The Independent Investor: Will We race to the Bottom?
Financial markets are in turmoil. President Trump's trade war is escalating, and with it, fears that both China and the U.S. will employ a new weapon, currency devaluation, to win the war. Is that a wise move?
The last time the country devalued the dollar outright was on Dec. 18, 1971, when President Nixon took the country off the gold standard. Since then, there have been times when various administrations have nudged the dollar down, but most American presidents have maintained a strong-dollar policy.
However, over the course of the last two years, President Trump has increasingly complained that the United States is at an unfair advantage versus other countries that are deliberately devaluing their currencies in order to increase their exports. As most readers understand, the cheaper your currency, the cheaper the price of your exports.
This week, however, the question of currency manipulation moved front and center. In response to the president's decision to place a 10 percent tariff on an additional $300 billion of Chinese exports on Sept. 1, China ordered its companies not to purchase any additional food stuffs from the U.S. The government also allowed its currency, the renminbi, to drop below the seven to one U.S. dollar valuation, the lower end of the official exchange rate range.
The Chinese currency does not trade freely but is instead managed by the government. Its value is allowed to trade within a range with the 7-to-1 level being the lower end of that band.
Up until this week, the Chinese government had been attempting to stabilize their currency despite the accusations from the administration. Outside economists as well as the IMF, believe at this level the Chinese currency accurately reflects the fundamentals of their economy.
But when have facts and figures ever influenced the Trump administration? On Monday, under orders of the president, the U.S. Treasury designated China a "currency manipulator."
Financial markets, at first, swooned, fearing that the trade war was about to get far more serious. Investors fear that by naming China a currency manipulator, President Trump can now open the door to a currency war and justify some kind of devaluation of the dollar. It is a move that his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, has been urging on the president as recently as two weeks ago. Trump dismissed his proposals at the time, but said later, according to the Wall Street Journal, that it was still an option.
A currency war is one where one country devalues or weakens their currency, which leads the impacted country to do the same. It may also evoke a similar response by other nations (think the EU), which could set off a domino effect and a race to the bottom as countries continually devalue their currencies. The end result would not be pretty for anyone, since there are no winners in a currency crisis.
A dollar devaluation would, in the short-term, increase U.S. exports and decrease imports. It would also help Trump's most important supporters in the Great Plains, the South and Midwest that make up the farm belt, coal and energy sectors. A weaker dollar would also make it easier to pay down our public debt that has skyrocketed under the Trump administration.
Of course, all of the above comes to naught if others also join the currency war. For the world overall, it would most likely mean stagnation and possibly the match that could ignite inflation that has long been slumbering under the surface.
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@theMarket: Tariff Threat Unsettles Markets
Donald Trump's announcement on Thursday that an additional 10 percent tariff will be levied on the remaining $300 billion in Chinese exports to the U.S. on September 1 did not sit well with investors. The news could very well trigger the stock market decline that I have been expecting.
Regular readers know that I have been waiting for a 5-7 percent pullback in the markets fairly soon. Since the first two weeks of August are usually a bad time in the markets, the pullback this week might be right on cue.
In my last column, I also explained in some detail how it appeared that Donald Trump had no intention of negotiating in good faith with the Chinese this past week during meetings in China. The Chinese, evidently, felt the same way. Nothing was offered to move the negotiations forward by either side.
That suited the president just fine because he was using the potential of a deepening trade war, in my opinion, to pressure the Federal Reserve Bank into a series of interest rate cuts. However, Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, failed to deliver what he wanted on Wednesday.
Powell is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He did acquiesce (to some degree) to Trump's demands, while attempting to preserve his and the Fed's historical and legal independence. He cut rates by one quarter of one percent, but then left the impression, while talking to reporters in a press conference, that the cut was simply a "mid-cycle adjustment" rather than the beginning of a series of further interest rate cuts.
That disappointed the financial markets. Some investors hoped to have seen even further easing in the months ahead. It also angered the president, who made his displeasure known through his usual channel on Twitter. "What the Market wanted to hear from Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve was that this was the beginning of a lengthy and aggressive rate-cutting cycle, which would keep pace with China, The European Union and other countries around the world," Trump tweeted after the Fed FOMC meeting.
None of this should come as a surprise to you, if you have been reading my columns. Last week I wrote "If the Fed does cut rates, we will see what the president's next move will be. Of course, that is not entirely within his control, since China will have an equal say in what kind of deal is struck and when."
Thursday afternoon, Trump announced that next move by threatening to levy a 10 percent tariff on all the remaining Chinese export goods to the U.S. It was a completely predictable and expected response from the president, given his character. While the markets swooned focusing on the impact of these new potential tariffs on the U.S. and world economy, I've taken a different view.
To me, Trump is simply doubling down on his demand for more rate cuts. Slapping tariffs on the Chinese, he is hoping, will tip the Fed's hand into doing exactly what he wants. And believe me, he will do all he can to institute those tariffs.
