are political mists clearing in Washington?

The US securities markets are closed for Martin Luther King Day.  I’m going to make only a brief post–and one not as directly associated with finance as usual.


As a growth investor, I’m a big believer in progress through creative destruction.  I think the rate at which such change occurs accelerated during the Cold War period after WWII, and accelerated again when China decided to ditch central planning in favor of Western economics in the late 1970s.

Change isn’t easy.  The forces of the status quo–the current economic and political leaders–in every economy are very powerful.  They oppose change in any way they can, because it’s in their own economic interest to do so.   In the emerging world, crunch time typically comes when the supply of new workers for labor-intensive export-oriented manufacturing  (most often textile) is exhausted.  Wages begin to rise.  Operations become less profitable.

In theory, it’s clear what has to be done for the national good–migrate to higher value-added industries by worker retraining and by shifting government efforts toward creating infrastructure that attracts more sophisticated foreign companies willing to transfer technology.

In practice, the corporate and government beneficiaries of the way things are now use their clout to stop this from happening.   Many times, because they’re rich and powerful, they get their way–to the long-term detriment of the local economy.

In the developed world, the prime example of the dysfunctional triumph of the status quo over progress is Japan.  Once an incredibly dynamic economy, Japan has spent almost the past quarter century protecting the political and industrial establishment of the late 1980s.  The result has been decades without economic growth, an industrial base in shambles, a sharp decline in the Japanese standard of living and the piling up of an immense government debt.   Ugh!

To my mind, the EU has already traveled a significant way down the same path.

The US, although at an earlier stage,  appears to me to be following suit as well.  This despite the increasingly intense dissatisfaction of the electorate, expressed mostly as unhappiness with continuing deficit spending.

Pretty scary stuff.

Very recently, though, Washington appears to be having second thoughts about what it’s dong.  The Republicans are now saying they won’t repeat last year’s fight in Congress over increasing the debt ceiling.  The Democrats are saying they’ll prepare a budget that includes spending cuts.  So we may be seeing some willingness on both sides to give up their rigidly partisan, protect the status quo, positions.

Certainly, it’s very early days.  But what significance would a movement toward common sense and compromise in Washington have for stocks?  The world already knows that the dysfunction story ends in an economic disaster.  This possibility get expressed in investors paying  a lower price earnings multiple for US stocks than they otherwise would.

How much multiple expansion would a less self-destructive Washington engender?  One point?    …two?  Each point would represent about an 8% increase in the market level.  So there’s a lot at stake.

Shaping a portfolio for 2013 (vi): putting the pieces together

another up year in 2013?   …most likely,

…though not by a huge amount.  Earnings growth for publicly listed companies in the US is likely to be up, but not by as much as in 2012.  I’m thinking up 7%, up 8% for the S&P 500.  Add a dividend yield on the index of, say, 2.5% and the likely total return from owning stocks this year is around 10%.

I find it hard to identify any obvious–or not-so-obvious, for that matter–macroeconomic factors that might upset the apple cart. Continuing partisan infighting by the White House and Congress that delays or derails the effort to get public finances in the US under control is my biggest worry.  I’m not sure how to quantify that and incorporate it into strategy, however.  I think both positive and negative developments will be reflected through expansion or contraction of the market PE multiple, rather than in changes in the composition of corporate earnings.

the worst is probably over in the EU,

as the area moves in fits and starts toward closer fiscal union.  Europe is still in recession, though, so no aggregate economic growth until the second half.

The surge in EU markets that has pushed them up by about 25% over the past six months in anticipation of further concrete structural reforms out of Brussels/Berlin may well be over for now.  If so, markets may move sideways in the absence of further political progress.

currency or stock price?

Financial markets can respond to further positive political developments from Brussels/Berlin either by bidding up stocks or by bidding up the euro.  I think it’s impossible to know the proportions of one or the other that might occur.  How the markets react to news makes a difference, though:

–The latter would be especially good for US-based companies that have large EU exposure, like personal care or staples firms.  But it would be bad for EU-based multinationals that have large exposure outside the EU, whose foreign-based profits would be worth less in euros.

–In in the former case, the relative beneficiaries would be reversed.

