In this week’s musings:
- Earnings Season Kicks Off
- Central Bankers’ New Clothes
- Debt Ceiling – I’m Baaack
- Trade Wars – The Gift that Keeps on Giving
- Domestic Economy – More Signs of Sputtering
- Stocks – What Does It All Mean
It’s Earnings Season
Next week banks unofficially kick off the June quarter earnings season with expectations set for a -2.6% drop in S&P 500 earnings, (according to FactSet) after a decline of -0.4% in the first quarter of 2019. If the actual earnings for the June quarter end up being a decline, it will be the first time the S&P 500 has experienced two quarters of declines, (an earnings recession) since 2016. Recently the estimates for the third quarter have fallen from +0.2% to -0.3%. Heading into the second quarter, 113 S&P 500 companies have issued guidance. Of these, 87 have issued negative guidance, with just 26 issuing positive guidance. If the number issuing negative guidance does not increase, it will be the second highest number since FactSet began tracking this data in 2006. So not a rosy picture.
Naturally, in the post-financial crisis bad-is-good-and-good-is-bad-world, the S&P 500 is up nearly 20% in the face of contracting earnings — potentially three quarters worth — and experienced the best first half of the year since 1997. In the past week, both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average have closed at record highs as Federal Reserve Chairman Powell’s testimony before Congress gave the market comfort that cuts are on the way. This week’s stronger than expected CPI and PPI numbers are unlikely to alter their intentions. Welcome to the world of the Central Bankers’ New Clothes.
Central Bankers’ New Clothes
Here are a few interesting side-effects of those lovely stimulus-oriented threads worn in the hallowed halls of the world’s major central banks.
Yes, you read that right. Greece, the nation that was the very first to default on its debt back in 377BC and has been in default roughly 50% of the time since its independence in 1829, saw the yield on its 10-year drop below the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond. But how can that be?
Back to those now rather stretchy stimulus suits worn by the world’s central bankers that allow for greater freedom of movement in all aspects of monetary policy. In recent weeks we’ve seen a waterfall of hints and downright promises to loosen up even more. The European Central Bank, the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of Canada have all gone seriously dovish. Over in Turkey, President Erdogan fired his central banker for not joining the party. Serbia, Australia, Dominican Republic, Iceland, Mozambique, Russia, Chile, Azerbaijan, India, Australia, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Angola, Jamaica, Philippines, New Zealand, Malaysia, Rwanda, Malawi, Ukraine, Paraguay, Georgia, Egypt, Armenia, and Ghana have all cut rates so far this year, quite a few have done so multiple times. From September of 2018 through the end of 2018, there were 40 rate hikes by central banks around the world and just 3 cuts. Since the start of 2019, there have been 11 hikes and 38 cuts.
That’s a big shift, but why? Globally the economy is slowing and in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a slowing economy is far more dangerous than in years past. How’s that?
In the wake of the financial crisis, governments around the world set up barriers to protect large domestic companies. The central bankers aimed their bazookas at interest rates, which (mostly as an unintended consequence) ended up giving large but weak companies better access to cheap money than smaller but stronger companies. This resulted in increasing consolidation which in turn has been shrinking workers’ share of national income. For example, the US is currently shutting down established companies and generating new startups at the slowest rates in at least 50 years. Today much of the developed world faces highly consolidated industries with less competition and innovation (one of the reasons we believe our Disruptive Innovators investing theme is so powerful) and record levels of corporate debt. It took US corporations 50 years to accumulate $3 trillion in debt in the third quarter of 2003. In the first quarter of 2019, just over 15 years later, this figure had more than doubled to $6.4 trillion.
