Trade Wars: Clearing the Way for a War of Attrition

 

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” – Leo Tolstoy

 

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.” – Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

“Only an idiot tries to fight a war on two fronts, and only a madman tries to fight one on three.” – David Eddings, American novelist

 

A few updates relating to themes and topics we have written about in the recent past before we get to this week’s piece.

1. Two out of three companies we highlighted as potential value plays in Searching for Value in Retail in June have now announced that they are evaluating opportunities to go private.

The most recent of the announcements comes from Barnes & Noble $BKS which said on Wednesday that it is reviewing several offers to take the bookstore chain private. We are not surprised by this development and had expected as much when we wrote the following in June:

“Trading at a price to consensus forward earnings of around 10x and with a market capitalisation of under US dollars 500 million, $BKS remains a potential target for even the smallest of activist investors or private equity funds.”

The other company we discussed in the same piece was GameStop $GME, which at the start of September announced that it is engaged in discussions with third parties regarding a possible transaction to take the company private.

 

2. Following-up on Trucking: High Freight Rates and Record Truck Orders, orders for Class 8 semi-trucks increased 92 per cent year-over-year in September. Last month capped the highest ever recorded quarterly sales of big rigs in North America.

American trucking companies continue to struggle with tight capacity at the same time demand from the freight market remains strong.

We continue to play this theme through a long position in Allison Transmission $ALSN.

 

3. When the tech bubble popped at the start of the millennium, between 2001 and 2003, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ 100 indices declined by 31.3 and 57.9 per cent on a total return basis, respectively. During the same period, Cameco Corporation $CCJ, the world’s largest uranium miner by market capitalisation, went up by more than 40 per cent.

Yesterday, as we witnessed global equity markets sell-off in response to (depending on who you ask) (i) tightening central bank policies and rising yields raising concerns about economic growth prospects, (ii) the accelerating sell-off in bond markets, or (iii) news that China secretly hacked the world’s leading tech companies, including Amazon and Apple, $CCJ closed up 5 per cent on the day.

Maybe history as Mark Twain said rhymes, maybe it is nothing, or just maybe it is one more sign of the increasing awareness of the nascent bull market underway in uranium.

CCJ.PNG

 

4. With the recent sell-off in the bond market, long-term Treasury yields have surged. Yields on the ten-year treasuries rose as high as 3.23 per cent on Wednesday, recording their highest level since 2011.

Does this level in yields make the long-end of the curve attractive for investors to start to re-allocate some equity exposure to long-term Treasury bonds? We think not.

Our thinking is driven by the following passage from Henry Kaufman’s book Interest Rates, the Markets, and the New Financial World in which he considers, in 1985, the possibility that the secular bond bear market may have come to an end:

“[T]wo credit market developments force me to be somewhat uncertain about the secular trend of long-term rates. One is the near-term performance of institutional investors, who in the restructured markets of recent decades generally will not commit funds when long when short rates are rising. The other development is the continued large supply of intermediate and long-term Governments that is likely to be forthcoming during the next period of monetary restraint. There is a fair chance that long yields will stay below their secular peaks, but the certainty of such an event would be greatly advanced with a sharp slowing of U.S. Government bond issuance and with the emergence of intermediate and long-term investment decisions by portfolio managers.”

 

In August this year, the US Treasury announced increases to its issuance of bonds in response to the US government’s rising deficit. This is the very opposite of what Mr Kaufman saw as a catalyst for declining long-term yields in 1985. Moreover, this increased issuance is baked in without the passing of President Trump’s infrastructure spending plan, which has been temporarily shelved. We suspect that Mr Trump’s infrastructure spending ambitions are likely to return to the fore following the upcoming mid-term elections. If an infrastructure spending bill of the scale Mr Trump has alluded to in the past come to pass, US Treasury bond issuance is only likely to further accelerate.

With the window for US companies to benefit from an added tax break this year by maximising their pension contributions now having passed, it will be interesting to see if institutional investors now become reluctant to allocate additional capital to long-dated Treasury bonds due to rising short rates.

The relative flatness of the yield curve, in our opinion, certainly does not warrant taking on the duration risk. At the same time, we do not recommend a short position in long-dated treasuries either – the negative carry is simply too costly at current yields.

 

On to this week’s piece where we discuss the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the new trade deal between the US, Canada and Mexico that replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and its implications on the on-going trade dispute between the US and China.

The many months of the will-they-won’t-they circle of negotiations between the US, Canada and Mexico have culminated in the USMCA, which will replace NAFTA. The new deal may not be as transformative as the Trump Administration would have us believe but nonetheless has some important changes. Some of the salient features of the new agreement include:

 

1. Automobiles produced in the trade bloc will only qualify for zero tariffs if at least 75 per cent of their components are manufactured in Mexico, the US, or Canada versus 62.5 per cent under NAFTA.

The increased local component requirement is, we feel, far more to do with limiting indirect, tariff-free imports of Chinese products into the US than it is to do with promoting auto parts production in North America. The latter, we think, is an added benefit as opposed to the Trump Administration’s end goal.

 

2. Also relating to automobiles, the new agreement calls for 40 to 45 per cent of content to be produced by workers earning wages of at least US dollars 16 an hour by the year 2023.

This provision specifically targets the relative cost competitiveness of Mexico and is likely to appease Trump faithfuls hoping for policies aimed at stemming the flow of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico.

How this provision will be monitored remains anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, the USMCA, unlike NAFTA, does allow each country to sanction the others for labour violations that impact trade and therefore it may well become that the threat is used to coerce Mexico into complying with the minimum wage requirements.

 

3. Canada will improve the level of access to its dairy market afforded to the US. It will start with a six-month phase-in that allows US producers up to a 3.6 per cent share of the Canadian dairy market, which translates into approximately US dollars 70 million in increased exports for US farmers.

Canada also agreed to eliminate Class 7 – a Canada-wide domestic policy, creating a lower-priced class of industrial milk. The policy made certain categories of locally produced high-protein milk products cheaper than standard milk products from the US.

 

4. The term of a copyright will be increased from 50 years beyond the life of the author to 70 years beyond the life of the author. This amendment particularly benefits pharmaceutical and technology companies in the US. American companies’ investment in research and development far outstrips that made by their Canadian and Mexican peers

Another notable victory for pharmaceuticals is the increased protection for biologics patents from eight years to ten years.

 

5. NAFTA had an indefinite life; the USMCA will expire in 16 years.

The US, Canada and Mexico will formally review the agreement in six years to determine whether an extension beyond 16 years is warranted or not.

 

The successful conclusion of negotiations between the three countries, subject of course to Congressional approval, combined with the trade related truce declared with the European Union in the summer, should be seen as a victory for US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer.

Earlier this year, in AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market we wrote (emphasis added):

 

Mr Lighthizer’s primary objectives with respect to US-Sino trade relations are (1) for China to open up its economy – by removing tariffs and ownership limits – for the benefit of Corporate America and (2) to put an end to Chinese practices that erode the competitive advantages enjoyed by US corporations – practices such as forcing technology transfer as a condition for market access.

Mr Lighthizer’s goals are ambitious. They will require time and patience from everyone – including President Trump, Chinese officials, US allies, and investors. For that, he will need to focus Mr Trump’s attention on China. He will not want the President continuing his thus far ad hoc approach to US trade policy. If NAFTA and other trade deals under negotiations with allies such as South Korea are dealt with swiftly, we would take that as a clear signal that Mr Lighthizer is in control of driving US trade policy.

 

Mr Trump and his band of trade warriors and security hawks are now in the clear to focus their attention on China and deal with the threat it poses to the US’s global economic, military and technological leadership.

 

The Big Hack

On Thursday, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a ground breaking story confirming the Trump Administration’s fears relating to Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft. The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies details how Chinese spies hacked some of the leading American technology companies, including the likes of Apple and Amazon, and compromised their supply chains.

Bloomberg’s revelations were swiftly followed by strongly worded denials by Apple and Amazon.

The timing of Bloomberg’s report – coming so soon after the USMCA negotiations were completed successfully – regardless of whether the allegations are true or not is notable.

Coincidentally, also on Thursday, Vice President Pence, in a speech at the Hudson Institute, criticised China on a broad range of issues, from Beijing’s supposed meddling in US elections, unfair trade practices, espionage, and the Belt and Road Initiative.

 

American Corporate Interests

The main hurdle for the Trump Administration in its dispute with China is the US dollars 250 billion invested in China by Corporate America.

We see the recent moves by the Administration in upping the ante on China, by disseminating the theft and espionage narrative through the media and new rounds of tariffs, as a means to provoke Corporate America to begin reengineering its supply chains away from China. Whether this happens, and at what the cost will be, remains to be seen.

 

War of Attrition

We expect US-China tensions to continue to escalate especially as we draw closer to mid-term election. And the Trump Administration to (threaten to) impose higher tariffs and use other economic and non-economic measures to pressurise the Chinese. The only near term reprieves we see from the US side are (i) a resounding defeat for the Republicans in the mid-term elections (not our base case) or (ii) a re-assessment of priorities by the Trump Administration following the elections.

From the Chinese perspective, the short-term impact of tariffs has partially been offset by the ~10 per cent fall in the renminbi’s value against the US dollar since April. A continued depreciation of the renminbi can further offset the impact of tariffs in the short run – for now this is not our base case.

The other alternative for Beijing is to stimulate its economy through infrastructure and housing investment to offset the external shock à la 2009 and 2015. However, given that Xi Jinping highlighted deleveraging as a key policy objective at the 19th National Congress, we expect fiscal stimulus to remain constrained until is absolutely necessary.

For now our base case is for China to continue to buy time with the President Trump and at the same time for it to work on deepening its economic and political ties in Asia, with its allies and the victims of a weaponised dollar.

