the Fed’s dilemma

history

From almost my first day in the stock market, domestic macroeconomic policy has been implemented by and large by the Federal Reserve.  Two reasons:  a theoretical argument that fiscal policy is subject to long lead times–that by the time Congress acts to stimulate the economy through increased spending, circumstances will have changed enough to warrant the opposite; and ( my view), until very recently neither Democrats nor Republicans have had coherent or relevant macroeconomic platforms.

If pressed, Wall Streeters would likely say that Washington has historically represented a net drag on the country’s economic performance of, say, 1% yearly, but that it was ok with financial markets if politicians didn’t do anything crazily negative–the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930, for example.

During the Volcker years (1979-87), money policy was severely restrictive because the country was struggling to control runaway inflation spawned by misguided policy decisions of the 1970s (Mr. Nixon pressuring the Fed to keep policy too loose).  Since then, the stock market has operated under the belief that the Fed’s mandate also includes mitigating stock market losses by loosening policy, the so-called Greenspan, Bernanke and Yellen “puts.”

recent past

We’ve learned that monetary policy is not the miracle cure-all that we once thought.  We could have figured this out from Japan’s experience in the 1980s.  But the message came home in spectacular fashion domestically during the financial crisis last decade.  As rates go lower and policy loosens, lots of “extra” money starts sloshing around.   Fixed income managers gravitate toward increasingly arcane and illiquid markets.  In their eagerness to not be left out of the latest fad product, they begin to take on risks they really don’t understand as  well as to forego standard protective covenants.

We could almost hear the sigh of relief from the Fed as the tax bill of 2017, which reduced payments for the ultra-rich and brought the corporate tax rate down to about the world average, passed.  Because the bill was so stimulative, it gave the Fed the chance to raise rates as an offset, meaning it could tamp down the speculative fires.

today

Enter the Trump tariffs.

Two preliminaries:

–tariffs are taxes.  Strictly speaking, importers, not foreign suppliers (as the president maintains (could it be he actually believes this?)) pay them to customs officials.  But the importer tries to ease his pain by asking for price reductions from suppliers and for selling price increases from customers.  How this all settles out depends on who has market power.  In this case,it looks like virtually all the cost will be borne by domestic parties.  Domestic economic growth will slow.  The relevant stock market question is how much of the pain consumers will bear and how much will be concentrated in a reduction of import business profits.

–I think Mr. Trump is correct that the US subsidy of NATO is excessive.  It represents the situation at the end of WWII, when the US left standing–or at best the time when the USSR began to disintegrate into today’s Russia (whose GDP = Pennsylvania + Ohio, or California/2).  I also think that China, with a population five times ours and an economy 1.25x as big as the US (using PPP), is a more serious economic rival than we have seen in decades.  It doesn’t have the post-WWII sense of obligation to us that we have seen elsewhere.  So we have to rethink our relationship.

Having written that, I don’t see that Mr. Trump has even the vaguest clue about how the country should proceed, given these insights.

To my mind, tariffs + retaliation mean both domestic and foreign companies will be reluctant to locate new operations in the US.  Tariffs on Chinese handicrafts may bring industries of the past back to the US, at the same time they force China to increase emphasis on industries of the future.  I don’t get how either of these moves should be a US strategic goal….

the dilemma

The question for the Fed:  should it enable the president’s spate of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot tariff policies by lowering rates?  …or should it let the economy slide into recession, hoping this will jar Congress into action?

 

more tariffs?

Wall Street woke up today to an announcement from Mr. Trump that he intends to place a tariff on all goods coming into the US from Mexico.  The levy will be in effect until that country prevents immigrants/asylum seekers from reaching its border with the US.  The initial rate will be 5%, escalating to 25% by October.

As an American, I think I can understand the issues the administration wants to address.  But I find it more than a little unsettling that there seems to be no coherent, well-reasoned plan being implemented.  I’m pretty sure tariffs are not the way to go.  Also, both sides of the aisle in Congress appear to be eerily content to watch from the sidelines, rather than make it clear that Mr. Trump does not have authority to levy tariffs without legislative consent (my personal view, for what it’s worth) or limit/revoke that authority if the president does have it now.

 

As an investor, however, my main concern is the much narrower question of how Washington will affect my portfolio.

As to Mexico:  let’s say the US sells $300 billion yearly to Mexico and buys $350 billion.  Most of that is food and car parts.  Even if we sell less to Mexico because of retaliatory tariffs and if imported goods are 15% more expensive–to pluck a figure out of the air–the total direct negative impact on the US + Mexican economies would probably be a loss of around $100 billion in GDP.  How that would be split between the two isn’t clear, but the aggregate figure is 8% of Mexican GDP and 0.5% of US GDP.  So, potentially much worse for Mexico than for the US.

