Category Archives: News

Once Again the Fed Overestimates the Strength of the US Economy

Once Again the Fed Overestimates the Strength of the US Economy

Looking at the moves in the stock market, one would likely think all is right with the world and the US economy is back on track after bobbing and weaving around 2 percent GDP for much of the last several years. That is until we got the most recent reading on the health of the economy.

Friday’s estimate for fourth quarter 2016 GDP came in below expectations at 1.9 percent quarter-over-quarter, seasonally adjusted, versus the consensus expectations for 2.2 percent and the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow estimate for 2.8 percent. The Fed’s consistently excessive expectations never cease to impress. To put 2016 in context, going all the way back to 1950, only four other years were as weak and they were all recessionary (1954, 1958, 2008, 2009).

This reading was a material decline from the 3.5 percent posted in Q3, but then that was primarily driven by an increase in inventories and exports. The net export contribution in Q3 was the largest since late 2013 was due in large part, and we are seriously not making this up, to soybean exports to South America where the weather decimated their soybean crop, adding a full 0.9 percent to the Q3 GDP growth. Exports in Q4 dropped -4.3 percent with goods declining -6.9 percent, revealing the headwind presented by a strong and strengthening dollar as net exports overall subtracted 1.7 percent from the fourth quarter’s growth. We’ve heard comments from a growing number of companies about the impact of the dollar and foreign currency translation in the current earnings season, but to put it in context, Q4 was the largest trade-related drag on overall growth since Q2 2010.

The U.S. economy decelerated in the final three months of 2016, returning to a lackluster growth rate that President Donald Trump has set out to double in the face of challenging long-term trends.

We are seeing some recovery in fixed investment, with fixed investment in mining, shafts and well structures contributing to GDP for the first time since Q4 2014, thanks to rising oil prices. While this contribution was relatively small, the removal of the headwind of low oil prices in this sector had allowed it to start contributing to GDP. We remain cautious here as the number of rigs coming online is rising week after week (see today’s Monday Morning Kickoff for more), and we remain skeptical that the OPEC deal on production cuts will survive given all the, shall we call them, colorful relationships involved.

Real investment in industrial equipment is at an all-time high, totaling more than $200 billion in 2009 chained dollars and looks to be still rising. On the other hand, investment in manufacturing structures is slowing a bit, which isn’t shocking given that capacity utilization rates are at levels normally seen around a recession.

We have also now seen Consumer Spending decline over the past three consecutive quarters despite all the euphoric talk.

This brings full-year 2016 GDP growth to just 1.6 percent, putting the U.S. growth now in 2nd place within the G7 group with the U.K. delivering growth of 2 percent for the year. We are no longer the cleanest shirt in the laundry. This is the worst growth rate for the U.S. since 2011 and down from the 2.6 percent in 2015. America has now experienced a record eleven consecutive years without generating annual 3 percent GDP growth going all the way back to 1929. Is it any wonder there is a lot of frustration in the country?


Despite what we keep hearing from the Fed, this is not an economy that is accelerating. While over 80 percent of the survey data has come in above expectations, giving investors a sense of security, the actual hard data, rather than the more sentiment-oriented survey data, has seen over 50 percent come in below expectations.

With the recovery in oil prices and inventories back on the rise, two major headwinds have been removed, but the biggest and potentially most lethal remains – a rising dollar. The Fed still appears to be confident that it will raise rates three times this year which increases the dollars’ relative strength. Any trade barriers that result in fewer imports into the US, such as a 20 percent tax on fruits and vegetables from Mexico, would also serve to strengthen the dollar; the less we buy from the rest of the world, the fewer dollars are outside the country. That scarcity bids up the price of the dollar, particularly given the effectively massive short position in the dollar due to the over $10 trillion in dollar-denominated emerging market debt.

Mr. Trump has argued the U.S. can achieve stronger growth by overhauling the tax code, boosting infrastructure spending, rolling back federal regulations and cutting new trade deals that narrow the foreign-trade deficit.

