Trump, tariffs, trading

There’s no solid connection among the three topics above, but the title gives me the chance to write about three only-sort-of connected ideas in one post.

The crazy up-and-down pattern of recent stock market trading in the US is being triggered, I think, by Mr. Trump’s tweets about trade–and about tariffs in particular.  I think a lot of the action is being caused by computers trading on the President’s tweets themselves, or some derivative of them–likes, media mentions, reflexive response to stock movements (or a proxy like trading volume).

my thoughts

–it’s hard to know whether the misinformation Mr. Trump is spewing about tariffs is art or he simply doesn’t know/care.

Tariffs are paid to US Customs by the importer.   In some small number of instances, a Chinese exporter may have a US-based, US-incorporated subsidiary that imports items from the parent for distribution here.  In this case, a Chinese entity is paying tariffs on imported Chinese-made goods.  To that degree. Mr. Trump is correct.  Mostly, however, the entity that pays a tariff on Chinese goods is not itself Chinese.

This is not the end of the story, however.  The importer will attempt to recover the cost of the tariff through a higher price charged to the US consumer and/or through a discount received from the Chinese manufacturer.  In the case of washing machines, which I wrote about recently, for example, all US consumers ended up paying enough extra to cover the entire tariff  …and some paid more than 2x the levy.  The prime beneficiaries of this largesse were Korean companies Samsung and LG.

–one of the oddest parts of the current tariff saga is that Mr. Trump has decided not to work in concert with other consuming nations.  In fact, one of his first actions as president was to withdraw from the international coalition attempting to curb China’s theft of intellectual property worldwide.  The Trump tariffs are only bilateral, so there’s nothing to stop a Chinese company from shipping a partially assembled product to, say, Canada, do some modification there and reexport the now-Canadian item to the US.

The administration has been artful in selecting intermediates rather than consumer end products for its tariffs so far.  This makes it harder to trace price increases back to their source in Trump tariffs.  However, the fact that the administration has taken pains to cover its trail, so to speak, implies it understands that tariff costs will be disproportionately borne by Americans.

 

–in trading controlled by humans, a lot of tariff developments should have been baked in the cake a long time ago.  Continuing volatility implies to me that much of the reacting is being done by AI, which are learning as they go–and which, by the way, may never adopt the discounting conventions humans have employed for decades.

 

–I think it’s important to examine the trading of the past five days (including today as one of them) for clues to the direction in which the market will evolve.  Basically, I think the selling has been relatively indiscriminate.  The rebound, in contrast, has not been.  The S&P and NASDAQ, for example, are back at the highs of last Friday as I’m writing this in the early afternoon.  The Russell 2000, however, is not.  FB is (slightly) below its Friday high; Netflix is about even; Micron is down by 4%.  On the other hand, Microsoft and Disney are 1% higher than their Friday tops, Paycom is 2.5% up, Okta is 5% higher.

No one knows how long the pattern will last, and I’m not so sure about DIS, but I think there’s information about what the market wants to buy in these differences.   And periods of volatility are usually good times for tweaks–large and small–to portfolio strategy.  This is especially so in cases like this, where the movements seem to be excessive.

One thing to do is to confirm one’s conviction level in laggards.  Another is to check position size in winners.  In my case, my largest position at the moment is MSFT, which I’ve held since shortly after Steve Ballmer left (sorry, Clippers).   I’m not sure whether to reduce now.  I’d already trimmed PAYC and OKTA but if I hadn’t before I’d certainly be doing it today.  I’d be happiest finding areas away from tech, because I have a lot already.  On the other hand, I think Mr. Trump is doing considerable economic damage to American families of average or modest means, with no reward visible to me except for his wealthy backers.  Retail would otherwise be my preferred landing spot.

–Even if you do nothing with your holdings now, make some notes about what you might do to rearrange things and see how that would have worked out.  That will likely help you to decide whether to act the next time an AI-driven market decline occurs.

all clear?

My worst flaw as an investor–at least, the worst that I’m aware of–is that I’m too bullish.  So I have to be careful at a time like this when the stock market has been on a downtrend, to ensure that I don’t call a tactical bottom too early.

I should also point out that mutual funds have most likely been out of the market for the past few days, so the wicked intraday spikes we’ve been seeing in recent trading are more likely the work of algorithms than humans.  So the end of the mutual fund fiscal year is in itself no reason for these swings to stop.

Still, it looks to me as if the lows the market established early in 2018 are holding.  Also, many tech stocks, having lost a third of their value, are beginning to move up on what seems to me to be the flimsiest of positive news–a so-so earnings report or an upgrade by a brokerage house analyst.

So my guess is that the worst is over and that stocks will go sideways to up from here.

