fact, as I’m writing this, there are reports that the Fed will soon announce its intention to retain near-zero interest rates for the next half-decade

–income taxes will certainly go up, both for wealthy individuals (this doesn’t matter so much for the economy as a whole because the rich don’t tend to change their spending very much as income goes up and down) and for corporations. This latter means the 50% or so of S&P earnings that come from US operations will fall by, let’s say 8%. The resulting 4% drop in overall earnings is not good, but it comes closer to being a rounding error in analysts’ estimates than a serious shortfall. In today’s volatile stock trading, it amounts to maybe two or three down sessions in a row

–on the other hand, there’s lots of low-hanging economic fruit begging to be picked. The Trump economic program is a hodge-podge of wackiness, whose effect has been to please rich donors but to retard overall GDP growth, not foster it. Closing the borders to immigration, for example, shrinks GDP expansion by more than a third. Placing tariffs on imports has squeezed real incomes; retaliation has decimated the revenues of exporters, especially farmers. Trump’s central concept–restore low-wage manual labor jobs to the US while driving computer and engineering firms out of the country because they employ non-white foreigners–is about as loony as it gets. So too encouraging Detroit to keep on making gas-guzzlers while the rest of the world turns electric. Hard to quantify, but just ending insane programs has got to be good

–there are thornier issues to face, as well. Trump left actual tax reform both out of the name and the provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which did nothing to address sweetheart industry tax breaks that have long since passed their sell-by date. National infrastructure is four years older and creakier without having been touched …nor have Social Security or Medicare problems been addressed

–then there’s other senseless Trumpish stuff, like the ultra-strange attack on the viability of major domestic research universities, a national treasure, by denying deep-walleted foreigners access to them. The point is there are enough shoot-yourself-in-the-foot Trump things to just stop doing, for the resulting positives to dwarf the losses from a higher corporate tax rate and reversal of the tax giveaway to the rich.

my preliminary conclusion

Delegitimize white racists and let foreign workers back in and the country will be on the road to economic expansion again. No more crazy gains like in 2020 so far, but a shot at +10%. Maybe all the running next year will be in domestic consumer names.

Trumponomics—good for the economy?

Supporters of Donald Trump tend to excuse his white nationalism, his erratic policymaking, the paucity of his factual knowledge, the whiff of sadism in his treatment of immigrants, the apparent promotion of family business interests…by saying that at least he’s good for the economy.  They typically cite low unemployment, GDP growth and the stock market as proof.

Is that correct?

Yes, unemployment is low.  Yes, the economy is growing at trend–after receiving a boost from fiscal stimulation (the corporate tax cut) last year.  And the stock market did rally on the announcement of Trump’s election victory.  (We can quibble about stock market performance:  though significantly higher today, the US was pretty much the worst market in the world in 2017, when virtually everybody was up–and more than us; since the 20% boost in US corporate after-tax income it’s up another 10%–much better performance than markets where the tax rate has remained unchanged).

But I think this rationalization, offered typically by wealthy beneficiaries of income tax changes, simply deflects attention away from administration policies that can potentially do severe long-term damage to US prospects.  Here are a few:

–tariff wars.  Tariffs can be an important way to give industries of the future breathing room to develop, by insulating them from more sophisticated foreign competition.  The administration, however, is protecting low value-added manual labor jobs against competition from more efficient firms in China.  These tariffs have the perverse effect of retarding manufacturing development here while forcing China to turn to higher value-added work.  The latter is a perennial stumbling block for developing countries, so the excuse of Trump tariffs to force the move to higher value-added industry is a rare gift to Beijing.

In addition, the US has been a prime destination for multinationals’ advanced manufacturing because of the large local market and the experienced workforce.  The possibility of tariffs–and their apparently unpredictable implementation–has stopped this flow.

–retaliatory tariffs.  Tariffs don’t go unanswered. China responded to US levies by shifting purchases of soybeans to Brazil and other countries.   As/when tariff wars end, the soybean market will most likely not revert to the status quo ante; once in the door, other, arguably more dependable, suppliers will doubtless retain market share.  By the way, when the administration withdrew from the TPP, it also made US soybeans more expensive in another Pacific market, Japan.

–restrictions on immigration.  The solution for tech companies who are unable to hire foreign scientists to work in the US because they can’t get visas is to move R&D operations to, say, Canada.  Also, the administration’s white supremacism has made foreigners question whether they will be safe in the US as tourists or students, hurting both industries.  Chinese citizens may also feel it’s unpatriotic to travel here.  A bigger worry:  will this force US-based multinationals to begin to regard themselves as no longer American?

–zero/negative interest rates.  This is a weird situation in financial markets, which, to my equity-oriented mind, is bound to end badly. Ultra-low rates are also trouble for risk-averse savers, including traditional pension plans.  In the US, downward pressure on rates comes both from foreign bond arbitrage and administration demands that the Fed offset tariff damage to growth with looser money policy.

