an ugly day…

…but this sort of stuff happens.

I don’t think today’s decline is about oil or Donald Trump or the pandemic.

The 2020 low (so far) occurred about a month ago.  If we’re going to return to “test” those lows, now would be about the time, based on past occurrences, when the market would flatten out and begin to drop.  This may be the first step down that path.

There is an alternate pattern, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since hearing the double bottom thesis being almost universally accepted.  It’s the somewhat older idea that the market pulls out of a nosedive when policy measures are put in place to address the problem that has been forcing the market down.  There’s an initial anticipatory rally, followed by sideways movement until the market gets hints that corporate earnings are beginning to improve.  That’s when a sustained upward market movement starts.

We’ll have a better idea in the next couple of weeks whether this market is following either of the two patterns.

An aside, sort of:  I read newspapers online from the US, the UK, Germany and Japan every day.  Well, at least the headlines and I catch up on the weekends.  I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number and bluntness of negative press comments about Mr. Trump and those who surround him, on two fronts:  that local leadership may be totally inept, but at least it’s better than Trump; and growing dismay at his white racism and his constant lying.

We’ve already seen the economic damage he is doing to the country reflected in the 15% fall in the Russell 2000 since his inauguration (with the lion’s share of the pain inflicted on his supporters (vintage Trump, in my view)) vs. a 50%+ gain for NASDAQ.  If there were an obvious alternative to Wall Street, I think we would already be seeing multiple contraction as well.

 

If I’m correct, investors like us are facing an unusual conceptual decision:

we’ve already had a short back-from-Chapter 11 rally among domestic firms hurt by the fact of the coronavirus and by the continuing bungling of the Trump administration.  At some point there must be a market move to sell winners in order to pick and choose among this wreckage.  On the other hand, the more Trump we have the more damage to the second group–therefore the shallower and shorter-lived any bounce will be.

Taking a somewhat longer-term view, given that the Democrats have yet to address any of the social issues that caused ordinary citizens in rural America to choose Trump–poor schools, jobs, medical care…–it’s at least thinkable that he will be reelected.  If so, London and Hong Kong may look like better bets than Wall Street.

My instinct at this point is to get ready to buy hotels and maybe restaurants but to wait before acting to see how the overall market will develop over the next couple of weeks, as well as whether the rush to reopen some states will turn into the medical disaster many fear.

 

 

 

more on coronavirus and the stock market

In an earlier post, I outlined what I saw then as differences between SARS in 2002 and the new COVID-19 in 2019.

Updating:

–it appears China has mishandled COVID-19 in the same way it bungled SARS, surpressing information about the disease, allowing it to become more widespread than I might have hoped.  Not a plus, nor a good look for Xi.

–if press reports are correct, the administration in Washington is ignoring the advice of the Center for Disease Control and approaching COVID-19 in the same (hare-brained) way it is dealing with the economy–potentially making a bad situation worse

 

I think COVID-19 will be in the rear view mirror by July–as SARS was in 2003–but the road to get there will be bumpier than I would have guessed.

 

–the way the stock market has reacted to the new coronavirus  gives some insight, I think, into the differences between how AI discounts news vs. when human analysts were in charge.

when humans ruled 

Pre-AI, analysts like me would look to past examples of similar situations–in this case, SARS.

Immediate points of difference:  COVID-19 is not a unique occurrence–it’s the latest coronavirus from China but not the first so the fact of a new coronavirus should not be as shocking as the first was.  COVID-19 carriers are contagious before they exhibit symptoms, so quarantine is more difficult–i.e., transmission is harder to stop.  On the other hand, the death rate appears to be significantly lower than from SARS.

Two other factors:  the first half of 2003 was the time of greatest medical risk; generally speaking, the stock market back then rose during that period (because the world was just entering recovery from the popping of the stock market internet bubble in early 2000;  given that we’re in year 11 of recovery from the financial crisis, gains shouldn’t be anywhere top of the list of possibilities).

Obvious investment areas to avoid would be operations physically located in China or with large sales to/in China; anything travel- or vacation-related, like airlines, hotels, cruise ships, amusement parks, tourist destinations.

It’s harder for me to think of areas that would prosper during a time like this, mostly because I’m not a big fan of healthcare stocks.  Arguably anything operating totally outside China and not dependent on inputs from China; highly-automated capital-intensive operations rather than labor-intensive,   Public utility-like stocks.

