China and Trade – It’s Complicated

China and Trade – It’s Complicated

On Monday, August 14th I spoke with David Asman and Melissa Francis, hosts of After the Bell on Fox Business, about the recent moves in the market and the discussions around trade relations with China. I pointed out that while trade is often discussed in the media as a transaction in which there is a winner, (the country with the trade surplus) and a loser, (the country with trade deficit) trade is much more complex.

First off, any theft of property, be it intellectual or otherwise cannot be accepted. Trade between individuals, businesses or nations must include respect for the property rights of all parties involved. Property rights and the respect for them is vital for economic development. Without them, innovation faces enormous headwinds.

Putting that aside, the focus of any discussion on trade with China is typically centered on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, but this negates that many American jobs factories and offices that would not be able to exist without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. The lower-cost labor available in China allows a myriad of ideas hatched in the U.S. to become viable products, which in turn then can create hundreds and thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing that might never have existed  because an entirely domestic production would have been cost-prohibitive. If all of the components in Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone had to be manufactured and assembled domestically, it would cost multiples more and all the businesses that exist today thanks to the ubiquitous nature of such smart phones would never have come into existence.

The nearly half a trillion dollar in annual trade between the U.S. and China is also not a one-way street. For example, in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the United States had a $17 billion trade surplus with China in agriculture and an $8 billion surplus in transportation equipment. From a geographical perspective, eight U.S. states run trade surpluses with China, including West Virgina, Louisiana, Oregon, and Washington state.

Bottom Line: International trade, like most everything in life, isn’t a simple matter. Making major changes to trade policy with a significant trade partner will naturally result in some winners, but also in some losers. When such impactful rules of the game are potentially changed, we at Tematica revisit those companies that benefit from our Thematic tailwinds to assess how and if they may be affected. For now, the talk around trade with China has been just that, talk. We will keep a vigilant eye on this however for any movement that could have a material impact on the companies we follow.

The Real Jobs Picture with Lenore Hawkins on Boom Bust

The Real Jobs Picture with Lenore Hawkins on Boom Bust

Earlier this week I spoke with Lindsay France on Boom Bust about the reality of the employment situation in the United States. We keep hearing talk out of DC about how this policy or that is going to ignite the economy, and while we would dearly love to see that happen, we rarely hear anything that addresses the only two factors that truly affect the growth rate of the economy: The growth rate for an economy is the sum of the growth of the labor pool and productivity.

The actual data coming in tells us a lot about the structural headwinds limiting the potential growth rate in the economy. The total available labor pool shrank again in May and has now contracted for four consecutive months by nearly 1 million people: this reduces the potential growth rate for the economy.

Yet, we continue to hear from those in D.C. and the mainstream financial media that the economy is going strong and starting to accelerate to the upside. Errr what? The jobs data tells a very different story. Earlier this month the Bureau of Labor Statistics nonfarm payrolls report for May showed that only 138,000 jobs were added during May, well below expectations for 182,000 and we saw 66,000 removed from the March and April new jobs. Looking at the trend:

  • Average net new jobs added per month over the past 12 months – 189,000
  • Average net new jobs added per month over the past 6 months –  161,000
  • Net new jobs added in May — 138,000

That is not a story of an improving economy.

The recent JOLTS (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals a continuation of a concerning trend that we’ve been watching for quite a few years. The number of job openings hit yet another record high at over 6 million, while hirings continue to lag.  The spread between openings and new hires has also reached a new record high. Even more concerning, the number of new hires has fallen in two out of the past three months, as companies struggle find the right match for their needs. This reduces productivity because when positions remain empty, everyone needs to work around the void, impacting their ability to take care of their own workload, so here we have a hit to both the labor pool and productivity.

From the post-recession lows, the economy has added about 14 million jobs, yet we’ve seen no real wage pressures. This is partly because we have 23 million Americans, (more than the entire population of NY) in the prime working age that are not engaged in the labor pool, which is 25% above the historical average level – that’s some serious deadweight on the economy.

 

 

 

 

 

Mornings with Maria

Mornings with Maria

On Friday October 21st I was on set with Maria Bartiromo, Kat Timpf and Dagen McDowell with a variety of guests. Here are a few clips from those three hours on set… with only one bathroom break… starting at 6am… and a lot of coffee…know my pain.

We spoke with JMP Securities President Mark Lehmann on the stocks to watch in the tech sector and the election’s impact on the markets.

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 2.27.56 PM

We also spoke with Alan Dershowitz, author of ‘Electile Dysfunction,’ on the impact of WikiLeaks on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. While I’m not a fan of lawbreakers, and hackers certainly count amongst those, these days the electorate is reasonably mistrustful of those in power and these hackers are giving us confirmation that we are correct to mistrust …which is one of the reasons I am in favor of smaller government. The more power government has, the more opportunities there are for graft, and the bigger the temptation to give into such. I prefer smaller government out of respect for the frailties of human nature. I’m in good company here with James Madison who explained it best in Federalist Paper #51.

