Sargen: How Tariffs and China’s Slowdown Impact US Companies

As U.S. companies report fourth quarter earnings, a growing number have cited China’s slowdown as adversely impacting their businesses.  The most recent include industry bellwethers such as Apple, Caterpillar, and Nvidia.  In prior reports, multinationals such as Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Ford, GE, Harley-Davidson, and Whirlpool stated their earnings were being hit by higher tariffs on imports from China.

This list, moreover, is likely to grow if China slows further and/or tariffs on Chinese imports are increased.  However, this begs two questions: (i) Why is China’s economy softening; and (ii) Will the government be able to stabilize growth as it did in 2016?

One of the challenges investors confront is to assess whether China’s slowdown is primarily cyclical or secular.  Its growth rate has slowed steadily throughout this this decade, from about 10% in 2010 to 6.6% last year, the lowest in three decades.  In dissecting the recent slowdown, investors need to disentangle the effect of higher tariffs on Chinese imports from the impact of structural changes inside China.

There is general agreement that last year’s slowdown coincided with tariffs being imposed on 10% of Chinese goods imported to the U.S. during the first half of 2018.  The economy weakened further in the second half, when the list was extended to cover one half of imports from China.  Accordingly, investors believe a resolution of the trade dispute is critical to stabilize China’s economy.

Beyond this, China’s potential growth rate is decelerating for structural reasons. The country’s economic miracle was founded on agricultural workers in rural areas migrating to urban areas along the coast with higher-productivity manufacturing jobs.  But this process has become more challenging as wages in manufacturing have increased and unit labor costs have surged. Consequently, some economists believe China confronts a “middle income trap.”

Amid declining productivity growth, China’s government has relied increasingly on fiscal stimulus and credit expansion to achieve its growth target of 6.0%-6.5%.  But this has also resulted in a doubling of China’s overall debt burden from about 150% of GDP before the GFC in 2008 to 300% currently.  The problem with this strategy is it is not viable, as more and more credit is required to support each unit of output.  The reason: Much of the credit expansion has gone to SOEs, some of which the IMF labels as “zombies” – or firms that pile on debt but do not contribute positive value added.

Faced with this predicament, China’s policymakers pursued several measures last year to bolster the economy.  They included lowering short term interest rates by more than 200 basis points, allowing the yuan/dollar exchange rate to decline by 10%, while also expanding credit and lowering tax rates.  Similar actions were undertaken during China’s slowdown in 2015-2016, which proved effective in bolstering the economy.

Thus far, however, their impact is not readily apparent.  Auto sales, for example, declined in November by nearly 14% over a year ago, and Apple’s recent public filing indicated softness in consumer spending on electronics.  China’s imports plummeted in December, and exports also appear headed for a fall based on recent purchasing manager surveys and weakness in Asia and Europe.

What is clear is China’s policymakers are prepared to take additional actions to keep economic growth above the 6% threshold.  The central bank, for example, announced a one percent reduction in reserve requirements, and the government is boosting spending and lowering taxes. What is unclear is whether such action will be as effective as in the past due to the country’s rising debt burden.

The wildcard is whether an agreement on trade can be reached by the March 1 deadline.  While both sides wish to do so, the underlying issues are complex.  If the disagreement were simply about the size of the bilateral trade imbalance, the issue would be resolved, as China is willing to boost imports from the US and could direct SOEs to do so. However, the more difficult issues relate to violations of intellectual property and subsidization of businesses by the Chinese government, which the US opposes.

The most likely outcome is a temporary truce will be reached, which would bolster world equities for a while.  However, because a lasting agreement is harder to achieve, officials may in effect opt to “kick the can down the road.”

The outcome will have an important bearing on global economies.  While the US economy has withstood the impact of China’s slowdown thus far, a growing number of US companies are feeling the impact as noted previously. Furthermore, there has been a significant downward revision to earnings expectations by Wall Street analysts over the past six months. They are now calling for S&P 500 EPS growth of 8.1% in 2019 from more than 20% last year.  Yet, some observers believe the results will be weaker.

Ultimately, the market’s outcome will depend on whether China’s slowdown can be arrested by policy action.  If so, equity markets are likely to rally.  If not, they are likely to stay volatile, as the impact of a permanent slowdown has not been priced into markets.

CFIUS and Silicon Valley: We’re Still Trying to Find a Cure!