The two big hopes that Wall Street has been relying on to boost the economy have been President Trump’s infrastructure plan and his tax cuts. This past week we saw signs that our concerns over when these would actually be enacted are warranted. Last week senior congressional aides revealed that the spring of 2018 is a more likely target for passage of tax reform legislation. According to Reuters, as the days passed at the annual policy retreat for Republicans last week in Philadelphia, leaders were also discussing that it could take until the end of 2017 or even later to pass fiscal spending legislation. Trump has taken office with the lowest approval rating in modern history and the level of controversy surrounding him isn’t declining, which will likely make passage of legislation he wants more challenging.

Putting it all together, despite the headlines over more sentiment-oriented reports, the economy does not look to be accelerating and the expectations around the timing of Trump’s infrastructure spend and tax reform plans are likely overly enthusiastic. Even the Wall Street Journal’s survey of over sixty economists projects GDP growth of 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2017 and 2.4 percent in the second. We will continue to monitor the data to see how likely that consensus view becomes in the coming weeks. We believe the market is also incorrectly discounting the potential negative impact of a strengthening dollar and the degree to which this strengthening may occur.

Source: U.S. Economy Returns to Lackluster Growth – WSJ

Dow hits 20k – Hope Trumps Uncertainty

Dow hits 20k – Hope Trumps Uncertainty


For anyone whose has spent time listening to Wall Street types, the mantra, “The markets hate uncertainty,” is a familiar one. So with the political upheaval here in the U.S., (an election that defied the pundits and an administration unlike anything we’ve seen before) combined with the upcoming volatile elections across much of Europe, convention wisdom would expect investors and businesses alike to run for safety, but instead, we just saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 20,000 for the first time ever at the Trump Trade is reignited.


The conventional wisdom among economists is that people don’t like uncertainty and the unknowable. Faced with the prospect of upheaval and change with unpredictable outcomes, they become less confident about their prospects and more cautious about making big decisions on spending.


Consumers and businesses in the U.S. and Europe appear undaunted by the prospect of profound political change on both sides of the Atlantic and may even be encouraged by it.

Let’s face it, the problem isn’t uncertainty but the absence of hope. What investors and businesses alike needed was a reason to believe that something was going to kick the economy into gear and get us out of the economic doldrums we’ve been experiencing since the financial crisis.

What we needed was hope that things could change for the better. Today the U.S. appears to be bubbling over with hope. The markets have pretty much fully priced in successful new policies as if they are a fait accompli, but the reality is that President Trump is facing an unprecedented level of antagonism, while history shows that at best, presidents are lucky to see around 60% of their agendas come to fruition. The danger here is that after having priced in all the pro-growth rhetoric, the market may become impatient with the time table.

Just a few days ahead of his election, Trump had a 37% approval rating versus a 55% disapproval rating. For a historical perspective, going back to the same point in the cycle with other newly elected presidents, approval ratings were more optimistic with Ford at 90%, JFK and LBJ at 80%, Obama, George W., Bill Clinton and Reagan all at 70%, and finally Bush Sr. and Nixon at 60%. JFK, Carter, Clinton and George W., with majorities in both the House and Senate, struggled to get through much of what they promised.

To get any significant legislation passed through the Senate, Trump needs 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, which means getting eight Democrats on board. The nomination hearings are giving us quite the preview of just how cantankerous the legislative process is likely to be. On top of that we are already seeing division within Trump’s own party on what corporate tax reform will look like and there is considerable debate over how personal income tax deductions will be affected.


Surveys of sentiment point to a strengthening of confidence in both the U.S. and the U.K. over recent months, while a similar rise in optimism is under way in Europe, which faces a number of elections in 2017 that could lead to big changes in policy.

We love to see enthusiasm, but the reality is that while over 80% of the survey data over the past two months has beaten expectations, over 50% of the actual hard data has come in below expectations. As the indices continue to tick higher, so does downside risk if all that positive sentiment isn’t met by reality before the ever-fickle markets lose patience.

Source: Global Uncertainty Gets Brushed Off in the U.S. and Europe – WSJ

Voice Recognition Technology Hears Whispers of M&A

Voice Recognition Technology Hears Whispers of M&A

Earlier this month we had CES 2017 in Las Vegas, a techie’s mecca of new whiz-bang products set to hit the market, in some cases later this year, but in others in 2018 and beyond. A person tracking the CES trade shows over the years likely remembers the changes in inputs from clunky keyboards and standalone number pads to rollerball driven mice to laser based ones, which gave way to trackpads and touchscreen technology. Among the sea of announcements this year, there were a number that focused on one aspect of our Disruptive Technology investing theme that is shaping up to be the next big change in interface technology — voice recognition technology.