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

Consumer Stocks: The Long and Short of it

 

“One of the funny things about the stock market is that every time one person buys, another sells, and both think they are astute.” – William Feather, American publisher and author

 

“When thinking about the future, it is fashionable to be pessimistic. Yet the evidence unequivocally belies such pessimism. Over the past centuries, humanity’s lot has improved dramatically – in the developed world, where it is rather obvious, but also in the developing world, where life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 100 years.” – Bjørn Lomborg, Danish author and President of Copenhagen Consensus Center

 

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favourite day,” said Pooh.

Alexander Alan Milne

 

American consumers are the driving engine of the US economy – consumer spending is estimated to represent about two-thirds of US economic output. If sentiment surveys and retail sales are anything to go by then the American consumer, and by extension the US economy, is in rude health.

Consumer sentiment, as tracked by the University of Michigan, in September jumped to its second-highest level since 2004.

According to the Commerce Department, US retail sales increased by 6.6 per cent year-over-year in August – running well ahead of inflation. Month-on-month growth, however, was disappointing with August sales only increasing 0.1 per cent over July – whilst somewhat unsatisfactory, monthly comparisons tend to have a very low signal-to-noise ratio and are therefore misleading to read into, in our opinion.

Given the robust retail sales and soaring consumer sentiment, one would expect investors to be all bulled up on consumer stocks. Yet, as we compare the level of short interest across the constituents of the S&P500 Index we find that the greatest concentration of shorts (relative to free float) is in consumer related stocks. Investors remain circumspect about the prospects of consumer focused companies due to the potential impact of (i) rising interests on the disposable income of US consumers, and (ii) escalating trade tensions between the US and China on the companies’ supply chains, which in turn could meaningfully increase their cost of goods.

The below chart shows the average level of short interest (as a percentage of free float) by industry group. (Consumer related industry groups are highlighted in yellow.)

 

Average Short Interest across S&P500 Index by Industry Group 1Source: Bloomberg

The above chart shows that all but one of the consumer related industry groups has a higher level of short interest than the average level of short interest for a stock in the S&P500 Index. Moreover, the top three most shorted industry groups are all consumer related.

To further dissect the level of short interest across consumer related stocks, we focus in on the constituents of the SPDR S&P Retail $XRT and iShares US Consumer Goods $IYK exchange traded funds.

 

Retail

The average level of short interest for $XRT constituents is 7.5 per cent of free float. The most shorted sub-industry groups are food retail (something we have written about recently in The Challenge for Food & Beverage Retail Incumbents), automotive retail, and drug retail.

Average Short Interest across $XRT by Sub-Industry Group 2Source: Bloomberg

American department store chain Dillard’s is the most shorted stock amongst the constituents of $XRT with short interest making up a whopping 66.2 per cent of free float. The high level of short interest in the stock has not been rewarded by a declining price this year – the stock has generated a total return of 31.5 per cent year-to-date (as at market close on 19 September, 2018).

A further seven constituents have short interests that exceed 30 per cent of their free float, namely: Overstock.com (45.7 per cent), JC Penney (45.7 per cent), GameStop (39.6 per cent), Camping World Holdings (39.3 per cent), Hibbett Sports (36.4 per cent), The Buckle (36.0 per cent) and Carvana (31.3 per cent). The performance of these stocks has been more mixed with online retail company Overstock.com down 58.8 per cent year-to-date while online car dealer Carvana has generated an astonishing 208.3 per cent return year-to-date.

Many of the heavily shorted retail stocks appear to us to be the companies investors view as the mostly likely to be “Amazoned” in the near term.

 

Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents 3Source: Bloomberg

 

Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents 4Source: Bloomberg

 

Generally, being short retail stocks has not been rewarding this year. The price return of $XRT is 14.2 per cent year-to-date versus 9.6 per cent year-to-date for the S&P500 Index.

 

Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $XRT Constituents 5Source: Bloomberg

Note: Chart excludes Dillard’s and Caravan

 

Consumer Goods

The average level of short interest for $IYK constituents at 6.2 per cent of free float is lower than for $XRT constituents but still significantly higher than the average for the S&P500 Index. The most shorted sub-industry groups are tires & rubber, home furnishings and housewares & specialties.

Rising mortgage rates and the home buyer affordability index at ten-year lows are the likely reasons for the high levels of short interest in the home furnishings and housewares & specialties segments.

Average Short Interest across $IYK by Sub-Industry Group 6Source: Bloomberg

 

Only two stocks amongst the $IYK constituents have a short interest to free float ratio exceeding 30 per cent: B&G Foods (32.7 per cent) and Under Armour (31.8 per cent).

Generally, being short consumer goods stocks has been more rewarding than being short retail stocks. $IYK is down 3.5 per cent year-to-date. (We wrote about our concerns relating to the consumer goods sector last year in Unbranded: The Risk in Household Consumer Names.)

 

Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents 7Source: Bloomberg

 

Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents 8Source: Bloomberg

 

Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $IYK Constituents 9Source: Bloomberg

 

 

Investment Perspective

 

There is, we think, no clear playbook when it comes to heavily shorted stocks. Some portfolio managers we have interacted with in the past have occasionally gone long ‘consensus shorts’. Their track record is middling; they have done very well at times but also been burnt badly at other times.

Our approach is to identify heavily shorted stocks where we have a differentiated view on the prospects of near term earnings, valuation or the potential for the company to be acquired and to go long those stocks. (These lessons have been hard learned over time as in the past we have found ourselves far too closely aligned with consensus – as George S. Patton is known to have said: ‘If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking’.)

In the instances our positioning and views prove correct, the high level of short interest acts like leverage and greatly amplifies returns in a relatively short amount of time.

Earlier this year we went long Under Armour based on our view that consensus earnings expectations had been deflated to such a degree that there was very little chance for the company to disappoint – with the stock price languishing at multi-year lows we deemed there to be little downside even if the company disappointed. As it transpired, the consensus view was indeed far too bleak and the stock quickly re-rated higher as the company outdid lowball expectations.

More recently, on 24 July, we went long and remain long kitchenware and home furnishings company Williams Sonoma $WSM. Short interest for the stock stands at over 20 per cent of free float, the company generated a best-in-class operating return on invested capital of 18.4 per cent in 2017 and trades at around consensus forward price-to-earnings of 15.4 times.

The retail and consumer goods sectors remain our preferred areas to search for heavily shorted stocks where we may have or develop a differentiated view.

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. 

Financial Misery and the Flattening Yield Curve

 

“Every day is a bank account, and time is our currency. No one is rich, no one is poor, we’ve got 24 hours each.” – Christopher Rice, bestselling author

 

“He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal.” – Excerpt from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

 

“A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.” – Bob Hope

 

Before we get to the update, just a quick comment on the New York Times op-ed “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” written by a hitherto anonymous member of the Trump Administration, which we suspect many of you have already read. Our reaction to the piece is that an “elite” politician issuing an editorial in a highbrow broadsheet and talking of resistance against the President is far more likely to stoke populism than to weaken it. Moreover, as angry as President Trump may appear to be about the editorial on television, it gives him just the kind of ammunition he needs to drum up the “us against them” rhetoric and rouse his core supporters to turn up to vote during the forthcoming mid-term elections.

Moving swiftly on, this week we write about US financials.

 

Financials have not had a great year so far. The MSCI US Financials Index is up less than one per cent year-to-date, tracking almost 7 per cent below the performance of the S&P500 Index. While the equivalent financials indices for Japan and Europe are both down more than 11 per cent year to date.

At the beginning of the year, investors and the analyst community appeared to be positive on the prospects for the financial sector. And who can blame them? The Trump Tax Plan had made it through Congress, the global economy was experiencing synchronised growth, progress was being made on slashing the onerous regulations that had been placed on the sector in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and banks’ net interest margins were poised to expand with the Fed expected to continue on its path of rate hikes.

 

So what happened?

We think US financials’ under performance can in large part be explained by the flattening of the US yield curve, which in turn can result in shrinking net interest margins and thus declining earnings. The long-end of the US yield curve has remained stubbornly in place, for example 30-year yields still have not breached 3.25 per cent, and all the while the Fed has continued to hike interest rates and pushed up the short-end of the curve.

 

Why has the long-end not moved?

There are countless reasons given for the flattening of the yield curve. Many of them point to the track record of a flattening and / or inverted yield curve front running a recession and thus conclude with expectations of an imminent recession.

The Fed and its regional banks are divided over the issue. In a note issued by the Fed in June, Don’t Fear the Yield Curve, the authors conclude that the “the near-term forward spread is highly significant; all else being equal, when it falls from its mean level by one standard deviation (about 80 basis points) the probability of recession increases by 35 percentage points. In contrast, the estimated effect of the competing long-term spread on the probability of recession is economically small and not statistically different from zero.”

Atlanta Fed President, Mr Raphael Bostic, and his colleagues on the other hand see “Any inversion of any sort is a sure fire sign of a recession”. While the San Francisco Fed notes that “[T]he recent evolution of the yield curve suggests that recession risk might be rising. Still, the flattening yield curve provides no sign of an impending recession”.

Colour us biased but we think the flattening of the yield curve is less to do with subdued inflation expectations or deteriorating economic prospects in the US and far more to do with (1) taxation and (2) a higher oil price.

US companies have a window of opportunity to benefit from an added tax break this year by maximising their pension contributions. Pension contributions made through mid-September of this year can be deducted from income on tax returns being filed for 2017 — when the U.S. corporate tax rate was still 35 per cent as compared to the 21 per cent in 2018. This one-time incentive has encouraged US corporations to bring forward pension plan contributions. New York based Wolfe Research estimates that defined-benefit plan contributions by companies in the Russell 3000 Index may exceed US dollars 90 billion by the mid-September cut-off – US dollars 81 billion higher than their contributions last year.