Along with the shrinking workers’ share of national income, we see a shrinking middle class in many of the developed nations – which we capitalize on in our Middle Class Squeeze investing theme. As one would expect, this results in the economy becoming more and more politicized – voters aren’t happy. Recessions, once considered a normal part of the economic cycle, have become something to be avoided at all costs. The following chart, (using data from the National Bureau of Economic Research) shows that since the mid-1850s, the average length of an economic cycle from trough to peak has been increasing from 26.6 months between 1854 and 1919 to 35 months between 1919 and 1945 to 58.4 months between 1945 and 2009. At the same time, the duration of the economic collapse from peak to trough has been shrinking. The current trough to (potential peak) is the longest on record at 121 months – great – but it is also the second weakest in terms of growth, beaten only by the 37-month expansion from October 1945 to November of 1948.
Why has it been so weak? One of the reasons has been the rise of the zombie corporation, those that don’t earn enough profit to cover their interest payments, surviving solely through refinancing – part of the reason we’ve seen ballooning corporate debt. The Bank for International Settlements estimates that zombie companies today account for 12% of all companies listed on stock exchanges around the world. In the United States zombies account for 16% of publicly listed companies, up from just 2% in the 1980s.
This is why central bankers around the world are so desperate for inflation and fear deflation. In a deflationary environment, the record level of debt would become more and more expensive, which would trigger delinquencies, defaults and downgrades, creating a deflationary cycle that feeds upon itself. Debtors love inflation, for as purchasing power falls, so does the current cost of that debt. But in a world of large zombie corporations, a slowing economy means the gap between profit and interest payments would continue to widen, making their survival ever more precarious. This economic reality is one of the reasons that nearly 20% of the global bond market has negative yield and 90% trade with a negative real yield (which takes inflation into account).
Debt Ceiling Debate – I’m baack!
While we are on the topic of bonds, the Bipartisan Policy Center recently reported that they believe there is a “significant risk” that the US will breach its debt limit in early September if Congress does not act quickly. Previously it was believed that the spending wall would not be hit until October or November. As the beltway gets more and more, shall we say raucous, this round could unnerve the markets.
Trade Wars – the gift that keeps on giving
Aside from the upcoming fun (sarcasm) of watching Congress and the President whack each other around over rising government debt, the trade war with China, which gave the equity markets a serious pop post G20 summit on the news that progress was being made, is once again looking less optimistic. China’s Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, who is considered a hardliner, has assumed new prominence in the talks, participating alongside Vice Premier Liu He (who has headed the Chinese team for over a year) in talks this week. The Chinese are obviously aware that with every passing month President Trump will feel more pressure to get something done before the 2020 elections and may be looking to see just how hard they can push.
Trade tensions between the US and Europe are back on the front page. This week, senators in France voted to pass a new tax that will impose a 3% charge on revenue for digital companies with revenues of more than €750m globally and €25m in France. This will hit roughly 30 companies, including Apple (AAPL), Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN) and Alphabet (GOOGL) as well as some companies from Germany, Spain, the UK and France. The Trump administration was not pleased and has launched a probe into the French tax to determine if it unfairly discriminates against US companies. This could lead to the US imposing punitive tariffs on French goods.
Not to be outdone, the UK is planning to pass a similar tax that would impose a 2% tax on revenues from search engine, social media and e-commerce platforms whose global revenues exceed £500m and whose UK revenue is over £25m. This tax, which so far appears to affect US companies disproportionately, is likely to raise additional ire at a time when the US-UK relationship is already on shaky ground over leaked cables from the UK’s ambassador that were less than complimentary about President Trump and his administration.
That’s just this week. Is it any wonder the DHL Global Trade Barometer is seeing a contraction in global trade? According to Morgan Stanley research, just under two thirds of countries have purchasing manager indices below 50, which is contraction territory and further warning signs of slowing global growth. This week also saw BASF SE (BASFY), the world’s largest chemical company, warn that the weakening global economy could cut its profits by 30% this year.
Domestic Economy – more signs of sputtering
The ISM Manufacturing index weakened again in June and has been declining now for 10 months. The New Orders component, which as its name would imply, is more forward-looking, is on the cusp of contracting. It has been declining since December 2017 and is at the lowest level since August 2016. Back in 2016 the US experienced a bit of an industrial sector mini-recession that was tempered in its severity by housing. Recall that back then we saw two consecutive quarters of decline in S&P 500 earnings. Today, overall Construction is in contraction with total construction spending down -2.3% year-over-year. Residential construction has been shrinking year-over-year for 8-months and in May was down -11.2% year-over-year. Commercial construction is even worse, down -13.7% year-over-year in May and has been steadily declining since December 2016. What helped back in 2016 is of no help today.