Over the years, there have been a number of fits and starts with voice technology dating all the way back to 1992 when Apple’s (AAPL) own “Casper” voice recognition system that then-CEO John Sculley debuted on “Good Morning America.” As the years have gone by and the technology has been further refined, we’ve seen more uses for voice recognition technology in a variety of applications and environments ranging from medical offices to interacting with a car’s infotainment system. As far back as 2004, Honda Motor’s (HMC) third generation Acura TL sported an Alpine-designed navigation system that accepted voice commands. No need to press the touchscreen while driving, just use voice commands, (at least that was the dream — but for those of us that tried to change the radio station and ended up switching the entire system over to Spanish, it wasn’t so useful!)

More recently with Siri from Apple, Cortana from Microsoft (MSFT), Google Assistant from Alphabet (GOOGL) and Alexa from Amazon (AMZN) we’ve seen voice recognition technology hit the tipping point. Each of those has come to the forefront in products such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home that house these virtual digital assistants (VDAs), but for now, one of the largest consumer-facing markets for voice interface technology has been the smartphone. Coming into 2016, market research and consulting firm Parks Associates found that nearly 40 percent of all smartphone owners use some sort of voice recognition software such as Siri or Google Now.

In 2016, the up and comer was Amazon, as sales of its Echo devices were up 9x year over year this past holiday season and “millions of Alexa devices sold worldwide this year.” If you’re a user of Amazon Echo like we are, then you know that each week more capabilities are being added to the Alexa app such as ordering a pizza from Dominos (DPZ), calling for an Uber, checking sports scores, shopping with your Amazon Prime account, hearing the local weather forecast and getting the latest news or perhaps some new cocktail recipes.

Not resting on its laurels, Amazon continues to expand Echo’s capabilities and announced that Prime members can voice-order their next meal through Amazon Restaurants on their Alexa-enabled devices including the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot. Once an order is placed, Amazon delivery partners deliver the food in one hour or less. Pretty cool so long as you have Amazon Restaurants operating in and around where you live. We’d point out that since you’re paying with your Prime account, which has a credit card on file, this also expands Amazon’s role in our Cashless Consumption investment theme as does Prime Now which lets Prime members in cities in which the service is available get deliveries in under two hours from Amazon as well as from local participating stores.

But we digress…

Virtual digital assistants cut across more than just smartphones and devices like Amazon Echo and the Google Home. According to a new report from market intelligence firm Tractica, while smartphone-based consumer VDAs are currently the best-known offerings, virtual assistant technologies are also beginning to emerge within other device types including smart watches, fitness trackers, PCs, smart home systems, and automobiles – hopefully, this time not switching us into Spanish.

We saw just that at CES 2017 with some landscape changing announcements for VDAs such as withAlphabet that had several announcements surrounding its Google Home product, including integration into upcoming Hyundai and Chrysler models; and acquiring Limes Audio, which focuses on voice communication systems, and will likely be additive to the company’s Google Home, Hangouts and other products. Microsoft also scored a win for Cortana with Nissan.

While those wins were impressive, the big VDA winner at CES was Amazon as it significantly expanded its Alexa footprint on deals with LG, Dish Network (DISH), Whirlpool (WHR), Huawei and Ford (F). In doing so Amazon has outflanked Alphabet, Microsoft and even Apple in the digital assistant market, but then who doesn’t find Siri’s utility subpar? To us, that’s another leg to the Amazon stool that offers more support to the share alongside the digital shopping/services, content, and Amazon Web Services businesses.

To be fair, Apple originally did not license out its Siri technology. It was only in June 2016 that Apple announced it would open the code behind Siri to third-party developers through an API, giving outside apps the ability to activate from Siri’s voice commands, and potentially endowing Siri with a wide range of new skills and datasets, potentially making a mistake similar to the one that originally cost Apple the Operating System market to Microsoft. Amazon, on the other hand, has been eager to bring other offerings onto its Alexa platform.