CFS senior advisor Charlie Schott writes on new twists to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).  While in government, Charlie’s group oversaw the Treasury-chaired inter-agency Committee.

CFIUS is the place where the United State’s commitment to an Open Investment Policy meets our most important national security concerns.

Early last August Congress passed the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA), making significant changes to CFIUS.  The following article covers (1) what changes have been made by the new law and (2) what to expect with CFIUS going forward.

Who should be interested in these changes?  The short answer is Silicon Valley and financial market participants!

For the paper
http://centerforfinancialstability.org/research/CFS_Schott_1_10_19.pdf

CFS Financial Crisis Timeline

As the 10-year anniversary of the global financial crisis approaches, assessment of key events before, during, and since is essential for understanding varying dimensions of the crisis.

The CFS Financial Timeline, created and managed by senior fellow Yubo Wang, seamlessly links financial markets, financial institutions, and public policies. It:

  • Covers more than 1,100 international events from early 2007 to the present.
  • Provides an actively maintained, free, and easy-to-use resource to help track developments in markets, the financial system, and forces that impact financial stability.
  • Curates essential inputs on a real time basis from established public sources.

Since 2010, the Timeline has become an integral part of the work done by scholars, students, government officials, and market analysts. View the Timeline.

We hope you find it of use and interest.

UK-US Financial Regulation: The Benefits of Greater Coherence

“UK-US Financial Regulation: The Benefits of Greater Coherence” illustrates the importance of “regulatory coherence” across borders.

Authors Ike Brannon, Bob Jennings, and Julie Chon delve into the longstanding and seminal UK and US relationship from a financial regulatory perspective.  They examine pathways to deepen and formalize cooperation with the aim to strengthen the international financial system.

As always, comments, critique, complement, or alternative thoughts are eagerly sought.

View the paper.
http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/research/US_UK_Regulatory_Coherence.pdf

Global Markets into 2018

The Center for Financial Stability (CFS) hosted a small private workshop for leaders in finance to delve into issues that will shape the future of asset values and investment management on December 6.

CFS Special Counselor Jack Malvey set the stage with an essay “Toward the Mid-21 st Century Global Financial System” –
www.CenterforFinancialStability.org/research/MalveyGlobal_Dec_2017.pdf

Workshop topics included:

– Geopolitics and Big Picture Challenges through 2020 – AI, cyber, etc;
– Global Macro, Quantitative Tightening, and Financial Stability;
– Financial Industry Transitions – Active versus Passive Management, etc; and
– Opportunities and Risks (a selection follows).

OPPORTUNITIES

– Buy cash today – the rate of return will be extraordinarily high.
– Central banks will more actively incorporate financial stability into actions and mandates.
– Emerging markets will outperform.
– The Fed desires to move further away from the zero lower bound.
– NPLs in China are overstated / bank earnings mitigate and neutralize risks.
– Global macro investment opportunities via uneven tightening.

RISKS

– I will buy cash – but tomorrow.
– Bitcoin correction.
– Limited attractive equity names based on valuation / similar to Tokyo in 1989.
– Geopolitical tensions will increase with North Korea, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
– Inflation surprise / data may be misread.
– Artificial intelligence channeled for ill.

Best wishes into the Holiday Season and 2018!

From China / Market Implications from Unconventional Monetary Policies…

The Shanghai Development Research Foundation (SDRF) recently hosted a superb dialog on issues stretching from China, the international monetary system, re-thinking the nature of money, among others.  I had the pleasure of presenting on “Market Implications from Unconventional Monetary Policies.”

My remarks centered on:

The need to assess the normalization of monetary policies through the lens of major macro shifts over the last 10 years.

Specifically, three “never befores” need to be resolved.  For instance, “never before” has there been such 1) large scale intervention by central banks and governments; 2) growth in the financial regulatory apparatus and labyrinth of rules governing markets; and 3) distortions across a wide range of financial markets.

Here, CFS monetary and financial data illustrate why goods price inflation has remained subdued and – in contrast – asset price inflation has not.

Evaluation of long-term stock and bond market valuations reveal market distortions.

Speculative positioning has been actively influenced by the patterns of rise and restraint in balance sheet operations in recent years.

Going forward, officials would benefit by seeking balance among these three “never before” forces.

For slides accompanying the presentation:  http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/speeches/ShanghaiDRF_090517.pdf

On a parenthetical note, I left China excited with advances in mobile pay.  It will redefine the nature of money.

