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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The Independent Investor: Italy's Crisis Threatens Financial Markets
A political crisis in the fourth largest economy in Europe has spilled over into the financial markets. Global stock exchanges greeted Italy's present political dysfunction by registering major declines — and the crisis may just be getting started.
Back in 2010 through 2012, readers may recall a similar eurozone calamity. Greece was at the center of that maelstrom and, at its worse, threatened the viability of the European Union and its currency, the Euro. This time around, many of the same issues are now bedeviling Italy. The country has the third largest debt load in the world after the U.S. and Japan. It still suffers from double-digit unemployment while their economy continues to stagnate.
At times like this, voters usually look for something to blame. Most Italians have focused on their membership in the EU as the cause for all of their woes. After an inconclusive election several months ago, Italy has been in a no man's land of political inertia. Two opposing parties: a far-right party (The League) and a populist party (the Five Star Movement) share power. They recently proposed a new government to break the deadlock.
The problem was that their candidates presented a threat to those who still wanted to maintain membership in the EU. Their proposed finance minister, for example, was a confirmed foe of both continued membership in the EU and the Euro. He scared the bejesus out of officials throughout the EU.
As a result, Italian President Sergio Mattarella vetoed the appointment and instead appointed a technocrat, whom he hoped would reassure the financial markets and the rest of Europe.
Both opposition parties are furious. It appears that their ire is backed by the voter population. The League has nearly doubled in popularity, while the Five Star Movement is maintaining its 30 percent political base. Comments from several EU establishment members this week have only fueled the fire of outrage among Italians.
Threats of serious financial repercussions if Italians encourage more populism within their government has had the opposite effect. Most politicians are now calling for yet another round of new elections. Financial markets are afraid that the results could be a referendum on whether Italy will remain or exit the EU.
The lessons learned after the Greek Crisis have not been forgotten. Neither Germany nor the rest of the EU want any further cracks in the Eurozone, especially after Brexit. Europe's central bank has a lot of experience defending the Euro in times like this as well.
Italy, as one of the founding members of the union, also knows the consequences of exiting the EU. Given their debt load and sputtering economy, Italy would most assuredly see a run on their banking system, which could spike inflation, riots, demonstrations, deaths and most likely a severe recession and even higher unemployment.
Many political analysts argue that the Italian crisis is a simple extension of a broader global trend. On one side are the populists or "have-nots" that have been left out of a generation of booming international trade. To them, that economic model has simply left the rich richer and the poor poorer.
On the other side are those riding a new wave of nationalism fueled by a wealthy establishment, whose only objective is to keep their place in the sun. These radical right-wingers are promoting an extreme form of an economic model that the opposition believes is not only obsolete but generating even higher levels of inequality and injustice. It is a global contest of two extreme movements. The winner has yet to be announced.
So far, most of the financial damage has been contained to Italy. Both their stock and bond markets experienced hefty losses this week. The financial contagion that occurred during the Greek Crisis five years ago, which spread to the rest of Europe and ultimately the world financial markets, has yet to materialize.
Most financial experts believe that things won't get to that point. Both sides are aware of what is at stake and hopefully will back away from a gunfight at high noon. Although I hold with the consensus view for now, I will be watching events closely in the days and weeks ahead, so keep reading.
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The Independent Investor: It Is No Longer Enough to Simply Manage Money
Back in the day, money managers were revered. News stories spotlighting the year's "hottest hands," or that hedge fund's rising star were all the rage. Retail investors chased performance and paid for it. But times are changing, and simply beating the market for a year or two fails to impress most investors.
And with good reason.
Most of us are in the investment game for the long haul. We are saving for retirement: a process involving decades of saving and planning. Chasing the firm or adviser that "beat the market" this year has turned out to be a disastrous approach to that concept.
Most of us have now realized that you can't beat the market. Sure, for a certain period of time — days, months, even a few years — you can, if you are lucky. Over time, however, your performance will revert to the mean, which in this case is the average returns of the market overall. So, paying a money manager a high fee year after year to provide outsized performance is a fool's game.