Portfolio reorientation–becoming defensive and raising cash–would have started in early February.

the AI world

What I find interesting is that the thought process/behavior I just described only started happening, as far as I can see, about a week ago. That’s when news headlines began to emphasize that COVID-19 was spreading to areas outside China.  Put another way, the selloff came maybe three weeks later than it would were traditional investment professionals running the show.  In the in-between time, speculative tech stocks shot up like rockets.  The ensuing selloff has hit those high-fliers at least as badly as stocks that are directly affected.

In sum:

–late reaction

–violent, December 2018-like selloff

–recent outperformers targeted, whether fundamentals affected or not.

what to do

Better said, what I’m doing.

The two questions about every market selloff are:  how long and how far down.  On the first front, it seems likely that COVID-19 will be a continuing topic of concern through the first half.  The second is harder to gauge.  There was a one-month selloff in December 2018 that came out of nowhere and pushed stocks down by about 10%.  Today’s situation is probably worse, but that’s purely a guess.

I’ve found that even professional investors tend to not want to confront the ugliness of falling markets, and tend to do nothing.  However, in a downdraft stocks that have been clunkers don’t go down as much as former outperformers.  Nothing esoteric here.  It’s simply because they haven’t gone up in the first place.

A market like the one we’re in now almost always gives us the chance to get rid of clunkers and reposition into long-term winners at a more favorable relative price than we could in an up market.  My experience is that this is what we all should be doing now.  As I wrote above, my hunch is that we don’t need to be in a big hurry, but there’s no reason (especially in a zero commission world) not to get started.

 

 

 

Keeping Score for January 2020

I’ve just updated myKeeping Score page for January.   weaker world economy = interest rates lower for longer = more buoyancy in stock markets

Hong Kong riots

a brief-ish history

During the first part of the 19th century the UK’s stores of gold and silver were being depleted (in effect contracting the country’s money supply) to pay for tea imported from China.  London suggested to Beijing that they barter opium from the British colony India instead.  Beijing sensibly refused.  So in 1841 the British army invaded China to force the change.  The UK seized Hong Kong to use as a staging area and kept it once China submitted to its demands.  During a second Opium War (1856-60), launched when China again balked at the mass shipment of narcotics into its territory, the UK seized more land.

In 1898, China granted the UK a 99-year lease over the area it occupied.  This legalized the status of Hong Kong, which remained under the practical control of the “hongs,” a newer form of the old British opium companies, for much of the 20th century.

In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping made it clear that the lease would not be renewed but that Hong Kong would remain a Special Administrative Region, with substantial autonomy, for fifty years after its return to China on June 30, 1997.  (For its part, the UK parliament decided Hong Kongers would find the climate of the British Isles inhospitable.  So these soon-to-be-former British subjects would be issued identity cards but no other legal protections–citizenship, for example–within the Commonwealth on the handover.  This is a whole other story.)

Hong Kong’s importance today…

The conventional wisdom at that time was that while Hong Kong China’s main goal in triggering the return was to set the stage for the eventual reintegration of (much larger) Taiwan, where the armies of Chiang Kaishek fled after their defeat by Mao.

Today Hong Kong is much more important, in my view, than it was in the 1980s.  Due, ironically, to the sound, and well-understood worldwide, legal framework imposed by the UK, Hong Kong has become the main jumping-off point for multinationals investing in China.  It’s also an international banking center, a transportation hub and a major tourist destination.  Most important for investors, however, is that its equity market not only has greater integrity than Wall Street but is also the easiest venue to buy and sell Chinese stocks (Fidelity’s international brokerage service is the best in the US for online access, I think, even though the prices in my account are invariably a day–sometimes three–old).

…and tomorrow

Mr. Trump has begun to weaponize US-based finance by denying Chinese companies access to US capital markets, US portfolio investors and, ultimately, the dollar-based financial system.  China’s obvious response is accelerate its build up of Hong Kong as a viable alternative in all three areas.  As with the tariff wars, Trump’s ill thought out strategy will most likely galvanize these efforts.

the riots…

Hong Kong has 27 years left to go as an SAR.  For some reason, however, Xi seems to have decided earlier in 2019 to begin to exert mainland control today rather than adhering to the return agreement.  His trial balloon was legislation under which political protesters in Hong Kong whose statements/actions are legal there, but crimes elsewhere in China, could be arrested and extradited to the mainland for prosecution.  This sparked the rioting.  These protests do have deeper underlying causes which are similar to those affecting many areas in the US.

