if Biden wins

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, a former work colleague of mine was writing, presciently, as early as 1990 that neither major US political party had much relevance for ordinary Americans any longer. Democrats had a social justice program but no economic strategy; Republicans didn’t stand for much of anything, and were in danger of being captured by religious cultists.

damage from Trump

It’s thirty years later, and the basic story remains true, I think. It has set the stage for the election of Trump, an inept and unsavory businessman with anti-science and white racist views plus a fondness for dictators, especially Vladimir Putin. His campaign, to put the best face on it, called for revitalization of the South and Midwest, areas hurt by the demise of basic industry over the last half-century and abandoned by both parties, through a return he fantasized for the country to the world of the 1950s. Despite the fact that this “solution” is flat-out crazy, rank-and-file Republicans fell right in line with Trump’s idea. Many independents, too.

The results are about what one might have predicted: economic growth had slowed to close to zero even before the pandemic, foreign investment into the US was drying up; domestic firms were shifting operations abroad to escape his white racism that precluded hiring many highly skilled foreigners. In my view, we have only begun to feel the negative economic effects of his blundering. And in vintage Trump form, he has hurt most badly the people who have trusted and supported him.

The most visible damage to date from the Trump administration, however, is its epic coronavirus failure. More than simply pandemic denial, Trump has politicized routine safety precautions, like wearing a face mask, turning them into partisan political statements impermissible for his followers to make. The result has been a domestic death toll so far that’s horrifically higher than elsewhere, and pandemic cases reaching new peaks here while the rest of the OECD is at maybe a tenth of the March-April highs.

if Biden wins

If Biden wins, repairing the damage from Trump’s extending and deepening the pandemic-induced domestic downturn will be his first, and most difficult, priority, I think.

The counterproductive Trump tariffs were put in place by executive order, so they can presumably quickly and easily be reversed. The damage to the US “brand” can also be repaired to some extent by ending Trump’s anti-foreigner and anti-diversity measures.

On the other hand, the US is way worse off than it was four years ago. In addition to the unnecessary suffering and loss from the pandemic, creaky domestic infrastructure is four years older. The tax system remains unreformed, unless we call lowering taxes for the ultra-wealthy a “reform.” Because of this, the federal budget was in deficit before coronavirus-related spending. Now it’s worse. Also, as I mentioned above, in true Trumpish fashion, nothing has been done about the legitimate grievances of Americans left behind by structural change.

In short, there’s lots to do, both promises not kept and new messes made.

Government finances put into disarray by Trump will eventually have to be repaired. This process can be gotten to voluntarily or, unfortunately the more likely case, through an eventual crisis of confidence–a decline in the dollar or a refusal of professional investors to buy Treasuries. That could be years down the road, however–I truly have no idea.

the Wall Street worry: higher taxes

The front line, but specious, anti-Democrat argument is the Republican staple that Democrats raise taxes. The facile, but correct, I think, counter is that higher taxes on rising income is a better situation all around than lower taxes on lower income. We already have the latter now, with little of the really permanent economic damage Trump has put in motion having kicked in yet.

Will a Biden administration have the willingness to really reform the tax system by attacking entrenched special interest tax breaks? Who knows?

a market rotation?

The defining characteristic of the Trump presidency in stock market terms has been the extreme aversion of equity investors to stocks exposed to the domestic economy. Presumably, a Trump loss would trigger a substantial rally in laggard domestic-GDP-linked names–as cheap, with improving prospects. My guess is that Trumpish back-to-the-Fifties issues wouldn’t participate fully, if at all. Maybe their joining in would signal that the rally was nearing an end.


I don’t know. Most election experts were wrong in 2016, so I’d expect Wall Street to be cautious about reshaping a portfolio around either candidate. On the other hand, the bigger the bet that Trump is a combination “useful idiot” and George Wallace redux, the greater the outperformance over the past 2 1/2 years. This would argue for an early portfolio shift for successful managers, not to eliminate entirely the bet that Trump will continue his trademark turn-lemonade-into-lemons, but to come closer to neutral to protect gains already made. However, Trump seems to be doubling down in recent days on the idea that overt white racism and pandemic denial is his best chance for reelection. So maybe it’s too soon to think the worst is over.

a different path

I’ve always found that if I’m stuck on an either-or where I have no idea how to choose, the best thing to do is to reject the idea that I need to choose either. Maybe for me looking for names in Canada, the EU or even Japan is the way to go to reduce my Trump dysfunction bet–at least until I can see the US situation more clearly.

the biggest constant

If Trump is such a loser, why has the stock market gone up during his term?