Sargen: A Tale of Two Countries: UK and France

Highlights

  • Theresa May’s decision to call an early election as Prime Minister has come back to haunt her:  Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn mounted a credible campaign that denied the Conservative Party a parliamentary majority.  The outcome has added to uncertainty about how the newly-formed British Government will negotiate leaving the European Union (EU).
  • By comparison, the political picture in France continues to improve, as Prime Minister Macron’s newly-formed political party posted a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections.  This outcome has boosted hopes that Macron will press forward with plans to overhaul France’s antiquated labor laws.
  • The contrast between the fortunes of the UK and France is striking.  Britain’s economy was among the most dynamic in Europe one year ago, but its future is now clouded by political dysfunction, whereas Macron’s election has raised hopes that France can transform its economy and stabilize the EU.
  • Amid these developments, we continue to favor continental European equities, but are wary of the UK due to political and economic uncertainty.

UK Elections: Another Surprise Outcome

For the second time in twelve months, the electorate in the UK has defied the pollsters, this time by denying Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservatives a clear parliamentary majority in the British elections.  When May called for an early election two months ago, the initial assessment of pollsters was the outcome would cement the Tory Party’s majority in parliament, thereby strengthening her hand in negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU.

Instead, the opposite happened. The opposition Labor Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch left-winger, mounted a credible campaign that attracted younger voters who had abstained from voting on the referendum to leave the EU.  As a result, May is now scrambling to see if the Conservatives can form a coalition government with a splinter party that represents North Ireland.

Investors are now focused on what the change in political fortunes means for Britain’s exit from the EU.  If May and the Conservatives had won decisively, investors were expecting a so-called “hard exit”, in which the UK would sacrifice free trade arrangements with the EU for increased national sovereignty.  Now that the Conservative’s hand has been weakened, other political parties are insisting on participating in the negotiations with the EU, and the outcome could be a “soft exit,” meaning Britain would seek trade and financial concessions from the EU while surrendering some sovereignty to obtain them.

Beyond this is another looming issue – namely, how will the UK be governed when it is deeply divided as a nation?  According to The Economist, Britain’s main political parties appear polar opposite in many respects:  “Jeremy Corbyn has taken Labour to the loony left, proposing the heaviest tax burden since the Second World War. The Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, promises a hard exit from the EU.  The Liberal Democrats would prefer a soft version, or even reverse it.”[1]  Yet, The Economist goes on to observe that the Tory and Labour leaders, despite differences in style and core beliefs, have one thing in common: “Both Mrs. May and Mr. Corbyn would each in their own way step back from the ideas that made Britain prosper – its free markets, open borders and internationalism.”[2]

Since the Brexit vote one year ago, the UK economy has held up better than many observers expected, as a 13% – 14% depreciation of sterling versus the dollar and euro have helped cushion the blow on exporters.  However, the latest indications are the economy is slowing, as real wages have stagnated and public funding is stretched. As a result, investors are becoming nervous about the country’s future.


France: More Positive Surprises

Meanwhile the political picture in France continues to improve, as President Macron’s newly-formed political party En Marche scored a decisive win in the French parliamentary elections on Sunday.  With Macron’s party gaining a clear majority in parliament, the 39-year old president is in strong position to enact his pro-reform agenda that includes weakening France’s protective labor laws, changing tax laws, and reducing pension benefits for some workers.  Moreover, whereas a year ago France appeared to be swept up in an anti-European, anti-immigrant wave, the nation has now rallied around a centrist and unabashed globalist, who seeks to strengthen the EU.

The key challenge Macron faces is whether he can make headway in reducing France’s high unemployment rate, which stands at 9.6% – the lowest in five years. For decades French politicians have tried to reform France’s antiquated system, which makes it prohibitively expensive to fire employees, only to back away in response to public protests. While only 8% of French workers belong to a union, 98% are covered by national and industry-wide contracts negotiated by unions.[3]  This arrangement is particularly problematic for smaller businesses that cannot negotiate terms on their behalf.

Macron is attempting to rectify the situation by making it easier to fire employees, capping damages in unfair dismissal cases and decentralizing collective bargaining.  At the same time, he plans to expand worker protections by making those who voluntarily quit their jobs eligible for unemployment benefits.  Macron’s goal of transforming France’s labor laws by the end of summer is considered ambiguous, and it remains to be seen how he will stand up to tumultuous strikes and protests.  That said, this appears to be the best chance to reform the system in decades.  Should Macron persevere, France hopefully would see the benefits of declining unemployment, much as Germany did when it enacted its labor reforms during the past decade.  Note: Germany’s unemployment rate currently is 3.9%, well below other EU members.