US Companies making pension plan contributions through mid-September and deducting them from the prior year’s tax return is not new. The difference this year is the tax rate cut and the financial incentive it provides for pulling contributions forward.

Given that a significant portion of assets in most pension plans are invested in long-dated US Treasury securities, the pulled forward contributions have increased demand for 10- and 30-year treasuries and pushed down long-term yields.

Higher oil prices, we think, have also contributed to a flattening of the yield curve.

Oil exporting nations have long been a stable source of demand for US Treasury securities but remained largely absent from the market between late 2014 through 2017 due to the sharp drop in oil prices in late 2014. During this time these nations, particularly those with currencies pegged to the US dollar, have taken drastic steps to cut back government expenditures and restructure their economies to better cope with lower oil prices.

With WTI prices above the price of US dollars 65 per barrel many of the oil exporting nations are now generating surpluses. These surpluses in turn are being recycled into US Treasury securities. The resurgence of this long-standing buyer of US Treasury securities has added to the demand for treasuries and subdued long-term yields.

 

Investment Perspective

 

A question we have been recently asked is: Can the US equity bull market continue with the banking sector continuing to under perform?

Our response is to wait to see how the yield curve evolves after the accelerated demand for treasuries from pension funds goes away. Till then it is very difficult to make a definitive call and for now we consider it prudent to add short positions in individual financials stocks as a portfolio hedge to our overall US equities allocation while also avoiding long positions in the sector.

We have identified three financials stocks that we consider as strong candidates to short.

 

Synovus Financial Corp $SNV 

 

SNV

 

Western Alliance Bancorp $WAL

 

WAL 

Eaton Vance Corp $EV

 

EV

 

 This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. 

US Stocks: Long, Short and Interesting

“We often plough so much energy into the big picture, we forget the pixels.” – Silvia Cartwright

As highlighted last week, the focus is on equities this week. Instead of the usual text heavy approach, we do a quick run through of more than a handful of US stocks including some that we already hold, would like to add to our holdings, and consider as candidates for the short side.

The approach we have taken is as thematic as we could possibly make it. Stocks that do not fall under a theme have been left out of today’s piece, we will aim to issue a follow-up piece in the next week or two to cover  individual stocks that we are monitoring but do not neatly fit under a clear investment theme at present.

[Note that our typical investment horizon ranges from 6 to 18 eighteen months for any position. With the caveat that if a stock significantly re-rates higher or lower due to a material development or otherwise, we may exit the position sooner.]

Semiconductors and Fabrication

In AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market we wrote:

Investors often talk about the one dominant factor that drives a stock. While we consider capital markets to be more nuanced than that, if semiconductor stocks have a dominant factor it surely has to be supply – it certainly is not trailing price-to-earnings multiples as semiconductor stocks, such as Micron, have been known to crash when trading at very low trailing multiples. Chinese supply in semiconductors is coming.

While we expect the bull market in tech stocks to re-establish itself sometime this year, if there was one area we would avoid it would be semiconductors.

Supply related concerns and forward earnings expectations reaching unreasonable levels have certainly slowed the upward march of semiconductor stocks; and we are seeing weakness across the semiconductors and fabrication spectrum. We consider the following stocks as potential candidates for shorting.

ON Semiconductor $ON

A spin-off of Motorola, $ON supplies semiconductor products across a wide spectrum of end-uses including those for power and signal management, logic, discrete, and custom devices for automotive, communications, computing, consumer, industrial, LED lighting, medical, military/aerospace and power applications.

As per Bloomberg, there are 21 analysts recommendations for the stock, 14 of them buys, an 5 holds and only 2 sells.

If the company disappoints, as we suspect that it will, a flurry of downgrades could well push the stock much lower.

ON.PNG

Cypress $CY

$CY designs and manufactures programmable system-on-chip integrated circuits, USB and touchscreen controllers, and programmable clocks for the automotive, industrial, home automation and appliances, consumer electronics and medical products industries.

CY.PNG

Entegris $ENTG

$ENTG  designs and manufactures contamination control, microenvironment, and specialty materials products and systems to purify, protect, and transport critical materials used in the semiconductor device fabrication process.

As per Bloomberg, the stock current trades almost 30% below the average target price of the 11 analysts that cover the stock.

ENTG.PNG

Marvell Technology $MRVL

$MRVL designs analog, digital, mixed-signal and microprocessor integrated circuits for storage, telecommunications, cloud storage and consumer markets.

MRVL.PNG

Retail

According to data released earlier this week, retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.5 per cent in July from the prior month, well ahead of economists’ forecasts for a 0.1 per cent increase.

Year-over-year retail sales are up a robust 6.4 per cent, tracking well ahead of inflation, as measured by the consumer price index.

Low unemployment levels combined with the windfall from tax cuts is contributing to strong consumer sentiment and high levels of spending across the majority of retail categories.

We have already witnessed Walmart $WMT reporting  its strongest US sales growth in more than a decade, which sent the stock soaring higher. We have been long $WMT since September last year and at the time of initiating the positioning, we wrote:

$WMT’s revenue growth has flat lined in recent years as wage growth has been trendless. As wage growth picks up, we expect investors to increasingly come to recognise $WMT’s growth potential

WMT.PNG

Another retail name we have been long  is Dollar General $DG, we initiated a position in the stock in November last year.

DG.PNG

We still expect further upside in both $WMT and $DG and continue to hold them. Generally, we continue to see strength across the retail complex and may look to add long positions in at least two more stocks.

Burlington Stores $BURL

$BURL operates more than 630 off-price department stores across the US.

The company is expected to report quarterly earnings on 22 Aug with consensus analyst estimates for earnings growth of 33 per cent for the quarter, and 37 per cent growth for the full year. Annual earnings estimates were recently revised upward.

BURL.PNG

Dunkin’ Brands Group $DNKN

$DNKN is a restaurant holding company and franchiser of two chains of quick service restaurants: Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins. The company franchises over 20,000 Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins ice cream parlours in the US and across 60 international markets.

DNKN.PNG

Payment Processing

Driven by the rise of global e-commerce and internet-connected mobile devices, physical money is being snubbed in favour of cards and other digital payment options. According to Capgemini, global non-cash transactions are expect to grow at CAGR of 10.9 per cent between 2015 and 2020 and reach US dollars 725 billion.

This secular trend toward ever increasing non-cash transactions is in favour of payment processors – both the near ubiquitous players (e.g. VISA and MasterCard) and niche solutions providers.

We added FleetCor Technologies $FLT to our long trade ideas in June.

$FLT is an independent provider of specialised payment products and services to commercial fleets, major oil companies and petroleum markets.

The company’s payment cards provide significant savings and benefits to local fleets, including purchase controls, lower fraud, and specialised reporting. Penetration levels for the payment cards are relatively low at around 50% and there is significant potential for the company to gradually increase penetration levels.

We continue to hold the stock.

FLT.PNG

Cardtronics $CATM

We will be looking to add $CATM as a second name under the payment processing theme.

$CATM is the world’s largest non-bank ATM operator and a leading provider of fully integrated ATM and financial kiosk products and services.

The company owns Allpoint, an interbank network connecting ATMs. Allpoint offers surcharge-free transactions at ATMs in its network and operates in the US, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, and Australia.

Allpoint is in the business of supporting any financial institution provide an ATM network to rival the very largest banks. Allpoint today offers more than 55,000 surcharge-free ATMs to over 1,000 financial institutions.

$CATM’s has recently updated its strategy to increasingly focus on expanding Allpoint’s network and penetration amongst financial institutions.

The company’s strategy update has been accompanied by a strong level of insider buying.

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Energy Infrastructure and Mid-Stream Services

In April we issued a piece on the opportunities arising out of the infrastructure bottlenecks in shale patch in the US – Oil: Opportunities Arising from Infrastructure Bottlenecks

At the time we identified two industrial equipment suppliers that could benefit from increased demand originating from the shale patch: SPX Flow $FLOW and Flowserve $FLS. Although the stocks have yet to perform we continue to see significant opportunities in the energy infrastructure space and hold on to them.

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Given the scale of the opportunity in the sector, we think there is a lot of room to add additional names to better play the overall theme.

IDEX Corp $IEX

$IEX is engaged in the development, design, and manufacture of fluid handling systems,  and specialty engineered products.Its products include pumps, clamping systems, flow meters, optical filters, powder processing equipment, hydraulic rescue tools, and fire suppression equipment, are used in a variety of industries.

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UGI Corp $UGI

$UGI is a holding company with interests in propane and butane distribution, natural gas and electric distribution services.

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Targa Resources Corp $TRGP

$TRGP  is one of the largest providers of natural gas and natural gas liquids in the US. The company’s operations are predominantly concentrated on the Gulf Coast, particularly in Texas and Louisiana.

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Digitalisation

Digitisation is the process of converting information from a physical format into a digital one. When this process is utilised to automate and / or enhance business processes and activities, it is referred to ‘digitalisation’.

Digitalisation is concerned with businesses adopting digital technologies to create new revenue streams and / or improving operational processes. Digitalisation is not something new, businesses have been actively engaged in digitalising their operations for decades. The rise of big data, Moore’s law continuing to hold true as it relates to integrated circuits and the ever dropping cost of electronic components, however, has meant that its adoption has started to accelerate in recent years.

Amazon’s supermarket with no checkouts is an example of an outcome when a business fully embraces digitalisation.

We currently do not have any open positions under this theme. We are looking to add longs in two names.

Trimble $TRMB

$TRMB developer of Global Navigation Satellite System receivers, laser rangefinders, unmanned aerial vehicles , inertial navigation systems and software processing tools. The company is best known for its for GPS technology.

The company provides integrated solutions that enable businesses to to collect, manage and analyse complex information.