–the biggest reason is that money policy has constantly been extraordinarily loose, partly to offset the substantial negative effects on GDP of Trump’s trainwreck trade agenda. With cash yielding nothing and Treasuries close to that, money seeking liquid investments pours into stocks. At some point, interest rates will rise and stop the flow. But with the US reeling from the coronavirus, I don’t think that’s any time soon.

–about 50% of the earnings of the S&P 500 come from outside the US. Of the rest, half comes from Europe and the remainder from emerging markets and Japan. In my view, equity investors really want the second 50% and hold the first because they’re forced to.

starting out in 2020

The S&P 500 is trading at about 25x current earnings, with 10% eps growth in prospect, implying the market is trading at around 22.7x forward earnings.  During my working career, which covers 40+ years, high multiple/lower growth has virtually always been an unfavorable combination for market bulls.

Could the growth figure be too low, on the idea that forecasters give themselves some wiggle room at the beginning of the year?

For the 50% or so of earnings that come from the US, probably not.  This is partly due to the sheer length of the expansion since the recession of 2008-09 (pent up demand from the bad years has been satisfied, even in left-behind areas of the country–look at Walmart and dollar store sales).  It’s also a function of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot Washington policies the have ended up retarding growth–tariff wars, suppression of labor force expansion, tax cuts for those least likely to consume, no infrastructure spending, no concern about education…  So I find it hard to imagine positive surprises for most US-focused firms.

Prospects are probably better for the non-US half.  How so?  In the EU early signs are emerging that structural change is occurring, forced by a long period of stagnation.  The region is also several years behind the US in recovering from the recession, so one would expect that the same uptick for ordinary citizens we’ve recently seen in the US.  Firms seeking to relocate from the US and the UK are another possible plus.  In addition, Mr. Trump’s life-long addiction to risky, superficially attractive but ultimately destructive, ventures (think:  Atlantic City casinos) may finally achieve the weaker dollar he desires–implying the domestic currency value of foreign earnings may turn out to be higher than the consensus expects.


The biggest saving grace for stocks may be the relative unattractiveness of fixed income, the main investment alternative.  The 10-year Treasury is yielding 1.81% as I’m writing this  That’s 10 basis points below the dividend yield on the S&P 500, which sports an earnings yield (1/PE) of 4.  I say “may” because, other than Japan, the world has little practical experience with the behavior of stocks while interest rates are ultra-low.  In Japan, where rates have flirted with zero for several decades, PE ratios have declined from an initial 50 or so into the low 20s. Yes, Japan is also the prime example of the economic destructiveness of anti-immigration, anti-trade, defend-the-status-quo policies Washington is now espousing. On the other hand, it’s still a samurai-mentality (yearning for the pre-Black Ship past) culture, the population is much older than in the US and the national government is a voracious buyer of equities.   So there are big differences.  Still, ithe analogy with Japan holds–that is, if the differences don’t matter so much in the short term–then PEs here would be bouncing along the bottom and should be stable unless the Fed Funds rate begins to rise.

That’s my best guess.


The consensus was of viewing last year for the S&P is that all the running was in American tech industries.   Another way of looking at the results is that the big winners were multinational firms traded in the US but with worldwide markets and very small domestic manufacturing and distribution footprints.   They are secular change beneficiaries located in a country whose national government is now adamantly opposing that change.  In other words, the winners were bets on the company but against the country.  Look at, for example,  AMZN (+15%) vs. MSFT (+60%) over the past year.

The biggest issue I see with the 2019 winners is that on a PE to growth basis they seem expensive to me.  Some, especially newer, smaller firms seem wildly so.  But I don’t see the situation changing until rates begin to rise.