On occasion, I meet some prospective clients, who still believe that's possible. They have run from adviser to adviser with great hopes followed by disappointment, and then bitterness and blame. As a fiduciary, I am required to tell them the truth. For those who don't believe it, I quickly show them the door.
Given the facts of financial life, why, therefore, should you pay a money manager yearly fees simply to give you what the market gives you? Why not save your money and buy an index fund and be done with it?
I think that is a rational approach for some of us, at least those who can weather the ups and downs of the markets without getting emotional (selling low and buying high). If you have the discipline to stick to a plan for many years without swerving, changing, or being influenced by outside events than you can manage your money as well as any manager. The problem is that few of us can do that. The rest of us need a coach and that's what you are paying for, but even that is no longer enough.
But how much is that worth? If, over the next decade or two, investment advisers continue to charge large fees for simply providing market returns and "coaching," I believe there will be far fewer of us around. The advent of artificial intelligence portfolios at substantially reduced fees is simply the first shot over the bow for an industry that hasn't changed in the 40 years I have been in it.
In my opinion, investment advisers are at a critical juncture. While they beat their chest for providing an extra percentage point or two for their clients, they ignore an entire array of financial challenges that could prove fatal to their clients. I have been writing columns on many of these issues for years.
The rising cost of health-care poses a greater challenge going forward than any down draft in the stock market. Protecting your assets and passing them along to your children is equally (if not more important) than identifying the next internet darling in the stock market.
When and who should take their social security benefits, or having enough money to put your kids through college are concerns that are just as important as what the market did this year. Elder care planning, financial planning and advice on veteran's benefits are some additional areas where more and more of us are going to need high-caliber expertise.
As market performance becomes the norm, and more and more investors focus on what really matters — a holistic approach to managing their wealth and welfare — who among the nation's advisers can offer all of these services? Outside of our firm, I can't think of any. And this is not an advertisement; it is a call to action for an industry that is stuck in their ways that they need to change or perish.
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The Independent Investor: Are Americans Saving Enough for Retirement?
If you simply read the headlines, you would assume that over half of Americans aged 55 and over, have no savings as they approach retirement. That's a dramatic statement, but is it true?
Most statisticians derive that data by adding up those who have an IRA or similar tax-deferred savings account such as a 401(k). The latest data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank's Survey of Consumer Finance indicated that 53 percent of households, age 55 to 64, had some savings in those tax-deferred accounts. So, yes, by that standard, almost half of all Americans fail the savings test.
But what about all the people who work for the government? There are 22 million workers toiling away within the ranks of federal, state and local government, and all of them have traditional defined benefit pensions.
That's 14 percent of the labor force! Those pensions have amassed
anywhere from hundred thousand (maybe less) to $1 million or more.
While corporate pension funds have been seen a multi-decade decline among workers, there are around 13 percent of private sector workers who are participating in defined benefit pension plans. In fact, roughly 40 percent of all workers between 55 and 64 years of age are expected to receive a traditional pension benefit in retirement.
When you add all those segments together, the outcome is entirely different. Almost 75 percent of workers in the U.S. either have a tax deferred savings account or a pension account. That still leaves a goodly portion of Americans coming up short. However, all is not as bleak as it looks for those people.
Let's talk about the low-wage earners making around $10,000 per year over their lifetime. When they retire, they will receive Social Security benefits. Those benefits could equal as much as 84 percent of their yearly salary. Almost 19 percent of Americans fit within that category, according to the Social Security Administration,
Can some one in retirement live on $10,000 a year? Not likely. Remember that Social Security was never intended to be a retirement account. It was simply unemployment insurance that could help a worker feed his family until he found a new job during the Great Depression. Today, given that we now have unemployment insurance in addition to Social Security, the population has come to think of it as a retirement benefit.