$TRMB is renowned for having deep domain knowledge of the industries it provides integrated solutions for and generally caters markets ripe for or undergoing rapid digitalisation.

TRMB

Zebra Technologies $ZBRA

$ZBRA  is in the business of  enterprise tracking and manufactures and sells marking, tracking and computer printing technologies primarily to the retail, manufacturing supply chain, healthcare and public sectors. Its products include direct thermal and thermal transfer printers, RFID printers and encoders, dye sublimation card printers,  handheld readers and antennas, and card and kiosk printers.

The  company achieved an adjusted EPS of US dollars 2.48 a share in the second quarter, up 64 per cent year-over-year. Sales rose 13 per cent to US dollars 1.012 billion. The company beat consensus estimates of  US dollars 2.23 in EPS and sales US dollars $989 million.

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Software as a Service (SaaS)

We quote from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s seminal essay from 2011:

“This week, Hewlett-Packard (where I am on the board) announced that it is exploring jettisoning its struggling PC business in favor of investing more heavily in software, where it sees better potential for growth. Meanwhile, Google plans to buy up the cellphone handset maker Motorola Mobility. Both moves surprised the tech world. But both moves are also in line with a trend I’ve observed, one that makes me optimistic about the future growth of the American and world economies, despite the recent turmoil in the stock market.

In short, software is eating the world.”

Mr Andreessen’s words ring just as true today as they did back in 2011. Software, specifically SaaS, has continued to proliferate and we have increasingly witnessed the rise of SaaS companies that provide solutions tailored to the needs of individual industries or specific functions within a business.

We are looking to go long two names under this theme.

Paycom $PAYC

$PAYC designs and develops cloud-based human capital management software solutions to support businesses in managing the entire employment life cycle.

$PAYC is a highly disruptive company that is successfully displacing entrenched incumbents across the payroll management space.

Businesses tend to use software to make their employees’ lives easier and to reduce their day-to-day administrative burden. Ask any business, big or small, they will tell you that compliance is a major headache. And there is a lot businesses have to comply with, particularly in the US. Payroll software allows businesses to comply with tax and other payroll related laws. $PAYC started life as a payroll management software provider.

$PAYC’s software solutions have long since evolved beyond payroll management and include applications for talent management, recruitment and general human capital management. Payroll management is serves as the company’s entry product for new customers and the added solutions provide $PAYC with the opportunity to gradually up sell existing customers.

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Veeva Systems $VEEV

$VEEV is a cloud-computing company focused on providing solutions for the sales and marketing functions within the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. The company’s software helps pharmaceutical companies manage customer databases, track drug developments, and organize clinical trials. The software has been widely adopted by ‘Big Pharma’.

The company’s lower-cost and tailored approach has enabled it to upend the on premise software providers such as SAP and Oracle in the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors.

While the company maintains its core focus in life sciences, it is gradually broadening its products’ functionality to enable it to up sell existing clients and to potentially enter into new industry segments.

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Plenty of names for you to chew on for this week. If you would like to discuss any of the names in more detail or to talk you through our more detailed investment cases, feel free to reach out to us over email or by direct message on Twitter.

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. 

Continued Strength in the US Dollar | China’s Line in the Sand | Germany Between a Rock and a Hard Place

 

“One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by” – Jeanette Walls, American author and journalist

 

“The best of us must sometimes eat our words.” – J. K. Rowling

 

“Increasingly, the Chinese will own a lot more of the world because they will be converting their dollar reserves and U.S. government bonds into real assets.” – George Soros

 

We have a mixed bag here for you this week folks with commentary on:

  • The strength in the US dollar
  • China’s response to Trump’s latest threats to escalate the trade war
  • Germany’s energy needs placing it between a rock and a hard place

 

Continued strength in the US dollar

A number of you have messaged us about the recent strength in the US dollar and our take on it. For the benefit of all readers, we briefly wanted to touch upon where we stand after the latest move higher by the greenback.

Back in March – Currency Markets: “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube” – we wrote:

 

The major central banks of the world are now in a competitive game. While markets may enter an interim phase where the Fed’s hawkish posturing leads to a strengthening dollar, this phase, in our opinion, is likely to be short-lived.

 

The line in the sand beyond which we would consider our view to be invalidated is a sustained move above 96 on the US dollar index.

 

At the time we wrote the above, we were unaware of how or why the 96 level was going to prove to be a significant level for the US dollar. However, we felt that psychologically it was a critical level for market participants. The dramatic plunge in the Turkish lira today, the sentiment being displayed across key media outlets and the general tone on Twitter all seem to validate that around 96 on the DXY is indeed an important level.

For now all we would add is that we are in wait and see mode. If the US dollar continues to move higher or remains above the 96 for a prolonged period (6 to 8 weeks), we would have to accept that our bearish view on the US dollar was wrong. If, however, the greenback fails to sustain above 96 we would likely look to put on carry trades in emerging market currencies and go long the euro and Japanese yen.

Until we have more clarity we will remain on the side lines.

 

China’s Line in the Sand

Last week, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) imposed a reserve requirement of 20 per cent on some trading of foreign-exchange forward contracts, effectively increasing the cost of shorting the Chinese yuan. The move has offset some of the pressure from President Trump’s threats to further escalate the trade war and has brought stability to the currency.

Official statements indicate that the PBoC made the move to reduce both “macro financial risks” and the volatility in foreign exchange markets.  To us the move by the PBoC, however, suggests that China is not yet ready to trigger a sharp devaluation of its currency in the trade war with the US.

What is more confounding, however, is figuring out what China can do to respond to the threats of further escalation of the trade war by the Trump Administration. Initially China tried to appease Mr Trump by:

  • Lavishly hosting him in China;
  • Offering to increase imports from the US to reduce its trade surplus;
  • Proposing to gradually opening its local markets to US corporations; and even
  • Engaging in commercial dealings in favours of Mr Trump’s family;

Failing at that, China has tried to respond by:

However, China’s retaliatory efforts have not swayed Mr Trump either.

The problem, as we described in Trade Wars: Lessons from History, is one of creed:

 

President Trump and his band of trade warriors are hell-bent on stopping the Chinese from moving up the manufacturing value chain.

 

Alexander Hamilton understood that America’s long-term stability hinged upon its transition from an agrarian to industrial society, the Chinese leadership deeply appreciates the need to transition its economy from being the toll manufacturer of global industry to playing a leading role in the high-tech industries of tomorrow.

 

The only way we see the Trump Administration relenting in its push to corner the Chinese is if Trump the “dealmaker” takes control of proceedings. That is, in his desire to make a deal and claim victory, President Trump tells his band of trade warriors and security hawks to take a backseat and instead strikes a deal with China that involves a combination of China buying more from the US and opening up its markets to more foreign ownership (something we suspect China wants to do any way, but on its own terms).

 

Germany: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

President Trump began his visit to the annual summit of NATO allies in June this year by breaking from diplomatic protocol and verbally attacking Germany:

 

“We’re supposed to protect you from Russia, but Germany is making pipeline deals with Russia. You tell me if that’s appropriate. Explain that.”

 

In May 2011 Germany decided to abandon nuclear power in favour of greener sources of energy such as wind and solar. Nuclear power accounted for almost a fifth of Germany’s national electricity supply at the time Chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans to mothball the country’s 17 nuclear power stations by 2022 following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.

Germany, however, failed in its attempt at adequately fulfilling a greater proportion of its energy needs through alternative sources of renewable energy. And the direct consequence of Chancellor Merkel’s decision to drop nuclear power has been that Germany has become increasingly dependent on Russia’s plentiful natural gas supplies.

Germany has a difficult decision to make. Does it choose to maintain its geopolitical alliance with the US and abstain from Russian gas or does it choose cheap gas and re-align itself geopolitically?

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ interview on 9 August suggests that Germany may well be leaning towards the latter (emphasis added):

 

“Yes, in future we Europeans will have to look out for ourselves more. We’re working on it. The European Union has to finally get itself ready for a common foreign policy. The principle of unanimity in line with which the European Union makes its foreign policy decisions renders us incapable of taking action on many issues. We’re in the process of transforming the European Union into a genuine security and defence union. We remain convinced that we need more and not less Europe at this time.”

 

Russia is under US sanctions. China is under pressure from the US. And now Germany – in no small part due to its massive trade surplus with the US – finds itself in the cross-hairs.

What if Russia, China and Germany were to form an economic, and dare we ask political, alliance? Something that would have seemed far-fetched less than a year ago, does not seem to sound so crazy anymore.

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. 

Trade Wars: Lessons from History

 

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

 

“Give us a protective tariff and we will have the greatest nation on earth” – Abraham Lincoln

 

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson

 

At the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last week, France defeated Croatia in the final of 2018 FIFA World Cup. As the French toasted their second FIFA World Cup triumph, pundit upon pundit and football fan after football fan debated the manner of France’s victory and the controversial decisions that went France’s way. Our small group of friends and colleagues also got caught up in a debate on whether the referee rightly or wrongly rewarded the penalty that led to France’s second goal. Our debate was not limited to those of us that watched the match together but rather extended to our WhatsApp groups and roped in friends from all over the world.

It is often said that it is human nature to see what we want to see and ignore that which goes against our expectations.

As our arguments for and against the penalty went round and round in circles, we decided to watch replays of the incident from the match to try and settle which side of the debate had more merit. The funny thing is as we watched the replays the conviction levels on either side of the debate became even stronger. By some means what each of us saw, or at least thought we saw, reaffirmed our predisposition.

Of course, whether it was a penalty or not (it wasn’t) does not really matter. The record books will show that the French defeated the Croats by four goals to two. There will be no asterisk next to the record to note that arm chair fan Joe Schmoe disputed the validity of France’s victory due to the award of a dubious penalty.