 

Several things to note:

–intraday swings have been unusually large, based on past instances of correction.  This may just be what machine-driven markets look like

–a change in market leadership often occurs after a correction.  I’m not sure what that would be in this case.  I’m still thinking that IT will lead, noting, though, that chip manufacturing businesses appear to be entering one of their periodic phases of oversupply (driven by the fact that capacity is added in huge chunks, and usually by everyone at the same time)

–the long-term economic negatives recently created by Washington–large-scale deficit spending; emphasis on reviving older, inefficient industries; policy directed at breaking down global supply chains–haven’t gone away.  The considerable social/cultural damage being done by the administration hasn’t, either.  At some point, these factors will begin to retard stock market progress, although they may be issues for 2019.

a US market milestone, of sorts

rising interest rates

Yesterday interest rose in the US to the point where the 10-year Treasury yield cracked decisively above 3.00% (currently 3.09%).  Also, the combination of mild upward drift in six month T-bill yields and a rise in the S&P (which lowers the yield on the index) have conspired to lift the three-month bill yield, now 1.92%, above the 1.84% yield on the S&P.

What does this mean?

For me, the simple-minded reading is the best–this marks the end of the decade-long “no brainer” case for pure income investors to hold stocks instead of bonds.  No less, but also no more.

The reality is, of course, much more nuanced.  Investor risk preferences and beliefs play a huge role in determining the relationship between stocks and bonds.  For example:

–in the 1930s and 1940s, stocks were perceived (probably correctly) as being extremely risky as an asset class.  So listed companies tended to be very mature, PEs were low and the dividend yield on stocks exceeded the yield on Treasuries by a lot.

–when I began to work on Wall Street in 1978 (actually in midtown, where the industry gravitated as computers proliferated and buildings near the stock exchange aged), paying a high dividend was taken as a sign of lack of management imagination.  In those days, listed companies either expanded or bought rivals for cash rather than paid dividends.  So stock yields were low.

three important questions

dividend yield vs. earnings yield

During my investing career, the key relationship between long-dated investments has been the interest yield on bonds vs. the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.  For us as investors, it’s the anticipated cyclical peak in yields that counts more than the current yield.

Let’s say the real yield on bonds should be 2% and that inflation will also be 2% (+/-).  If so, then the nominal yield when the Fed finishes normalizing interest rates will be around 4%.  This would imply that the stock market (next year?) should be trading at 25x earnings.

At the moment, the S&P is trading at 24.8x trailing 12-month earnings, which is maybe 21x  2019 eps.  To my mind, this means that the index has already adjusted to the possibility of a hundred basis point rise in long-term rates over the coming year.  If so, as is usually the case, future earnings, not rates, will be the decisive force in determining whether stocks go up or down.

stocks vs. cash

This is a more subjective issue.  At what point does a money market fund offer competition for stocks?  Let’s say three-month T-bills will be yielding 2.75%-3.00% a year from now.  Is this enough to cause equity holders to reallocate away from stocks?   Even for me, a died-in-the-wool stock person, a 3% yield might cause me to switch, say, 5% away from stocks and into cash.  Maybe I’d also stop reinvesting dividends.

I doubt this kind of thinking is enough to make stocks decline.  But it would tend to slow their advance.

currency

Since the inauguration last year, the dollar has been in a steady, unusually steep, decline.  That’s the reason, despite heady local-currency gains, the US was the second-worst-performing major stock market in the world last year (the UK, clouded by Brexit folly, was last).

The dollar has stabilized over the past few weeks.  The major decision for domestic equity investors so far has been how heavily to weight foreign-currency earners.  Further currency decline could lessen overseas support for Treasury bonds, though, as well as signal higher levels of inflation.  Either could be bad for stocks.

my thoughts:  I don’t think that current developments in fixed income pose a threat to stocks.

My guess is that cash will be a viable alternative to equities sooner than bonds.

Continuing sharp currency declines, signaling the world’s further loss of faith in Washington, could ultimately do the most damage to US financial markets.  At this point, though, I think the odds are for slow further drift downward rather than plunge.

 

 

 

where to from here?

I’m not a big fan of Lawrence Summers, but he had an interesting op-ed article in the Financial Times early this month.  He observes that, unnoticed by most domestic stock market commentators, the foreign- exchange value of the dollar has steadily deteriorated since Mr. Trump’s inauguration.  Currency futures markets are predicting a continuing deterioration in the coming years.  He thinks the two things are connected.  I do, too.

