autos, emissions and Trumponomics

I’ve followed the auto industry since the early 1980s, but have rarely owned an auto stock—brief forays into Toyota, later Peugeot (1986) and Porsche (2003?) are the only names that come to mind.

 

The basic reasons I see to avoid the auto manufacturers in the developed world:

–chronic overcapacity

–continuing shift of intellectual property creation, innovation, brand differentiation—and better-than-commodity profits–from manufacturers to component suppliers

–the tendency of national politics to influence company operations and prospects.

 

In addition, the traditional industry is very capital intensive, with a high capacity utilization required (80%?) to reach breakeven.  The facts that unit selling prices are high and new purchases easy to put off for a year or two mean that the new car industry is highly cyclical.

More than that, today’s industry is in the early stages of a transformation away from units that burn fossil fuels, and are therefore a major source of air pollution, to electric vehicles.  The speed at which this change is happening has accelerated over the past decade outside the US because pollution has become a very serious problem in China and because automakers in the EU have been shown to have falsified performance data for their diesel-driven offerings in a poorly thought out effort to meet anti-pollution rules.

California, which had a nineteenth-century-like city pollution problem around Los Angeles as late at the mid-1970s, has led the US charge for clean air.  It helps its clout that CA is the country’s largest car market (urban legend:  thanks in part to GM’s aggressive lobbying against public transport in southern CA in the mid-20th century).  CA has also been joined by about a dozen other states who go along with whatever it decides.  The auto manufacturers have done the same, because the high capital intensity of the car industry means building cars to two sets of fuel usage specifications makes no sense.

 

Enter Donald Trump.  His administration has decided to roll back pollution reduction measures put in place by President Obama.  CA responded by agreeing with Ford, VW, Honda and BMW to establish Obama-like, but somewhat less strict, requirements for cars sold in that state.  Trump’s reposte has been to call the agreement an anti-trust violation, to claim the power to revoke the section of the law that permits CA to set state pollution standards and to threaten to withhold highway funds from CA because the air there is too polluted (?).

 

Other than pollical grandstanding, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.

Who benefits from lower gas mileage cars?     …Russia and Saudi Arabia, whose economies are almost totally dependent on selling fossil fuels; and the giant multinational oil companies, whose exploration efforts until recently have been predicated on demand increasing strongly enough to push prices up to $100 a barrel.

Who gets hurt by the Trump move?     …to the degree that it prolongs widespread use of inefficient gasoline-powered cars, the biggest potential losers are US-based auto firms and the larger number of US residents who become ill in a more polluted environment.  Why the car companies?  Arguably, they will put less R&D effort into developing less-polluting cars, including electric vehicles.  The desertification of China + disenchantment with diesel will have Europe and Asia, on the other hand, making electric cars a very high priority.  It wouldn’t be surprising to find in a few years a replay of the situation the Detroit automakers were in during the 1970s—when cheap, well-built imports flooded the country without the Big Three having competitive products.

It’s one of the quirks of the US stock market that it has very little direct representation of the auto industry.  So the idea that profits there will be somewhat higher as the firms skimp on R&D will have little/no positive impact on the S&P.  Even the energy industry, the only possible beneficiary of this Trump policy, is a mere shadow of its former self.  Like Trump’s destruction of the American brand—Apple has dropped from #5 in China to #50 since his election—all I can see is damaging downside.

I think the Trump policy is intentional, like his trade wars and his income tax cut for the super-rich.  The most likely explanation for all these facets of Trumponomics is either he doesn’t realize the potentially grave economic damage he’s doing or it’s not a particularly high priority.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump’s economic “plan”

So far the Trump administration has launched two countervailing economic thrusts:

income taxes.   

Starting in 2018, the corporate tax rate was reduced from a highest-in-the-world 35% to a more nearly average 21%.  The idea was to remove the incentive for highly taxed US-based multinationals, like pharmaceutical firms, to shift their businesses elsewhere.  In the same legislation the ultra-wealthy received a very large reduction in their income taxes, as well as retention of the carried interest provision, a tax dodge by which private equity managers convert ordinary income into less highly taxed capital gains (this despite Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to eliminate carried interest).  Average Americans made out less well, receiving a modest reduction in rates coupled with loss of real estate-related writeoffs that skewed the benefits away from heavily Democratic states like California and New York.