 

Meanwhile, what’s not being addressed:  infrastructure, health care including drug prices, education, retraining displaced workers (where we’re worst in the OECD)

 

 

 

Trumponomics to date

a plan?

It’s not clear to me whether Mr. Trump’s macroeconomic policy forms a coherent whole (so far it doesn’t seem to).  I’m not sure either whether, or how well, he understands the implications of the steps he’s taking.

The major thrusts:

income taxes

Late last year, the Trump administration passed an income tax bill.  It had three main parts:

–reduction in the top corporate tax rate from 35% (highest in the world) to 21% (about average).  This should have two beneficial effects:  it will stop tax inversions, the process of reincorporating in a foreign low-tax country by cash-rich firms; and it removes the rationale for transferring US-owned intellectual property to the same tax-shelter destinations so that royalties will also be lightly taxed.

–large tax cuts for the wealthiest US earners, continuing the tradition of “trickle down” economics (which posits that this advantage will somehow be transmitted to everyone else)

–failure to eliminate special interest tax breaks, or adopting any other means for offsetting revenue lost to the IRS from the first two items.

Because of this last, the tax bill is projected to add $1 trillion + to the national debt over time.  Also, since the reductions aren’t offset by additional taxes elsewhere, the tax cuts represent a substantial net stimulus to the US economy.

This might have been very useful in 2009, when the US was in dire need of stimulus.  Today, however, with the economy at full employment and expanding at or above its long-term potential, the extra boost to the economy is potentially a bad thing,  It ups the chances of overheating.  We need only look back to the terrible experience of runaway inflation the late 1979s to see the danger–something which would require a sharp increase in interest rates to curtail.

interest rates

Arguably, the new income tax regime gives the Fed extra confidence to continue to raise interest rates back up to out-of-intensive-care levels.  More than that, the tax cut bill seems to me to demand that the Fed continue to raise rates.  Oddly–and worryingly,  Mr. Trump has begun to jawbone the Fed not to do so.  That’s even though the current Fed Funds rate is still about 100 basis points below neutral, and maybe 150 bp below what would be appropriate for an economy as strong as this.  Again this raises the specter of the political climate of the 1970s, when over-easy money policy was used for short-term political advantage  …and of the 20%+ interest rates needed in the early 1980s to undo fiscal and monetary policy mistakes.

trade

This is a real head-scratcher.

“national security”

The Constitution gives Congress control over trade, not the executive branch of government.  One exception–Congress has delegated its power to the president to act in emergency cases where national security is threatened.  Mr. Trump argues (speciously, in my view) that there can be no national security if the economy is weak.  Therefore, every trade action is a case of national security.  In other words, this emergency power gives the president complete control over all trade matters.  What’s odd about this state of affairs is that so far Congress hasn’t complained.

 

More tomorrow.

 

 

Trump and the big banks

banks and their social function

Banks aren’t ordinary corporations.  In addition to being private, for-profit organizations, they also carry out important social economic functions.  They’re the primary instrument the government uses to carry out national money policy.  Through letters of credit, they also underpin the workings of the international trade of multinational firms that is increasingly important for economic growth.

This is why the major banks are considered “too big to fail.”

bank failures

US banks have been on the brink of failure twice during the past hundred years–in the late 1920s and in 2007-09.  Both times this has been the result of rampant speculative financial market activity coupled with reckless lending, both driven by the search for earnings per share growth.

Glass-Steagall, and its repeal

In the 1930s, Washington enacted legislation, including the Glass-Steagall Act that barred the banks from non-banking activities (like brokerage, proprietary trading and investment banking).  The new laws ushered in a period of relative stability for the banks that lasted until the late 1990s, when their intense lobbying succeeded in getting Glass-Steagall repealed.

(An aside:  yes, the banks manufactured periodic crises through imprudent lending to emerging economies–the Walter Wriston-led binge of the 1970s being a prime example–but these were relatively tame in comparison.)

Less than ten years later, many big banks were broke.  World trade had come to a standstill as manufacturers refused to accept banks’ guarantees that shipped merchandise would be paid for (the worry was that the guaranteeing bank would file for bankruptcy while the goods were en route, reducing the shipper to being an unsecured creditor).  The deepest peacetime period of world economic decline since the Great Depression began.

This, in turn, spawned Dodd-Frank, the 21st century equivalent of Glass-Steagall.

repeal again?   so soon?

While it took more than half a century for the memory of the Depression to fade enough for Congress to consider removing restrictions on bank activity, we’re now less than a decade away from the 2007-09 collapse.

Despite this, despite campaigning on an anti-establishment platform, and despite warning that Hillary Clinton should not be elected because she would be a creature of the big banks, during his first few days in office Donald Trump is proposing to restore to the big banks the tools of self-destruction they have wielded to devastating effect twice before.

How odd.