Tractica forecasts that unique active consumer VDA users will grow from 390 million in 2015 to a whopping 1.8 billion worldwide by the end of 2021 – Juaquin Phoenix’s Her is closer than you’d think!  During the same period, unique active enterprise VDA users will rise from 155 million in 2015 to 843 million by 2021.  The market intelligence firm forecasts that total VDA revenue will grow from $1.6 billion in 2015 to $15.8 billion in 2021.

In the past when we’ve seen new interface technologies come to market and move past their tipping point, we tended to see slowing demand for the older input modalities. Case in point, a new report from Technavio forecasts compound annual growth of just 3.63 percent for the global computing mouse market between 2016-2020. By comparison, Global Industry Analysts (GIA) expects the global market for multi-touch screens to reach $8 billion by 2020 up from $3.5 billion in 2013, driven by a combination of mobile computing and smart computing devices. For those who are less than fond of doing time calculations, that equates to a compound annual growth rate of 11 percent. We’d also point out that’s roughly half the expected VDA market in 2021.

One potential wrinkle in that forecast is the impact of VDAs. Per eMarketer, 31 percent of 14-17-year-olds and 23 percent of 18-34-year-olds regularly use a VDA.

Putting these two together, we could see slower growth for touch-based interfaces should VDA adoption take off. Looking at the recent wins by Amazon and Google, factoring in that Apple and Comcast (CMCSA) are favoring voice technology in Apple TV and XFINITY TV and growth in the smartphone market is stalling, there is reason to think the GIA forecast could be a tad robust, especially in the outer years.

Turning our investing gaze to companies that could be vulnerable should the GIA forecast prove to be somewhat aggressive, we find Synaptics (SYNA), whose tag line is “advancing the human interface,” and the “human machine interface” company that is Alps. Both of these companies compete in the smartphone, wearables, smart home, access control, automotive and healthcare markets — the very same markets that are ripe for voice technology adoption.

From a strategic and thematic perspective, one could see the logic in Synaptics and Alps looking to shore up their market position and customer base by expanding their technology offering to include voice interface. Given the head start by Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook, while Synaptics and Alps could toil away on “made here” voice technology efforts, the time-to-market constraints would make acquiring a voice technology company far more practical.

Here’s the thing, we’ve already seen Alphabet acquire Limes Audio to improve its voice recognition capabilities. As anyone who has used Apple’s Siri knows, it’s far from perfect in voice recognition and voice to text. In our view, this means larger players could be sniffing around voice technology companies in the hopes of making their VDAs even smarter.

In many respects we’ve seen this before whenever a new disruptive technology takes hold alongside a new market opportunity — it pretty much resembles a game of M&A musical chairs as companies look to improve their competitive position. In our view, this means companies like Nuance Communications (NUAN), VoiceBox, SoundHound, and MindMeld among other voice technology companies could be in high demand.

Disclosure: Nuance Communications (NUAN) shares are on the Tematica Select List. Both Nuance Communications and Synaptics, Inc. (SYNA) reside in Tematica’s Thematic Index.

2016 – Another Year Thematic Investing Beats the S&P 500

2016 – Another Year Thematic Investing Beats the S&P 500

Looking back 2016 was quite the year with Greek debt relief, the EU’s tax crackdown, the sale of Yahoo ([stock_quote symbol=”YHOO”]) and rumored takeover of Twitter ([stock_quote symbol=”TWTR”]), the unexpected Brexit vote and the ensuing British Pound Sterling’s plunge to multi-decade lows, the Italian referendum followed by Prime Minister Renzi’s resignation, the troubled Monte dei Paschi (BMDPY) bailout, Russian hacking, OPEC’s deal to cut output, and one of the most vicious presidential campaigns culminating in Donald Trump’s election, followed by the Fed’s lone rate hike in 2016 and a corresponding surge in the US dollar. We think we would be hard-pressed to find many that predicted all of those happenings this time last year.