Reflecting upon the harmless nature of our argument, we think of the oft quoted words of Winston Churchill:

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Powerful statements can often hide as much as they reveal.

Can we learn what actually happened from studying history? Unlike the final score of a football match, the record of any past event that cannot be definitively quantified is likely to be clouded by the prejudices of historians and distorted by our individual partisanship.  And if we do not truly know what happened, can we really be doomed to repeat it?

Reality or not, below we examine the recorded history of American protectionism, reflect upon the successful adoption of the ‘American System’ by China and consider the possible outcomes of the rising trade-related tensions between the US and China.

 

American Independence and British Retaliation

On 18 April 1775, a clash between the British redcoats and the local militia at Lexington, Massachusetts, led to the fighting that began the American War of Independence.

Fifteen months after fighting began the American colonists claimed independence from the British and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The British did not take the colonists’ declaration lying down and made attempts to forcibly regain control over America. Economic warfare was one of the tools used by the British to inflict pain upon the Americans.

Britain closed off its markets to American trade by raising tariffs on American manufactured goods. US exports to England and its colonies fell from an estimated 75 per cent of total exports prior to the Declaration of Independence to around 10 per cent after it. The sharp fall in trade brought on an economic depression in the US.

Britain did not stop at just tariffs. It wanted to halt the US’s transformation from its agrarian roots to an industrialised nation and in this pursuit it went as far as outlawing skilled craftsmen from overseas travel and banning the export of patented machinery.

 

The American System

The American System, also known as the American School of Economics, is an economic plan based on the ideas of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, which guided the US national economic policy from first half of the 19th century till the early 1970s. The system is widely credited as having underpinned the US’s transformation from an agrarian frontier society to global economic powerhouse.

The American System is rooted in the mercantilist principles presented by Alexander Hamilton to Congress in December 1791 in the Report on the Subject of Manufactures. The three basic guiding economic principles of the system demanded the US Government to:

  1. Promote and protect American industries by selectively imposing high import tariffs and / or subsidising American manufacturers;
  2. Create a national bank to oversee monetary policy, stabilise the currency and regulate the issuance of credit by state and local banks; and
  3. Make internal improvements by investing in public infrastructure – including but not limited to roads, canals, public schools, scientific research, and sea ports – to facilitate domestic commerce and economic development.

These guiding principles are based on Alexander Hamilton’s insight that long-term American prosperity could not be achieved with an economy dependent purely on the financial and resource extraction sectors. And that economic self-sufficiency hinged upon the US Government intervening to protect and to support the development of captive manufacturing capabilities.

Alexander Hamilton’s ideas were not immediately accepted by Congress – Congress was dominated by Southern planters, many of whom favoured free trade. One Thomas Jefferson, in particular, vehemently opposed Hamilton’s protectionist proposals.

Congress and Jefferson became much more receptive to Hamilton’s ideas in the aftermath of the Anglo-American War of 1812, during which the British burnt down the White House. The government’s need for revenue and a surge in anti-British fervour, in no small part, made favouring Hamilton’s proposals politically expedient for Congress.

In 1816 Congress passed an import tariff, known as the Dallas Tariff, with the explicit objective of protecting American manufacturers and making European imported goods more expensive. The legislation placed import duties of 25 per cent on cotton and wool textiles and manufactured iron; 30 per cent on paper and leather goods and hats; and 15 per cent on most other imported products. Two years later, and in response to predatory dumping of goods by the British, Congress further increased import duties.

American industry blossomed after the imposition of tariffs and vested interests lobbied to keep or even increase import duties. With the public strongly in support, Congress continued raising tariffs and American import duties rose to around 40 per cent on average by 1820.

Also in 1816, Congress created the “The President, Directors, and Company, of the Bank of the United States”, commonly referred to as the Second Bank of the United States, and President James Madison gave it a 20-year charter to handle all fiscal transactions for the US Government, regulate the public credit issued by private banking institutions, and to establish a sound and stable national currency.

The third and final tenet of the American System, federally funded internal improvements, was never fully adopted. Nonetheless, the US Government did end up using a part of the revenues generated from the import duties and the sale of public lands in the west to subsidise the construction of roads, canals and other public infrastructure.

Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and many of the other great leaders from American history supported the American System. That is, they were all protectionists. Republican protectionist instincts used to be so ingrained that even if there was the slightest liberalisation of trade made by the Democrats, it would be reversed as soon as the Republican regained power. For instance the Revenue Act of 1913, passed during the early days of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, which lowered basic tariff rates from 40 to 25 per cent, was almost entirely reversed after Republicans regained power following World War I.

It is only as recently as 1952, upon the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, do we find a notable Republican leader that favoured free trade over protectionism.

Coincidentally, or not, President Eisenhower’s willingness to betray the Republican protectionist heritage in favour of free trade policies just so happened to be around the same time funding of the Marshall Plan ended. By 1952, the economy of every participant state in the Marshall Plan had surpassed pre-war levels; economic output in 1951 of each and every participant exceeded their respective output in 1938 by at least 35 per cent.

Happenstance or not, the economic recovery of Western Europe and its growing alliance with the US, created powerful inducements to free trade and overall wealth creation.

 

China’s Adoption of The American System

In 1978, China initiated the transformation of its economy towards a more liberal and market-based regime. The reforms, as it would become glaringly apparent over the following decades, were predicated on promoting exports over imports by adopting a combination of mercantilist and protectionist policies. The government supported exporters by waiving duties on materials imported for export purposes, creating dedicated export-processing zones, and granting favourably priced loans for capital investment. At the same time, the government supported the creation of national champions and industry leaders by limiting (or altogether prohibiting) foreign participation in strategic industries. These steps were in adherence with the first tenet of the American System.

The Chinese government also tightly managed monetary policy and kept its currency artificially undervalued through the combination of capital controls and intervention, driving capital exports and the build-up of trade surpluses – the second tenet.

A significant portion of government directed investment in China, especially since the early 1990s, has been in increasing the amount and improving the quality of public infrastructure. Investment was directed into all forms of public infrastructure including but not limited to developing power and telecommunications networks, public buildings, dams, rural road networks, manufacturing facilities, and academic institutions – the third tenet.

Much as the US economy flourished under the mercantilist tenets of the American System, China too has flourished over the last four decades by adopting the very same system.

Just as the Republicans in America were willing to make a turn toward free trade as the global economic environment became conducive to a US led global order, the Chinese leadership is beginning to espouse the virtues of free trade as its version of the Marshall Plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, gathers steam.

The Chinese leadership has guided its economy to such great heights based on, we suspect, their acute understanding of American economic history. It is China’s demonstrated adherence to the American System, which leads us to believe that just as Alexander Hamilton understood that America’s long-term stability hinged upon its transition from an agrarian to industrial society, the Chinese leadership deeply appreciates the need to transition its economy from being the toll manufacturer of global industry to playing a leading role in the high-tech industries of tomorrow.

 

Investment Perspective

 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his cabinet unveiled the “Made in China 2025” strategic plan in May 2015. The plan lays out a roadmap for China take leadership role in 12 strategic high-tech industries and to move up the manufacturing value chain. The Council on Foreign Relations believes Made in China 2025 is a “real existential threat to US technological leadership”.

Just as the British insisted upon the US remaining an agrarian society in the 18th century, President Trump and his band of trade warriors are hell-bent on stopping the Chinese from moving up the manufacturing value chain. Short of going to war, the Trump Administration is even following the same playbook by imposing tariffs, blocking technology transfer and withholding intellectual property.

President Trump, however, appears ready to go further and even upend the global trade system and call into question the US dollar’s global reserve currency status. Mr Trump’s stated objective is to revive the US’s industrial base. This objective, however, is unachievable in a global trade system in which the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. The privilege of having the world’s reserve currency comes with the responsibility of consistently running current account deficits and providing liquidity to the rest of the world.

 

Imposition of Tariffs

Unlike any other currency, the global reserve currency cannot be easily devalued. As we discussed in Don’t wait for the US Dollar Rally, its Already Happened, as the US dollar weakens international demand for the greenback increases. For this reason, it is probably easier for the US to pursue alternative means that have the same effect as a devaluation of its currency.

The imposition of tariffs, from foreign manufacturers’ perspective, is the equivalent of a devaluation of the US dollar. For US based buyers and consumers, tariffs lower the relative prices of US manufactured goods with respect to foreign manufactured goods. Tariffs, however, are only effective if their imposition does not result in an equivalent relative increase in the price of the US dollar. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the Chinese yuan started to tumble as soon as the US moved to impose tariffs on Chinese goods. And in response Mr Trump is turning on the Fed and its tightening of monetary policy.

 

The Nuclear Option

Mr Trump always has the nuclear option in his bid to revive industry in the US. He can attempt to overturn the global trade system and the status of US dollar as the world’s reserve currency by limiting the amount of US dollar available to the rest of the world – pseudo-capital controls. If this were to happen, any and every foreign entity or nation that is short US dollars (has borrowed in US dollars) will suffer from an almighty short squeeze. In response, China specifically would have to take one of two paths:

  1. Open up its economy to foreign investment and sell assets to US corporations to raise US dollars.
  2. Loosen capital controls to allow the settlement of trade in yuan.

 

A G2 Compromise

The final, and in our minds the most painless, alternative to the above scenarios is that of a G2 compromise i.e. China and the US come to an agreement of sorts that results in China making significant concessions in return for the US maintaining the current global trade system.

What such a compromise will look like we do not know but it most definitely involves a weakening of the US dollar.

