trade, tariffs and Harley Davidson (HOG)

Modern economics has been founded in study of what caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, with an eye to preventing a recurrence of this devastating period.  We know very clearly that tariffs and quotas are, generally speaking, bad things.  They reduce overall economic activity in the countries that apply them.  Yes, politically favored industries do often get a benefit, but the cost to everybody else is many times larger.  We also know that the use of tariffs and quotas can snowball into a storm of retaliation and counter-retaliation that can do widespread damage for a long time.

My point is that it’s inconceivable that high-ranking public officials in Washington don’t know this.

 

HOG motorcycles are Baby Boomer counterculture icon.  The company’s traditional domestic male customer base is aging, however, and losing the strength and sense of balance required to operate these heavy machines.  At the same time, HOG has had difficulty in attracting younger customers, or women or minority groups to its offerings.  So it’s an economically more fragile firm, I think, than the consensus realizes.

HOG has been damaged to some degree by the Trump tariffs on aluminum and steel, which are important raw materials.  (As I understand them, the tariffs are ostensibly to address Chinese theft of US intellectual property, although they are being levied principally against Japan and the EU.  ???)

Completely predictably, the EU is retaliating against the tariffs.  In particular, it is levying its own 25% tariff on HOG motorcycles imported from the US.  This affects about 20% of Harley’s output.  HOG says the levy will cost it $100 million a year in lost income, implying that all of the EU-bound Harleys are now made in the US.  HOGs response is to shift production targeted for the EU to its overseas plants.  My guess is that this will take 1000+ jobs out of the US.

In contrast to the job loss from this one company, public reports indicate the total job gain from the steel/aluminum tariffs to be about 800 workers being recalled to previously idle steel/aluminum plants.

 

Mr. Trump’s response to the HOG announcement was to threaten punitive tariffs on any imports of foreign-made Harleys–a move that could threaten the viability of HOG’s network of around 700 independent dealerships.  7000 jobs at risk?

The stock market declined sharply on the day of the HOG announcement.  I think that’s because the HOG story is a shorthand illustration of how tariffs, and quotas, cause net losses to the country as a whole, although they may bring benefits to a politically favored few.

 

A second negative effect of trade protection is a long-term one.  My experience is that most often the protected industry, relieved of immediate competitive pressure, ceases to evolve.  After a few years, consumers become willing to pay the increased price to get a (better) imported product.  In my mind, General Motors is the poster child for this.

 

Stock market implications?  …avoid Industrials.  The obvious beneficiary of Washington’s ill-thought out trade policy is IT.  For the moment, however, I think that this group is expensive enough that Consumer Discretionary and Energy are better areas to pick through.

 

 

a day like today

Stocks are down today.  The ostensible reasons are trade war fears + the administration’s distinctly un-American decision to seize and imprison the children of asylum seekers at the border.

It’s not clear to me that–important as these issues may be for the long-term attractiveness of the US as an investment destination–they are the reasons for the market’s decline.  (Personally, I think the mid-term elections will give us the first true read on whether ordinary Americans approve of the UK/Japan-like road Washington has set the country on.)

But I don’t want to write about macroeconomics or about politics.  Instead, I want to call attention to the useful purpose that down days, or strings of down days, for that matter, serve for portfolio management.

There are two:

 

–portfolio realignment.  This is as much about psychology as anything else.   Typically during a selloff stars go down more than the market and clunkers underperform.  Because of this, clunkers that have been hiding in the dark recesses of the portfolio (we all have them) become more visible.  At the same time, stars that we’ve thinking we should buy but have looked too expensive are suddenly trading a bit cheaper.  The reality is probably that we should have made the switch months ago, but a down day gives us a chance to tell ourselves we’re better off by, say, 5% than if we’d made the switch yesterday.

 

–looking for anomalies–that is, clunkers that are going down (for me, this is typically a sign that things are worse than I’ve thought, and a sharp spur to action), or stars that are going up.   Netflix, for example, is up by about 1.4% as I’m writing this, even though it has been a monster stock this year.  I already own enough that I’m not going to do anything.  But if I had none (and were comfortable with such a high-flier) I’d be tempted to buy a little bit and hope to fill out the position on decline.

 

 

$80 a barrel oil

cartel activity

About a week ago, Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the three largest oil producers in the world (the US is #1), announced they were discussing the mechanics of restoring half of the 1.8 million barrels of daily output foreign companies have been withholding from the market since 2016.

the objective? 

…to stop the price from advancing above $80.

To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that oil has gotten this high.  But producing countries have held to their cutback pledges to a far greater degree than they have in the past, with the result that the mammoth glut of oil in temporary storage a couple of years ago is mostly gone.  In addition, the economy of Venezuela is melting away, turning down that country’s output of heavy crude favored by US refiners.   Also, the world is worried that unilateral US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement may mean the loss of 500,000 daily barrels from that source.

On the other hand, short-term demand for oil is relatively inflexible.  Because of this, even small changes in supply or demand can result in large swings in price.   An extra 1% -2% in production drove the price from $100+ to $24 in 2014-15, for example.  The same amount of underproduction caused the current rebound.  So in hindsight, $80 shouldn’t have been so shocking.

Why $80?

Two factors, I think.  There must be significant internal pressure among producing countries to get even a small amount more foreign exchange by cheating on quotas.  Letting everyone get something may make it harder for one rogue nation to break ranks.

More importantly, a $100 price seems to trigger significant global conservation efforts, as well as to shift the search for petroleum substitutes into a higher gear.  So somewhere around $80 may be as good as it gets for producers.  And it leaves some headroom if efforts to hold the price at $80 fail.

the stocks

My guess is that most of the upward move for the oils is over.  I think there’s still some reason to be interested in financially leveraged shale oil producers in the US as they unwind the restrictions their lenders have placed on them.

 

 

 

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.