@theMarket: Earnings Better Than Expected
First-quarter earnings are coming in higher than expected while stock indexes hover just below historical highs. All that is necessary for further gains is a catalyst and that may be just around the corner.
This Sunday, French presidential elections will occur. As I wrote last week, it appears that the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, has a widening lead over Marine Le Pen, the more radical right-leaning candidate. Why is that important to you?
It is all about the continued stability of the European Community and their currency, the Euro. Investors are concerned that if Le Pen should win, she might try to pull France out of the EU (think of the U.K. and Brexit). If Macron wins, the thinking is that he will assure a "business as usual" attitude among the French, which would be good for the European markets and therefore our own.
On the U.S. front, the House passage of a somewhat, garbled Repeal and Replace health care bill is also good news for the markets. The second attempt passed 217 to 213 on Thursday afternoon. It is not what is in the legislation as it currently stands. By the time the Senate gets through with their version; most of the crazy stuff will have been changed, amended or just thrown out.
House Republicans are risking their political future in ramming through this new legislation, which will potentially hurt a large block of the constituency that only recently voted them into office. In its current form, by the time mid-term elections occur in 2018, enough voters will have felt the full brunt of these changes in their pocket books. They will vote accordingly.
But to the stock market, the part of Repeal and Replace that is important is the tax savings that will occur (an estimated $1 trillion) by stripping away some of the Medicaid provisions that presently exist under Obamacare. This would free-up Congress to address tax reform, given that they will now have a nice chunk of change to start the process.
It might also breathe some life back into the Trump agenda. The new president's image (despite tweets to the contrary) has suffered from a perceived lack of accomplishments in his first 100 days. There have been several legislative set-backs from healthcare, to funding the "Great Wall," to barely passing a temporary measure to fund the government and then only to September.
President Trump needs a "win" and tax reform is something that is near and dear to Wall Street, as well as to businesses in general. Since the House failure to pass health-care legislation, the markets have been in limbo. What investors need is some visibility; some assurance that a Republican-led Senate, House and administration can accomplish more than a divided Congress could over the past eight years. So far the jury is still out.
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The Independent Investor: Only The Rich Are Saving
Last quarter, the percent age of Americans' personal savings rate stood at 5.9 percent of their disposable income, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis'. Given that number had fallen to as low as 1.9 percent in 2005, that's a large improvement. But who is saving and who is not is the real question to ask.
Our savings rate is clearly higher than it used to be relative to other countries. It is nowhere near the Chinese savings rate of 38 percent of 2014, for example, but it has improved to the point that we are now somewhere in the middle of the pack when looking at the 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But before we break out the champagne in toasting our newly-thrifty nation, you might want to understand that it is most likely the top 10 percent of households who are responsible for the lion's share of this improvement. Given that income inequality is at historically high levels in this country (comparable to what they were during the American Revolution), an argument could be made that the "haves" in this country are so rich that they can't spend it all. And so they increase their savings rate.
We do know that as late as 2013, the bottom half of income earners saved little to no money. In 2015, a Pew Charitable Trust study indicated that 41 percent of households had less than $2,000 in savings and 25 percent of us had less than $400 on the side. After the financial crisis, there was some hopeful news for the common man on the credit card front. Debt had fallen every month from 2010 to 2015. However, it appears that is now reversing. At the end of last year, Americans had racked up $1 trillion in credit card debt, an all-time high.
The problem in America, according to many behavioral experts, is that we allow our lifestyles to dictate our savings rate, rather than the other way around. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is still alive and well throughout the country, as is the need to acquire the newest, most eye-catching devices or convenience.
To many of our citizens, our country "owes" us a living while we have an inalienable right to spend as much money as it takes to make us happy. Bottom line: 21 percent of working Americans are saving nothing and just 28 percent of us are saving more than 10 percent of our incomes, according to Princeton, Survey Research Associates.
In survey after survey, 38 percent of consumers say that the main reason they don't save is because they have too many expenses. To be fair, some of their expenses may no longer be under their control. If you already had a lot of debt, for example, whether it is a home mortgage, college tuition, medical or credit card debt, a certain amount of expenses must be earmarked for these past liabilities. There may not be anything left to save. But it doesn't give us license to keep spending more.
Procrastination is the second biggest reason for not saving. Over 16 percent of Americans admit that they simply haven't gotten around to it. And the younger they are, the higher the number of non-savers. Younger respondents also argue that they don't make enough money to save.
