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   

The Contrarian Quartet (Part I)

“If all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” – Mark Twain

 “Studies have shown that most rational people, including people that fit that profile, that their decision making breaks down in an environment of negative reinforcement. The ultimate example of which would be interrogation, where your ability to withhold information is broken down by various physical or mental techniques.” – Jim Chanos

 

  

Is there any population cohort exposed to a more rigid daily routine than school going children and teenagers?

The constant ringing of bells, schedule of classes, lunchtime, homework, each a daily fixture throughout the academic year. It is no wonder then that most people tend to be conformists – the rigidness of school stamps out individualism in favour of conformity.

The irony of it all is that we celebrate the individuals who have managed to resist the rigidness and maintain their non-conformist streaks. Our heroes are Steve Jobs not Jeffrey Immelt, Muhammad Ali not Floyd Mayweather, The Beatles not Coldplay.

Capital markets too have on occasion handsomely rewarded the contrarians, like Dr Michael Bury during the Global Financial Crisis, Paul Tudor Jones in 1987, and Jesse Livermore in 1929. Markets do not, however, look kindly upon the reflexive contrarian – the investor that cannot help but go against the trend. Markets can be conformists for extended periods of time and hence why momentum following strategies can be so rewarding.

We like to consider ourselves independent investors – investors that scour the market for signals that may provide us with opportunities to generate outsized returns. Our aim is neither to be contrarian nor momentum driven. Today, however, we see four areas of the market where the risk-to-return profile in being contrarian is far more attractive than in following the herd. We outline two out of the four areas of opportunity below and will outline the remaining contrarian opportunities in a follow-up next week.

Turkey

“Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on scepticism, mature on optimism and die of euphoria.” – Sir John Templeton

  

In Turkey today we see many reminisces of what occurred in Brazil in 2015, with the caveat that with Turkey embroiled in a geopolitical storm as compared to the internal political strife in Brazil in 2015 makes Turkey potentially far more volatile.

Consider Brazil at the height of its crisis in 2015:

  • The premium on Brazil’s three-year credit default swaps surged by 189 per cent over a period of four and half months
  • The Brazilian real declined by 43 per cent versus the US dollar in a period of four and half months
  • Using the twenty-five year average, Brazil’s real effective exchange rate was one standard deviation below its average

Brazil Real Effective Exchange Rate (25 Years)Brazil REER 25Y

Source: Bank for International Settlements

  • Using the five year average, Brazil’s real effective exchange rate was two standard deviations below its average. As the political turmoil subsided and the real effective exchange rate reverted towards the mean, the Brazilian equity market rallied and foreign investors enjoyed the leveraged effect of a rising equity market coupled with the strengthening real

Brazil Real Effective Exchange Rate (5 Years) vs. MSCI Brazil IndexBrazil REER 5YSources: Bank for International Settlements, Bloomberg

  • Brazil’s rating was downgraded from Baa2 to Baa3 by Moody’s and from BBB-minus to BB-plus by Standard & Poor’s

Now consider Turkey in 2018:

  • The premium on Turkey’s three-year credit default swaps has increased by 152 per cent in less than three months
  • The Turkish Lira has declined by 26 per cent versus the US dollar in a period of less than three months
  • Using the twenty-five year average, Turkey’s real effective exchange rate is almost one standard deviation below its average

Turkey Real Effective Exchange Rate (25 Years)Turkey REER 25Y

Source: Bank for International Settlements

  • Using the five year average, Turkey’s real effective exchange rate is two standard deviations below its average

 

Brazil Real Effective Exchange Rate (5 Years) Turkey REER 5Y Sources: Bank for International Settlements, Bloomberg

 

  • Turkey’s rating has been downgraded from Ba1 to Ba2 by Moody’s and from BB to BB-minus by Standard & Poor’s

The bad news is that Turkey runs a current account deficit of around US dollar 40 billion a year and has external debt stock of approximately US dollar 450 billion. The net amount of outstanding external debt is around US dollars 290 billion, representing 34 per cent of its GDP.

The good news is that the vast majority of Turkey’s foreign currency denominated debt is held by local banks. We do not expect Turkey to default on the debt it owes to foreign investors. This view is founded on the assumption that while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can afford to antagonise the US and Europe on the political front given Turkey’s geopolitical significance, he cannot afford to antagonise foreign investors as Turkey relies on international capital markets to fund its economy.

We think the time is coming to scale into Turkish assets. The sequence of scaling in being the Turkish lira first, foreign currency bonds second, local currency bonds next and the equity market last.