It seems clear to me that the Chinese have given up working toward a trade solution with Donald Trump. They realize (according to the official Chinese news agencies) that no deal will be struck any time soon, or at least not until after the 2020 election. They are probably right, unless Trump perceives that he needs a deal to get re-elected.
Instead, their plan is to hunker down, alleviate the impact of these costly tariffs on their economy, and wait it out. They are very good at that. And who knows, Trump might actually lose in 2020, setting the stage for possibly better terms from a future administration.
In the short-term, Trump's willingness to disregard the independence of the Fed, and postpone a U.S./China trade deal, while manipulating financial markets for his own apparent political gain sets a dangerous precedent. Markets, therefore, will continue to gyrate but it is what it is.
So how do you take advantage of all this market noise and manipulation? Stay invested. If I am right, simply wait for the Fed to cut interest rates again in September, (regardless of economic necessity) thanks to Trump's shenanigans, and watch the markets come roaring back.
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The Independent Investor: Brexit: The Never-Ending Story
Back in 2018, the government of the United Kingdom and the European Union reached an agreement on exactly how the British exit (Brexit) would occur. Since then, despite countless meetings, discussions and votes, the UK Parliament has failed to approve that process. The new date for an exit is Oct. 31. Will this really be the end of the story?
The October extension was really a compromise negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain's Conservative Party. Some European countries were offering a much longer delay for as much as one year. However, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, insisted on a much shorter time period.
Macron and some other European leaders are worried that the toxic atmosphere within Britain, which has been building ever since the exit vote back in 2016, could spill over and infect sentiment within the populations of other European countries. The longer these exit negotiations go on, the more likely other European countries might be persuaded to follow the UK's lead and announce their own exit plans.
To further complicate matters, Boris Johnson, an outspoken critic of the negotiations (and a leading pro-exit populist), took over as prime minster from May for Britain's Conservative Party this month. One of his first promises was to accomplish the exit with "no ifs, ands, or buts."
Johnson has vowed to leave the EU by Oct. 31, regardless of whether or not a deal with the EU can be inked. In addition, he and his cabinet have demanded a change in the terms of the negotiated deal, which have surfaced before, and were rejected repeatedly by the EU.
Many Brexit watchers believe Jonson's tactics are simply a ploy to bring a no-deal Brexit plan to a vote in Parliament where it would be rejected. That's a safe bet, since the majority of MPs (Members of Parliament) are adamantly opposed to a no-deal departure. At that point, Johnson could then call for new elections, positioning himself as the self-styled champion of Brexit.
If Johnson's threat was to be taken seriously and the UK actually exited the EU on Halloween, the impact could be devastating. All the arrangements, pacts, treaties and trade agreements with the EU would come to an abrupt end. Everything from the free movement of people to policing and security would be called into question. Food, drink, data, finance, aviation, even the supplies of medicine as well as countless other day-to-day items would need to be re-examined.
There would be need for a great deal more government spending and planning immediately to deal with the short falls in all these areas if the exit were to occur over the next three months. Some of this preparation has already begun, but there is far more spending and planning required than time to implement it.
And even if a large and vocal segment of the population simply wants to "get it over with," regardless of whether or not a deal can be negotiated, that does not end the problem. In the immediate aftermath of a no-deal exit, the UK would be able to continue trading with the EU under the terms of an existing default agreement governed by the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Under the default agreement, tariffs on such things as agricultural goods would be able to continue for a limited time, but the UK would still need to negotiate a permanent deal with the EU. That would involve all the same issues that the UK Parliament is already facing (and failing to pass). The issue would be that a no-deal exit would require decisions on all of the above to be made quickly; something parliament and the country overall has proven to be incapable of doing. Given all of this, I believe the October deadline will come and go so the Brexit story will continue and continue and continue.
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@theMarket: All Eyes on the Fed
It was a week of chop. That was to be expected, given it was the first week of second-quarter earnings results. While some individual big-name stocks made substantial moves, the overall indexes traded up and down but ended the week about where they started.
It was largely what I predicted would happen. The same will apply to this coming week with all eyes intently focused on the July 31 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee taking place next Wednesday. Investors expect the Fed to cut the Fed Funds interest rate by at least one quarter percent. Let's hope they do.
In the meantime, aside from earnings announcements, investors were confronted with some bad news out of Washington. After months of waiting, the U.S. Justice Department finally announced that the U.S. government has launched an investigation into the largest U.S. technology companies. Specifically, authorities will be trying to determine if the likes of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon are guilty of anticompetitive practices. If they are found guilty, that could lead to antitrust charges.
Actually, I was impressed with how well the markets held up given that the above named "FANG" stocks have been the market leaders for years. The four companies represent a substantial weighting in many of the U.S. indexes, such as the S& P 500 and NASDAQ indexes. While no one knows how long until, or even if, any of the companies will ever be charged, the investigation will cast a pall over the group for some time to come.
