The Independent Investor: The Next Recession
Over half the economists on Wall Street believe that by the end of 2020, we will experience our first economic downturn in years. If so, when might you begin to prepare for a rocky two-year period for all of us?
The good news is that we still have another year or so of stock market gains, job growth and more importantly, wage growth. As it stands, the U.S. is currently enjoying its second-longest economic expansion in history with an unemployment rate that hasn't been this low in decades. Wage growth, after languishing for years, is expected to top 3 percent by the end of 2018, while GDP could achieve greater than 3 percent this year and a further 2.5 percent next year.
So how does an economy go from blue skies to dark clouds in so short a time? This economic expansion is now entering its final stage, according to economists. As the good times grow, investors and consumers tend to overborrow and overspend. That's human nature, but it almost always leads to inflation rising, which touches off a rise in interest rates that ultimately slows the economy.
By that time, consumers are back in debt and paying more interest on that debt, while corporations are stuck with an overabundance of goods produced that no one wants. So, everyone pulls back, causing the economy to slow, and the rest is history.
Normally, a recession will span a year or two before the economy recalibrates. In the meantime, the stock market falls anywhere from 15-30 percent and the mood is somber. I have seen it repeatedly in my career. And yet, for some reasons, investors always act as if this is some new startling new development.
The timing of a recession can always be called into question. Any number of things could prove to be a tipping point in ushering in a recession sooner than expected. In 1991, skyrocketing oil prices proved the culprit. In 2001, the dot-com bubble caused a year or two of declines, in 2007, it was a housing bubble. This time around there are several "what ifs" that could hasten our demise.
Right now, a global trade war, instigated by Donald Trump, could tip the economy (both here and abroad) into recession. Trump's latest threat: levying tariffs on almost $200 billion in Chinese imports, would certainly elicit a like response from the Chinese. Tariffs on goods of that proportion would drive both economies into recession.
A crisis in Europe could also hit us hard. Italy is none too stable right now. Populists forces might set in motion their exit from the European Community. That would cause a great deal of instability among European nations, the Euro, and their economies. That, too, could tip our country, as well as their own, into recession.
Oil prices might prove to be our downfall once again if geopolitical events among countries in the Middle East (Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia) come to blows. An escalating conflict there would surely send oil prices back over $100/barrel with negative consequences for the U.S., as well as other global economies.
Finally, U.S. interest rates could move higher in direct response to our president's actions towards our global allies and enemies. In the last two months, foreigners have reduced their U.S. Treasury holdings by about $10 billion. Russia has reduced their holdings by half. That is a relatively small amount, but as more and more governments realize that "Making America Great Again" will be at their expense, why should they hold our bonds?
China, for example, in response to Trump's tariff threats, could respond by dumping our treasury bonds. That would cause interest rates here at home to spike higher. That would cause even more panic among foreign holders, who would be happy to sell more of our bonds. I could see a nasty chain reaction, a sort of dot. com-like bond sell-off, which could spread throughout the economy and the stock market.
Barring any of these worries, however, we still have some clear sailing ahead for our economy. The stock market usually begins to discount a recession 6-9 month ahead of time, so it won't be for a year or more before we need to prepare for the inevitable, which would be just in time for the next election.
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@theMarket: Trump's $50 Billion in Chinese Tariffs Trashes Markets
Investors waited all week for President Trump's verdict. On Friday, he did not disappoint his followers. He decided to move ahead with plans to slap $34 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports. Stock markets worldwide fell on the news as investors await a Chinese response.
And China will respond. Chinese trade officials have already outlined their planned retaliation. China will match Trump's 25 percent tariff on 818 products by doing the same on 106 American goods worth about $50 billion.
We can expect an accelerating war of tit-for-tat tariffs in the weeks ahead. For example, the United States Trade Representative plans to add an additional 284 Chinese imports to their list (amounting to another $16 billion) by July 6. You can bet China will respond in kind.