Swiss Franc

“You can’t do the same things others do and expect to outperform.” – The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks

Hedge funds and speculators are holding the biggest net short Swiss franc position in more than ten years at a time when the Swiss franc is close to being undervalued relative to the US dollar – a first since the start of the new millennium.

CFTC CME Swiss Franc Net Non-Commercial PositionCHF CFTC

Source: Bloomberg

Over the last decade, Switzerland has run an average current account surplus of 9.3 per cent of GDP. The Swiss franc should not be undervalued. If anything, given that Switzerland has consistently run current account surpluses and enjoys the so called global safe haven status, the Swiss franc should be overvalued.  We all know the reason why the currency is not overvalued: the non-stop printing and selling of its currency by the Swiss National Bank.

At the end of last year, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs revised its economic growth forecasts for Switzerland upwards, forecasting GDP to grow by 2.3 per cent in 2018 after growth of 1 per cent in 2017. The revision was driven by industrial orders rising by a fifth in the fourth quarter last year and a booming tourism industry that is benefiting from the artificial suppression of the Swiss franc.

In the face of such strong economic growth we doubt that the Swiss National Bank can sustain the suppression of its currency. We suspect the Swiss National Bank, not for the first time, is going to cause a lot of pain to those unwisely betting against its currency.

We will gradually look to get long the Swiss franc once we see the broader short interest against the US dollar unwinding – we expect such an opportunity to be presented imminently.

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  

AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market

“The icon of modern conservatism, Ronald Reagan, imposed quotas on imported steel, protected Harley-Davidson from Japanese competition, restrained import of semiconductors and automobiles, and took myriad similar steps to keep American industry strong. How does allowing China to constantly rig trade in its favour advance the core conservative goal of making markets more efficient? Markets do not run better when manufacturing shifts to China largely because of the actions of its government.” – Robert E. Lighthizer

“Patience is essential. We should step back, take a deep breath and examine carefully the ties that bind us together.” Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former CEO of American International Group, at the congressional hearing on US-China economic ties in May 1996

American International Group (AIG), the once venerable multinational insurance group, was founded in 1919 in Shanghai, where it prospered until the communists forced it to leave in 1950. AIG had to wait over four decades to re-enter the Chinese market. In 1992, AIG became the first foreign insurance company licensed to operate in China and established its first office on the Mainland in Shanghai.

We doubt it was sentiment that led China to grant AIG the license. After all, there is little room for sentiment in the high-stakes game of global trade.

In 1990, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, then chief executive of AIG, had been appointed as the first chairman of the International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council for the Mayor of Shanghai. In 1994, Mr Greenberg was appointed as senior economic advisor to the Beijing Municipal Government. In 1996, at the time when China’s status as Most Favoured Nation (MFN)[1] was under threat due to a resolution put forth to the House of Representatives in the US, he was appointed as the Chairman of the US-China Business Council.

While all of above mentioned appointments may have raised an eyebrow or two, they do not amount to much in and of themselves. When we throw in the fact that Mr Greenberg had been part of the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations since the 1970s – the official private-sector advisory committee to the Office of the US Trade Representative – we begin to realise the possible reason why the Chinese leadership took a liking to Mr Greenberg and afforded his company the luxury of becoming the first foreign insurer to operate in China.

In May 1996, Mr Greenberg, during a key congressional hearing on US-Sino economic ties, testified in favour of not only renewing China’s MFN status but also making it permanent.

There we have it: quid pro quo.

In June 1996, the House of Representatives endorsed China’s MFN status by a vote of 286 to 141. At the time of vote AIG had eleven lobbyists representing its interests in Washington. One of those lobbyists was Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where AIG’s affairs were handled by one Robert E. Lighthizer – the current United States Trade Representative.


Senior American and Chinese officials concluded two days of negotiations on trade and technology related grievances the Trump Administration has with China. As many may have suspected, the talks appear to have achieved little despite the US sending a team comprised of top-level officials including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, and National Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow.

As part of the talks the US representatives have submitted an extensive list of trade and technology related demands. In our opinion, the demands represent a hodgepodge of objectives as opposed to one or two key strategic objectives the Trump Administration may have – symptomatic of the differing views held by the various members of the US team. We expect US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to slowly take control of proceedings and to set the agenda for US-China trade relations – after all he is the only senior member of the team with meaningful experience in negotiating bilateral international agreements.

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.


Unveiled in 2015, “Made in China 2025” is China’s broad-based industrial strategy for it to become a leader in the field of advanced manufacturing. The strategy calls for directed government subsidies, heavy investments in research and innovation, and targets for local manufacturing content.