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

 

 

Don’t wait for the US Dollar Rally, its Already Happened

 

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr Seuss

 

“Republicans are for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar.” – Abraham Lincoln

 

“Dark economic clouds are dissipating into an emerging blue sky of opportunity.” – Rick Perry

 

According to the minutes of the Fed’s June meeting, released on Thursday, some companies indicated they had already “scaled back or postponed” plans for capital spending due to “uncertainty over trade policy”. The minutes added: “Contacts in the steel and aluminum industries expected higher prices as a result of the tariffs on these products but had not planned any new investments to increase capacity. Conditions in the agricultural sector reportedly improved somewhat, but contacts were concerned about the effect of potentially higher tariffs on their exports.”

Despite the concerns around tariffs, the minutes also revealed that the Fed remained committed to its policy of gradual rate hikes and raising the fed funds rate to its long-run estimate (or even higher): “Participants generally judged that…it would likely to be appropriate to continue gradually raising the target rate for the federal-funds rate to a setting that was at or somewhat above their estimates of its longer-run level by 2019 or 2020”.

The somewhat hawkish monetary policy stance of the Fed combined with (i) expectations of continued portfolio flows into the US due to the interest rate differentials between the US and non-US developed markets, (ii) fears of the Trump Administration’s trade policies causing an emerging markets crisis, and (iii) the somewhat esoteric risk of ‘dollar shortage’ have led many to conclude that the US dollar is headed higher, much higher.

Of all the arguments for the US dollar bull case we consider the portfolio flows into the US to be the most pertinent to the direction of the greenback.

According to analysis conducted by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) “all net foreign demand for ‘safe’ US assets from 1990 to 2014 came from the world’s central banks”. And that “For most of the past 25 years, net foreign demand for long-term U.S. debt securities has increased in line with the growth in global dollar reserves.”  What the CFR has described are quite simply the symptoms of the petrodollar system that has been in existence since 1974.

Cumulative US Current Account Deficit vs. Global Foreign Exchange Holdings1aSources: Council on Foreign Relations, International Monetary Fund, Bureau of Economic Analysis

 

In recent years, however, global US dollar reserves have declined – driven by the drop in the price of oil in late 2014 which forced the likes of Norges Bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority to draw down on reserves to make up for the shortfall in state oil revenues – yet the portfolio flows into the US continued unabated.

Using US Treasury data on major foreign holders of Treasury securities as a proxy for foreign central banks’ US Treasury holdings and comparing it to the cumulative US Treasury securities issuance (net), it is evident that in recent years foreign central banks have been either unable or unwilling to finance the US external deficit.

Cumulative US Marketable Treasury Issuance (Net) vs. US Treasury Major Foreign Holdings1Sources: US Treasury, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association

 

Instead, the US has been able to fund its external deficit through the sale of assets (such as Treasuries, corporate bonds and agency debt) to large, yield-starved institutional investors (mainly pension funds and life insurers) in Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia. The growing participation of foreign institutional investors can be seen through the growing gap between total foreign Treasury holdings versus the holdings of foreign central banks.

US Treasury Total Foreign Holdings vs. US Treasury Major Foreign Holdings2Source: US Treasury

 

Before going ahead and outlining our bearish US dollar thesis, we want to take a step back to understand how and why the US was able to finance its external deficit, particularly between 2015 and 2017, despite the absence of inflows from its traditional sources of funding and without a significant increase in its cost of financing. This understanding is the key to the framework that shapes our expectations for the US dollar going forward.

We start with Japan. In April 2013, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) unveiled a radical monetary stimulus package to inject approximately US dollars 1.4 trillion into the Japanese economy in less than two years. The aim of the massive burst of stimulus was to almost double the monetary base and to lift inflation expectations.

In October 2014, Governor Haruhiko Kuroda shocked financial markets once again by announcing that the BoJ would be increasing its monthly purchases of Japanese government bonds from yen 50 trillion to yen 80 trillion. And just for good measure the BoJ also decided to triple its monthly purchases of exchange traded funds (ETFs) and real estate investment trusts (REITs).

Staying true to form and unwilling to admit defeat in the fight for inflation the BoJ also went as far as introducing negative interest rates. Effective February 2016, the BoJ started charging 0.1 per cent on excess reserves.

Next, we turn to Europe. In June 2014, Señor Mario Draghi announced that the European Central Bank (ECB) had taken the decision to cut the interest rate on the deposit facility to -0.1 per cent. By March 2016, the ECB had cut its deposit facility rate three more times to take it to -0.4 per cent. In March 2015, the ECB also began purchasing euro 60 billion of bonds under quantitative easing. The bond purchases were increased to euro 80 billion in March 2016.

In response to the unconventional measures taken by the BoJ and the ECB, long-term interest rates in Japan and Europe proceeded to fall to historically low levels, which prompted Japanese and European purchases of foreign bonds to accelerate. It is estimated that from 2014 through 2017 Japanese and Eurozone institutional investors and financial institutions purchased approximately US dollar 2 trillion in foreign bonds (net). During the same period, selling of European fixed income by foreigners also picked up.

As the US dollar index ($DXY) is heavily skewed by movements in EURUSD and USDJPY, the outflows from Japan and Europe into the US were, in our opinion, the primary drivers of the US dollar rally that started in mid-2014.

US Dollar Index3Source: Bloomberg

 

In 2014 with Japanese and European outflows accelerating and oil prices still high, the US benefited from petrodollar, European and Japanese inflows simultaneously. These flows combined pushed US Treasury yields lower and the US dollar sharply higher. The strong flows into the US represented an untenable situation and something had to give – the global economy under the prevailing petrodollar system is simply not structured to withstand a strong US dollar and high oil prices concurrently. In this instance, with the ECB and BoJ staunchly committed to their unorthodox monetary policies, oil prices crashed and the petrodollar flows into the US quickly started to reverse.

Notably, the US dollar rally stalled and Treasury yields formed a local minimum soon after the drop in oil prices.

US 10-Year Treasury Yield4Source: Bloomberg

 

Next, we turn to China. On 11 August 2015, China, under pressure from the Chinese stock market turmoil that started in June 2015, declines in the euro and the Japanese yen exchange rates and a slowing economy, carried out the biggest devaluation of its currency in over two decades by fixing the yuan 1.9 per cent lower.  The Chinese move caught capital markets by surprise, sending commodity prices and global equity markets sharply lower and US government bonds higher.

In January 2016, China shocked capital markets once again by setting the official midpoint rate on the yuan 0.5 per cent weaker than the day before, which took the currency to its lowest since March 2011. The move in all likelihood was prompted by the US dollar 108 billion drop in Chinese reserves in December 2015 – the highest monthly drop on record.

In addition to China’s botched attempts of devaluing the yuan, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign also contributed to private capital fleeing from China and into the US and other so called safe havens.

China Estimated Capital Outflows5Source: Bloomberg

 

The late Walter Wriston, former CEO and Chairman of Citicorp, once said: “Capital goes where it is welcome and stays where it is well treated.” With the trifecta of negative interests in Europe and Japan, China’s botched devaluation effort and the uncertainty created by Brexit, capital became unwelcome in the very largest economies outside the US and fled to the relative safety of the US. And it is this unique combination, we think, that enabled the US to continue funding its external deficit from 2014 through 2017 without a meaningful rise in Treasury yields.

Moreover, in the absence of positive petrodollar flows, we suspect that were it not for the flight to safety driven by fears over China and Brexit, long-term Treasury yields could well have bottomed in early 2015.

 

Investment Perspective

 

  1. Foreign central banks show a higher propensity to buy US assets in a weakening US dollar environment

 

Using US Treasury data on major foreign holders of Treasury securities as a proxy for foreign central banks’ US Treasury holdings, we find that foreign central banks, outside of periods of high levels of economic uncertainty, have shown a higher propensity to buy US Treasury securities during phases of US dollar weakness as compared to during phases of US dollar strength.

Year-over-Year Change in Major Foreign Holdings of Treasury Securities and the US Trade Weighted Broad Dollar Index 6Sources: US Treasury, Bloomberg

 

The bias of foreign central banks, to prefer buying Treasury securities when the US dollar is weakening, is not a difficult one to accept. Nations, especially those with export oriented economies, do not want to see their currencies rise sharply against the US dollar as an appreciating currency reduces their relative competitiveness. Therefore, to limit any appreciation resulting from a declining US dollar, foreign central banks are likely to sell local currency assets to buy US dollar assets. However, in a rising US dollar environment, most foreign central banks also do not want a sharp depreciation of their currency as this could destabilise their local economies and prompt capital outflows. And as such, in a rising US dollar environment, foreign central banks are likely to prefer selling US dollar assets to purchase local currency assets.

 

  1. European and Japanese US treasury Holdings have started to decline

 

European and Japanese US Treasury Holding 7Source: US Treasury

 

The ECB has already scaled back monthly bond purchases to euro 30 billion and has outlined plans to end its massive stimulus program by the end of this year. While BoJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda in a testimony to the Japanese parliament in April revealed that internal discussions were on going at the BoJ on how to begin to withdraw from its bond buying program.

In anticipation of these developments and the increased possibility of incurring losses on principal due to rising US inflation expectations, it is likely that European and Japanese institutional investors and financial institutions have scaled back purchases of US dollar assets and even started reducing their allocations to US fixed income.

 

  1. Positive correlation between US dollar and oil prices

 

One of the surprises thrown up by the markets this year is the increasingly positive correlation between the US dollar and the price of oil. While the correlation may prove to be fleeting, we think there have been two fundamental shifts in the oil and US dollar dynamic that should see higher oil prices supporting the US dollar, as opposed to the historical relationship of a strengthening US dollar pressuring oil prices.

The first shift is that with WTI prices north of US dollar 65 per barrel, the fiscal health of many of the oil exporting nations improves and some even begin to generate surpluses that they can recycle into US Treasury securities. And as oil prices move higher, a disproportionality higher amount of the proceeds from the sale of oil are likely to be recycled back into US assets. This dynamic appears to have played out to a degree during the first four months of the year with the US Treasury securities holdings of the likes of Saudi Arabia increasing. (It is not easy to track this accurately as a number of the oil exporting nations also use custodial accounts in other jurisdictions to make buy and sell their US Treasury holdings.)