Investment Implications

Weighing these considerations, we continue to favor European equities, as political risks in EU have diminished while economic performance has improved. (See Time to Consider Europe, May 23, 2017)  That said, we would underweight UK equities on grounds the political situation has deteriorated and there is considerable uncertainty surrounding Britain’s exit from the EU.

Equity Markets:  France (CAC-40) versus UK (FTSE), January 2016 to Present

Source: Bloomberg. Local currency returns.

 


[1] The Economist, June 3rd-9th, 2017, p.13.
[2] Ibid., p.13
[3] See Catherine Rampell, “Macron attempts a feat that Trump wouldn’t dare,” The Washington Post, June 8, 2017.

Sargen: Time to Consider Europe

Highlights

  • Emmanuel Macron’s election as President of France has buoyed European markets, as it is the third election this year in which populist candidates have been defeated.  Moreover, with Angela Merkel’s party scoring key wins in regional elections, her chances of being re-elected in the fall are high.
  • In addition to lessened political risks, investors have been attracted by better-than-expected economic performance in the European Union (EU) this year.  Germany’s economy has been the locomotive, and Macron’s election has raised hopes that France will finally embark on much-needed structural reforms and that a renewed Franco-German partnership will revive the EU, as well.
  • Weighing these considerations, this may be a good time to add exposure to European equity markets: Profit growth has surged recently and political risk has lessened, while the discount on European stocks relative to the U.S. is in line with long-term norms.  The main risks are that Macron may not be able to deliver reforms and a populist leader could become Italy’s next President.

Background: EU Political Risks Lessen, while European Economies Improve

At the start of this year, a key issue relating to Europe was the prospect that elections in several countries – notably, Austria, Holland, France, Germany and Italy – could result in populist victories that would threaten the EU’s viability in the wake of last year’s vote in the UK in favor of Brexit.  France’s election was perceived to be the most important, because Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate, advocated that France should leave the EU and the euro.  While the odds of this happening were low, investor concerns heightened leading up to the first round elections, when there was a possibility Le Pen and far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could be the two finalists.  In the event, Emmanuel Macron, a centrist politician who campaigned as a reformer, emerged as the front runner and went on to defeat Le Pen handily in the run-off.

In the wake of these developments, European equity markets rallied at one point by 5%, led by an 8% advance for the CAC.  The rally not only reflects investor relief that France will remain a core member of the EU, but also that the tide of populism on the continent has been contained:  The French election is the third in a row in which populist candidates were defeated, and recent state elections in Germany indicate that Angela Merkel’s prospects for being re-elected Chancellor appear very good.

At the same time, the EU has experienced better-than-expected economic performance, led by Germany: The 2.5% annualized rise in German GDP in the first quarter was the biggest in four quarters, and was well above potential (1.8% according to European Commission estimates.)  Investment in machinery and equipment also picked up in the quarter, suggesting a broadening of the expansion, which had been led by personal consumption.  German GDP in real terms is now 8.5% above its pre-crisis peak in 1Q 2008, well above other EU members.  Meanwhile, unemployment in Germany has fallen below 4% from a peak of more than 10% during the crisis.

For the EU as a whole, real GDP growth was 2% annualized, the best showing in the past two years. The improvement in growth is linked to the European Central Bank’s policies to keep interest rates near zero while expanding its balance sheet via asset purchases.  In addition, the 10% depreciation of the euro against the dollar in the past three years helped boost exports.

As in the United States, so-called “soft data” such as purchasing managers’ indexes and sentiment readings show a marked pick-up since the latter part of 2016.  Indeed, according to Credit Suisse, the latest PMI readings are consistent with EU growth accelerating to 3% (see Figure 1).  We would note, however, that hard economic data does not yet indicate the improvement in business sentiment.  Nonetheless, the latest EC forecast calls for the EU to grow by 1.7% this year, which is a considerable improvement from the past few years.

Figure 1:  European PMI Surveys Point to Stronger Growth 

Source: Thomson Reuters, Markit, Credit Suisse.