While the headlines over the employment data (excepting ADP’s report last week) have sounded rather solid, we have seen three consecutive downward revisions to employment figures in recent months. That’s the type of thing you see as the data is rolling over. The Challenger, Gray & Christmas job cuts report found that employer announced cuts YTD through May were 39% higher than the same period last year and we are heading into the 12thconsecutive month of year-over-year increases in job cuts – again that is indicative of a negative shift in employment.
Stocks – what does it all mean?
Currently, US stock prices, as measured by the price-to-sales ratio (because earnings are becoming less and less meaningful on a comparative basis thanks to all the share buybacks), exceed what we saw in the late 1999s and early 2000s. With all that central bank supplied liquidity, is it any wonder things are pricey?
On top of that, the S&P 500 share count has declined to a 20-year low as US companies spent over $800 million on buybacks in 2018 and are poised for a new record in 2019 based on Q1 activity. Overall the number of publicly-listed companies has fallen by 50% over the past 20 years and the accelerating pace of stock buybacks has made corporations the largest and only significant net buyer of stocks for the past 5 years! Central bank stimulus on top of fewer shares to purchase has overpowered fundamentals.
This week, some of the major indices once again reached record highs and given the accelerating trend in central bank easing, this is likely to continue for some time — but investors beware. Understand that these moves are not based on improving earnings, so it isn’t about the business fundamentals, (at least when we talk about equity markets in aggregate as there is always a growth story to be found somewhere regardless of the economy) but rather about the belief the central bank stimulus will continue to push share prices higher. Keep in mind that the typical Federal Reserve rate cut cycle amounts to cuts of on average 525 basis points. Today the Fed has only about half of that with which to work with before heading into negative rate territory.
The stimulus coming from most of the world’s major and many of the minor central banks likely will push the major averages higher until something shocks the market and it realizes, there really are no new clothes. What exactly that shock will be — possibly the upcoming debt ceiling debates, trade wars or intensifying geological tensions — is impossible to know with certainty today, but something that cannot go on forever, won’t.
One of the dangers investors is looking at the world with blinders on because it means missing the larger picture. For example, if we were to look at the recent stock price success of Beyond Meat, a new constituent in the Tematica Research Cleaner Living index, and chatter over the expanding reach of Impossible Foods, one might think the world was no longer interesting in meat.
To the contrary, we are continuing to see the tailwind of our New Global Middle-Class investing them spur demand for the protein complex.
When it comes to the burgers or steaks on your plate, looks and tastes can be deceiving as “meatless meat” and “plant-based meat” gain traction.
Sales of meat alternative grew 30% in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to Nielsen Product Insider.
While the alternative meat market could grow to be worth $140 billion globally in the next ten years, according to Barclays, it’s still a small percentage of the current $1.4 trillion global meat market which is also showing no signs of slowing down.
Still, the demand for alternatives has increased.
Despite the trend in eating plant-based “meat,” global consumption for meat is still on the rise, driven in part by countries like China and Brazil which saw a massive increase in recent decades.
The average person in China, for instance, went from consuming just nine pounds of meat per year in 1961, to 137 pounds per year in 2013, according to The Economist.
“As countries get wealthier, there’s a tendency to eat more meat as a sign of wealth, as a sign of like, ‘I can afford it,’” said Lily Ng, CEO of Foodie, a food magazine and online platform based in Hong Kong.
Globally, the average amount of meat consumption has nearly doubled over the past 50 years.
Although, countries including the U.S. and the U.K. may have reached a so-called “Meat Peak” — which means total meat consumption has hit a peak and declined slightly recently. In addition to that, one in three people in the U.K. says they’ve stopped or cut down on eating meat, according to a survey by Waitrose supermarket.