Some on Wall Street still hold out hope that these tariff threats could still be averted. Although these tariffs could be implemented as early as next week, they could also be delayed if negotiations between the two nations continue. The White House could conceivably wait a minimum of 30 days or as much as 180 days if they chose to do so.
There are several other issues that can come into play on the trade front. European nations this week released a list of counter tariffs they plan to implement in response to Trump's 25 percent tariffs on their steel and aluminum exports. In addition, both Mexico and Canada have already released tariffs on U.S. imports of their own. We could see a virtual avalanche of global tariffs that could bury investors up to their necks.
While many businessmen and corporations are horrified at the administration's actions, others think it is the best thing that could have possibly happened. Clearly, the weight of historical evidence indicates that everyone loses in a trade war. If opposing forces respond in kind to another nation's tariff increases (as they are now), the result would logically be a reduction in global trade, which, if it continued, could result in a second Great Depression.
Yet, after decades of getting the short end of the stick in trade deals, as the president claims, how else do we, as a nation, change the status quo? Are there other, less dramatic, methods of accomplishing our national objectives? Of course there are, but those methods would require months, if not years, of negotiations by trade experts. However, that is not the hand we have been dealt.
None of the administration's top men have that kind of expertise. Nor would it matter if they did, because Donald Trump does not have the patience, disposition, or knowledge to pull that off. No, in Trump's case, it will always be "his way or the highway." Get used to it.
As for the markets, it is interesting to note that the stock markets are no longer declining as they did in February and March at every tweet on trade. It appears market participants, while still responding to short-term headlines, are keeping their eyes on the longer-term prospects of a stronger economy and better earnings. While we remain in a trading range, this one seems to have an upward tilt. Higher highs and higher lows continue to support stocks.
In the coming weeks, we could see even more volatility as nations rattle their sabers on trade, but depending on where you live or where you work, not all is gloom and doom on this front. If you are a soybean farmer, a worker that depends on low-cost steel and aluminum to keep his job, or possibly an auto worker (if tariffs on autos is next on Trump's tariff list), then tough times could be just ahead for you and your family.
But a banker in North Carolina, a small business owner in energy-rich Texas, or a tax-conscious, elderly millionaire that wants to make as much as he can before passing on his wealth to his beneficiaries are more likely to approve of Trump's tariff strategy.
In a polarized country where "getting and keeping your own" supersedes the common good, a trade war that hurts others can be easily rationalized away. As long as it remains "the other guy's problem," and not yours, what's not to like? Commerce Secretary and billionaire Wilbur Ross warned that Americans would feel some pain in the months ahead because of trade issues. We will, but you can bet that Wilbur sure won't be feeling it.
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The Independent Investor: How to Avoid Recession? Emigrate to Australia
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
— "New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus (Statue of Liberty)
This "land down under" has escaped an economic recession for 26 years in a row. An open immigration policy in a nationalist world that demands just the opposite is one of the key drivers to their success. An abundance of natural resource wealth has also helped.
Readers would need to go back to the late 1980s, early 1990s, to find two quarters of negative growth (the definition of an economic recession) in Australia. Back then, Australia was noted for its boom and bust economy. Throughout their 160-plus year history, mining booms in gold, gas, sheep and other commodities left investors rich and confident for a couple of years, only to be followed by devastating shocks to the economy as commodity demand declined, throwing workers on the streets and companies into bankruptcy.
This writer has a special fondness for Australia. Early in my career, I spent years investing in Western Australia's iron ore and Queensland's coal. Following in my footsteps, my daughter also spent a couple of years in Australia as an exchange student. Back then, the government tightly controlled the exchange rate. Today, the central bank is free to set interest rates without political interference and the exchange rate is no longer fixed.
Investments in industries outside of the mining areas were also encouraged. Aided by the government, businesses were encouraged to seek out new, non-mining investments, thereby reducing Australia's dependence on commodity exports. Since most of the mining is done in the outback, where population and infrastructure are scarce, it made sense to focus investment on those areas where most of the population lives. That bet has paid off. Today, natural resources represent only 7 percent of the economy.