I think the EU is a place to underweight this year.  I’m choosing to hold one or two EU-based multinationals.  So far, I’m keeping with the UK, on the idea that £ is unlikely to be a strong currency, except against the ¥.

the US isn’t this year’s economic locomotive

Last year, we weren’t spoiled for choice, as they say, in the search for countries whose economies would be maintaining or increasing speed.  Emerging nations were downshifting to prevent overheating.  And the EU was falling under the weight of Greece, Spain and Italy.  So the US was pretty much it.  This year, in contrast, the US appears to be in the early stages of settling in for a long period of fiscal retrenchment.


emerging markets are back

Together, higher interest rates and a cooling off of the developed world have lessened the danger of economic overheating in developing nations.  China has also passed through its once in a decade policy interregnum while the leadership of the Communist Party changed.  Throughout the developing world, as a result more growth-friendly economic measures are being put into place.

This should be good for stocks in the Pacific Basin, especially for China-based companies listed in Hong Kong.  Industrial commodities, with the possible exception of energy, should be perking up, as well.  So, too, US-, and, depending on the €, EU-multinationals with emerging markets exposure.

the US–all about focus

I think outperforming the S&P 500 during a belt-tightening year will be all about making choices, in two senses. The first is to opt for firms with businesses outside the US rather than inside.  The second is to laser in on hot spots of domestic growth that develop on an otherwise blah landscape as consumers try to make their dollars stretch a little farther.

Houses and home appliances are in, jewelry and restaurant meals are out.

Lower income families are, as usual, out.  So, too, are the chronically unemployed.  The over-55 set, whose incomes have been sacrificed for a half decade to fight the financial meltdown, continue to be on the outside looking in, as well.   For this year, add the very wealthy to this list, based on their increasing taxes.

lower energy prices in the US

This is good for consumers, good for the developers of unconventional sources of oil and gas, good for industries, like chemicals, that use lots of petrochemicals for fuel or feedstocks.  Bad, on the other hand, for holders of traditional oil and gas assets, especially in the US.  (More about this phenomenon in a later post.)

Check out last year’s putting the pieces togetherif you want.

Shaping a portfolio for 2013 (v): S&P 500 performance this year

 S&P 500 earnings

According to the research firm Factset, the Wall Street consensus is that earnings per share for the S&P 500 index will amount to around $103 for 2012.

For this year, brokerage house equity strategists (a “top down” view) are projecting eps for the S&P of about $109.  Aggregating the company earnings projections of brokerage house industry specialists (a “bottom up” view) into an overall S&P forecast yields an eps figure for the index of $113.

If Wall Street is correct about the 4Q12 earnings now in the process of being reported, the S&P has achieved about a 7% year on year eps gain in 2012.  (For what it’s worth, the base case for 2012 profits I came up with in my Shaping… posts a year ago was 7.5% growth.)

Strategists are expecting a slight deceleration in eps gains for this year, penciling in a 6% growth rate. Industry analysts are more bullish (as they usually are).  Their collective wisdom is that the S&P will post close to a 10% advance.

my take

In looking at the S&P, it’s important to realize than only half the index profits are sourced in the US.  The other half comes, in roughly equal parts, from Europe and emerging markets.

the US:  As I wrote a couple of days ago, real GDP growth in the US is probably going to be only about 2% this year.  This implies nominal GDP growth of around 4%.  Profit growth for publicly listed companies, which tend to be the best and the brightest, should be significantly higher. On the other hand, autos and construction, two large industries which I think will be among the better growers, have little direct stock market representation.  Let’s say 5% eps growth.

the EU:  Zero is probably the right figure for profit growth.  If the EU continues to make progress in trying to shape a closer fiscal union, however, the € could continue to rise in value vs. the $.  That would create currency gains for US firms with EU exposure.

emerging markets:  Recent macroeconomic reports, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggest that emerging markets–especially those in the Pacific Basin–are beginning to reaccelerate.  I think a 20% earnings gain is very easily achievable.

Adding this all up:

US:  5% profit growth, a 50% weighting  = contributes 2.5% to overall S&P eps growth

Europe:  no growth, 25% weighting   = contributes nothing

Rest of the World:  20% profit growth, 25% weighting   =   contributes 5.0% to overall S&P eps growth

Total:  7.5% eps growth.