Washington made little, if any, attempt to end special interest tax breaks to offset the lower corporate rates.  The result in 2018 was a yoy increase in individual income tax collection of about $50 billion, more than offset by a drop in corporate tax payments of about $90 billion.  Given the strong economy in 2018, the IRS would likely have taken in $150 – $175 billion more under the old rules than it did under the new.

What I find most surprising about the income tax legislation is that the large deficit-increasing fiscal stimulus it provides came at a time when none was needed–after almost a decade of continuous GDP growth in the US and the economy at very close to full employment.

the tariff wars.

Right after his inauguration, Mr. Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade group aiming to, among other things, fight China’s theft of intellectual property.  However, exiting the TPP for a go-it-alone approach hurt US farmers, since it also meant higher (and escalating each year) tariffs on US agricultural exports to TPP members, notably Japan.

Next, Trump presented the tortured argument that: (1) that there could be no national security if the economy were not growing,  (2) that, therefore, the presence of foreign competition to US firms in the domestic marketplace threatens national security,  (3) that Congress has given the president power to act unilaterally to counter threats to national security, so (4) Trump had the authority to unilaterally impose tariffs on imports.  So he did, in escalating tranches.

No mention of the fact that tariffs slow GDP growth, so under the first axiom of Trump logic are themselves a threat to national security.

Not a peep from Congress, either.

Recently, Mr. Trump has announced that he also has Congressional authority, based on a 1977 law authorizing sanctions against Iran, to order all US-based entities to cease doing business with China.

Results so far:

–the predictable slowdown in economic growth in the US

–retaliatory tariffs that have slowed growth further

–higher prices to consumers that have for all but the ultra-wealthy eaten up the extra income brought by the new tax law

–a sharp drop in spending on new capital projects in the US by both foreign and domestic firms

–tremendous pressure by Trump on the Federal Reserve (in a most un-Republican fashion (yes, I know Nixon did the same thing, but still…)) to “debase” the dollar.

Why?

A falling currency can temporarily give the appearance of faster growth.  But it can also do serious, and permanent, damage to a country by reducing national wealth (Japan is a good example).  Its only “virtue” as a policy measure is that it’s hard to trace cause and effect–politicians can deny they are mortgaging the country’s heritage to cover up earlier mistakes, even though that’s what they’re doing.

–an apparent shift in the goal of US trade negotiators away from structural reform in China to resuming purchases of US soybeans

my take

–if there had been a plan to Trump’s actions, tariffs would have come first, the tax break later.  The fact that the reverse happened argues there is no master strategy.  Again no surprise, given Trump’s history–which people like us can see most clearly in his foray into Atlantic City gaming.

–what a mess!

A better way to combat China?    The orthodox strategies are to strengthen the education system, increase scientific research spending and court foreign researchers to come to the US.  Unfortunately, neither major domestic political party has much interest in education–Democrats refuse to fix broken schools in large urban areas and Republicans as a party are now against scientific inquiry.  The white racism of the current Washington power structure narrows the attraction of the US in the eyes of many skilled foreigners.   The ever-present, ever-shifting tariff threat–seemingly arbitrary levies on imported raw materials and possible retaliatory duties on exported final products–means it’s very risky to locate plant and equipment in the US.

For what it’s worth, I think that were the political situation in the US different there would be substantial Brexit-motivated relocation of multinationals from London to the east coast.

investment implications

To my mind, all this implies having a focus on software companies, on low-multiple consumer firms that focus on domestic consumers with average or below-average incomes, and on companies whose main business is in Asia.  Multinational manufacturers of physical things for whom the US and China are major markets are probably the least good place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Macroeconomics for Professionals

Starting-out note:  there’s an investment idea in here eventually.