At the same time that government spending picked up, Australia's immigration policies were reversed. From 1901 to the 1970s, Australia was known for its "White Australia" policies where the country only allowed immigrants of European descent to permanently set foot on its shores. Since then, Australia liberalized its immigration policies. On the back of that decision, the population has grown by 50 percent.
Australia has also created a "points" system for assessing potential migrants. Skilled workers, ranked by the country's needs, count especially high. Immigrants must also pass health and character tests, and before becoming citizens, must pass an English-language quiz on the nation's constitution, history and values. The largest source of skilled labor is coming from India (21 percent), China (15 percent), and the U.K. (9 percent).
The country, which boasts a population of 25 million, welcomed 184,000 new arrivals last year. A government-commissioned study indicates another 11.8 million immigrants are expected to make Australia their home over the next three decades. Most of the new entrants are
expected to settle in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Economists credit this continued migration with creating long-term demand, higher consumption, lower unemployment, and continued economic growth.
The facts are that if a country has strong population growth, it is harder to go backward in economic output. Their economy will most likely grow at around a 3 percent rate this year, which is higher than their long-term average rate of around 2.5 percent. The labor force participation rate is at a seven-year high, while overall unemployment is around 5.5 percent.
While global nationalism's favorite whipping boy is immigration, just over half of the population in Australia thinks the total number of immigrants is either "about right" or "too low." While four in 10 believe the number is too high.
I am sure Australia's example will rub some readers the wrong way. So many of us mistake this new-found nationalism for patriotism. That is a fallacy. Throughout history, it has always been easier to blame a foreigner for a nation's woes (Jews in pre-war Germany, the Ottoman Empire's genocide of Armenians, the Tutsis in Rwanda), rather than face the real reasons.
My suggestion is that we sell the Statue of Liberty to the Aussies and use the proceeds to build that wall on our southern borders. Why not, since it appears we have very little use for the Statue of Liberty, or what it stands for, in today's America.
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The Independent Investor: Trump's trade war
Over the weekend, the G-7 group of nations met to denounce the recent actions of the United States. This coming Friday, these same leaders convene in Quebec. President Trump will attend and seems determined to face them down.
Ever since the Trump administration announced plans to raise tariffs on imported steel and aluminum by 25 percent and 10 percent respectively, our allies have been livid. Some are referring to the upcoming meeting as the G-6, plus the United States. You've got to hand it to the president, he doesn't back off, but given the circumstances, maybe he should.
I doubt that anyone in this country believes the present trade agreements we have signed throughout the years are even remotely fair. They should be renegotiated, but there are different ways of going about it. Unfortunately, Trump used a rather "trumped-up" excuse for his actions by claiming "national security" as justification for the tariffs. Given that the tariffs will be levied principally against America's strongest allies, is it any wonder that the G-7's response was what it was?
They rightfully believe that the Trump Administration's blatant attempt to circumvent the World Trade Organization (WTO) is illegal. As an example, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, responded to the claim by saying that "Canadians have served alongside Americans in two world wars and in Korea. From the beaches of Normandy to the mountains of Afghanistan, we have fought and died together."
"Canada," the president claims, "has treated our agricultural business and farmers very poorly for a very long period of time." How that squares with national security is anyone's guess.
My point is why confuse the issues? This is not about national security; it is about unfair trade practices. If Trump were to stick to the facts, our trading partners would need to re-examine their own policies. And what we can do in the name of national security, other nations can do as well. The irony is that the World Trade Organization was originally set up after WWII at the prodding of the U.S. to handle just these issues.
Back in 1930, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed despite stiff congressional opposition. The law is widely believed to have exacerbated the severity of The Great Depression. The act was intended to save the nation's factories by raising tariffs on imports to record levels. Instead, other nations responded in kind. A global trade war developed, which ultimately led to a shooting war. And the rest is history.
No one of rational mind wants to see that history repeated. It may be that the president's administration lacks the knowledge and expertise required to navigate the established WTO channels. Few, if any, of his men have any experience in negotiating far-reaching trade deals.
