The Hawks Have Not Left the Building

 

“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” – William Ellery Channing

 

“Very few negotiations are begun and concluded in the same sitting. It’s really rare. In fact, if you sit down and actually complete your negotiation in one sitting, you left stuff on the table.” – Christopher Voss

 

The Hawks Have Not Left the Building

 

A “typical feature of conflicts is that […] the intergroup conflict tends to be exacerbated and perpetuated by intragroup conflicts: by internal conflicts within each of the two contending parties. Even when there is growing interest on both sides in finding a way out of the conflict, movement toward negotiations is hampered by conflicts between the “doves” and the “hawks” –or the “moderates” and “extremists” –within each community”.  So wrote Herbert C. Kelman, the Richard Clarke Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus at Harvard University, in Coalitions Across Conflict Lines: The Interplay of Conflicts and Between the Israeli and Palestinian Communities.

 

Kelman – renowned for his work in the Middle East and efforts to bring Israel and Palestine closer towards the goal of achieving peace in the Middle East – identifies, in the paper he authored in 1993, the “relationship between intergroup and intragroup conflict” as a key hurdle towards building coalitions across conflict lines. According to Kelman, “doves on the two sides and hawks on the two sides have common interests”. The hawks, unlike the doves, can pursue their interests without the need to coordinate with their counterparts on the opposing side. The hawks simply “by engaging in provocative actions or making threatening statements” reaffirm the enemy’s worst fears and embolden the hawks on the opposing side. The doves, on the other hand, “tend to be preoccupied with how their words will sound, and how their actions will look, at home, and with the immediate political consequences of what they say and do.” Therefore, the doves tend to take a more measured approach in communicating their views and underplay their side’s willingness to negotiate – the kind of behaviour that plays right into the hands of the hawks and reduces the effectiveness of the doves

 

Kelman’s recommendation to increase the chances of resolving a conflict by means of negotiation is to facilitate greater coordination between the doves on the opposing sides and minimise the involvement of the hawks.

 

The lessons from Professor Kelman’s work, we think, are highly relevant today. His insights provide a framework for determining the possibility of success in each round of negotiations between the US and China in resolving the on-going trade dispute.

 

Subsequent to the working dinner between President Trump and President Xi in Buenos Aires following the G20 summit, the headlines have focused on the temporary ceasefire in the trade dispute. President Trump has pledged to suspend the increase in tariffs on US dollars 200 billion of Chinese imports that was to go into effect on 1 January 2019 for a period of up to 90 days. In return President Xi has pledged that China will buy more US goods, ban exports of the opioid drug, and offered to reconsider the Qualcomm-NXP merger that failed to receive regulatory approval in China earlier in the year.

 

The three-month period, before the suspension of the tariff increase lapses, provides the two-sides a window of opportunity to initiate a new round of talks to tackle some of the more sensitive issues surrounding the trade dispute, including ownership and access to technology and intellectual property.

 

Despite the announcements lacking details, capital markets have reacted positively to the news of the temporary ceasefire and the Chinese yuan, on Monday, posted its largest single day gain since February 2016.

 

We are not surprised by the bare bones nature of the agreement following the meeting between President Trump and President Xi. The last minute inclusion of Peter Navarro, White House trade policy adviser and prominent China hawk, to the list of guests attending the working dinner was, at least to us, a clear signal that meaningful progress on trade relations during the meeting was unlikely. After all, Mr Navarro’s role in the Trump Administration, as The Atlantic puts it, is “to shepherd Trump’s more extreme ideas into reality, ensuring that the president’s convictions are not weakened as officials translate them from bully-pulpit shouts to negotiated legalese. He is the madman behind Trump’s “madman theory” approach to trade policy, there to make enemies and allies alike believe that the president can and will do anything to make America great again.”

 

Moreover, we do not expect a breakthrough in negotiations to materialise during the next round of talks between Washington and Beijing before the suspension of the increase in tariffs lapses. As long as hawks such as Peter Navarro and Robert E. Lighthizer continue to have President Trump’s ear our view is unlikely to change. If, however, the dovish members of the Trump Administration, such as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Lawrence Kudlow, begin to take control of proceedings we would become much more hopeful of a positive resolution to the trade dispute.

 

For now, we see the temporary agreement between the two sides as providing much needed short-term respite for China. More importantly, we see President Trump’s offer of a temporary ceasefire without President Xi offering any concessions on sensitive issues, such as industrial policy, state funded subsidies and intellectual property rights, to be a symptom of the short-termism that seemingly besets democratically elected leaders without exception. Had the US equity capital markets not faltered recently and / or the Republicans not lost control of the House of Representatives, it is unlikely, we think, that President Trump would have been as acquiescent.

 

 

Liquidity Relief

 

In June in The Great Unwind and the Two Most Important Prices in the World we wrote:

 

“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.

 

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.”

 

We have updated the charts we presented alongside the above remarks and provide them below. (The periods during which both the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have been above their respective 48-month moving averages are shaded in grey in the two charts below.)

 

US 10-Year Treasury Yield10YSource: Bloomberg

 

West Texas Intermediate Crude (US dollars per barrel) WTISource: Bloomberg

 

The sharp drop in oil prices in recent weeks ended the 10 month streak of the 10-year Treasury yields and oil prices concurrently trading above their respective 48-month moving averages.

 

The recent drop in oil prices has coincided with the Fed weighing up the possibility of changing its policy guidance language. Several members of the Fed have suggested, according to the minutes of the FOMC’s November policy meeting, a “transition to statement language that [places] greater emphasis on the evaluation of incoming data in assessing the economic and policy outlook”. If the drop in oil prices sustains the data is likely soften and compel the Fed to dial back its hawkishness. With the base effects from the Trump Tax Cut also likely to recede in 2019, there is a distinct possibility that the Fed’s policy will be far less hawkish in 2019 than it has been over the course of 2018.

 

Lower (or range bound oil prices) and a more dovish Fed (even at the margin) are the conditions under which oil importing emerging markets tend to thrive. Although it is still too early to be sure, if oil prices fail to recover in the coming few months and the Fed is forced into a more dovish stance due to softer data, 2019 might just be the year to once again be long emerging markets.

 

 

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: Clearing the Way for a War of Attrition

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

CCJ.PNG

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

The Big Hack

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

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

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

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

 

American Corporate Interests

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

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

 

War of Attrition

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

 

 

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