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.
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.
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.
The Independent Investor: Paid Family & Medical Leave Overdue
Paid family and medical leave are long-overdue in this country
What do the United States, Papua New Guinea and Oman have in common? Those are the only three countries in the world that do not legally obligate employers or taxpayers to pay for maternity leave.
Many American businesspeople will hide behind a knee-jerk response to the above statement: "We are a free-market society," they will argue, "and paid leave is paramount to just another form of socialism."
Good try, but that old argument is no longer based in facts. Free markets have given way to corporate socialism in this country, while corporations are now legally considered to have the same rights as individuals.
As such, individuals have a moral responsibility to protect and care for future generations. They have an obligation to society. Giving paid leave to American workers, not only to deliver and care for their young, but also to provide income during serious medical conditions, cannot be left to the whims (and greed) of our corporate community. As it stands, after decades of waiting, a mere 15 percent of companies have voluntarily instituted paid leave to their workers, according to a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistic report.
The fact that for the last several years, corporations have banked stupendous profits and now carry more cash on the books than ever before just makes their failure all the more apparent, if not disgusting. To be fair, there are some companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Netflix, American Express, Citigroup and, of course, Berkshire Money Management that do pay for parental and medical leave.
Take my own case as an example. As many readers are aware, I have had some serious medical problems over the course of the last few years. Two knee replacements kept me out of work for about five months. And then there was that bout with prostate cancer in 2017. Not only did the company pay me while I was out, but management sat in the waiting room with my wife throughout my surgeries.
Can you guess how I felt when I returned to work? I have spent the last two years working like a maniac to not only make up for that time loss, but also to show my gratitude for all the company has done for me. And I'm not the only one.
Our compliance officer, Jayne, within her first year of employment at BMM, had her second child, Marigold. Once again, BMM not only paid for 13 weeks of maternity leave, but went the extra mile when Marigold refused to take the bottle. We hired a nanny to baby-sit in the office for weeks and weeks so Jayne could come to work with her child until she was over that hurdle.
"Both my morale and productivity took a great leap forward as a result," Jayne said. "Knowing that both I and my child were so well-supported reduced my worry dramatically and allowed me to work that much harder here."
As of today, only six states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia have passed paid family-leave programs. Massachusetts, which passed their legislation last year has delayed implementation of their program until October 2019.
Their law provides workers with 12 weeks of family leave and 20 weeks of personal medical leave. Workers on paid leave will earn 80 percent of their wages, up to 50 percent of the state's average weekly wage, and then 50 percent of wages above that amount.
The employer pays at least 60 percent of the medical leave contribution required for each employee, but none of the family leave contributions. The worker picks up the rest via a fund which will tax an employee's earnings.
Although the Federal government does have a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed in 1993, it only protects the worker from being fired or excluded from a company's group health insurance coverage and then only for a certain time period.
The entire charade of hiding behind some mythical form of capitalism to justify this failure by our nation is inexcusable. Eighty-two percent of participants in a Pew Research Center poll believed new mothers should have paid time off while 69 percent said the benefit should apply to fathers as well.
Of course, simply because the majority of Americans want, even demand, something from their government is no guarantee that Congress or the president will listen. It's campaign season, so let's make this an issue for the candidates.
The Independent Investor: Home Equity Can Pay for Long-Term Care
A home equity conversion mortgage (HECM) might simply be a fancy term for a reverse mortgage, but there are an increasing number of advisers and planners who are using them for an entirely different strategic planning purpose.
If you ask most couples in their 60s and beyond what is one of the greatest fears for their future, I'm betting that going bankrupt and/or losing their home and life savings as a result of nursing home bills would be right up there near the top.
We all have horror stories to tell of how one or both spouses needed to go into a nursing home and the costs drained all their assets and then some. Before they could apply for Medicaid, they had to go through everything they own — their home, their retirement and savings accounts — all gone. Only then could they qualify for government assistance, which usually means and ending up on a Medicaid waiting list for a remote, tiny room in a facility for the remainder of their lives.
That, my dear reader, is not the kind of "living the dream" Americans have in mind when they think of their future retirement years. Now, of course, the knee-jerk answer to this ever-present nightmare is long-term care insurance Any financial planner worth their salt will tell the average consumer to buy insurance, but there is lots of downside in following that avenue.
Let's take a 65-year-old couple shopping around for this insurance. For the husband, it will probably cost him double what it will cost his wife: A premium of $4,543.76, while the wife pays $2,825.97. That comes to $7,369.73 per year for the couple. And that is only if their health qualifies them for insurance in the first place. These are not fictitious numbers, but taken from a recent Cross Insurance estimate for these 65-year-old sample customers.
In exchange, you get three years of coverage, with a $5,000 monthly benefit (up to $180,000 total) in home care benefits. You will then have to re-new the policy every three years (most likely at higher premiums), regardless of whether or not you used the coverage. For a retired couple watching their finances, living off Social Security and, hopefully, some retirement savings, that's a fairly high expense. In addition, there are many facilities that charge far more than $5,000 a month for the care they give.
However, over the past few years, a number of financial planners have discovered a way to tap into a retiree's home equity in the event that the worst happens and one or the other of you needs outside care. In its simplest form, a couple (of which at least one must be 62 years of age or older), can take out a HECM, or what amounts to a reverse mortgage. But instead of receiving a standard monthly payment, you elect not to take these distributions until the day you need the money to pay for outside nursing care.
Let's take an example where you own your own home, debt-free, worth $500,000. The mortgage company does an appraisal and determines they will loan you half of the amount in an HECM. Like any mortgage, you will be charged fees (origination fees, third party fees, etc.) which comes to about $17,000 or about 7-8 percent of the loan. Like any mortgage, you are still responsible for paying the taxes on the home while continuing to maintain the dwelling, etc.
Those payments you would normally receive from a traditional reverse mortgage are, instead, accumulated in your account at the mortgage company year after year. Think of them as a credit line, which grows and grows. Every year they accumulate, you are paid a half percentage point per annum above the yearly London Inter-Bank Offered Rate (LIBOR interest rate). Currently, LIBOR is trading at about 4.5 percent, plus the half point that you receive above that equates to about 5 percent. These payments to your account accumulate at this risk-free rate until you use them.
Better still, the underlying worth of your house can go up or down but has no impact on your future payments. The primary risk you take is that LIBOR fluctuates, causing the payments you receive to rise or fall over time.
The payments keep working for you until such a time you need them. At some point, the inevitable may occur. One or both spouses needs some form of assisted living. In that case, you simply direct the mortgage company to begin paying monthly sums. If you want, you could request the reverse mortgage payments correspond with the monthly expense of the nursing home. Best of all, these payments are tax-free.
As long as one spouse remains in the home, the house is still yours until the spouse dies or has not lived in the property for the last 12 months. At that point, the house reverts to the mortgage company. If, in the meantime, you still have equity in your home, your beneficiaries receive the remaining proceeds.
But what if you never need to go into a nursing home? Conceivably, the credit line you have accumulated can grow until it exceeds the value of your home. If so, you simply call the company and ask them to cut a check for part or all of your credit line. The point is that the HECM is your long-term care insurance, but it pays you rather than the reverse. Your spouse keeps the house, the Social Security payments, the retirement savings, etc. just like before.
In my next column, we will examine other uses of a HECM and dig into the details of the long-term care concept. Stay tuned.