The good news may be that the unemployment rate is at record lows and wage growth is improving after years of stagnation. As a result, an outside observer might come to the conclusion that this should allow more people to save more, but this is America.
The question to ask: will Americans save it or spend it? If modern history is any guide, I'm betting on the latter.
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@theMarket: 100 Days Does Not an Economy Make?
Markets by their very nature are impatient. Every day they are open, something, somewhere has to be making traders money. Applying that behavior to either Donald Trump or the overall economy would be a mistake.
Nonetheless, it is what it is, Friday's first quarter GDP data, which measures the pace of growth in the U.S. economy, came at a dismal 0.7 percent. That was far less than expected. Most economists were expecting a number closer to 1 percent or more.
The response from Wall Street was "where's the beef," meaning that there has been little to no evidence that our new president has done anything whatsoever for the economy. But what about all the new hope corporations and investors are supposed to be feeling? Well, hope doesn't pay the bills or seemingly goose investment spending very much. Fixed investment in the nation's plants and equipment only expanded by a measly 1.6 percent.
To be fair, the first quarter in just about every year tends to be the weakest. Economists call it "residual seasonality." You can think of it as the after Christmas economic hangover when spending dampens down as the credit cards bill come due. Most traders know this, but hey, if there are suckers out there that are dumb enough to sell stock because of it then ... .
I'd rather listen to folks like Ben Bernanke, former Fed chieftain, who thinks that a combination of low inflation, low interest rates and global growth not only justifies the level of the stock market but may point to further gains ahead. Bernanke thinks very little of the market's rise is predicated on additional U.S. fiscal policies.
And now that our new president is reaching the 100-day mark, the temperature on Wall Street has cooled a bit. Many traders are beginning to temper their enthusiasm for "huge tax cuts" when the reality is that just because it's tweeted does not make it so, at least anytime soon.
If you were spelunking in Afghanistan or excavating mummies under pyramids in Egypt, you probably missed the administration's new tax proposals. The rest of us now know that Trump aims to reduce individual tax brackets from seven to three. He also wants to eliminate most of our tax deductions with the exception of charity gifts and home mortgage interest deduction. Tax-deferred contributions will also be spared the knife.
However, state and local taxes would no longer be deductible, which is a blow to those of us who live in the Northeast where taxes are high and so is income. It is also an area that was notably Trump-unfriendly during the election. But before you get your drawers in a tizzy, remember that this is only a broad proposal and the final legislation that is passed will be a lot different.
The stock market, however, seems to have taken all of this in stride.
I wrote last week that I was looking for the S&P 500 Index to breach 2,360 and remain there for a few days before I could give the market an "all clear." Thanks to the primary elections in France last Sunday night, that's exactly what happened. Since then the S&P 500 has traded above that level.
I believe the markets have been supported by a fairly good earnings season where the vast majority of companies are beating earnings expectations. What, to me, is even more important is that a growing number of countries are berating on the revenue number as well and giving improved forward guidance on sales. Since it is definitely more difficult to manipulate sales than it is earnings, I view this as an important development.
If you took my advice, you weathered a shallow pull-back of at worst 3 percent. My expectations were for a sell-off no worse than 5-6 percent. Now I expect markets to climb higher with the S&P 500 possibly tacking on another 50 point or so in this quarter.
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The Independent Investor: World's Bread Basket No More
The recent controversy over dairy trade policies between the Trump administration and Canada is only the tip of the iceberg. While Trump is selectively picking on one particular product, the truth is that the United States is losing its competitive advantage in many areas of agriculture.
Government subsidies to the agriculture industry worldwide have always been a thorn in the American side. That's not to say that our farmers have gone without. We, too, subsidize our farmers. Taxpayers are expected to pay at least $87 billion to help farmers over the next dozen years. And for decades, we have been spending billions each year to protect them from lost income and crop failures.
The difference between then and now is that, despite other countries' farm subsidies, we were still No. 1 worldwide in a great variety of food stuffs. So we didn't care as much. Today this nation's market share for commodity such as wheat, soy beans and corn are shrinking rapidly. Exports of wheat, for example, have declined by over 50 percent since the 1970s, while countries like Russia have expanded wheat production by over 60 percent in just the last 10 years. As a result, Russia now dominates global wheat production.