We also think there were few and far between that thought back in January 2016 that the S&P 500, the preferred metric among fund managers, would have climbed 9.5% by the end of 2016. Let’s remember, after the first several weeks of 2016 that index was down just over 8.7%. That makes the rebound and climb higher over the balance of 2016 that much more impressive if you bought the market.

The problem is, despite all the mutual funds and ETFs that are out there, very few investors actually “buy the market.” Buying the market can, at times, deliver rewards as we saw in 2016. According to Openfolio, the average investor in 2016 didn’t “buy the market” and instead had a gain of roughly 5%, due in part to having their portfolio too concentrated in stocks that didn’t perform. Let’s face it, if you didn’t own shares of Goldman Sachs in the back half of 2016, odds are you didn’t beat the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Lest we let the year’s heady gains of cloud our judgment, for every 2016 — where buying an ETF that mimicked the performance of the S&P 500 or the Dow worked well by year’s end — there tends to be a year like 2015 when the S&P 500 fell nearly 1%. While we tend to hear about the great bull market that transpired during the late 1980s and 1990s, we also have to remember that if you were an investor that, “bought the market” in early 2000, it would have taken you until July 2007 to recoup your losses. Then came the Great Recession, which meant if you held “the market,” it meant meaningful positive returns would have eluded you until after March 2013.

As we like to say perspective is everything. That same perspective also reminds us that the world is a very different place than it was in the last part of the 20th Century. Consider that back then there was no such thing as the smartphone, the Internet, Amazon, streaming content, online shopping, mobile payments, and texting only caught on toward the end of the 1990s. Back then we also saw a labor force growing versus the relatively stagnant levels since the financial crisis.

We live in a very different world today compared to a few decades ago, which makes comparisons more like apples to oranges than apples to apples. There continue to be many transformative elements at play today and we are only now starting to see the impact of some, like mobile commerce and artificial intelligence, as well as augmented and virtual reality, that will likely see that transformation continue. That’s before we contemplate what will happen once President-elect Trump becomes President Trump. While we are optimistic about the pending policy changes and what they could mean for businesses and stock prices, they have yet to be fully spelled out, which makes it hard to assess their potential impact.

As we say at Tematica Research, only by thinking differently than the herd can you truly outperform the market. We believe that traditional sector investing is dead, and investors need to position themselves to capture the shifting landscapes that are resulting in pronounced tailwinds and headwinds. That thinking led to our creation of the Thematic Index, which reflects our 17 investment themes across more than 150 stocks.


So how did the Thematic Index perform in 2016?

Once again it outperformed the S&P 500 in 2016, marking the sixth consecutive year it has done so. Some of our stronger performing thematics in 2016 included Tooling & Re-Tooling, Economic Acceleration/Deceleration, and Scarce Resources.

Were all of our 17 themes strong performers in 2016? Of course not, but the overall performance speaks to having a balance thematic portfolio rather than favoring any one particular theme.

Before accounting for dividends, eight of our investment themes outperformed the market by a wide margin, one was essentially in line with the S&P 500 and eight underperformed with two of those under performing themes down slightly for the year. There were a number of high fliers across our 17 investment themes, including Grand Canyon Education ([stock_quote symbol=”LOPE”]), iRobot ([stock_quote symbol=”IRBT”]), IDEXX Laboratories ([stock_quote symbol=”IDXX”]) and Mueller Water Products ([stock_quote symbol=”MWA”]), Parker-Hannifin ([stock_quote symbol=”PH”]), Wynn Resorts ([stock_quote symbol=”WYNN”]), and ZELTIQ Aesthetics ([stock_quote symbol=”ZLTQ”]) to name just over a handful. The index was also dealt a helping hand from M&A activity during the year, which led to hefty gains in Lifelock, LinkedIn, and ARM Holdings.

It wasn’t all peaches and cream, as the Thematic Index felt the weight associated with drops in Stonemore Partners, Corrections Corp. of America ([stock_quote symbol=”CXW”]), Nuance Communications ([stock_quote symbol=”NUAN”]) and Under Armour ([stock_quote symbol=”UAA”]).  We’ll reassess those under-performing positions to see if either the thematic drivers that first landed them in the Thematic Index are intact or has the business has shifted such that they are no longer in the thematic slipstream. During the December quarter, we exited Corrections Corp. of America and Shake Shack ([stock_quote symbol=”SHAK”]), replacing them with OSI Systems ([stock_quote symbol=”OSIS”]) and Insulet Corp ([stock_quote symbol=”PODD”]).