To my mind, what is happening  on Wall Street recently is that currency market worry is now seeping into stock trading as well.  If someone forced me to pick a catalyst for this move (I would prefer not to), I’d say it was the possibility, introduced in the press investigation of Cambridge Analytica, that what we’ve believed to be Mr. Trump’s uncanny insight into human motivation (arguably his principal redeeming feature) may be nothing more than his reading a script CA has prepared for him.  This would echo the contrast between the role of successful businessman he played on reality TV vs. his sub-par real-world record (half the return of his fellow real estate investors while assuming twice the risk).

 

The real economic issue is not Mr. Trump’s flawed self, though.  Rather, it’s the idea that public policy in Washington generally, White House and Congress, seems to have shifted from laissez faire promotion of businesses of the future to the opposite extreme–protecting sunset industries at the former’s expense.   In this scenario, overall growth slows, and the country doubles down on areas of declining economic relevance.

We’ve seen this movie before–in the conduct of Tokyo, protecting the 1980s-era businesses of the descendants of the samurai while discouraging innovation.  The result has been over a quarter-century of economic stagnation + a collapse in the currency.

 

More tomorrow.

REITs when interest rates are rising

Finally, to the question of REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts).

A REIT is a specialized type of corporation that accepts restrictions on the kind of business it can do and limits to how concentrated its ownership structure can be.  It must also distribute virtually all its profits to shareholders.  In return it gets an exemption from corporate income tax.  It’s basically the same legal structure as mutual funds or ETFs.

Traditionally, REITs have concentrated on owning income-generating real estate.  But they are also allowed to to develop and manage new projects, provided they do so to hold as part of their portfolios instead of to resell.

Because they must distribute basically all of their profits, and to the degree that their property development efforts are small relative to their overall asset size, REITs look an awful lot like bonds.  That is to say, their main attraction is their relatively steady income.  Yes, they hold tangible assets of a type that should not be badly affected by inflation.  But current holders, I think, view them as bond substitutes.

As I suggested in Monday’s post, that’s bad in a time of rising interest rates.  Both newly-issued bonds–and eventually cash as well–become increasingly attractive as lower-risk substitutes.  This is the reason REITs have underperformed the S&P by about 5 percentage points so far this month, and by 9 points since the end of September.  I don’t think we’ve yet reached the back half of this game.

How can an investor fight the negative influence of interest rate rises in the REIT sector?   …by finding REITs that look as much as they can like stocks.  That is, by finding REITs that are able to achieve earnings–that therefore distributable income–growth.

This means finding REITs that can raise rents steadily or whose development of new properties is large relative to their current asset size.

 

stocks vs. bonds when interest rates are rising (ii)

yesterday’s post: bonds

To summarize yesterday’s post, when interest rates are rising, newly-issued bonds bear higher coupons than ones issued in the recent past. Older bonds look less attractive, because they provide less return.  So they have to go down in price until they’re trading at equivalent returns to new ones.

Other than inflation-indexed bonds, Treasuries have no defense against this.

What about stocks?

Here the issue is a bit more complicated.

Let’s make the useful, and more or less correct, assumption that stocks and bonds are in equilibrium before rates start to rise.  If so, if bonds get cheaper, stocks will also have to get cheaper in order to compete for investor money against now-higher-yielding bonds.

This means rising rates puts downward pressure on stocks, too.

But stocks do have a defense.  It has to do with why rates are rising.

In most cases, rates begin to rise when either bond investors or the Fed sense incipient inflation that threatens to erode the purchasing power of money.  This is what triggers the impulse to raise rates.  Since in advanced economies, inflation is always an issue of wage inflation, its early warning signs are that the economy is reaching full employment and/or wages are beginning to rise at an accelerating rate.  In the US, that’s where we are now.

But more workers employed and wages rising at a healthy clip imply that consumer spending is likely to rise at an accelerating rate.  This implies accelerating profit growth for, in sequence, retailers, their suppliers and the providers of capital goods to both retailers and suppliers.  To the extent that a given stock market represents the local economy (which about half of the S&P 500 does), profits of publicly traded companies will start to go up at an unexpectedly sharp rate.

Rising profits create upward pressure on stock prices that serves as at least a partial counter to the downward pressure created by rising rates.

currency

A second issue that will affect stocks directly is how the combination of inflation and higher rates affects the local currency.

If the currency falls, which is the most common case, export-oriented or import-competing companies will have the best results.  Purely domestic firms, and domestic firms that use foreign inputs, will fare relatively poorly.

If the currency rises, the opposite will most likely happen.

the S&P 500 in past times of rising rates

In the US in the past, the upward pressure from rising profits and the downward pressure from rising interest rates have most often neutralized each other.  There have certainly been diverse sector and industry performances, based on currency, technology, government fiscal policy and the overall state of the world economy.  So there have typically been substantial outperformance opportunities even in a sideways market.  But the overall market tendency in the early year or so of rising rates has typically been sideways, not down.

 

Tomorrow, REITs.