I’ve been going through Macroeconomics for Professionals:  a Guide for Analysts and Those Who Need to Understand Them, written by two IMF professionals, with the intention of giving it, or something like it, to one of my children who’s getting more interested in stock market investing.  I’m not finished with the book, but so far, so good.

counter-cyclical government policy

The initial chapter of MfP is about counter-cyclical government policy, a topic I think is especially important right now.

Picture an upward sloping sine curve.  That’s a stylized version of the pattern of economic advance and contraction that market economies experience.  Left to their own devices, the size of economic booms and subsequent depressions tend to be very large.  The Great Depression of the 1930s that followed the Roaring Twenties–featuring a 25% drop in output in the US and a decade of unemployment that ranged between 14%-25%–is the prime example of this.  National governments around the world made that situation worse with tariff wars and attempts to weaken their currencies to gain a trade advantage.  A chief goal of post-WWII economics has been to avoid a recurrence of this tragedy.

The general idea is counter-cyclical government policy, meaning to slow economic growth when a country is expanding at a rate higher than its long-term potential (about 2% in the US) and to stimulate growth when expansion falls below potential.

 

applying theory in today’s Washington

Entering the ninth year of economic expansion–and with the economy already growing at potential–Washington, which had provided no fiscal stimulus in 2009 when it was desperately needed, decided to give the economy a boost with a large tax cut. Although pitched as a reform, with lower rates offset by the elimination of special interest tax breaks, none of the latter happened.  Then, just a few days ago, Washington gave the economy another fiscal boost.  Mr. Trump, channeling his inner Herbert Hoover, is also pressing for further interest rate cuts to achieve a trade advantage through a weakened dollar.

This is scary stuff for any American.  The country faced a similar situation during the Nixon administration, which exerted pressure on the Fed to keep rates too low during the early 1970s.  Serious economic problems that this brought on didn’t emerge until several years later, when they were compounded by the second oil shock in 1978 (that was my first year in the stock market; I was a fledgling oil analyst).

why??

Why, then, is Mr. Trump trying to juice the US economy when he should really be trying to wean it off the drug of ultra-low rates?

I think it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t understand the implications of what he’s doing (the thing Americans of all stripes recognize, and like the least, about Mr. Trump, a brilliant marketer, is how little he actually knows).   If so, I can think of two reasons:

–as with many presidents a generation ago, he may see ultra-loose money as helping his reelection bid, and/or

–the “easy to win” trade wars may be hurting the US economy much more deeply than he expected and he sees no way to reverse course.

If I had to guess, I suspect the latter is the case and that the former is an added bonus.  I think the main counter argument, i.e., that this is all about the 2020 election, is that the administration seems to be systematically eliminating any parties/agencies that want to investigate Russian interference in domestic politics.

Either would imply that software-based multinational tech companies that have led the stock market for a long time will continue to be Wall Street winners–and that the weakness they are currently experiencing is mostly an adjustment of the valuation gap (which has become too large) between them and the rest of the market.

In any event, interest rate-sensitives and fixed income are the main areas to avoid.  If the impact of tariffs is an important motivating factor, then domestic businesses that cater to families with average or below-average incomes will likely be hurt the worst.

 

 

 

 

Trumponomics and tariffs

Note:  I’ve been writing this in fits and starts over the past couple of weeks.  It doesn’t reflect whatever agreement the US and China made over the past weekend.  (More on that as/when details become available.)  But I’m realizing that it’s better to write something that’s less than perfect instead of nothing at all..  I think the administration’s economic plan, if that’s the right word for a string of ad hoc actions revealed by tweet, will have crucial impacts–mostly negative–for the US and for multinational corporations located here.  I’ll post about that in a day or two.

 

On the plus side, Mr. Trump has been able to get the corporate income tax rate in the US reduced from 35% to 21%, stemming the outflow of US industry to lower tax-rate jurisdictions (meaning just about anyplace else in the world).  Even that has a minus attached, though, since he failed to make good on his campaign pledge to eliminate the carried interest tax dodge that private equity uses.  The tax bill also contained new tax reductions for the ultra-wealthy and left pork-barrel tax relief for politically powerful businesses untouched.