We’ll continue to make refinements and needed adjustments to the Thematic Index as dictated by the shifting and intersecting landscapes of economics, demographics, psychographics, technology and other key factors to identify the companies best positioned to ride the thematic transformation and avoid those companies that either can’t or won’t adjust their business model. In our view, those latter companies are poised to hit a headwind that will not only impact their business, but their stock price as well. When it comes to investing minimizing the number of underperforming positions can be as important as identifying the winners if you’re looking to beat the market. When it comes to investing minimizing the number of underperforming positions can be as important as identifying the winners if you’re looking to beat the market.


Markets mostly “Meh” Response to Italian Referendum Vote is a Mistake

Markets mostly “Meh” Response to Italian Referendum Vote is a Mistake

Sunday marked the third time in less than five months that we’ve had a major political event trigger a market response. The outcome of the first of such, Brexit, took the market by surprise and caused major declines across much of the global financial markets. However, after having gotten himself into quite the tizzy, Mr. Market shortly decided, “Ehhh, maybe not such a bad thing,” and the market not only recovered but climbed higher in the ensuing weeks.

The second event was the Trump surprise. Initially, the major U.S. market indices plunged so far, so fast on Election Night 2016 that overnight futures trading had to be halted. Once again Mr. Market recovered from his meltdown and in a matter of hours, decided that not only was this not such a bad thing but decided to launch one epic rally heretofore called the Trump Trade.

Sunday the Italian referendum came in as expected with the “No” vote prevailing, so unlike the prior two, no surprise here. As for Mr. Market’s reaction, well he looks to be a bit worn out from all the drama since June and outside of Italian bank stocks, things are relatively calm.

Who would have guessed it would be the Italians to delivered non-drama drama while the stiff upper lip Brits delivered a meltdown? It also snowed in Hawaii over the weekend, go figure.

For as much as Mr. Market overreacted to the U.K. surprise, we think he is, at least in the long run, underestimating the magnitude of Sunday’s vote.

Safe to say that the Italians have given the world a very clear message that reforms, as much as they are desperately needed, are unlikely to see the light of day given the utter mistrust Italians have for their government, regardless it seems of who is manning the helm.

There could be some peppiness from the Austrian election which saw the nationalistic and vocal anti-EU candidate lose out to the Green Party candidate, who ran as an independent, giving us the first non-populist vote this year, but most likely the lack of drama is tied to faith in central bank incursions. A recent Bloomberg News poll of economist found a whopping 89% expect to see the European Central Bank extend its quantitative easing plan, both in magnitude and duration. The one move we see that directionally does make fundamental sense is the rise in Italian bond yields, up some 13 basis points versus the rest of the region rising in the 3 to 6 basis point range.

Granted, we’ve also seen some evidence in increasing economic health, with the Eurozone services/manufacturing PMI composite improving to an 11-month high of 53.9 in November from 53.3 in October. Despite Mr. Market’s initial Brexit panic, the U.K. service sector PMI rose to a 10-month high in November of 55.2 up from 54.4 in October. But that’s not Italy, which is the third largest economy in the European Union and the eighth largest economy in the world with the second highest debt-to-GDP ratio; the crown in that race belongs to Greece.

Italy’s banking sector is in crisis. This vote came right as Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (say that five times fast) is deep in recapitalization efforts, which could now be thwarted. If that happens and a solid government-backed rescue plan isn’t immediately presented, we are back in contagion mode that could easily spread outside to Germany’s beleaguered Deutsche Bank, which lost 90% of its market cap over the past ten years and 35% this year alone. Meanwhile, Eurozone finance ministers are meeting today in Brussels to assess the second bailout plan for Greece to determine if it is solid enough to warrant the release of the next tranche of funding. We’re taking the odds there will be a large uptick in Brussels minibar tabs this week.