To date, China’s industrial base is dominated by manufacturing of basic consumer products such as clothing, shoes and consumer electronics. The overwhelming majority of technologically advanced exports out of China have been made by multinational companies. The Made in China 2025 strategy identifies ten key areas – such as robotics, electric and fuel-cell vehicles, aerospace, semiconductors, agricultural machinery and biomedicine – where China aims to become a global leader. And it is these very industries that Mr Lighthizer aims to attack for the benefit of Corporate America.

One area where China is clearly at the cutting edge of global research is artificial intelligence. According to research published by the University of Toronto, 23 per cent of the authors of papers presented at the 2017 Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference were Chinese, compared to just 10 per cent in 2012. And we suspect, especially given the Chinese leadership’s dystopian leanings, China is going to be unwilling to relent on its progress in artificial intelligence regardless of the amount of pressure the Trump Administration applies.

Artificial intelligence requires immense amounts of computing power. Computers are powered by semiconductors. China cannot risk its AI ambitions by being hostage to semiconductor companies that fall under the US sphere of influence. China, we believe, will pull out all the stops over the next decade to develop its local semiconductor industry manufacturing capabilities with an aim to end its reliance on US-based manufacturers by 2030.

Investment Perspective

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.

[1] From Wikipedia: MFN is a status or level of treatment accorded by one state to another in international trade. The term means the country which is the recipient of this treatment must nominally receive equal trade advantages as the “most favoured nation” by the country granting such treatment. (Trade advantages include low tariffs or high import quotas.) In effect, a country that has been accorded MFN status may not be treated less advantageously than any other country with MFN status by the promising country. There is a debate in legal circles whether MFN clauses in bilateral investment treaties include only substantive rules or also procedural protections.

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

Oil: Opportunities Arising from Infrastructure Bottlenecks

“Allow yourself to stand back to see the obvious before stepping forward to look beyond” – Adrian McGinn

“The fact is, America needs energy and new energy infrastructure, and the Keystone XL pipeline will help us achieve that with good stewardship.” – John Henry Hoeven III, is an American politician serving as the senior United States Senator from North Dakota

“Is it in our national interest to overheat the planet? That’s the question Obama faces in deciding whether to approve Keystone XL, a 2,000-mile-long pipeline that will bring 500,000 barrels of tar-sand oil from Canada to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.” – Jeff Goodell, American author and contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” – Goodhart’s Law

A concept that frequently occurs in the study of thermodynamics – the branch of physics concerned with heat and temperature and their relation to other forms of energy – is that of irreversible processes.  An irreversible process is a process once initiated cannot return the system, within which it occurs, or its surroundings back to their original state without the expenditure of additional energy. For example, a car driven uphill does not give back the gasoline it burnt going uphill as it comes back down the hill. There are many factors that make processes irreversible – friction being the most common.

In the world of commerce when a supply- or demand-side shock occurs in a particular industry, it sets into motion a series of irreversible processes that have far reaching consequences not only within the industry which the shock occurs but for adjacent and related industries as well. The commodity complex, more so than most other industries, is typified by regular occurrences of supply- and demand-side shocks.

When a positive demand- or supply-side shock occurs for a certain commodity, the immediate impact is felt in the price of said commodity. As the price of said commodity re-rates, the net present values and prospective returns from investing in new production capacities for the commodity obviously improve. Once return prospects start to cross certain arbitrary thresholds – be it cost of capital, target internal rate of return, or a positive net present value – the investment case for the new production capacities strengthens. In response to the strengthening investment case a new capital formation cycle starts to take root and the amount of capital employed within the industry begins to increase, in turn impacting both supply-side dynamics within the industry and the demand-side dynamics within other supporting industries.

Conversely, when a negative demand- or supply-side shock occurs for a commodity, existing producers of the capacity start to feel the pain and suffer from declining earnings as the commodity’s price de-rates.  A sharp enough decline in the commodity’s price can lead to marginal producers selling at prices well below their cash cost i.e. cost of production excluding depreciation and amortisation. At this point the capital employed within the industry begins to decline – this can occur in a number of ways including shuttering of supply, bankruptcies, suppliers changing payment terms, or lenders recalling or withholding loans.

The capital cycle set in motion by either demand- or supply-side shocks are difficult to reverse. Once capital starts entering an industry, it continues to flow in until the vast majority of the planned capacity additions are delivered, even if the pricing assumptions that underpinned the original decision making have changed for the worse. The continued flow of capital despite the adverse change in return expectations is due to what Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call the ‘The Sunk Cost Fallacy’. The sunk cost fallacy is a mistake in reasoning in which decision making is tainted by the investment of capital, effort, or time that has already been made as opposed to being based upon the prospective costs and benefits. It usually takes a shock of epic proportions to alter such a behavioural bias, such as oil falling below US dollar thirty per barrel in 2016 forced OPEC to switch from a strategy of market share maximisation to that of production rationalisation.

