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. 

Charts & Markets – 21 Jun, 2018

 

Emerging Markets

The iShares Emerging Markets ETF $EEM had 3 corrections of 20% or more and another 3 corrections of between 10% and 20% from mid-2003 to late-2007, a period during which $EEM went up 400%+.

Since the 2016 low, $EEM is still to record a 20% correction. Don’t be shaken out so easily.

EEM US Equity (iShares MSCI Emer 2018-06-20 14-37-28

Nasdaq Biotechnology Index

Based on the 52-week rate of change in the index (second panel), biotech stocks during the last 18 months have been in their most benign (no pun intended) trading range over the last 10 years. A big move, either up or down, seems like its coming.

NBI Index (Nasdaq Biotechnology 2018-06-20 16-18-07

US 10-Year Treasury Yields

Yields are retreating from where they topped out during the 2013 Taper Tantrum.

USGG10YR Index (US Generic Govt 2018-06-20 14-39-24

Rogers International Commodity Agriculture Index 

Agriculture commodities are stuck in a rut.

RICIAGTR Index (Rogers Internati 2018-06-20 16-30-02

The Trillion Dollar Company

Who is going to be the first? $AAPL, AMZN or $GOOG. We think it will not be $AAPL. The momentum is surely with $AMZN.

GOOG US Equity (Alphabet Inc) UX 2018-06-21 12-41-01

Australian Banks

The price action in Australian banking stocks is terrible. Here is National Australia Bank.

NAB AU Equity (National Australi 2018-06-20 15-06-39

And here is Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

CBA AU Equity (Commonwealth Bank 2018-06-20 15-19-25

Southwest Airlines

Not feeling the $LUV.  Will it break $50? Well we have been short for some time now.

LUV US Equity (Southwest Airline 2018-06-20 17-01-26

 

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

Charts & Markets – 11 Jun, 2018

 

Ibovespa Brasil Sao Paulo Stock Exchange Index

It has been a rough few weeks for Brazilian capital markets. In the short-term, the sell-off should be getting close to being done. We would not be surprised to see a rally soon.

IBOV Index (Ibovespa Brasil Sao 2018-06-11 10-51-06

Straits Times Index

Singapore’s equity market is attempting to break out of its 9 year trading range.
STI Index (Straits Times Index S 2018-06-11 10-38-28
Singapore Airlines

Like the broader market, Singapore Airlines has been sideways for many years and is now near the high-end of its trading range.

SIA SP Equity (Singapore Airline 2018-06-11 10-37-00

Tadawul All Share Index

Saudi Arabia’s stock market is at three-year highs with investors fully expecting MSCI to upgrade the Saudi market to emerging market status on 20 June.

SASEIDX Index (Tadawul All Share 2018-06-11 10-42-06

SABIC

The largest company in the Saudi market by market cap is making a run for 10 year highs.

SABIC AB Equity (Saudi Basic Ind 2018-06-11 10-43-14

Al Rajhi Bank

The largest bank and second largest company in the Saudi market recently recorded 10 year highs.

RJHI AB Equity (Al Rajhi Bank) U 2018-06-11 10-46-34

Uranium 

After a prolonged bear market, is uranium making an inverse head-and-shoulders bottoming pattern?

UXA1 Comdty (Generic 1st 'UXA' F 2018-06-11 10-28-28

Uranium Participation Company

A pure play on uranium, is also carving out a similar pattern.

URPTF US Equity (Uranium Partici 2018-06-11 10-31-35

 

Fast Retailing Co

The largest constituent of Japan’s Nikkei 225 Index is trying to make a run for the 2015 highs.

9983 JT Equity (Fast Retailing C 2018-06-11 10-55-16

SoftBank Group

On the other hand, the second largest constituent of Japan’s Nikkei 225 Index looks in bad shape.

9984 JT Equity (SoftBank Group C 2018-06-11 10-54-59

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Is the worst over for Chipotle? It looks it wants to go higher.
CMG US Equity (Chipotle Mexican 2018-06-11 12-29-10

Starbucks

The stock has gone nowhere since mid-2015. Is the next leg lower and through the three-year trading range? We would not bet against it happening.

SBUX US Equity (Starbucks Corp) 2018-06-11 11-23-51

Darden Restaurants

A much more difficult call to make but we think this might be heading much lower eventually as well.

DRI US Equity (Darden Restaurant 2018-06-11 12-30-54

TripAdvisor

Another stock coming back from the dead. Looks like it could go much higher.
TRIP US Equity (TripAdvisor Inc) 2018-06-11 14-46-11

Mattel Inc

A little less obvious but toy maker Mattel may not be the worst contrarian long out there. 
MAT US Equity (Mattel Inc) UXA 2018-06-11 12-36-41
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.