I’d like to open this week’s piece with a bit of Twitter wisdom – as much as an oxymoron as that sounds.
The impact of Federal Reserve Chairman Powell’s sweet whispers to the market that the 2018 rate hikes are on hold for 2019 is wearing off as politics and trade tensions dominate the markets. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that prescriptions for Xanax and the like have been on the rise inside the beltway in recent weeks. Those headlines investors are trying to navigate around are dominated by talk of the trade war with China, which has evolved from last year’s Presidential tweet.
Fourteen months later, the May 23rd, 2019 comment from Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Gao Feng in Mandarin, (according to a CNBC translation) casts a different tone.
“If the U.S. would like to keep on negotiating it should, with sincerity, adjust its wrong actions. Only then can talks continue.”
So that’s going well. China appears to very much be digging in its heels and preparing for a prolonged battle. We are hearing talk of a ‘cold war’ on the tech sector and the New York Times wrote, “Mnuchin Presses Companies For Trade War Contingency Plans.”
With all that, it is no wonder that the CBOE S&P 500 Volatility Index (VIX) has moved above both its 50-day and 200-day moving average.
May has not been kind to the major US indices.
Many market bellwethers that had previously been investor darlings are in or shortly will be in correction territory.
But the US economy is strong right? As we’ve mentioned in prior pieces here and here, not so much. This week the Financial Times reported that non-performing loans at the 10 largest commercial US banks rose 20% in the first quarter. That was in a quarter in which GDP came in above 3% and above expectations. What happens in a weak quarter? Those banks aren’t being helped by falling interest rates either, which crush their margins. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note has fallen below the mid-point on the Fed’s target range for the overnight funds rate. A flat-to-inverted yield curve just screams economic party-on.
As we look at growth in the second quarter, remember that the first quarter build-up in inventories was a function of the trade war. Businesses were stocking up before tariffs and in response to all the uncertainty. This buildup was a pull forward in demand for stockpiling which serves as a headwind to growth in later quarters.
We are also seeing reports of trade war related supply chain disruptions, which means declining productivity. Remember that the growth of an economy is a function of the growth of the labor pool (all but tapped out) and growth in productivity. The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow estimate reflects this with second quarter growth down to 1.3% from 1.6% on May 14th. Following the week’s slump in April core-capital goods orders the New York Fed’s Nowcast reading for the current quarter fell to 1.4% from 1.8% last week.
While the headlines are dominated by the trade wars or the latest drama in DC, what most aren’t watching is the most important factor in the global economy today – the rising dollar.
The US Dollar Index (ICE:DX) has been in a steady uptrend for over a year.
The broader Federal Reserve Trade Weighted US Dollar Index has broken above is December 2016 high and may be on its way to new all-time highs – if it breaks above 129.85, we are in unchartered territory.
Why does the dollar matter so much? About 80% of global trade relies on the US Dollar. Last year the Fed’s rate hikes drove up the price (AKA interest rate) of the dollar for other countries. As the US looks to reduce its trade deficit with many of its trading partners, that means less dollars available outside of the US. When the US imports, goods and services come into the country and dollars leave. A shrinking trade deficit creates a double whammy on the dollar of rising interest rate effects (higher price) and a reduction in supply.
The rising dollar obviously hurts the sales of US companies internationally, (think on this in light of that 20% rise in non-performing loans at US banks) but it is also major headwind to emerging markets, particularly given the massive amount of US dollar denominated debt in emerging economies. As quantitative easing pushed the dollar down, emerging economies gorged on US dollar denominated debt. That seemingly free lunch is now getting expensive, and if the dollar breaks into unchartered territory, that free lunch could turn into spewed chunks.
In addition to the problems with existing dollar denominated debt, the rising dollar increases the scarcity of capital in emerging markets. As the dollar increases relative to another nation’s currency, domestic asset values decline which means banks are less willing to lend. Investment declines and there goes the growth in emerging economies.