…continue to be an issue

The recent change in Hong Kong’s stock listing rules (to allow companies whose owners have special, super voting power shares) and the subsequent fund raising by Alibaba seem to me to show that Beijing wants Hong Kong to become the center for international capital-raising by Chinese companies.  From this perspective, Xi’s failure to minimize disruptive protests by withdrawing the extradition legislation quickly is hard to understand.

One might argue that Xi, like Trump, is trying to reestablish an older order, purely for the political advantage it gives.  In China’s case it entails reviving the Communist Party’s traditional power base, the dysfunctional state-owned enterprises that Deng began to marginalize in the late 1970s with his move toward a market-based economy (i.e., “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”).   I find it hard to believe that Beijing is as impractical and dysfunctional as Washington, but who knows.

My bottom line:  I think the Hong Kong situation is worth monitoring carefully as a gauge of how aggressively China is going to exploit the opening Trump policies have haplessly given it to replace the US as the center of world commerce–sooner than anyone might have dreamed in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

public utilities and California wildfires

public utilities

The idea behind public utilities is that society is far worse off if a municipality has, say, ten companies vying to provide essential services like power and water to citizens, tearing up streets to install infrastructure and then maybe going out of business because they can’t get enough customers.  Better to give one (or some other small number) a monopoly on providing service, with government supervising and regulating what the utility can charge.

The general idea of this government price-setting is to permit a maximum annual profit return, say 5% per year, on the utility company’s net investment in plant and equipment (net meaning after accumulated depreciation).  The precise language and formula used to translate this into unit prices will vary from place to place.

The ideal situation for a public utility is one where the population of the service area is expanding and new capacity is continually needed.  If so, regulators are happy to authorize a generous return on plant, to make it easier for the utility to raise money for expansion in bond and stock markets.

mature service areas

Once the service area matures, which is the case in most of the US, the situation changes significantly.  Customers are no longer clamoring to get more electric power or water.  They have them already.  What they want now is lower rates.  At the same time, premium returns are no longer needed to raise new money in the capital markets.  The result is that public service commissions begin to reduce the allowable return on plant–downward pressure that there’s no obvious reason to stop.

In turn, utility company managements typically respond in two ways:  invest cash flow in higher-potential return non-utility areas, and/or reduce operating costs.  In fact, doing the second can generate extra money to do the first.

How does a utility reduce costs?

One way is to merge with a utility in another area, to cut administrative expenses–the combined entity only needs one chairman, for example, one president, one personnel department…

Also, if each utility has a hundred employees on call to respond to emergencies, arguably the combined utility only needs one hundred, not two.    In the New York area, where I live, let’s say a hundred maintenance people come from Ohio during a blackout and another hundred from Pennsylvania to join a hundred local maintenance workers in New York.  Heroic-sounding, and for the workers in question heroic in fact.  But a generation ago each utility would each have employed three hundred maintenance workers locally, most of whom have since been laid off in cost-cutting drives.

Of course, this also means fewer workers available to do routine maintenance, like making sure power lines won’t get tangles up in trees.

the California example

I don’t know all the details, but the bare bones of the situation are what I’ve described above:

–the political imperative shifts from making it easier for the utility to raise new funds (i.e., allowing a generous return on plant) to keeping voters’ utility bills from increasing (i.e., lowering the permitted return).

–the utility tries to maintain profits by spending less, including on repair and maintenance

The utility sees no use in complaining about the lower return; the utility commission sees no advantage in pointing out that maintenance spending is declining (since a major cause is the commission lowering the allowable return).   So both sides ignore the worry that repair and maintenance will eventually be reduced to a level where there’s a significant risk of power failure–or in California’s case, of fires.  When a costly failure does occur, neither side has any incentive to reveal the political bargain that has brought it on.

utilities as an investment

In the old days, it was almost enough to look at the dividend yield of a given utility, on the assumption that all but the highest would be relatively stable.  So utilities were viewed more or less as bond proxies.  Because of the character of mature utilities, no longer.

In addition, in today’s world a lot more is happening in this once-staid industry, virtually all of it, as I see things, to the disadvantage of the traditional utility.  Renewables like wind and solar are now in the picture and made competitive with traditional power through government subsidies.  Utilities are being broken up into separate transmission and generation companies, with transmission firms compelled to allow independent power generators to use their lines to deliver output to customers.

While the California experience may be a once-in-a-lifetime extreme, to my mind utilities are no longer the boring, but safe bond proxies they were a generation or more ago.

Quite the opposite.