Given the nature of US-Mexico trade, the negative economic impact in the US will be concentrated on lower-income Americans.  If earnings reports from Walmart and the dollar stores are to be believed (I think they are), these are people whose fortunes have finally, and only recently, begun to turn up post-recession.

From a US stock market point of view, neither autos nor food has large index representation.  My guess is the negative impact will be roughly equally divided between negative pressure on directly-affected stocks, including names that cater to the less affluent, and mild downward pressure on stocks in general from slower domestic growth.  Because small caps are more domestically focused than the S&P 500, only half of whose earnings come from the US, the Russell 2000 will likely suffer more than large caps.

 

There are deeper, long-term questions that Washington is raising–about whether the US is an attractive place to establish manufacturing businesses and whether it can be relied on as a supplier to buy from.  In addition, it’s hard to figure out what government policy today is–for example, how new tariffs on Mexican imports square with just-reworked NAFTA, or how imposing tariffs that hurt domestic car manufacturers square with the threat of tariffs on imported vehicles, which do the opposite.

Neither of these concerns are likely to have a significant impact on near-term trading.  But heightened Washington dysfunction must even now be becoming a red flag in multinationals’ planning.

 

 

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.

Trump on trade: unintended consequences?

A straightforward analysis of what Mr. Trump is doing would be:

–tariffs slow overall growth and rearrange it to favor protected industries.  There’s no reason I can see to believe something different might happen in the US

–apart from the third world, protected industries tend to have domestic political clout but to be in economic trouble.  In my experience, these woes come more from bad management than from foreigners’ actions

–the go-it-alone approach is a weak one, since it provides ample scope for a target country to shop tariffed goods through an intermediary

–the apparently arbitrary way the administration is acting will cause both domestic and foreign corporations to reconsider future capital investment in the US.

 

There are, however, two other issues that I think have long-term implications but which aren’t discussed much.

–tariffs may cause industries that have moved abroad to retain labor-intensive work practices (and continue to use dated industrial machinery) in a lower labor-cost environment to return to the home country.  If such firms come back to the US, it won’t be with the old machinery.  New operations will be very highly mechanized. In other words, one likely response to the Trump tariffs will be to accelerate the replacement of humans with robots in the US.

–as I see it, China is at the key stage of economic development where, to grow, it must leave behind labor-intensive work and develop higher value-added industries.  This is very hard to do.  The owners of low value-added enterprises have become very wealthy and powerful.  They employ lots of people.  They have considerable political influence.   And they strongly favor the status quo.  The result is typically that the economy in question plateaus as labor-intensive industries block progress.  In the case of China, however, the threat that the US will effectively deny such firms access to a major market will kickstart progress and deflect blame from Beijing.

 

If I’m correct, the effect of trying to restore WWII-era industry in the US will, ironically, achieve the opposite.  It will accelerate domestic change in the nature of work away from manual labor.  And it will run interference against the status quo in China, allowing Beijing’s efforts to become a cutting-edge industrial power to gather speed.

 

 

tariffs and the stock market

The Trump administration has just triggered the latest round of tit-for-tat tariffs with China, declaring 10% duties on $200 billion of imports (the rate to be raised to 25% after the holiday shopping season).  China has responded with tariffs on $60 billion of its imports from the US.  Domestic firms affected by the Trump tariffs are already announcing price increases intended to pass on to consumers all of the new government levy.

It isn’t necessarily that simple, though.  The open question is about market power. Theory–and practical experience–show that if a manufacturer/supplier has all the market power, then it can pass along the entire cost increase.  To the degree that the customer has muscles to flex, however, the manufacturer will find it hard to increase prices without a significant loss of sales.  If so (and this is the usual case), the company will be forced to absorb some of the tariff cost, lowering profits.

From an analyst’s point of view, the worst case is the one where a company’s customers are especially price-sensitive and where substitutes are readily available–or where postponing a purchase is a realistic option.

 

Looking at the US stock market in general, as I see it, investors factored into stock prices in a substantial way last year the corporate tax cut that came into effect in January.  They seem to me to be discounting this development again (very unusual) as strong, tax reduction-fueled earnings are reported this year.  However, the tax cut is going to be “anniversaried” in short order–meaning that reported earnings gains in 2019 are likely going to be far smaller than this year’s.  The Fed will also presumably be continuing to raise short-term interest rates.  Tariffs will be at least another tap on the brakes, perhaps more than that.

Because of this, I find it hard to imagine big gains for the S&P 500 next year.  In fact, I’m imagining the market as kind of flattish.  Globally-oriented firms that deal in services rather than goods will be the most insulated from potential harm.  There will also be beneficiaries of Washington’s tariff actions, although the overall effect of the levies will doubtless be negative.  For suppliers to China or users of imported Chinese components, the key issues will be the extent of Chinese exposure and the market power they wield.

PS   Hong Kong-based China stocks have sold off very sharply over the past few months.  I’m beginning to make small buys.