In the scenario where capital starts fleeing from an industry even though the sunk cost fallacy may not necessarily drive decision making – unless of course the decision makers have emotionally invested themselves in the negative prospects for the industry – reversing the tide of capital outflows can still be extremely difficult even in the face of improving prospects. This is partly explained by the lingering remnants of the emotional, psychological, or financial trauma that decision makers may have suffered through when the industry went through the negative shock. It often takes a sustained recovery either in terms of length of time or magnitude of price for the trauma to give way to rational decision making.

The turns at which behaviour begins to adjust towards more rational decision making often provide the most profitable trading opportunities.

Investment Perspective

Investing in commodities or equities of commodity producers is not for the fainthearted. Even the most sound investment thesis can be derailed by any number of factors, be it geopolitics, innovation, tax or subsidy reform, cartel-like behaviour, or simply futures markets positioning. Particularly in times of high levels of uncertainty, extreme investor positioning either long or short, or after a sustained move higher or lower in the price of the commodity, investors can be exposed to very high levels of risk. It is at such times that investing in companies that form part of the commodity’s supply chain can be a superior expression of one’s view as opposed to taking a direct exposure in the commodity or its producers.

We think that given the sustained move higher in oil, that has clearly wrong footed many, extreme positioning on the long side in futures markets and impressive revival in US shale oil production, one may be able to better express a medium-term bullish view on oil prices by investing in companies that service the oil and gas industry. Specifically, we consider, at this stage, being long equities of companies with products and services targeted towards oil and gas pipeline infrastructure to represent a more balanced risk-reward trade than simply being long oil or a generic energy ETF.

Brent Crude Oil and WTI Midland Price SpreadBrent WTI Midland Spread.pngSource: Bloomberg

To quote Bloomberg from its article Crude in West Texas Is Cheapest in Three Years Versus Europe:

Oil traders with access to pipelines out of West Texas to export terminals along the Gulf Coast are raking it in from the rapid supply growth in the Permian Basin. The 800,000 barrel-a-day output surge in the past year has outpaced pipeline construction and filled existing lines, pushing prices of the region’s crude to almost $13 a barrel below international benchmark Brent crude, the biggest discount in three years. That’s about double the cost to ship the oil via pipeline and tanker from Texas to Europe, signaling U.S. exports are likely to increase.

The infrastructure bottlenecks pushing down WTI Midland prices relative to Brent Crude prices are the direct consequence of underinvestment in pipeline infrastructure. This underinvestment is the result of either (1) the expectation that oil prices would remain lower for longer or (2) that shale production would not recover even if oil prices recovered. We think the reason is more likely to the former as opposed to the latter.

Oil prices have recovered both in terms of the magnitude and the duration of the recovery to such a degree that investors and decision makers are beginning to overcome the trauma caused by the sharp decline in oil prices between 2014 and 2016. And only now are they starting to invest in pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure to benefit from the recovery in both oil prices and shale production.  Just as there was inertia in the change in investor attitudes towards oil and oil related investments, there is likely to be inertia – should there be a significant decline in oil prices from current levels – in stopping projects that have started and gone through the first or second rounds of investment.

Companies that manufacture components such as valves, flow management equipment, and industrial grade pumps, that are essential in the development of oil and gas pipeline infrastructure, we think, will be the primary beneficiaries of the recovery in oil and gas infrastructure investment. We also think companies specialising in providing engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance services for the oil and gas services are also likely to benefit.

We are long Flowserve Corporation $FLS, SPX Flow $FLOW and Fluor Corporation $FLR.

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 Price of Growth

 

“To act wisely when the time for action comes, to wait patiently when it is time for repose, put man in accord with the tides. Ignorance of this law results in periods of unreasoning enthusiasm on the one hand, and depression on the other.”  – Helena Blavatsky, Russian esoteric philosopher, and author who co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875

 

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” – Stephen Hawking

 

“As soon as you stop wanting something, you get it.” – Andy Warhol

 

One of the universally accepted ideas in sport is that of home court advantage. The idea, after all, is not a difficult one to accept: Home teams have the crowd behind them, cheering them on, filling them with confidence; visiting teams, on the other hand, have to deal with the home crowd’s hostility, which saps energy. And the stats seemingly reinforce the idea. For example, over the course of the NBA’s history, home teams have won roughly 60 per cent of the games played in almost any given season.