On the surface, this result–the same number as last year–may seem weird.  There’s no way that the US is going to have as good a year for GDP in 2013 as it had in 2012.  However, the point to note is that +7.5% doesn’t have very much to do with domestic profits.  It has much more to do with an end to contractionary government economic policies in China et al, resulting in greatly improving profits from the international divisions of US-listed multinationals.

the market multiple?

During 2012, the S&P gained 13.4%, ex dividends, on a 7% increase in eps.  The remaining gain of 6% or so is due to price earnings multiple expansion.  In other words, despite all the “death of equities” hysteria in the financial media, investors are willing to pay a higher price today for a dollar of S&P earnings than they were a year ago.

Are we at the end of possible multiple expansion?

No one knows.  We can say, however, that on a relative basis, the S&P is still trading much more cheaply than bonds.  The traditional comparison is to look at the interest coupon on government bonds vs. the earnings yield (1 ÷ PE) of the market.  The two should be roughly equal.

As I’m writing this, the 30-year Treasury is yielding 3%.  The S&P has an earnings yield of 7.1%, based on 2012 eps, and 7.7%, based on 2013.  The two yield figures are miles apart, a situation last seen in the US in the 1930s. If we use the 10-year, now yielding 1.9%, as our proxy for the bond market, the disparity is even greater.  It’s possible that any future adjustment will occur solely through bonds becoming cheaper, with stocks never becoming more expensive.  But that’s not usually the way things work in the securities world.

There’s a second argument to be made for multiple expansion.  It’s that the relatively modest S&P multiple is directly related to the parlous state of economic policy coming out of the White House and Congress.  That is to say, today’s stock prices already discount to some degree the future loss of national economic growth and wealth that’s now being cemented into place by the failure of both political parties to address pressing economic concerns of our international competitiveness, continuing high unemployment and continuing deficits.  Were Washington to begin to address these serious structural problems, I think the stock market response would be prompt and positive.  We can always dream.

Shaping a portfolio for 2013 (iv): Europe

 The Eurozone, which comprises most of the EU, is in recession.  Not only that, but it’s suffering a crisis of trust that threatens to tear it apart.  But you wouldn’t know it from the recent performance of EU stock markets.ward

a quick look back

In over-simple terms, the Eurozone was formed solely as a monetary union, without any fiscal checks and balances.  It was like a partnership where everyone got to use the common credit card.   On the tacit assumption that gentlemen always pay their debts, the EZ never checked to see if users could, or did, pay their bills–even though the group as a whole was responsible for any charges.  The chief lenders were government-controlled banks run by bureaucrats with no notion of how to analyze creditworthiness or detect fraud.  If all else failed, the “parent,” Germany, would presumably pick up the tab.

Not a great real-world concept.

The fantasy balloon was popped in October 2009 when a newly-installed government in Athens discovered the previous administration had been faking the national balance sheets and income statements for many years.  Greece was broke, much more heavily in debt than it had previously revealed, unable to repay.  The new guys made the bad news public, but have been unwilling (my view) to do much, other than ask for debt forgiveness, to remedy the situation.

Members have been fighting about how to proceed since then.  Until very recently, no one has been willing to lend to economically weak nations like Italy and Spain, forcing them into crisis.

Pretty awful stuff.

2012 stock market performance

Last year, the S&P 500 was up by a stellar 13%+,  on a capital changes basis.  Despite the ugly picture I painted above, EU stocks outperformed the US by about five percentage points last year, in dollar terms.  That’s the result of a huge rally since July.  EU stocks, which I pointed out back then were yielding 5.5%, still have a 200 basis point yield preference over the S&P–meaning holders made close to eight percentage points more than the S&P on a total return basis.

A dollar-based investor who bought in late July (something I would have thought to be too risky for just about everyone) would have made over a third on his money in five months.


Some people talk about a four-stage process in problem solving:

Stage 1:  deny the problem exists

Stage 2:  blame someone else

Stage 3:  blame yourself

Stage 4:  begin to fix the problem.

I think the Eurozone reached Stage 4 last July   …and the markets picked up on this very quickly.

where to from here?