It could be that Trump lacks the patience to wait for these deals, some of which could take years to hammer out. After all, most of the world's truly successful trade agreements required years of negotiations. Or maybe he thinks he needs a "win" in time to influence the mid-term elections.
By circumventing the WTO, Trump raises the risk that a trade war could develop. President Trump has started with steel and aluminum but has now expanded his list of potential tariffs to food, lumber, automobiles, technology, and whatever else he can fit into his tweets. But tweets are not diplomacy, nor are they trade negotiations. Both need to be developed if we are truly serious about getting better trade deals.
Trump is preaching to the choir when he demands a fairer share of the trade pie, but where's the beef? Where are the specific plans to right those wrongs? They are noticeably absent. Bluster and bravado has worked for Trump thus far. Let's cross our fingers that his unorthodox tactics can carry the day.
Wilbur Ross, his commerce secretary, just returned from China empty-handed. The Chinese were ready to negotiate with specific ideas. They floated an offer to purchase a massive amount of U.S. goods worth $70 million next year if Trump backed off his tariff threats on Chinese imports.
Evidently, the offer was not good enough, but there were no counter offers. Donald Trump has been complaining about the unfair trading practices of our friends and foes for decades. He campaigned on these issues and won. The problem is now that he is in charge, he needs to not only point out the problems but come up with the solutions. You can't negotiate with tweets.
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@theMarket: Another Week of Market Volatility
As the month wound down, so did stocks. Pronouncements from Washington dominated the market's direction on a daily basis. We can expect to see that trend continue as the summer doldrums reduce liquidity and exaggerate market swings.
The adage of "sell in May," however, did not fulfill the bears' expectations this year.
Actually, the month of May has been pretty good for stocks recently. The S&P 500 Benchmark Index gained a smidge over two percent for the month this year. That's not to say those gains were easy. The stress level for those who are trying to trade this market is through the roof.
And that's because two opposing trends are impacting the financial markets. The first is short-term volatility caused by political events. At the moment, these are mostly trade-related: tariffs and counter-tariffs, NAFTA concerns, and China trade. All of the above have generated a war of words (or tweets) and, depending on someone's mood in the morning, can spark 1-2 percent movements in the index in either direction. The falsehoods, about-turns, and misinformation have day traders going crazy.
And don't forget the international events. This week, Italy dominated trade, as a political/financial crisis may be brewing in Europe's fourth-largest economy. A new prime minister, Guiseppe Conte, was appointed Friday as an uneasy coalition of populists and right-wingers agreed to compromise in the wake of a severe financial downturn in Italian financial markets this week.
We will wait for future developments (see my column published yesterday on the subject) before giving the green light to Italy and Europe. At the same time, the Trump/Kim show continues. The off again, on-again charade is accomplishing what both egomaniacs want most: more time in the limelight.
Then there is the longer-term trend, which centers on real fundamentals: unemployment, inflation, interest rates, global growth and the like. All of these indicators are still flashing positive for the stock market. As readers know, I have been urging investors to focus on that trend and ignore the noise caused by all the short-term, headline-grabbing events.
Take today's much-heralded employment report. The U.S. unemployment rate has just hit an 18-month low at 3.8 percent. We haven't had a lower rate since the year 2000. Wage growth came in at 2.7 percent compared to a year ago. That is a stellar performance, no two ways about it.
This report, however, was marred by controversy. Prior to its release, Donald Trump tweeted a "heads-up" that he was "looking forward to seeing the employment numbers at 8:30 this morning" — obviously a tip that the numbers would be good. Federal rules (as Trump knows but ignored) state that no one in the executive branch can comment on major economic reports until an hour after they are released. Since few individuals (but almost all institutions) trade in the hours before and after the markets open, Trump's comments enabled bond, currency, and stock market futures traders at big institutions to profit from this information.
At the end of the day, what matters is the economic trends, and right now the trends are your friends. Until the data say otherwise, investors should remain invested, ignore the short-term volatility traps and enjoy the summer.
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