Italy has an estimated €360 billion in nonperforming loans and a government debt-to-GDP ratio of 133%, so a bailout isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

Italy is one of the six founding members of the European Union and has traditionally been one of its most enthusiastic supporters, but that is changing profoundly and for good reason. Since the financial crisis has lost over twenty-five percent of the industrial production and youth unemployment stands at almost forty percent in a deflationary economic environment that is only increasing the nation’s already cumbersome debt burden. Waiting in the political wings upon Prime Minister Renzi’s crushing defeat this weekend are the anti-European Union Five Star Movement and Lega Nord. As the Italian economy struggles, these populist movements are gaining traction and stirring up more anti-euro sentiment.

While Italy’s economy is stagnating its political center is disintegrating, making reforms all the more challenging. It has very few other tools at its disposal with no ability to implement monetary stimulus and its already high debt load limiting fiscal stimulus options. If the nation can’t get its economy going, an EU bailout would likely require so much money that it would likely trigger a political revolt in Germany’s parliament. That’s the same German parliament that is facing an election next September.

If Italy cannot get its economy moving, and the realities here paint a picture with feeble hope, we could easily see pressure mount for it to leave the Eurozone both from within and outside the country. While Brexit involves messy renegotiations, it doesn’t threaten the single currency. An Italy exit, on the other hand, could not only threaten the currency but unleash a financial crisis in the region.

On any one day, Mr. Market tends to be rather shortsighted. We suspect when it comes to this referendum, the Italian drama is just getting started.


Italy’s referendum has the potential to set off a global landslide

Italy’s referendum has the potential to set off a global landslide

While financial, industrial and small cap stocks in the US have been partying like it’s 1979, investors would be wise to take more than a passing look across the Atlantic at Europe’s next biggest threat.

You’ve probably seen commentary about Italians voting on a constitutional referendum; not exactly riveting material.

Italy, Europe’s fourth-largest economy, is a nation in desperate need of reforms, having underperformed its major trading partners for decades, with the latest per capita GDP below 1997 levels and metropolitan area employment levels well below those in most of Europe.

Obviously, change is needed, but what is this referendum, why do you care and what is the herd getting wrong?

If you google the topic, you can get endless details on the vote, but here are the salient points. The Italian nation in its current form was born right after WWII and as such, has a deep-seated fear of concentrated power; pretty understandable after the fun times under Mussolini and his buddy Hitler.

That fear created a government with essentially two congressional bodies, both like America’s House of Representatives, except with more than double the members and even more layers of government from the top federal level on down to localities. There are a lot of people whose entire raison d’etre is to express their opinions and these are Italians, so the whole thing takes longer and is more emphatic.

The intention of the measures in the referendum, according to Prime Minister Mario Renzi, is to make government less complex and more functional, with fewer people involved and fewer layers. For example, today the Chamber of Deputies (Congress) has 630 members, (elected by voters age 18 and older) and the Senate has 350 members, (elected by voters 25 and older). The Senate would be cut to 100 members appointed by the regional elected governors, rather than by voters, and would only be involved in major decisions such as war or international treaties versus today where both houses basically participate in everything equally. The province layer of government would be officially removed.

David Cameron

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron wipes his eye as he addresses a news conference during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

There’s more to it, but that gives a general sense. This bill is vast and complex, making a vote on it challenging as voters are unable to decide between the changes they support and those they don’t; it is all or nothing.

The bill was originally introduced by Renzi and his center-left party, then voted on by the Chamber and Senate twice. Yes, twice. It is now being put to a general vote by the electorate, illustrating the challenges of getting anything done in Italy’s government.

When it was first introduced and discussed, Renzi was enjoying more support than he is today, which led him to make the same mistake made by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron with Brexit, by making passage of the bill an endorsement of him. Back then Renzi vowed he’d not only resign, but would give up his political career; talk about laying it on thick. Recently Renzi has tried to soften his rhetoric, but most think that in the public’s that mind ship has long since sailed, so it would be tough for him to renege on those vows.