The crowd is powerful.

When it comes to capital markets, the crowd has unquestionably been cheering on growth and mocking value. Leaving many a value investor confounded by the apparently unstoppable rise in the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and NVIDIA. While valuations may be stretched and fundamentals in some cases appear questionable, if we take a step back and consider the secular trend, the continued outperformance of technology becomes less puzzling.

Plotting total business sales of US corporates against the ratio of Nasdaq 100 Index to the S&P 500 Index, we find a strong correlation – 74.1% using monthly data – between the two data series. That is the outperformance of the technology focused Nasdaq 100 Index relative to the broader S&P 500 Index is positively correlated with US business sales.

Total US Business Sales versus Nasdaq 100 Index to S&P 500 Index Ratio Business SalesSources: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Bloomberg

Given the latency between data releases, this relationship does not provide a trading signal. The relationship, however, does appear to suggest that US business sales growth has largely been dependent upon the growth in sales at technology companies and the market accordingly has rewarded technology stocks.

Our goal here is not to espouse the merits of investing in technology or in growth. Instead, we want to focus on what we consider to be the most interesting part of the above chart – the period from 2003 through 2006. During this period US business sales grew strongly yet the ratio between the two indices flat lined i.e. the S&P 500’s price performance roughly matched that of the NASDAQ 100.[i]

Digging a little deeper, we plot the ratio of per share sales of the S&P 500 to per share sales of the NASDAQ 100 against the relative price performance of the NASDAQ 100 Index to the S&P 500 Index. Zooming in on the period between 2003 and 2007 we find that the comparable price performance of the two indices during this period coincided with the quarterly fluctuations in per share sales also being comparable. Similarly, during the years of significant relative outperformance by the NASDAQ 100 Index, we find that per shares sales of the index were increasing relative to the per share sales of the S&P 500 Index.

Nasdaq 100 Index T12M Sales to S&P 500 Index T12M Ratio (Quarterly Data)Per Share RevenueSource: Bloomberg

Next, we consider the relative performance of S&P 500 Growth Index to that of the S&P 500 Value Index. Comparing the performance of these two indices we find that while the Nasdaq 100 Index and S&P 500 Index achieved comparable performance during the period from 2003 through 2006, the value index significantly outperformed the growth index during this period. The value index peaked relative to the growth index in 2007.

 

Ratio of S&P 500 Growth Index to S&P 500 Value Index (Monthly Data)growth to valueSource: Bloomberg

At the time of the dotcom bubble the ratio of the growth index to the value index, on a monthly basis, peaked at 1.56. Today the ratio stands at 1.47.

The crowd may well be at the cusp of switching loyalties.

We look for clues in and around the period between 2003 and 2007 to help us determine whether the time for value is coming or not.

The cyclical low in the effective US Federal Funds Rate registered a cyclical low in 2003.

US Federal Funds Effective RateFed funds rateSource: Bloomberg

The Commodity Research Bureau All Commodities Spot Index registered a cyclical low in 2001 and MSCI Emerging Markets Index started its multi-year ascent in 2003.

CRB Spot All Commodities IndexCRBSource: Bloomberg

MSCI Emerging Markets IndexMSCISource: Bloomberg

The US dollar had its cyclical peak in 2002, the same year in which the Bush Administration imposed tariffs on imported steel.

In 2004, Congress approved a one-time tax holiday for US corporations repatriating overseas profits.

In 2005, George Bush signed a USD 286 billion transportation bill.

If we compare the events and market action that preceded and coincided with the relative outperformance of value during the years from 2003 to 2007 to that of today, we find many similarities across both policy-making and market action. With growth’s outperformance relative to value reaching levels last seen during the very same period, the signs are difficult to ignore. It may not be time to bail on growth as yet, but it certainly is not the time to have a 100 per cent allocation to it either.

 

Investment Perspective

 

Human nature is such that we desire that which is rare and take for granted that which is common. In the recent past growth has been elusive – and that which has been available has been heavily concentrated in the US and in technology. It is no wonder then that investors have rushed into US technology names without abandon.

Growth is no longer as elusive. We can find growth in Asia, Europe and other parts of the emerging world and across both old industries and new. With its abundance the price of growth should de-rate. Value, however, has become hard to find and it is this scarcity of value, we believe, that will bring about the inevitable shift in market leadership away from technology to other sectors.

Forewarned is forearmed.   

 

[i] The total return for the NASDAQ 100 Index for the period was 80.9% versus 74.05% for the S&P 500 Index.

 

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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.