Having said that, low rates are an antidote to government dysfunction, so I don’t see them going up any time soon.  So my practical bottom line ends up being one of the gallows humor conclusions that Wall Streeters seem to love:  the more unhinged Mr. Trump talks and acts–the threat of bombing Iranian cultural sites, which other governments have politely pointed out would be a war crime, is a good example–the better the tech sector will do.  As a citizen, I hope for a (new testament) road-to-Damascus event for him; as an investor, I know that would be a sell signal.









shrinking bond yields ii

why look at bonds? 

If we’re stock market investors, why are we interested in bonds anyway?  It’s because at bottom we’re not really interested in stocks per se.  We’re interested in liquid publicly-traded securities–i.e., stocks, bonds and cash.  We’re interested in publicly-traded securities because we can almost always sell them in an instant, and because there’s usually enough information available about them that we can make an educated decision.


comparing bonds with stocks

bond yields, at yesterday’s close

One-month Treasury bills = 2.18%

Ten-year Treasury notes = 2.07%

30-year Treasury bonds = 2.57%.

S&P 500

Current dividend yield on the index = 1.7%.


According to Yardeni Research (a reputable firm, but one I chose because it was the first name up in my Google search), index earnings for calendar year 2019 are estimated to be about $166, earning for the coming 12 months, about $176.

Based on this, the S&P at 3000 means a PE ratio of 18.0 for calendar year 2019, and 17.0 for the 12 months ending June 2020.

Inverting those figures, we obtain an “earnings yield,” a number we can use to compare with bond yields–the main difference being that we get bond interest payments in our pockets while our notional share of company managers remains with them.

The 2019 figure earnings yield for the S&P is 5.6%; for the forward 12 months, it’s 5.8%.

the result

During my time in the stock market, there has typically been a relatively stable relationship between the earnings yield and 10-/30-year Treasury yields.  (The notable exception was the period just before the 2008-09 recession, when, as I see it, reported financials massively misstated the profitability of banks around the world.  So although there was a big mismatch between bond and stock yields, faulty SEC filings made this invisible.)

At present, the earnings yield is more than double the government bond yield.  This is very unusual.  Perhaps more significant, the yield on the 10-year Treasury is barely above the dividend yield on stocks, a level that, in my experience, is breached only at market bottoms.

Despite the apparently large overvaluation of bonds vs. stocks, there continues to be a steady outflow from US stock mutual funds and into bond funds.

the valuation gap

Using earnings yield vs coupon rationale outlined above, stocks are way cheaper than bonds.  How can this be?

–for years, part of world central banks’ efforts to repair the damage done by the financial crisis has been to inject money into circulation by buying government bonds.  This has pushed up bond prices/pushed down yields.  Private investors have also been acting as arbitrageurs, selling the lowest-yielding bonds and buying the highest (in this case meaning Treasuries).  This process compresses yields and lowers them overall.

–large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers are reallocating portfolios away from           stocks

–I presume, but don’t know enough about the inner workings of the bond market to be sure, that a significant number of bond professionals are shorting Treasuries and buying riskier, less liquid corporate bonds with the proceeds.  This will one day end in tears (think:  Long Term Capital), but likely not in the near future.


To the extent that 1 and 3 involve foreigners, who have to buy dollars to get into the game, their activity puts at least some upward pressure on the US currency.  The dollar has risen by about 2.4% over the past year on a trade-weighted basis, and by about 3% against the yen and the euro.  That’s not much.  In fact, I was surprised when calculating these figures how little the dollar has appreciated, given the outcry from the administration and its pressure on the Fed to weaken the dollar by lowering the overnight money rate. (My guess is that our withdrawing from the TPP, tariff wars, and the tarnishing of our image as a democracy have, especially in the Pacific, done much more to damage demand for US goods than the currency.)

high-yielding stocks as a substitute for bonds?

I haven’t done any work, so I really don’t know.  I do know a number of fellow investors who have been following this idea for more than five years.  So my guess is that there aren’t many undiscovered bargains in this area.


my bottom line

I’m less concerned now about the message low bond yields are sending than I was before I started to write these posts.  I still think the valuation mismatch between stocks and bonds will eventually be a problem for both markets.  But my guess is that normalization, if that’s the right word, won’t start until the EU begins to repair the serious fissures in its structure.  Maybe this is a worry for 2020, maybe not even then.