And Russia is not alone. Countries in South America, specifically Brazil and Argentina, traditional agriculture countries, have also increased production, thanks to investment, technology, year-round growing seasons, and new planting methods. Four years ago, Brazil overtook the U.S in soybean exports (now the world's largest exporter) and will be the second-largest corn exporter after the U.S. this year.
How did Brazil accomplish it? Brazil embarked on its agricultural expansion forty years ago. The government enticed farmers to develop vast sweeps of unproductive lands in the north (called the Cerrado) where today over 500 million acres are now growing crops for exports.
There are any number of reasons why we are losing market share, but a lot simply has to do with increased worldwide production. For example, if U.S. crop production remains the same, while other countries produce more, then our market share slips. At today's prices for wheat, for example, American farmers are expected to plant 10% fewer acres this winter season because it is less profitable. Other countries will be happy to take up that slack.
And then there is the strength of the greenback. The U.S. dollar has been stronger than both the Russian and Brazilian currencies. Since most crops are priced in dollars, it makes our exports more expensive compared to theirs. Lower energy costs has also helped our competitors because it is now much cheaper for an Eastern European exporter like Ukraine to ship wheat between Europe and the Middle East and still make a profit. It is a similar situation wherever you look.
And don't think that our foreign competitors are still farming with wooden hoe and bags of apple seeds. State of the art satellite-guided combines, genetically-engineered seeds from the top global producers, and computer programs that can dictate the price of harvested crops months in advance are all tools of the trade now.
What could change this balance would be some kind of natural disaster somewhere outside of the U.S. to turn our competitive position around in the short-term. Over the longer term, as costs in competitor countries for labor and land begin to climb, and the worth of the dollar falls back to earth, our comparative advantages should help us regain market share. However, the day when we could call America "the bread basket of the world" appears to be in our rear view mirror.
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The Independent Investor: Should College Be Free?
Recently, New York became the first state to offer a tuition-free college education to middle-class students at two- and four-year public colleges. Tennessee, Oregon and the city of San Francisco have also given similar benefits to students attending community colleges in their states. It's about time.
The headline of this column was taken from a series of articles I first published six years ago. At the time, I argued that the benefits of a college education today were about equivalent to the worth of a high school degree back in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, graduating from high school opened the door to a good job, while creating a population of largely, law-abiding citizens (and guaranteed educated cannon fodder for the country's military in time of war).
Back in the day, when Thomas Jefferson first suggested creating a public school system, he and others like him argued that a free and common education would create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty. It took decades before that concept became law but, once implemented, it worked as the founders expected.
However, as society changed, a high school education was no longer sufficient. The computer age ushered in different educational demands and skill sets that students could only acquire in a higher-education environment. For all intents and purposes, college (and vocational schools) has replaced high school as the entrance ticket to the "American Dream." As such, I reasoned that since public high school education is free in the United States, why then should Americans pay for college?
Under the New York legislation, tuition will be free for residents who earn up to a specific income cap, which will be phased in over the first three years. Families who earn less than $100,000 a year would qualify for free tuition. Over the next two years that income level will rise to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019. The other tuition-free initiatives in Oregon, Tennessee and San Francisco have made tuition free for residents at all community colleges, regardless of income.
New Yorkers are required to take 30 credits a year, although students who encounter hardships can pause and restart the program or take fewer credits per semester. College will still cost money. The cost of fees and room and board, for example, are still the student's responsibility and could cost as much as $14,000 a year.
In announcing the program, its author, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said "Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can't afford it."
State officials estimate the program will cost $163 million in the first year with 200,000 students' eligible for the new program. Now, Rhode Island is considering a similar law that would make two years of public college tuition-free.
Criticism of the program largely centers on the cost. Higher education has gotten so expensive through the years that some form of government assistance already picks up the tab for half of the nation's education costs through a maze of loans, credits and whatnot. It appears that government has recognized that "pricing out" education for a growing portion of the population might not be such a good idea.
Others question the worth of a college education if it is free. What is the incentive to excel, to find a good job afterward if you pay nothing for it? They argue that so many young people today "hide out" in college, majoring in the easiest subjects possible (regardless of job market demand), while partying half the night and every weekend.
They have a point. My suggestion: while tuition may be free, to receive it you must excel in the entrance exams and have maintained good grades in a variety of subjects in high school, if you don't, than pay your own freight. What are your suggestions?
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