So, while investors grabbled with the bad news from this Justice department, over at the U.S. Treasury, Stephen Mnuchin, its Secretary, announced some good news. Both he and the White House's Chief Trade Representative, Robert Leigthizer, are off to China Monday to resuscitate high-level negotiations with their Chinese counterparts on trade.
While traders cheered the China news, my own belief is that talks are going to become even more difficult now that China's Trade Minister Zhong Shan has joined their negotiation team. Shan, while regarded as capable, knowledgeable, and professional, is also considered a "hard-liner." As such, he could make discussions even more difficult and probably will. That might fit into the president's game plan.
It is my own belief that Donald Trump does not want a breakthrough deal announced quite yet. One of the chief reasons investors are expecting the Fed to cut interest rates is the fear that an escalation in the U.S./China trade war would cause havoc with our economy. Until there is a deal, that China threat is hanging over our economy.
Trump is keenly aware of this. The president is also on the record in demanding that the Federal Reserve Bank cut interest rates now in order to grow the economy. But that does not mean a recession is looming in front of us. Friday's second quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) report came in at 2.1 percent which was above the expected growth rate of 1.8 percent. While consumer and government spending were strong, business investment slowed.
The probability of a U.S. recession over the next 12 months is less than 33 percent, according to research released by the New York Federal Reserve Bank. As such, the Fed's expected interest rate cut next week (if it occurs) is believed to be little more than monetary "insurance" just in case talks break down, in which case, Trump has threatened to then levy another 25 percent tariff on the remaining $350 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S.
If the Fed does cut rates, we will see what the president's next move will be. Of course, that is not entirely within his control, since China will have an equal say in what kind of deal is struck and when. As for the markets, enjoy the ride, but be aware that some time soon we could see another 5-7 percent pullback.
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The Independent Investor: Make Vietnam Great Again?
Funny things happen when our government starts tinkering with the economy in a big way. Unpredictable results, unintended consequences, and confusion often result. U.S. tariffs on China is a case in point.
Now to hear it from the White House, slapping tariffs on imports from China is going to change the entire equation of how companies do business. As it becomes more expensive to import from China, Donald Trump promised that other foreign countries were going to flock to the U.S. creating more jobs, more tax revenues, and generally become a big part of "making the U.S. great again."
So far, the president is half right. Over 50 multinational companies have announced plans to shift production out of China as a result of the 25 percent tariffs placed on $200 billion of Chinese imports. That trend is expected to accelerate if (and when) the U.S. levies even higher tariffs on China, since President Trump is threatening to add duties on another $325 billion of Chinese goods.
American computer makers such as Dell and HP plan to move as much as 30 percent of their computer notebook production out of China. Apple is assessing a similar move with 15-30 percent of their Chinese production. However, none of those companies intend to bring that capacity back to America. Vietnam, India, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries are the intended new centers of this manufacturing.
And it is not just non-Chinese companies that are re-thinking their production strategies. Several Chinese companies are also hedging their bets and shifting their businesses elsewhere, most notably to Vietnam. The Chinese government, in response, is doing all they can to retain and attract companies to their shores. Last month, the Chinese said they would ease restrictions on foreign investment in seven sectors, including the energy area. The financial sector is also an area that the government plans to open up to foreign investment.
Since Vietnam shares a border with China, it has benefited the most from the trade war. It is fast becoming a center for many manufacturers of electrical and electronic equipment. Two of the world's technology behemoths, Korea's Samsung Electronics and Japan's Kyocera, are making printers, smartphones and a variety of other technology products in the country.
The rush to establish new supply chains has been so huge, that it has boosted the GDP of Vietnam last year by almost 8 percent. The country's trade surplus with the U.S. has exceeded $20 billion since 2014,.and last year, it hit the highest level of surplus (almost $40 billion) in several decades.
Vietnam's windfall has not escaped the ire of the Trump Administration. The president has called the country "the single worst abuser of everybody" when it comes to unfair trade. The U.S. Treasury has recently added Vietnam to its watchlist of countries it is monitoring for possible currency manipulation. It is also looking into claims that Chinese exporters are routing their exports through Vietnam, then re-labeling their products with fake "made in Vietnam" labels to avoid the U.S. tariffs.
Vietnam is simply an example of what can happen when governments micro-manage trade and the economy. Our actions have succeeded in making Vietnam great again, something that doesn't sit well with me, a Vietnam Vet.
In response, sure, we can plug the leak in the dike by placing tariffs on Vietnamese imports, but then what? Diverting trade away from Vietnam won't mean more jobs or benefits for America. The tariff trade will simply be re-routed to other countries that can make them for less and have the skilled workers to do the job. Nonetheless, for those without a handle on how global economics and trade truly work, slapping tariffs on countries plays well with Main Street and that's what the president is counting on.
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