A man walks on a logo of the Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena bank in Rome, Italy September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

A man walks on a logo of the Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena bank in Rome, Italy September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

Opponents claim that a “yes” vote would give Renzi excessive power, which when you think back to the 1930s and 1940s, gives anyone in that part of the world understandable heartburn. While many are likening this vote to Brexit and Trump, the dynamics here are materially different. Brexit was primarily a, “Screw you!” to the status quo and bureaucrats in Brussels. Trump stormed into D.C. amongst cries of “Drain the Swamp!” Many are looking at the polls in Italy today, which indicate a “no” vote majority, and likening them to the inaccuracies of the Brexit and Trump predictions – that is a mistake.

The truth is at this point, most Italians don’t really even understand what the referendum is all about and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star movement, is helping to give voters the impression that a “yes” vote would give Renzi near-dictatorship powers.

Those Italians who understand that red tape is the biggest enemy of the country would vote “yes” over and over again. The problem is that those that would vote “yes”, tend to be better educated and higher income earners, which has given this vote a vibe of class warfare. With many of Italy’s business elite thinking that Renzi may be Italy’s last hope, that schism is visible to most everyone.

The Importance of this Referendum on Worldwide Markets

Investors need to care about this because the market has decided that this vote is an indicator of Italy’s ability to make much-needed reforms and that matters because of the impact of Italy’s banks and sovereign debt. The actual quality or validity of the reforms proposed in the referendum have become almost meaningless. For those within Italy the vote has become a referendum on Renzi and as Italians grow increasingly frustrated that their lives haven’t materially improved, even some members of Congress from within Renzi’s own party who originally voted for the referendum are now scrambling to develop compelling arguments for why they now oppose it.

Italian banks are in a world of hurt, which is almost intuitive if you look at the nation’s credit markets and weak economy. Italy has negligible public credit markets, so borrowing means a trip to the bank, which makes credit risk more highly concentrated than in countries like the US, which have robust bond markets. During the financial crisis and in the years following, banks engaged in a lot of extend-and-pretend, some of that of their own volition, some after cozy chats with government officials, hoping that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the economy would get back on its feet and those struggling loans could be made good.

Despite a rapid procession of new leaders, the economy has yet to recover. Granted, it is better today than in 2012, with a few new stores popping up here and there rather than seeing yet another one shut down week after week. The unemployment rates for younger Italians, however, remain tragic and intense frugality is more the fashion than Milan’s latest catwalk. Businesses remain weak, so borrowers and banks that made those loans are still struggling. Adding to the pain are the piles of sovereign bonds warehoused at banks and the even more painful dirty little secret that the Italian government is notorious for not paying its own bills. This creates a twisted triangle between the bank pressuring companies to pay their debts, those companies, in turn, trying to collect from the government and bureaucrats dialing up the banks for leniency towards those the government owes.

The Shake Out From this Vote Will be Felt Worldwide

Beppe Grillo

Leader of the Five Star Movement and comedian Beppe Grillo.REUTERS/Remo Casilli

If contrary to the polls the “yes” vote wins, Italian bonds and banks will rally and the MIB (Italian stock index) will have a huge relief rally, particularly given its over-exposure to banks, and the euro will likely strengthen relative to other currencies.

If the polls are right and we see a “no” vote by a large margin, Italian yield spreads over German bunds will widen a lot. Italian bank stocks will accelerate downward and Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) will likely need external aid, which will put the European Central Bank in the hot seat,  and all eyes will be on German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is also watching Germany’s Deutsche Bank spiraling downward.

Renzi will be pressured to resign, (unless the win is by the smallest of margins) and the Italians will find themselves back at the polls, with the outside chance that Beppe Grillo’s Five Star could gain additional traction, which would be terrifying for anyone doing business in the region. The euro will weaken materially. European banks as a whole will likely take a hit and the dollar will get pushed further and further up as money races out of increasingly dicey Eurozone into the relative safety of the US dollar and US assets – a tailwind to US stocks and bonds. The Italy economy would slow further thanks to the increased uncertainty, which would bleed over into other European nations and global trade. The acceleration to the rising dollar headwind facing US multinationals could render the Fed’s rate hike decision irrelevant in comparison and harm growth back in the States at a point when the economy looks just finally be gaining a bit of traction.

While it may seem like a minor event on the global stage now, history is full of moments that initially seemed of little importance, but like the final grain of sand that ignites a landslide, in retrospect, those moments changed the global landscape in ways that were previously unimaginable.