It seems to me that the US stock market’s main economic concern remains the damage from Mr. Trump’s misguided effort to resuscitate WWII-era industries in the US.  The best defense will likely be cloud-oriented cash-generating software-based US multinationals.  (see the comments by a former colleague attached to yesterday’s post).






stocks in a 4% T-bond world

There are two questions here:

–what happens to stocks as interest rates rise? and

–what should the PE on the S&P 500 be if the main investment alternative for US investors, Treasury bonds, yield something around 4%?

On the first, over my 38+ year investment career stocks have gone mostly sideways when the Fed is raising short-term interest rates.  The standard explanation for this, which I think is correct, is that while stocks can show rising earnings to counter the effect of better yields on newly-issued bonds, existing bonds have no defense.

Put a different way, the market’s PE multiple should contract as rates rise, but rising earnings counter at least part of that effect.

The second question, which is not about how we get there but what it looks like when we arrive, is the subject of this post.

in a 4% world

The arithmetic solution to the question is straightforward.  Imagining that stocks are quasi-bonds, in the way traditional finance academics do, the equivalent of a bond coupon payment is the earnings yield. It’s the portion of a company’s profits that each share has a claim on ÷ the share price.  For example, if a stock is trading at $50 a share and eps are $2, the earnings yield is $2/$50 = 4%.  This is also 1/PE.

A complication:  Ex dividends, corporate profits don’t get deposited into our bank accounts; they remain with management.  So they’re somewhat different from an interest payment.  If management is a skillful user of capital, that’s good.  Otherwise…

If we take this proposed equivalence at face value, a 4% earnings yield and 4% T-bond annual interest payment should be more or less the same thing.  In the ivory tower universe, stocks should trade at 25x earnings if T-bonds are yielding 4%.  That’s almost exactly where the S&P 500 is trading now, based on trailing 12-months “as reported” earnings (meaning not factoring out one-time gains/losses).  Why this measure?   It’s the easiest to obtain.

More tomorrow.


stocks vs. bonds when interest rates are rising

A regular reader asked what I think about REITs in a comment last Friday.  I thought I’d answer him here, starting in a more general way.

One of the safer conclusions we can draw from the US election results is that interest rates are going to be rising over the next couple of years.  Most likely this will happen at a more rapid rate than under the Washington gridlock scenario a Hillary victory would probably have perpetuated.

Two reasons:

–the US appears to be at or near full employment, as evidenced by recent wage gain acceleration, so rates would be rising to fend off future inflation in any event, and

–Republicans, who have been blocking Obama’s infrastructure spending proposals (for no good economic reason), are in favor of fiscal stimulus now that they will get the credit. This will remove some of the pressure the Fed is now under to compensate for congressional failure to do its part to restore economic stability.


What happens to stocks and bonds as rates go up?


— a point of merely academic interest right now, but something to tuck away in the back of our minds, there could come a time when the returns on cash are high enough to draw money to it that would otherwise have gone to stocks and bonds.  I don’t know what that point might be, just that it’s a long time away.  The question to answer is:  if the expected return for stocks is 8% a year and I can get, say, 4% in a savings account, am I willing to take the greater risk of owning stocks?

government bonds

–if we take the simplest case, a government bond is a high-quality promise (i) to pay a specified amount of interest for a set period of time, and (ii) to return the principal at the end of the bond’s term.

The annual return on a bond should be the return on cash + a premium to compensate for tying one’s money up for a long period of time.  At the moment, the rate for a 10-year Treasury bond is about 2.16%.  That compares with, say, 0.5% for overnight money.

Suppose the rate on overnight money rises to 2.0%.  A newly-issued 10-year would likely have to yield at a minimum, say, 3.25% to draw buyers (yes, the time premium normally fades as rates rise).  This implies that an already-existing 10-year yielding 2.16% must be worth less than par (since the going rate for a bond at par is 3.25%).

In other words, as interest rates go up, the value of an existing bond goes down.  There’s nothing the issuer can do to change that dynamic.  Since the issuer has the use of what is now cheap money, he will presumably have no desire to change it, either.


More tomorrow.