With respect to China and the dollar, as the US imposes tariffs on China, the roughly 8% decline in the renminbi versus the US Dollar has helped to offset the impact. This week the renmimbi dropped to nearly a six-month low, falling briefly below 7. To put that move in context, from the mid-1990s to July 2005, China had pegged its currency to 8.28 to the dollar. It only dropped below 7 in 2008 before the nation halted all movement as the financial crisis rolled across the globe. Trading resumed in 2010 officially within a managed band of a basket of currencies, but in practice primarily against the dollar. The big question now is will China let the renminbi stay below the 7 mark.
As global trade slows amidst trade wars, rising populism and dollar scarcity, exports in April in Asia showed the strain.
- Indonesia -13.1%
- Singapore NODX -10%
- Taiwan -3.3%
- China -2.7%
- Thailand -2.6%
- Japan -2.4%
- South Korea -2%
- Vietnam 7.5% (woot woot)
Looking at South Korea, semiconductors account for 1/5th of the nation’s exports and we’ve seen global semiconductor sales decline the fastest since 2009. With the ubiquitous nature of these chips, this says a lot above overall global growth. And that’s before the growing ban placed on China telecom company Huawei, which reportedly consumes $20 billion of semiconductors each year, is factored into the equation.
It isn’t just the emerging economies that are struggling with a rising dollar. The Brexit embattled UK, (who just lost its current Prime Minister Theresa May) has seen its currency weaken significantly against the dollar, losing around 25% over the past 5 years – effectively a 25% tax on US imports from currency alone.
The euro hasn’t fared well either. While above the 2017 lows, it has lost nearly 20% versus the dollar in the past 5 years – effectively a 20% tax on US imports from currency alone.
If all that isn’t enough to get your attention, then just wait until later this summer when we have another debt ceiling drama to which we can look forward. With how well the left and right are getting along these days on Capitol Hill, I’m sure this will be smooth sailing. With volatility still relatively low (but rising) perhaps putting on a little bit of protection on one’s portfolio would be in order?
And on that note, have a great holiday weekend!
Over the last several months, we’ve received several pieces of data that not only point to a slowing global economy, particularly at Europe and China but also to growing worries over the consumer’s ability to spend. We’ve covered the US data points rather thoroughly on this episode of the Cocktail Investing Podcast as part of our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme. When it comes to China, from the CEIC shows why luxury goods companies associated with our Living the Life investing theme are seeing falling sales. Per the CEIC, China’s household debt as a percentage of GDP surged to 53.2% in December, from 36% five years earlier. While that remains below the global average of 62%, it’s the pace of growth that has caused concern likely leading to either a re-think or retrenchment in Chinses consumer spending.
Factor in the recent problems associated with Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft that are likely to crimp international air travel, and the outlook for luxury goods companies and others associated with our Living the Life investing theme, at least in the near-term, look for less vibrant than they have in several years. Casting a shadow as well is the latest pushout in US-China trade talks that appear to have slipped to June from March/April.
Prada SpA shares fell to the lowest close since 2016 as slower Chinese spending contributed to an unexpected drop in the Italian fashion house’s annual profit.
The Hong Kong-listed luxury group attributed a slump in Asia mostly to Chinese tourists reining in spending in Hong Kong and Macau because of the weakness in the yuan. Other luxury brands, including Kering SA’s Gucci, have seen the impact of softer buying by Chinese tourists offset by increased spending on the mainland, but Prada failed to get a similar boost from Chinese spending at home, said Citigroup analysts led by Thomas Chauvet.
Prada’s China sales were flat for the year, a “significant swing” after a first-half gain of 17 percent, Citigroup said. Monday’s stock plunge after the disappointing earnings shaved $864 million off the company’s market value.
Chinese consumers have turned more cautious amid the slowest economic expansion in almost three decades and a trade war with the U.S. While cars and iPhones have seen bigger slumps so far, Prada’s results could spark worry that China’s newly wealthy middle class is scaling back on high-end purchases. For an industry that relies on Chinese demand for 30 percent of $1 trillion in global luxury spending, that’s a chilling prospect.