WTI Crude vs. US Dollar Index8Source: Bloomberg

 

The second shift is that the US economy no longer has the same relationship it historically had with oil prices. The rise of shale oil means that higher oil prices now allow a number of US regions to grow quickly and drive US economic growth and job creation. Moreover, the US, on a net basis, spends much less on oil (as a percentage of GDP) than it has done historically. So while the consumers may take a hit from rising oil prices, barring a sharp move higher, the overall US economy is better positioned to handle (and possibly benefit from) gradually rising oil prices.

 

  1. As Trump has upped the trade war rhetoric, current account surpluses are being directed away from reserve accumulation

 

Nations, such as Taiwan and the People’s Republic of Korea, that run significant current account surpluses with the US have started to re-direct surpluses away from reserve accumulation (i.e. buying US assets) in fear of being designated as currency manipulators by the US Treasury. The surpluses are instead being funnelled into pension plans and other entitlement programs.

 

  1. To fund its twin deficits, the US will need a weaker dollar and higher oil prices

 

In recent years, the US current account deficit has ranged from between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP.

US Current Account Balance (% of GDP)9Source: Bloomberg

 

With the successful passing of the Trump tax plan by Congress in December, the US Treasury’s net revenues are estimated to decrease by US dollar 1.5 trillion over the next decade. While the increase in government expenditure agreed in the Bipartisan Budget Act in early February is expected to add a further US dollar 300 billion to the deficit over the next two years. The combined effects of these two packages, based on JP Morgan’s estimates, will result in an increase in the budget deficit from 3.4 per cent in 2017 to 5.4 per cent in 2019. This implies that the US Treasury will have to significantly boost security issuance.

Some of the increased security issuance will be mopped by US based institutional investors – especially if long-term yields continue to rise. US pension plans, in particular, have room to increase their bond allocations.

US Pension Fund Asset Allocation Evolution (2007 to 2017) 10Source: Willis Tower Watson

 

Despite the potential demand from US based institutional investors, the US will still require foreign participation in Treasury security auctions and markets to be able to funds its deficits. At a time when European and Japanese flows into US Treasuries are retreating, emerging market nations scrambling to support their currencies by selling US dollar assets is not a scenario conducive to the US attracting foreign capital to its markets. Especially if President Trump and his band of trade warriors keep upping the ante in a bid to level the playing field in global trade.

Our view is that, pre-mid-term election posturing aside, the Trump Administration wants a weaker dollar and higher oil prices so that the petrodollars keep flowing into US dollar assets to be able to follow through on the spending and tax cuts that form part of their ambitious stimulus packages. And we suspect that Mr Trump and his band of the not so merry men will look to talk down the US dollar post the mid-term elections.

 

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

Searching for Value in Retail

 

“A robber who justified his theft by saying that he really helped his victims, by his spending giving a boost to retail trade, would find few converts; but when this theory is clothed in Keynesian equations and impressive references to the ‘multiplier effect,’ it unfortunately carries more conviction.” – Murray Rothbard, Austrian school economist, historian and political theorist

“Star Trek characters never go shopping.” – Douglas Coupland, Canadian novelist and artist

“I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.” – George Carlin

“A bookstore is one of the many pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.” – Jerry Seinfeld

 

Pets.com – the short-lived e-commerce business that sold pet accessories and supplies direct to consumers over the internet – was launched in February 1999 and went from an IPO on a the Nasdaq Stock Market to liquidation in 268 days. The failed venture came to epitomise the excesses and hubris of the tech bubble.

Bernie Madoff and Lehman Brothers were the defining casualties of the Global Financial Crisis and Greece became the poster child of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

In any prolonged bull market signs of ‘irrational exuberance’ begin to emerge prior to the onset of the inevitable bear market. And it is not uncommon in such bull markets for many a market participant to begin pointing out specific areas of the market where excesses may exist well ahead of a crash. Very few, if any, market participants, however, are able to identify a priori the very companies and assets that come to define the bull market.

In the present iteration of the bull market investors and commentators have pointed out all sorts of potential ‘bubbles’ including but not limited to negative yielding developed market bonds, 100 year sovereign bond issues by emerging market nations, bitcoin ethereum ripple crypto currencies, Chinese credit, unlisted unicorns, Australian real estate, Canadian real estate, and FAANG stocks. While any one or all of these assets may come to define the animal spirits of this bull market, to us the US equity bull market of the past decade is best captured by the fortunes of two companies: Amazon ($AMZN) and Barnes & Noble ($BKS) – the disruptor and the disrupted.

Amazon versus Barnes Noble Price Performance (04 July, 2008 = 100)

BKS AMZNSource: Bloomberg

The price of $AMZN shares is 23 times higher than it was in July 2008, while the price of $BKS shares today is approximately 60 per cent lower than it was then.

The above chart captures within it the dominant trend of this US equity bull market: growth outperforming value. Consider the relative performance of S&P 500 Growth Index to that of the S&P 500 Value Index during this bull market: from the indices being almost even in July 2008, the growth index is almost 50 per cent higher than the value index today.

S&P Growth Index to S&P Value Index Ratio

SGX to SVXSource: Bloomberg

In fact, the ratio of the growth index to value index is at its highest level since June 2000 when the ratio peaked at the height of the tech bubble. This ratio is now less than 5 per cent from its tech bubble peak.

 

Investment Perspective

 

Value investors have had a rough ride over the last decade and despite the significant out performance of growth during this period it is arguably even more difficult to invest in value today than it has been at any point over the last ten years.  The struggles of value investors has led to many questioning the “value of value” and even one of its strongest proponents, David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital, to joke about it. Did not someone wise one once say “There’s a grain of truth in every joke”?

For the record, we do not think value investing is dead. We do acknowledge, however, that differentiating value from value traps has probably never been more difficult in the modern era than it is today. The sheer number of incumbent business models being disrupted means that for anyone, except the most insightful, it is only hubris that would allow one to have rock solid confidence in the durability of any incumbent business model.

With that being said and given that the ratio of the growth index to the value index is reaching record levels, we would be seriously remiss to not add a value tilt to our portfolio at this stage of the bull market. Our approach in making a value allocation within our portfolio is to add a basket of stocks that may collectively prove to have had value but the failure of one or two of the businesses do not permanently impair the portfolio. In this regard, we identify three retail stocks to add to our portfolio and will look to add more value candidates from other sectors to our portfolio over time.

 

Barnes & Noble $BKS

Trading at a price to consensus forward earnings of around 10x and with a market capitalisation of under US dollars 500 million, $BKS remains a potential target for even the smallest of activist investors or private equity funds.

$BKS has already initiated a turnaround plan which includes trialling five prototype stores this fiscal year. These stores will be approximately 14,000 square feet, making them roughly 40 per cent smaller than typical $BKS stores. The new format will be focused on books, and include a café as well as a curated assortment of non-book products including toys and games. Under performing categories like music and DVDs will be dropped.

Whether the turnaround can stop the bleeding or not remains to be seen but given where sentiment and valuation for the stock are, we think any signs of a turnaround in financial performance will be rewarded with a significant re-rating of the stock.

 

Bed, Bath & Beyond $BBBY

Trading at a price to consensus forward earnings of around 9x and with a market capitalisation of under US dollars 3 billion, $BBBY is also a viable target for activist investors or private equity funds.

$BBBY has also initiated a turnaround plan.

More importantly, however, millennials are gradually stepping into home ownership and the wave of home buying is only getting started. With increasing home ownership comes increasing consumption, new homeowners have to fill up their houses with everything from furniture to lawnmowers. The marginal dollar of conspicuous consumption will be spent on stuff. For the homeowners this will be household goods. For the non-homeowners this will be on clothes, shoes, sports equipment, and health and beauty products.

We think $BBBY could be a beneficiary of increased millennial home ownership.

 

GameStop $GME

The stock trades at a price to consensus forward earnings of less than 5x. $GME may ultimately fail but at such a low valuation and a dividend yield of around 10 per cent, if the business can simply manage to survive a few years longer than the market expects it to, it will turn out to be a very good investment.

 

We cautiously add $BKS, $BBBY and $GME to our long trade ideas.

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Unwind and the Two Most Important Prices in the World

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” – Walden by Henry David Thoreau

 “The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.” – Vladimir Lenin

“There are only three ways to meet the unpaid bills of a nation. The first is taxation. The second is repudiation. The third is inflation.” – Herbert Hoover

The Federal Reserve for the better part of a decade has been engaged in the business of suppressing interest rates through the use of easy monetary policies and quantitative easing. For US bond market participants all the Fed’s policies entailing interest rate suppression meant that there was a perpetual bid for US treasury bonds and it was always at the best possible price. The Fed has recently embarked on the journey toward unwinding the suppression of interest rates through the process of quantitative tightening. QT has US bond market participants worried that there will be a perpetual offer of US treasury bonds at the worst possible price.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia have, since late 2016, taken steps to prop up the price of oil by aggressively cutting output. With a history of mistrust amongst OPEC and non-OPEC producers and a lackadaisical approach to production discipline, oil market participants did not immediately reward oil producers with higher oil prices in the way bond market participants rewarded the Fed with immediately higher bond prices / lower yields. It took demonstrable commitment to the production quotas by the oil producing nations for oil market participants to gain the confidence to bid up prices. And just as confidence started to peak, Russia and Saudi Arabia signalled that they are willing to roll back the production cuts.