 

At its core, international Trumponomics revolves around the imposition of import duties on other countries in the name of “national security,” on the dubious rationale that anything that increases GDP is a national security matter and that tariffs are an effective mechanism to force other countries to do what we want.  (Oddly, if this is correct, one of Mr. Trump’s first moves was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby triggering an escalating series of new tariffs on farm exports to Japan by  our “Patriot Farmers,” many of whom voted for Mr. Trump.  I assume he didn’t know.)

If the Trump tariff policy has a coherent purpose, it seems to me to be:

–to encourage primary industry (like smelting) and manual labor-intensive manufacturing now being done in developing countries to relocate to the US (fat chance, except for strip mining and factories run by robots)

–to encourage advanced manufacturing businesses abroad that serve US customers to build new operations in the US, and

–to retard the development of Chinese tech manufacturing by denying those companies access to US-made components.

 

The results so far:

–the portion of tariffs on imported goods (paid by US importers to the US customs authorities) passed on to consumers has offset (for all but the ultra-wealthy) the extra income from the 2017 tax cuts

–the arbitrary timing and nature of the tariffs Trump is imposing seems to be doing the expected —discouraging industry, foreign and domestic, from building new plants in the US.  BMW, for example, had been planning on building all its luxury cars for export to China here, because US labor costs less than EU labor.  The threat of retaliatory tariffs by China for those imposed by the US made this a non-starter.

–Huawei.  This story is just beginning.  It has a chance of turning really ugly.  For the moment, inferior US snd EU products become more attractive.  Typically, such protection also slows new product development rather than accelerating it.  (Look at the US auto industry of the mid-1970s, a tragic example of this phenomenon.)   US-based tech component suppliers are doing what companies always do in this situation:  they’re  finding ways around the ban:  selling to foreign middlemen who resell to Huawei, or supplying from their non-US factories.  Even if such loopholes remain open, Mr. Trump is establishing that the US can’t be relied on as a tech supplier. Two consequences:  much greater urgency for China to create local substitutes for US products; greater motivation for US-based multinationals to locate intellectual property and manufacturing outside the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Fed’s dilemma

history

From almost my first day in the stock market, domestic macroeconomic policy has been implemented by and large by the Federal Reserve.  Two reasons:  a theoretical argument that fiscal policy is subject to long lead times–that by the time Congress acts to stimulate the economy through increased spending, circumstances will have changed enough to warrant the opposite; and ( my view), until very recently neither Democrats nor Republicans have had coherent or relevant macroeconomic platforms.

If pressed, Wall Streeters would likely say that Washington has historically represented a net drag on the country’s economic performance of, say, 1% yearly, but that it was ok with financial markets if politicians didn’t do anything crazily negative–the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930, for example.

During the Volcker years (1979-87), money policy was severely restrictive because the country was struggling to control runaway inflation spawned by misguided policy decisions of the 1970s (Mr. Nixon pressuring the Fed to keep policy too loose).  Since then, the stock market has operated under the belief that the Fed’s mandate also includes mitigating stock market losses by loosening policy, the so-called Greenspan, Bernanke and Yellen “puts.”

recent past

We’ve learned that monetary policy is not the miracle cure-all that we once thought.  We could have figured this out from Japan’s experience in the 1980s.  But the message came home in spectacular fashion domestically during the financial crisis last decade.  As rates go lower and policy loosens, lots of “extra” money starts sloshing around.   Fixed income managers gravitate toward increasingly arcane and illiquid markets.  In their eagerness to not be left out of the latest fad product, they begin to take on risks they really don’t understand as  well as to forego standard protective covenants.

We could almost hear the sigh of relief from the Fed as the tax bill of 2017, which reduced payments for the ultra-rich and brought the corporate tax rate down to about the world average, passed.  Because the bill was so stimulative, it gave the Fed the chance to raise rates as an offset, meaning it could tamp down the speculative fires.

today

Enter the Trump tariffs.