While China’s economy may be slowing now, the long-term implications associated with our Living the Life, Rise of the New Middle-class and Digital Lifestyle investing themes in that market will continue to be felt. Even if China’s economy slows to something between 5%-6%, the economic reality is it will continue to grow far faster than the US. Per the Fed’s most recent FOMC economic forecast, it sees US GDP between 1.8%-2.5% over the next few years.
That faster rate of growth mixed with our three investment themes cited above will continue to drive retail sales growth in China. Will that eclipse the US in 2022, a year later or a year sooner? It’s hard to predict but it’s the longer term tailwind that we’re focused on here at Tematica. Sneaking up right behind China is India, which boasts wonderful demographics that will continue to power our Rise of the New Middle-class theme for years to come.
With regard to our Digital Lifestyle theme, given the far superior rate of adoption of mobile payments not to mention Alibaba’s seemingly replicating Amazon’s strategies, it comes as little surprise to us that digital shopping will be a key driver in China. This is backed to some extent by the growing usage of digital commerce and social media by the luxury brands that are associated with our Living the Life theme.
China’s economy may be slowing, but it is on track to overtake the United States and become the world’s top retail market this year.
The latest forecast by eMarketer predicts that retail sales in China will increase 7.5% to $5.636 trillion in 2019. That’s approximately $100 billion more than the United States, where retail sales are expected to grow 3.3% to $5.529 trillion.
And while growth rates are slowing for both countries, China’s growth rate will exceed that of the United States through 2022. By 2022, total retail sales in China are expected to hit $6.757 trillion, while U.S. total retail sales will reach $6.030 trillion.
A major driver of China’s retail economy is e-commerce. Online retail sales in China will increase 30.3% to $1.989 trillion in 2019, accounting for 35.3% of the country’s total retail sales, which is the highest percentage in the world, according to Marketer. The United States lags far behind, with e-commerce on track to represent 10.9% of total retail sales this year.
By the end of 2019, China will account for a whopping 55.8% of all online retail sales globally, with the metric expected to exceed 63% by 2022. The United States is expected to account for 17% of all global online sales, followed by the U.K. at 3.8%, Japan at 3.2% and South Korea at 2.4%.
Emarketer noted that Alibaba will lead e-commerce sales in China with a 53.3% share. But its share has been steadily declining for the past several years as smaller players chip away at the e-commerce giant’s dominance. In particular, social commerce platform Pinduoduo has seen triple-digit growth since 2016, although its share remains small, according to eMarketer.
It’s not only the pace of the smartphone market that is slowing here in the US, so is the rate at which we are downloading apps even though Apple’s App Store and Google Play remain dominant platforms. A new report shows that China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are the driving force behind app downloads and app-related revenue growth, which likely reflects the deployment of 4G networks and the adoption of smartphones. No wonder Apple is keen on cracking China and India. To us, this is our Rise of the New Middle-class investing theme intermingling with our Digital Lifestyle theme.
Global app downloads topped 194 billion in 2018, up 35 percent from 2016, according to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile 2019” report released today. Consumer spending across app stores was up 75 percent to reach $101 billion. The report, which analyzes trends across iOS, Android and the third-party Android stores in China combined, follows the company’s earlier report released at year-end, which looked at downloads and spending across just iOS and Google Play.
According to the “State of Mobile” report, China accounted for nearly 50 percent of total downloads in 2018 across iOS and the third-party stores, despite the slowdown related to a nine-month game license freeze in the country. China also accounted for nearly 40 percent of consumer spending in 2018.
Emerging markets played a role in fueling downloads, as well, accounting for three out of the top five markets for downloads (India, Brazil and Indonesia). Download growth in the U.S., meanwhile, has slowed.
Developing markets played little role in consumer spend, however. Instead, the countries contributing the most on that front were (in order): China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the U.K.
It found that Chinese mobile gaming giant Tencent was the global leader for overall revenue across iOS and Android, not counting the third-party Android app stores. It was also the leader in game revenue. Tencent topped the non-game app chart for 2018, too, with its Tencent Video app clocking in at No. 3.