I read the positive market reaction so far as being basically an anticipatory rally, in the expectation of change that’s yet to come.  In other words, I think it’s far from a sure thing that the parties involved have the political will to create the closer fiscal union that is needed.

still, some positives

a 4%+ dividend yield indicates there is still considerable skepticism still in the markets–implying further upside for stocks if good news continues to flow from Brussels and Berlin

–it’s now much less probable that the EU will come apart at the seams (if anything, there’s likely only to be a slow unraveling)

–the end of the scorched-earth “austerity” policy and its replacement with a more accommodative monetary regime means eps growth in 2013 might surprise skeptics on the upside.  For what it’s worth, the OECD is projecting that Europe as a whole will begin to see (admittedly meager) positive year on year comparisons in the second half.

my bottom line

An EU that’s at least not falling apart and where overall GDP is stable or better is a plus for the rest of the world.

Any value investor, I’m sure, will have a field day poring over the financials of the many companies that are trading at under net equity value–the risk, of course, being that there may be legal and cultural barriers to asset value ever being realized.

But there are better places in the world to invest, to my mind, for the moment at least.  If I were forced to have actively managed money in Europe, I’d certainly be significantly underweight.  I’d be emphasizing Germany, Scandinavia and the UK.  I’d also be trying to find well-managed companies with unique products/services, especially ones with the ability to sell outside the EU.

Since I’m not compelled to be in Europe, I’m content await further political developments and to hold only a few names, concentrating on firms listed in the EU but doing most of their business elsewhere.  Personally, I own small positions in a couple of Vanguard Europe funds, plus IHG.  I’d be happy to add a couple more individual stocks, once I have time to do the research.

Shaping a portfolio for 2013(lll): China


Like the US, China is a complex topic with lots of moving parts.  I’ve also been investing in China-related stocks for over 25 years (hard to believe it’s been that long), so there’s an increased risk of my being distracted by details.  So, like my views on the US, I’m down to bullet points:

1.  In the late 1970s, China decided it had to embrace Western economics (not politics), because central planning wasn’t working and it didn’t want to end up like the old Soviet Union.  Like Japan before it, China pegged its currency to the US dollar and concentrated on growth through export-oriented manufacturing.

Two factors separate China from run-of-the-mill emerging countries using the Japan blueprint:

— the huge size of its population, and

–the single-mindedness with which it has pursued economic expansion.

Thirty-plus years later, China is now the second-largest economy in the world.  It’s three times the size of #3 Japan, and 80% as big as the US (using Purchasing Power Parity GDP figures).  In a handful of years, China stands to become #1.

2.  The financial meltdown in the US and the € crisis in the EU depressed demand in China’s two major markets.  China’s (very competent) economic mandarins initially added temporary extra stimulus to domestic activity to counter the effects.  But even while China was doing this, it was clear that the currency peg would, quickly enough, transmit enormous (and unneeded/unwanted) monetary oomph to the mainland economy.

Like other emerging economies, China has been spending the past couple of years trying to cool down an overheating economy.

That task has already been accomplished.

3.  In November, China completed its once a decade Communist Party leadership transition.  In the runup to this event, high-level decision-making grinds to a halt, since bureaucrats don’t know the identities, let alone the intentions, of their new bosses.  That drag on the economy is in the past, as well.

4.  Because of #2 and #2, it seems to me that the year of the Snake will be a strong one for China.  Growth may come in at “only” 8%, but that will certainly be better than most other places on the planet.  The Chinese PMI is already signalling acceleration.

how to invest

You can get some exposure by finding stocks in, say, the US or Europe, that have significant operations in China.

You can get more direct exposure by buying the stocks of Chinese companies.  As with any other equity investment, the basic choice here is whether to pick an index fund/ETF, or to actively manage–either by selecting an actively-managed mutual fund or picking the stocks yourself.

Personally, I own three funds in the Matthews family of China-related offerings.  I also have international accounts with Fidelity and Charles Schwab so I can buy Hong Kong-listed names in the local market.  Many are also available for trade on the pink sheets, although usually at considerably less favorable prices.

I’ve never been a big fan of ADRs.  In general, a foreign company only comes to the US when it thinks it can get a better price for its equity than it can from investors in its home market, who presumably know the firm and its business practices much better than foreigners.  The only exception I see to this rule is the case of EU-based tech companies, where local investors are mostly clueless.