As you can see, most Americans have and are saving for their retirement. That's not the question. How much you are saving is the critical variable in this equation. How much should I save, you might ask, to see me through my golden years? My answer is, whatever you might think, most of us are not saving enough.
The way to begin answering this question accurately is to find out how much you and your family are spending per year. For every household who can answer that, I see at least 20 families who have no idea what their yearly expenses are. It should be obvious that without knowing your expenses, there is no way you can know how much you might need once you retire.
My advice is to find out now, while you are young or at least middle-aged, and set up an appointment with a Certified Financial Planner. Few people have the ability and financial education to create a lifetime play of savings all alone. Make sure that the CFP is a fiduciary and spend the money.
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The Independent Investor: What's Up With Oil?
Two years ago, the experts were telling us that the price of oil would continue to fall. Twelve-dollar oil was a real possibility. The end of OPEC was nigh as well as their ability to influence geopolitics. It appears those predictions were premature.
The price of oil has more than doubled over that time, from roughly $30 a barrel in the spring of 2016 to over $71 a barrel today for West Texas Intermediate crude. Those same experts now expect the price could gain further, but there is no agreement on how much higher it can go.
The "swing" factor in that equation is firmly in the hands of American shale producers. They are the culprit of the past three-year decline in oil prices and will likely be the key determinant of future prices in the short-term.
In November, U.S. crude production exceeded 10 million barrels a day. We haven't seen that since I came home from Vietnam back in 1970. There is a real possibility that America could become the world's largest oil producer by the end of this year. That would put us ahead of both Saudi Arabia and Russia. What a change that has been since the days of the OPEC-instigated oil embargos, long lines at U.S. gas stations, and rationing!
The impetus for this astounding change in our fortunes has been the developing technology, which was largely government-funded, that has allowed U.S. entrepreneurs to explore and develop enormous oil and natural gas-rich shale deposits throughout the country. But that's only the beginning of this saga.
These producers, unlike traditional oil companies, can turn their energy spigot off and on at the drop of a hat. Typically, the oil majors such as Exxon or Saudi Arabia's Aramco, require five to 10 years to develop conventional oil reserves. Once in place the oil flows and it is difficult to change course quickly, whereas these unconventional players have developed their drilling and fracturing techniques to the point that they can respond to price changes within a few months.
At the same time, these modern-day wildcatters have cut their cost of production dramatically. They now represent half of all U.S. production and are increasingly profitable. For the first time, many of them will be able to fund future drilling and exploration through their own cash flow. The Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico is the favorite target of future expansion.
However, that is not the whole story. It appears that even with a dramatic increase in shale oil production, the demand for oil in the short-term will outstrip supply. The world's economies have been growing and organizations such as the IMF are forecasting further growth in the years to come.
Oil and its derivatives, you see, are still needed to fuel this growth, despite advances in alternative energy. Every year, roughly four million barrels are consumed by the world's furnaces and engines. Oil analysts expect an additional one million barrels per annum will be necessary to satisfy future world demand.
That means energy producers will need to replace about 40 percent of this year's oil production over the next decade or so. The most logical and cost-effective approach to this challenge would be to exploit global reserves of shale oil. These deposits are abundant in just about every corner of the world. The problem will be in extracting it. Other countries are far behind our own energy producers. They will need to develop their shale ecosystem and supply chains from scratch.
Since most of these nations are either traditional oil producers/exporters or importers of oil, they will need to spend billions of dollars in new investments to gather, treat, transport and store these new shale oil deposits. As for their existing oil fields, oil majors will require a great deal of time and effort, as well as investment in new technologies, to compete with low-cost shale producers.
While longer-term demand for oil will likely remain robust, in the short-term, we can expect to see continued price volatility in the markets. That's because shale producers will be quick to jump-start new production as prices spike higher, and turn off the spigot when prices fall. It is no longer an OPEC-controlled market where Middle Eastern dictators and kings set prices and the world adjusts. Today's wild and wooly free market will require a strong stomach and an even stronger capacity to absorb sudden and sharp changes in price.
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