Two preliminaries:

–tariffs are taxes.  Strictly speaking, importers, not foreign suppliers (as the president maintains (could it be he actually believes this?)) pay them to customs officials.  But the importer tries to ease his pain by asking for price reductions from suppliers and for selling price increases from customers.  How this all settles out depends on who has market power.  In this case,it looks like virtually all the cost will be borne by domestic parties.  Domestic economic growth will slow.  The relevant stock market question is how much of the pain consumers will bear and how much will be concentrated in a reduction of import business profits.

–I think Mr. Trump is correct that the US subsidy of NATO is excessive.  It represents the situation at the end of WWII, when the US left standing–or at best the time when the USSR began to disintegrate into today’s Russia (whose GDP = Pennsylvania + Ohio, or California/2).  I also think that China, with a population five times ours and an economy 1.25x as big as the US (using PPP), is a more serious economic rival than we have seen in decades.  It doesn’t have the post-WWII sense of obligation to us that we have seen elsewhere.  So we have to rethink our relationship.

Having written that, I don’t see that Mr. Trump has even the vaguest clue about how the country should proceed, given these insights.

To my mind, tariffs + retaliation mean both domestic and foreign companies will be reluctant to locate new operations in the US.  Tariffs on Chinese handicrafts may bring industries of the past back to the US, at the same time they force China to increase emphasis on industries of the future.  I don’t get how either of these moves should be a US strategic goal….

the dilemma

The question for the Fed:  should it enable the president’s spate of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot tariff policies by lowering rates?  …or should it let the economy slide into recession, hoping this will jar Congress into action?

 

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Simply put, MMT is the idea that for a country that issues government debt in its own currency budget deficits don’t matter.   The government can simply print more money if it wants to spend more than it collects in taxes.

Although the theory has been around for a while (the first Google result I got was a critical opinion piece from almost a decade ago), it’s been revived recently by “progressive” Democrats arguing for dramatically increasing social welfare spending.  For them, the answer to the question “What about the Federal deficit?,”  is “MMT,” the government can always issue more debt/print more money.

MMT reminds me a bit of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which was crafted in the 1970s and “proved” that the wild gyrations going on in world stock markets in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s were impossible.

 

Four issues come to mind:

–20th century economic history–the UK, Greece, Italy, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, lots of Latin America…   demonstrates that really bad things happen once government debt gets to the level where investors begin to suspect they won’t be repaid in full.

This has already happened three times in the US: during the Carter administration, when Washington was forced to issue Treasury bonds denominated in foreign currency; during the government debt crisis of 1987, which caused a bond market collapse that triggered, in turn, the Black Monday stock market swoon a few months later; and during the Great Bond Massacre of 1993-94.

In other words, as with MPT, the briefest glance outside through an ivory tower window would show the theory doesn’t describe reality very well

–the traditional case for gold–and, lately, for cryptocurrencies–is to hedge against the government tendency to repay debt in inflation-debased currency.  In other words, every investor’s checklist includes guarding against print-more-money governments

–excessive spending today is conventionally (and correctly, in my view) seen as leaving today’s banquet check to be picked up by one’s children or grandchildren.  In the contemporary cautionary tale of Japan, the tab in question has included massive loss of national wealth, a sharp drop in living standards and economic stagnation for a third of a century.  No wonder Japanese Millennials have a hard time dealing with their elders.

Why would the US be different?  Why are Millennial legislators, of all people, advocating this strategy?

–conventional wisdom is that the first indication that a government is losing its creditworthiness is that foreigners stop buying.  This is arguably not a big deal, since foreigners come and go; locals typically make up the heart of the market.  During the US bond market crisis of 1987, however, the biggest domestic bond market participants staged the buyers strike.  Something very similar happened in 1993-94.  I don’t see any reason to believe that the culture of the “bond vigilante” has disappeared.  So, in my opinion, the negative reaction to a policy of constant deficit spending in the US is likely to be severe and to come very quickly.

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.