Arguably the US dollar and oil are the two most important ‘commodities’ in the world. One lubricates the global financial system and the other fuels everything else. Barring a toppling of the US dollar hegemony or a scientific breakthrough increasing the conversion efficiency of other sources of energy, the importance of these commodities is unlikely to diminish. Hence, the US (long-term) interest rates and the oil price are the two most important prices in the world. The global economy cannot enjoy a synchronised upturn in an environment of sustainably higher US interest rates and a high price of oil.

In the 362 months between end of May 1988 and today there have only been 81 months during which both the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have been above their respective 48-month moving averages – that is less than a quarter of the time. (These periods are shaded in grey in the two charts below.)

US 10-Year Treasury Yield10Y YieldSource: Bloomberg

West Texas Intermediate Crude (US dollars per barrel)

WTISource: Bloomberg

Over the course of the last thirty years, the longest duration the two prices have concurrently been above their respective 48-month moving averages is the 25 month period between September 2005 and October 2007. Since May 1988, the two prices have only been above their respective 48-month moving averages for 5 or more consecutive months on only four other occasions: between (1) April and October 1996; (2) January and May 1995; (3) October 1999 and August 2000; and (4) July 2013 and August 2014.

Notably, annual global GDP growth has been negative on exactly five occasions since 1988 as well: 1997, 1998, 2001, 2009, and 2015. The squeeze due to sustainably high US interest rates and oil prices on the global economy is very real.

Global GDP Growth Year-over-Year (Current US dollars)

global GDP

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


On 13 June, 2018 President Donald Trump tweeted:

“Oil prices are too high, OPEC is at it again. Not good!”

And today, nine days later, OPEC and non-OPEC nations (read: Saudi Arabia and Russia) obliged by announcing that OPEC members will raise output by at least 700,000 barrel per day, with non-OPEC nations expected to add a further 300,000 barrels per day in output.

Iran may accuse other oil exporting nations of being bullied by President Trump but we think it is their pragmatic acceptance that the global economy cannot withstand higher oil prices that has facilitated the deal amongst them. (Of course we do not deny that a part of the motivation behind increasing output is bound to be Saudi Arabia wanting to return the favour to Mr Trump for re-imposing sanctions on Iran.)


Last week the Fed raised the Fed funds target rate by 25 basis points to a range between 1.75 per cent and 2 per cent. At the same time it also increased the interest rate on excess reserves (IOER) – the interest the Fed pays on money placed by commercial banks with the central bank – by 20 basis points to 1.95 per cent. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) also raised its median 2018 policy rate projection from 3 hikes to 4.

With the Fed forging ahead with interest rate increases it may seem that it is the Fed and not OPEC that may squeeze global liquidity and cause the next financial crisis. While that may ultimately prove to be the case, the change in the policy rate projection from 3 to 4 hikes is not as significant as the headlines may suggest – the increase is due to one policymaker moving their dot from 3 or below to 4 or above. Jay Powell, we think, will continue the policy of gradualism championed by his predecessors Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. After all, the Chairman of the Fed, we suspect, oh so desires not to be caught in the cross hairs of a Trump tweet.

 

Investment Perspective

 

Given our presently bullish stance on equity markets, the following is the chart we continue to follow most closely (one can replace the Russell 1000 Index with the S&P500 or the MSCI ACWI indices should one so wish):

Russell 1000 IndexRussell 100Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

If the shaded area on the far right continues to expand – i.e. the US 10-year treasury yield and oil price concurrently remain above their respective 48-month moving averages – we would begin to dial back our equity exposure and hedge any remaining equity exposure through other asset classes.

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This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. 

The Contrarian Quartet (Part II)

“You never bet on the end of the world, that only happens once, and the odds of something that happens once in an eternity are pretty long.” – Art Cashin

“A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.” – Mark Twain

This week’s piece is a follow up to last week’s Contrarian Quartet (Part I). We outline the remaining two out of the four opportunities where we find the risk-to-return profile in being contrarian is far more attractive than in following the herd.

Rather fortuitously we decided to delay writing about Italy, the first of the two opportunities we discuss below, to this week as the deterioration in sentiment towards the sustainability of the European Union has accelerated.

Italy

“In investing, what is comfortable is rarely profitable.” – Robert Arnott, chairman and chief executive officer of Research Affiliates

As recently as three weeks ago, investors were disregarding the risks of political turmoil in Italy and lifting the Italian stock market higher. From the start of the year to market close on 7 May, 2018, the FTSE MIB Index generated a total return of 12.2 per cent in US dollar terms versus a measly return of 41 basis points for the MSCI All Cap World Index. Starting 8 May Italian outperformance started to unwind and the year-to-date return for the market, based on live prices as at the time of writing, is now negative. As the cliché goes, stocks take an escalator up and an elevator down.

FTSE MIB IndexFTSE MIB.pngSource: Bloomberg

Investors were first spooked by the two leading populist parties in Italy – the Five Star Movement and the League – moving to form a coalition to run the country. And then by President Sergio Mattarella’s decision to block the formation of a eurosceptic government and selecting Carlo Cottarelli, an International Monetary Fund alumnus, as prime minister-designate, to try to form a new government.

The selection of Mr Cottarelli, who has consistently defended Italy’s membership in the euro and became known as “Mr Scissors” for making cuts to public spending in Italy during Enrico Letta’s brief period as prime minister, has antagonised the populist coalition.  The populists see the selection as a deliberate attempt by President Mattarella to undermine the Italian people’s will as expressed by them in the recent election. Moreover, choosing Mr Cottarelli flies in the face of the coalition’s desire to put eurosceptics in key cabinet positions – as they tried to do by choosing Paolo Savona, the 81-year-old Eurosceptic economist, as their economy minister.

Given the antagonist nature of the President’s selection, Mr Cottarelli is highly unlikely to win a vote of confidence in parliament. Italy, in all likelihood, will have to hold a new set of elections in the autumn. And the next election has inextricably become about Italy’s membership in the euro. The worry is that the populists will use the bitterness from President Mattarella’s actions to rally their voters and emerge even stronger after the new elections.

Investors have been selling-off all things Italy in apprehension. Most drastically, the yield spreads between Italian and German government debt has blown out.

Italian vs. German 10 Year Government Bond Yield SpreadYield SpreadSource: Bloomberg

This is not the reaction President Mattarella was expecting, we suspect.

While we acknowledge that political risk in Europe is back in vogue, we consider the probability of an Italian exit to be low and with the caveat that Señor Draghi keeps the monetary spigots up and running we see even less risk of financial contagion spreading through Europe.

Consider the state of Italian sovereign debt today versus that at the height of the Euro Crisis. Foreign-ownership of Italian sovereign debt is down from 41 per cent in 2010 to 32 per cent today, with non-European investors holding a paltry 5 per cent. At the same time, Italy’s debt servicing costs as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since the euro was instituted – this of course is largely down to the ECB’s benevolence.

The Italian economy has been humming along quite nicely with first quarter GDP year-over-year growth of 1.4 per cent. Italy is also running a primary fiscal surplus and the fiscal deficit for 2017 was just 2.3 per cent of GDP and is likely to fall below 2.0 per cent in 2018.

The possibility of a fiscal blow-out due to extortionate spending by the populist coalition, if it is elected in the next elections, is also highly improbable. Since 2012, the Italian constitution mandates the balanced budget law and the president has the power to veto any decision that is not in adherence with this law. We are almost certain that a Europhile like President Mattarella will not hesitate in exercising the veto should the need arise.

Lastly, there are clear ideological differences between the two coalition parties and it is likely that such differences will be severely tested in the run up to the elections and, if they are elected, by the highly bureaucratic legislative system in Italy.  We suspect that the differing ideologies will impair the populist coalition’s ability to implement policies, which in turn will severely test its survival.

For these reasons we consider the drastic widening of the yield spread in Italian debt relative to German debt to be somewhat unwarranted. Despite this and given where absolute yields are in Europe, we do not think investors should have any sovereign or corporate bond exposure in Europe.

We also think it might still be a bit early to add broad based exposure to Italian stocks. Although selectively we are starting to see opportunities in high quality Italian companies, which we will be monitoring closely for potential entry points.

Where we see the greatest opportunity is to go long the euro relative to the US dollar. We think the current sell-off in the euro is sowing the seeds for the next down leg in the US dollar. The political uncertainty has facilitated the unwinding of bullish euro and bearish US dollar positioning. We suspect positioning will quickly become, if it has not already, very bearish in the euro and bullish in the US dollar. Overly bearish positioning is in our minds a necessary condition for the euro to re-assert its bullish trend.


US Long Dated Treasuries

GS US Financial Conditions Index versus US 30 Year Treasury YieldsGS US FCI vs 30YSource: Bloomberg

In The Convergence of US and Chinese Bond Markets we wrote:

“The shifting secular trend does not, however, warrant shorting US treasuries. The last secular US bond bear market lasted thirty-five years and can be sub-divided into thirteen parts: seven major price declines and six bear market rallies. Moreover, even though short-term interest rates bottomed around 1941, long-term bond yields continued to decline till 1946. We would not be overly surprised if a similar dynamic played out once again, with short-term rates bottoming in 2015 and long-term bond yields bottoming several years after.”

While we remain secular bears on US government bonds, we think long dated US treasuries currently offer a tactical opportunity on the long-side. US financial conditions have started to tighten after the easing induced by the enactment of the Trump tax plan – for instance US companies pre-funded their pension schemes to benefit from the higher tax rate in 2017 and contributed to the easing in financial conditions – is beginning to wear off and the reality of higher rates and higher oil prices squeezes system-wide liquidity. As demonstrated in the above chart, as financial conditions tighten, long-term bond yields tend to decline shortly after. Add to this the near record levels of short positioning in long-dated treasuries by non-commercials and you have a recipe for sharp rally in long-dated US treasuries.

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This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein