The impact of the slowing global economy and current trade war can be found in a number of places. The most common is the equity markets, which have seen their 2019 gains recede. We’ve also seen US retailers report dismal quarterly results of late, with falling same-store comparisons. But another victim has been China led tourism to the U.S., which historically has brought Chinese consumers looking to snap up branded US goods as part of our Living the Life investing theme.
While the latest data shows a drop in 2018, so far this year US-China trade tensions have increased dramatically complete with another round of tariff increases on both sides. This combination is likely to divert Chinese travelers to the US yet again this year searching for luxury goods that are not impacted by trade tariffs. This suggests that at least one of several drivers of the challenging environment for US retailers is poised to continue.
Chinese tourism to the U.S. was down in 2018 for the first time since 2003 as the trade war between the two countries rages on.
According to a report in the AP, citing the National Travel and Tourism Office, travel from China to the U.S. declined 5.7 percent to 2.9 million visitors last year, marking the first year-over-year decline since 2003. Tensions between China and the U.S. was cited as one of the reasons fewer tourists are visiting.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump slapped tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products coming into the U.S. The White House also blacklisted Huawei, the Chinese telecom player, preventing it from doing business in the country. China has retaliated with its own tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. products coming into China. The report noted that in the summer of 2018, China issued a travel warning, urging its citizens to be careful due to shootings, robberies and costly medical care in the U.S. The U.S. countered with its own travel warning for U.S. citizens visiting China.
In addition to the trade war, the AP reported that economic concerns on the part of Chinese consumers are limiting travel to the U.S. Chinese citizens with less income are opting to vacation closer to home, noted Wolfgang Georg Arlt, the director of the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute. The research firm said 56 percent of travelers leaving China in the last 90 days of 2018 were headed for Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, up from 50 percent in 2017. The Chinese consumers that are venturing farther are visiting exotic places including Croatia, Morocco and Nepal.
Industry watchers said the decline in Chinese tourism to the U.S. isn’t likely to last for long, as the middle class in China is expected to continue to grow. The U.S. expects Chinese tourism to increase by 2 percent in 2019, reaching 3.3 million visitors. By 2023, the U.S. government expects that will increase to 4.1 million visitors. “Even if the Chinese economy cools, it’s still going to continue to be a very good source of growth for the travel industry,” said David Huether, senior vice president of research for the U.S. Travel Association.
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As the kinds of cyber attacks companies and other businesses are experiencing expand, we are seeing the actual victims, as well as potential ones of these attacks, step up their efforts to protect themselves. In hospitals, one of the areas of focus is internet connected equipment, but we can see how this will quickly spill over to the burgeoning Internet of Things and larger 5G markets, igniting a new round of demand for companies that fall within the parameters of our Safety & Security investing theme.
Hospitals are pushing medical-device makers to improve cyber defenses of their internet-connected infusion pumps, biopsy imaging tables and other health-care products as reports of attacks rise.
Rattled by recent global cyberattacks, U.S. hospitals are conducting tests to detect weaknesses in specific devices, and asking manufacturers to reveal the proprietary software running the products in order to identify vulnerabilities. In some cases, hospitals have canceled orders and rejected bids for devices that lacked safety features.
Hospitals, after a decade of racing to wire up their medical records and an explosion of internet-connected medical devices, are growing more aggressive with technology suppliers amid pressure to better defend against incursions that could threaten patients and cause costly disruptions. Credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Service in February ranked hospitals as one of the sectors most vulnerable to cyberattacks.
In stepping up their efforts, hospitals have gone beyond building firewalls and taking other actions to shield their own networks—they have moved into demanding information like the software running devices that manufacturers have long considered proprietary. The requests have generated tensions between the sides.
Several of us here at Tematica have been waiting for the day when banks would recognize that if they embraced our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, the bank branch would one day go the way of the cassette tape – a fond memory of a bygone era. While banks have made strides over the years between direct deposit and ACH payments that have shrunk the need to visit a bank branch, the debut of online-only banks, such as Chase’s Finn, and mobile payment platforms such as Apple Pay and PayPal’s Venmo have eliminated a number of reasons people used to go to the physical bank. We’ve even seen Capital One partner with Peet’s Coffee & Tea as well as other coffee shops and other non-branch locations.
To us, the long-term question is what will these banks and related institutions do with all of the existing bank branches? You may want to see what kinds of properties your REIT investments are holding.
While Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. were gobbling up cheap deposits at their thousands of branches around the U.S., Citigroup was shrinking its footprint, focusing on a handful of big cities to right itself after its near-collapse.
Now the bank’s executives are convinced that many U.S. consumers are finally ready to leave the branch behind and fully embrace digital banking. Citigroup added roughly $1 billion in digital deposits in the first quarter, more than all of last year. About two-thirds of that total came from new customers, and a little more than half came from people who don’t live near any of the bank’s roughly 700 branches.
In recent months, the bank has reorganized its consumer unit, knocking down walls between banking and cards. It rolled out a new account through its mobile app aimed at credit-card customers. And it is targeting potential customers with mobile-banking offers tied to the rewards they get for cards.
“For the 21st century, we are glad we never got the ballast of an extra 4,000 branches,” said Stephen Bird, the bank’s chief executive of global consumer banking. “I’m certain it’s going to turn out to be a very fortuitous thing.”
Other big banks are ramping up their digital offerings too, but they are doing it alongside their giant branch networks. Citigroup is wagering that many of those locations—more than 4,000 each for JPMorgan and Bank of America—will become burdensome.
We see this every month in the Retail Sales report and almost every week in our everyday lives – consumers continue to flock to digital shopping – and that is spurring demand for distribution centers and warehouses as well as workers to fill them. As Amazon looks to expand not only the reach of its private label brands but move into the online pharmacy market courtesy of its PillPack acquisition, the odds are high that Walmart, Target and other companies will look to combat Amazon by at a minimum matching its buy/ship service. And that’s even before Amazon announced it will debut one-day shipping with Prime. More packages, more distribution centers, more jobs. A plain and simple result of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.
Warehouse operators stepped up hiring in April as e-commerce demand drove up employment in distribution centers even as job growth across the rest of the freight-transportation sector slowed.
Warehousing and storage companies added 5,400 jobs last month, according to preliminary figures the Labor Department reported Friday, the fourth straight month of growth in a sector that includes fulfillment centers that process and ship online orders. The sector added nearly 70,000 jobs over the past 12 months.
The gains in warehousing and delivery come as rapid e-commerce growth pushes companies to open more fulfillment centers near major population centers to speed up delivery to customers. U.S. online sales jumped 14.2% in 2018, generating an estimated $513.6 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Brian Devine, senior vice president of logistics-staffing firm ProLogistix, said he is seeing “huge growth” for logistics and e-commerce workers in key hubs like Southern California’s Inland Empire; areas of New Jersey near New York City; Atlanta; Indianapolis; and Memphis, Tenn.
“There are not enough workers in those markets,” Mr. Devine said. “The unemployment rate is so low that it’s difficult for us to fill those positions.” He said the average wage for ProLogistix workers jumped 6.8% in April from the same month a year ago, to $13.81 an hour.
This week the markets have been all about the on again/off again trade talks between the US and China and the latest updates from the Tweeter-in-Chief. The Volatility Index (VIX) is reaching a four-month high, which is seriously hurting all those who helped build up the record net short position on VIX futures during the last week of April.
The headlines are now asking, is this going to break this ever-so-fabulous bull market despite the booming economy. Bull market? Robust economy? These days I feel an awful lot like one of the few that see the emperor in fact does not have new clothes.
- The S&P 500 is up 17% this year while the New York Fed recession probability measure has risen from 21% at the end of 2018 to 27%, the highest in 12 years, and has risen every month this year. This measure typically is flagging a recession when it moves between 30% and 40%.
- First quarter earnings so far for the S&P 500 companies have fallen year-over-year and are expected to be negative next quarter as well yet Barron’s roundtable report on portfolio managers found 66% are bullish.
The NYSE Composite Index which is a much broader market metric than the S&P 500 is up all of 1% over the past year as of Wednesday’s close and has not made a new high in almost eight months while the small-cap Russell 2000 was down 1.3%. Yes, the S&P 500 was up 6.7% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 5.8%, but the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) was up 5.5% and the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEF) was up 4.7%. When a longer-term bond ETF is outpacing the overall equity market by a material margin like that, we are not in a massive equity bull market.
When the Utility sector has outperformed the Transport sector by nearly 14% over the past year, I’m not thinking the Bulls are stomping on the Bears nor is it telling me that Mr. Market thinks the overall economy is going like gangbusters.
The Cass Freight Index backs up the lack of activity implied by the underperformance of Transports with the volume of shipments falling on a year-over-year basis for four consecutive months. How exactly is the economy accelerating when the volume of shipments has been declining?
Commodities support what we see in transportation.
The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) isn’t all that supportive of the S&P 500’s recent moves and also indicates an economy not exactly revving up.
But what about last week’s jobs report that had everyone cheering? Just like the first Q1 GDP estimate, which we debunked here, the April jobs report was strong on headline data, weak in the details and lacking confirming data from other sources. The headline new jobs number came in 70k over expectations at 263k, which sounds fantastic, but as always, the details need to be investigated.
- 93k (35%) of those jobs came from the BLS birth-death model which is a total guestimate of how many jobs were created from net new businesses.
- The workweek actually contracted 0.3% in April and has now decreased or been unchanged in 3 of past 4 months. That is not telling me that employers are desperate to hire additional staff. Rising hours worked indicates that a company is in need of additional hands, but this decline in hours worked– add hours to translates into a loss of 373k jobs. If we add that number to the headline payroll number and you get a reduction of 110k in employment. Talk about lack of confirming data.
- There may have been an estimated 263k new jobs, but the total aggregate hours worked declined 0.1%! This figure has declined in 2 of the past 3 months and has remained flat since the start of the year. That means the total hours worked in the economy for everyone hasn’t changed in 4 months – that’s not growth.
- The headline unemployment rate dropped to 3.6%
from 3.8% in March, the lowest since December 1969. That’s got to be good
- Don’t forget that back in 1969, a recession started the very next month, in January 1970.
- Last month’s drop in the unemployment rate came because of a 490k drop in the labor force. The total pool of available labor is today at the lowest level since May 2001! Remember that economic growth is the sum of growth in the labor pool and improvements in productivity.
We always look for confirming data points both within any particular report but also from similar reports. There is another employment report that didn’t get much attention Friday, the Household survey. This report has been around since the late 1940s and has a completely different methodology.
- This report found a drop of 103k in employment in April and has declined in 3 of the past 4 months by a total of 300k.
- Full-time employment dropped by 191k after 190k decline in March.
- Those working for economy reasons, which means they cannot get a full-time job but want one, rose 155k after a 189k increase in March.
No confirming data on that booming jobs report is coming from the Household survey.
Another area of non-confirmation of the rumored US economy firing on all cylinders comes from the Federal Reserve’s Senior Loan Officer Survey. When times are good and folks feel confident in the future, they are more likely to borrow. So let’s take a look, shall we?
Mid-sized and large companies aren’t looking to borrow.
Small guys are also not in the market for a loan.
The consumer isn’t looking to buy a car.
Or borrow for anything else.
Still not convinced? Over 70 million Americans are hearing from the debt collector. With an estimated 247 million Americans aged 18 and older, that makes for roughly 28.3% of the population in financial distress – and this is when we are being told that things are bloody fantastic and the labor market is just fabulous. What happens when we do go into the inevitable recession?
Oh, wait, never mind. That isn’t going to happen, ever, at least according to this expert.
Between you and me, isn’t this the kind of thing you hear before it all goes pear-shaped?
While there are talks of student loan forgiveness on the 2020 campaign trail, the Treasury Depart is stepping up its game to collect on delinquent student loans. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) points to disposable income once again coming under pressure during the first quarter of 2018. Paired with rising gas prices and renewed uncertainty over the global economy as well as the current state of US-China trade, we see the average consumer remaining in a tight spot.
It comes as no surprise to us that loan inquiries at consumer finance platform company LendingClub jumped significantly in the March 2019 quarter as consumers look to shore up their personal finance and manage existing debt levels. Disposable dollars for debt servicing take a bite out of consumer spending, which means our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme remains an economic headwind. It does, however, bode very well for companies like Costco Wholesale, BJ’s, Walmart and Amazon that help consumers stretch their spending dollars.
Your rich Uncle Sam is calling in his chips.The U.S. government stepped up collections on delinquent student debt to $2.9 billion last year — or an average of $1,000 from 2.9 million former students and their cosigners, according to the Treasury Department. And the trend continues. In the first six months of fiscal 2019, which started Oct. 1, collections totaled $3.3 billion.