Keeping Score, November 2019

I’ve just updated my Keeping Score page for November.  Given the absence of mutual fund selling in October, not a bad result.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WeWork (WE) and Wall Street: my take

I’ll start out by underlining that I don’t know enough about WE to have a usable investment opinion about the offering’s merits.  I do have opinions, though.  It’s just that they’re more like my thoughts about the Mets than a way to make money.  Anyway, here goes:

in general

–the WE structure isn’t new.  Think: a savings and loan, or a hotel chain, or an airline or an offshore drilling company, or a container ship firm–or, for that matter, a cement plant or a coal mine.  All these involve owning expensive long-lived assets which are typically debt financed and whose use is sold bit by bit.   Although there may be attempts at branding, with varying degrees of success, in the final analysis these are commodity businesses.

–in good times, this is a favorable structure for a company to have.  Costs remain relatively constant as selling prices rise, so most of the increase drops down to the pre-tax line.  Rental/purchase contracts may limit annual price increases, but investors typically factor in anticipated rises relatively quickly

–in bad times, it’s not great.  Customers may stop purchasing with little notice, sometimes walking away from contracts or renegotiating them sharply downward (using the threat of termination as leverage).  Offshore drilling rigs are an extreme example of feast/famine cyclicality

–because of cyclicality, PE multiples for mature firms with this structure tend to be low.  When such companies come to market, they tend to try to ride a wave of energy generated by previously successful IPOs–meaning that simply the appearance of their offering documents is a sign of potential overheating

WE

–in the case of WE, investor perception appears to be frosty.  This is partly because of what I’ve just written.  Also, from what I’ve heard and read, the 350+-page prospectus is not particularly illuminating (I’ve flicked through it but haven’t analyzed it myself)

 

investment implications

The arrival of the WE prospectus coincides with a sharp selloff in the shares of recent tech-related IPOs.

Two possible reasons:

Wall Street thinks that the marketing campaign for WE heralds the end of the line for the current IPO frenzy, on the argument that the underwriters would be presenting a higher quality offering if they had one.  This is what I think is going on.

The other possibility I see is the week-long, humorous but kind of scary Alabama weather discussion, an episode I think makes anyone question the mental stability of Mssrs. Trump and Ross.

In any event, given that some newly-listed tech names have fallen by a quarter or more over the past week or so, I think it’s time to sift through the ashes.

 

Having said that, I do suspect that a significant rotation away from these former market darlings, triggered by WE but based on valuation, is now underway. This will only mark a fundamentally new direction for the stock market if the tariff wars go away completely.  I don’t think this will happen.  So I’d buy a partial position now and hope to pick up more on further weakness.  Remember, too, that this is a highly speculative corner of the market, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

 

 

America: a weakening brand

When I first became interested in Tiffany (TIF) as a stock years ago, one thing that stood out was that the company was doing a land office business in almost all facets of its rapid international expansion.  One exception:  the EU.  I quickly became convinced that the reason was because TIF is an American company.

For Europeans, France, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of the EU, are the font of all knowledge and culture.  As local literature and philosophy make clear, being situated on the sacred soil of (fill in any EU country) is the key to its superiority.  The US,  lacking requisite hallowed ground, is a semi-boorish johnny-come-lately.  Sporting a piece of jewelry from an American firm therefore implies one has suffered a devastating reversal of fortune that puts “authentic” jewelry out of reach.

 

In the rest of the world, however, the US is a symbol of aspiration.  America stands for freedom, opportunity, cutting-edge technology, the best universities and an ethos that prizes accomplishment not heritage.  It’s “all men are created equal”  “give me your …huddled masses yearning to be free” and “I am not throwing away my shot.”  Wearing, or just owning, a piece of American jewelry becomes a symbolic linking of the holder to these national values.  It hasn’t hurt, either, particularly with an older generation (paradoxically, ex the EU) that the US made a monumental effort to help heal the world after WWII.

 

The “brand” of the United States has taken a real beating since Mr. Trump has become president.  Surveys, one of which is reported in INC magazine, show a sharp drop in US prestige right after his victory and continuing deterioration since.   I don’t think the biggest negative issue is the president’s insecurities, his constant prevarication, his very weak record as a real estate developer or his (hare-brained) economic policies while in office.  I see the worst damage coming instead from his love of leaders with poor human rights records and his disdain for women and people of color …plus the whiff of sadism detectable in his treatment of both.

 

Whatever the precise cause may be, the deterioration of the America’s reputation under Mr. Trump is a very real worry for domestic consumer companies.  Damage will likely show itself in two ways:  weaker sales to foreign tourists, and the absence of positive surprises from foreign subsidiaries.  For domestic retail firms, it seems clear that economic recovery has finally come to the less wealthy parts of the US over the past year or two–witness the profit performance of Walmart or the dollar stores.  On the other hand, it seems to me that people who have trusted Mr. Trump in the past–like the banks that lent him money, the contractors who built his casinos, those who bought DJT stock and bonds, farmers who voted for him–have all ended up considerably worse off than the more wary.  So while they may be good temporary hiding places, holders should be nimble.

One final thought:  brands don’t deteriorate overnight but the cumulative damage can be enormous.  The first to react will be younger consumers, who have the least experience with/of the “old” brand.   They will be the most difficult to win back.  As well, as time passes, their views will be increasingly important in commerce.