It was a long chat with Mr. Dershowitz…

As a proponent of the free markets, which also means free trade, I’m a fan of Donald Trump’s plans to reduce taxes, but not a fan of his threats to significantly reduce free trade and to use the power of the presidency to force private companies to bend to his will. As the second largest exporter in the world, our economy needs a healthy level of international trade. We spoke with political economist Andy Busch on Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s competing plans.

Finally we spoke with S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Rich Peterson concerning the outlook for M&A activity, particularly given the current political environment. As we discussed earnings results so far, I brought up my concerns that the improvement in earnings per share really doesn’t tell the whole story, as companies have been buying back their own shares at record levels. This means the denominator, shares outstanding, keeps falling which makes EPS look artificially stronger than it actually is. I call this the spanx-and-push-up-bra strategy, whereby things may look better from afar, but fundamentally they really haven’t improved.

Clinton good for stocks?

Clinton good for stocks?

On October 14th I spoke with Stuart Varney concerning the impact on investors of a Hillary Clinton win coupled with a Democrat sweep of the House and Senate. While the market index moves so far have indicated a preference for Clinton over Trump, investors aren’t likely to benefit from a Clinton presidency.

A Clinton presidency would mean higher taxes, which is a headwind to growth. She has expressed a desire to increase taxes on investments, which makes them less attractive relative to other options. She’s also discussed increased regulations, which is already considered by the C suite folks to be one of the biggest challenges facing companies today. While the stock market indices have so far been more bullish when Hillary has a solid lead in the polls, investors should think through what her plans would mean for their bottom line as well as the bottom line of the companies in which they invest.

 

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 2.34.04 PM

Market Highs Again – Where Next?

Markets are at all time highs, what is an investor to do? On August 13th I had the pleasure of speaking with Stuart Varney on Fox Business concerning the sky high valuations in the stock market amid contracting earnings, earnings which are also highly deceptive given the level of financial engineering management has used to artificially boost earnings per share through share-buybacks, which are often debt funded!

We’ve yet to see the economy return to pre-crisis normal growth rates and businesses around the country consistently site government red tape as one of if not their biggest burden. Meanwhile the markets wait breathlessly to dissect the latest words out of a Fed officials mouth. We now live in a world in which the asset prices are heavily dependent on commentary from unelected bureaucrats. Me thinks it unlikely that this all ends well!

Not entirely sure why I was smiling that much… I suspect I may have had just a tad too much coffee. Apologies for the dental display!

Italian Bank Stress Test Results

On July 29th I spoke with David Asman on Fox Business concerning the results of the Italian Bank stress tests along with Adam Shapiro, Charles Payne and Steve Forbes. The recent vote in the UK to leave the European Union put a good deal of pressure on the banks in the remaining European Union, with the banks in Italy struggling the most.  Like any good Italian drama, this is likely to be a tight ride until the very end… at which point tutti bene, at least for the next few months!

Brexit from London

On June 25th, while in London, I had the pleasure of joining David Asman on Fox News to discuss the meaning of Thursday’s vote to leave the European Union. The view of Brexit from London has been stunning. All those who underestimated the British sense of self-confidence and desire for sovereignty or who were over-confident in the betting odds giving only a 25% change of leaving, are now paying dearly for that confidence. The shock amongst most in the financial sector in London is palatable, with the lights burning bright in most offices all weekend, as portfolio managers, investment bankers and traders work to get their arms around just what this means for them and their clients.

What this means for the US

Pundits in the US are trying to calm markets buy assuring them that this won’t over overly impactful for the US as the UK, the fifth largest economy in the world, only accounts for roughly 3.8% of world GDP, according to estimates for 2016 from the International Monetary Fund, versus the United States, which accounts for around 25.4%. But that misses that this is not just about the UK, but rather about the future viability and success of the European Union, whose GDP is nearly the same as the US. With the tumultuous and highly contentious presidential election cycle in the US,  about 50% of the world’s economy is now experiencing a high level of political uncertainty within the context of an already weak global economy. That is a strong headwind to growth for everyone.

The most immediate impact of Brexit for the US likely a continued increase in the strength of the dollar, which is great for American tourists abroad, but a challenge for American multinational firms that export their products and/or services. The strong dollar will also impact emerging markets that have a good deal of debt denominated in U.S. dollars, acting as a headwind to those economies as that debt becomes more expensive. The uncertainty of how this all will pan out means transactions and contracts between companies in the European Union and with companies outside of the union may be put on hold or cancelled entirely – more headwinds to growth.

Many today are harshly criticizing the Brexit leadership for not having a clear plan for what to do if their side actually won, but the reality is that kind of a plan was literally impossible. A plan would have required having some clarity on how agreements would be worked out with, primarily, other European nations. The leadership of the rest of the European Union had every reason to assure the UK that, “Fine, you want to leave us! Then we will refuse to play with you anymore!” as they desperately wanted the UK to stay. But now that the decision has been made, and after time soothes the many bruised egos a bit, real conversations can begin.

Impact on European Union

The bigger issue here is that the European Union has not delivered on its promises to all who joined. Many countries are suffering in ways that were not expected, with internal tensions rising with every passing year of weak economic growth, high unemployment (particular among the youth) and supercilious finger-wagging from the stronger nations at the weaker ones. As hope for a recovery fades, desperation is rising and the belief that those in Brussels are a cure is shifting to suspicion that they are instead the disease. One of the greatest lessons of political history from the dawn of nations is that the further the decision-makers sit from those affected by the decisions, the poorer the quality of the decision. History shows that the more people that are forced into one size-fits-all solutions, the poorer the end result, often times with dramatic actions to break those bonds.

Those countries in the European Union that have been struggling to reignite their economies post-financial crisis will be closely watching as the events unfold for the UK, placing a lot of pressure on everyone involved. European leaders find themselves in a catch 22. On the one hand, they will be better off having strong trade relationships with the UK, but on the other hand they don’t want other nations that may be contemplating their own exit to see the UK benefiting from this move. Expect more threats, grandstanding and predictions of doom and gloom before this breakup drops from the headlines around the world.

Italy's Recent Election and Europe's Ongoing Struggles

On June 22nd I had the great pleasure of speaking with Ameera David on RT’s Boom Bust about Italy’s recent elections and Europe’s ongoing struggles, just on day before the United Kingdom holds a referendum on remaining within the European Union.

Rome has just elected its first woman mayor in nearly 3,000  years, the 37-year-old Virginia Raggi, who is a member of the Five Star Movement which was started by comedian Beppe Grillo. This election was highly representative of the challenges facing much of the western world. The campaign promises of those now in office have been forgotten and in their stead we get more of the same disappointing lackluster growth. Infrastructure from trains in Italy to roads in San Diego are in an embarrassing state, looking more and more like what one would expect to see in third world countries. Ms. Raggi campaigned on a platform of anger at frustration with the status quo, a sentiment that appeals to many across both the US and Europe, but her time in office is likely to be a big disappointment as Rome is a massive and incredibly complex city to manage and her background gives no confidence that she’ll be able to manage such an enormous challenge. I hope I’m wrong.

In the US, we have an unprecedented presidential election dynamic wherein the two presumptive candidates enjoy less support from within their own parties than has ever before occurred in modern history. In Europe faith in Brussels’ ability to help get economies within the union growing at a more tolerable rate are fading as is faith in the benefits of the European Union itself. The two largest economies on earth are experiencing heightened level of political turmoil that is likely to continue for some time, as the problems are structural and deep in nature, exacerbated by the aging demographics and under increasing pressure from the immigration/humanitarian crisis.

Things are going to get a lot more complicated before they get better. The asset price “put” assumed to exist through the omniscience and omnipotent of central bankers is becoming more tenuous. There are more and more potential major catalysts for a downturn out there, which means investors need to be prepared to manage heighten downside risks in a market that is already priced with a head-scratching level of optimism.

[youtube https://youtu.be/dZztNgVHZYI?t=6m50s&end1530]

Better Retail Data Doesn't Guarantee Fed Rate Hike

On May 13th I spoke with Neil Cavuto on the Fox Business Network about the impact of the recent retail sales report on a potential rate hike by the Federal Reserve.  My concern is that employment isn’t nearly as strong as the headlines would lead one to believe. FoxBusiness.com wrote an article about my discussion as well as some points made by my co-author for Cocktail Investing, Chris Versace, which you can read here.

In the fourth quarter of 2015, productivity declined by 1.7% then fell again in Q1 by 1.0% while labor input rose 2.5% and non-farm business output averaged around 1%. That means from last October through March, the aggregate hours worked outpaced production 2.5 to 1 – obviously that is unsustainable.

If we look at Challenger’s reported layoffs for the first four months of 2016, we see they were up 24% over the first four months of 2015 and the highest we’ve seen since 2009. In April alone layoffs were up 35%, so the pace looks to be accelerating.

This is the fifth quarter of falling sales and the fourth quarter of an earnings recession, what exactly would drive more hiring when the employees companies currently have are delivering declining productivity?

The three month moving average for retail sales is still at recessionary levels AND today, 47% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency! How’s that recovery working for you?

Elle On RT's Boom Bust Talking June Rate Hike

On May 4th I spoke with Ameera David on RT’s Boom Bust about the likelihood that the Fed will hike rates in June. We discussed the ongoing earnings recession facing companies, the continued decline in top line revenue and how that will affect the recent uptick we’ve seen in wage pressures. We also talked about the impact of the Brexit vote on any hike in June and what we can learn about the global economy by looking at what’s happening in China.