Another positive development is headline CPI has accelerated this year and is approaching the ECB’s 2% target, after running close to zero in 2015-2016.  This suggests the threat of deflation is waning, and the ECB can consider normalizing interest rates if this pattern continues.  That said, we believe the ECB will be very cautious about tightening monetary policy.


Will Macron Transform France and the EU?

To some extent, the boost in European equities since the first round of the French elections can be attributed to a relief rally that Marine Le Pen was not elected.  Beyond this, in the wake of Macron’s very decisive victory, some observers have asked whether the election could represent a turning point for France and the EU: Macron is a reformer who also seeks closer ties between France and Germany, which constitute the core of the euro-zone.

Soon after his election, Macron visited German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and both pledged to work closely to draw up a “road map” of reforms for the EU, including the possibility of implementing treaty changes, if necessary.  Merkel noted that work first needed to be conducted on reforms that are needed before changes in the EU treaty would be implemented.  One of the most important is the need for greater fiscal sharing if the EU is to evolve from a monetary union to a fiscal union. To go down that route, however, Germany wants to be confident France is committed to structural reforms that will make its economy more dynamic.  The reason: Germany undertook a comprehensive set of labor market reforms in the previous decade that are credited for reviving its economy.

For his part, Macron has called for a “revolution” to simplify France’s Labor Code, which is a 3,600 page document that regulates nearly every aspect of employer-employee relations.  This will not be easy to pull off, however, as he will encounter strikers and protesters, as previous French Presidents have.  For example, Francois Hollande, Macron’s processor, backed away from embarking on labor reforms in the face of stiff opposition.  Other reforms being considered include cutting the corporate tax rate from 33% to 25%, and reducing the size of France’s bloated government.  The latter goal, however, is modest, as Macron seeks to slow the expansion of government rather than to reduce its size, which is the largest among the leading industrial countries.

Having formed a new political party, Macron must first build a coalition with existing parties, so that he can gain a legislative majority in the parliamentary elections in June.  Those he has recruited so far lean strongly to the left, with many coming from the reform faction of the Socialist Party.  To appeal to the right, Macron is credited with making a wise choice of Édouard Philippe as Prime Minister.  Still, it appears unlikely Macron will win an outright majority, and he therefore may have to rule with a coalition.  Consequently, it remains unclear how successful he will be in achieving reforms that France desperately needs.

The Case for European Equities

The principal reasons for considering European equities are that (i) earnings prospects have improved with the economic upturn, while (ii) Macron’s election and the rejection of populism in several key European countries have lessened political risk.

The improvement in European corporate profits is shown in Figure 2.  It illustrates how far they lagged the U.S. market when economic growth trailed that in the U.S., and how they have improved recently.  Among developed countries, European stock markets traditionally have been the most levered to economic performance, and this continues to be the case, as earnings growth in Europe has exceeded that in the U.S. recently.  Moreover, the percentage of European companies beating expectations is the highest in a decade.  An additional factor supporting corporate profitability has been the weak euro.  Although it has firmed against the dollar recently, it is still relatively cheap on a purchasing-power basis.

Figure 2:  European Corporate Profits Lag the U.S. Until Recently
12-month trailing EPS, Index, Jan 2006 = 100


Source: Datastream, JPMAM. April 28, 2017.

On the surface, it appears European equities may offer good relative value, as the discount of European multiples to the U.S. is about 15%.  The latter, however, is close to the average of the past decade or so, when one takes into account differences in the sector compositions.  Therefore, we consider European equities to be reasonably valued relative to the U.S.

The other major consideration is that political risk in Europe has diminished considerably with Macron’s election and the likelihood that Angela Merkel will be re-elected Chancellor of Germany.  This has contributed to inflows of funds into European markets recently.  The principal risk for investors is disappointment that Macron may not be able to deliver on his reform agenda.  Another risk is that populism could resurface in the Italian presidential elections that must be held no later than a year from now.

Weighing these considerations, I believe now may be a good time to add to European equities, after years of being cautious about European markets.

Testimony on Monetary Policy

Mickey D. Levy (Chief Economist of Berenberg Capital Markets for the Americas and Asia) testified before the House Financial Services Committee on monetary policy.

He focused on how non-monetary factors including a growing web of government taxes, regulations and mandated expenses were harming the economy.

His line of thinking is of special note as these themes have been revealed over the years by CFS Divisia monetary aggregates and components.

His Testimony Resetting Monetary Policy is available online – http://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hhrg-114-ba19-wstate-mlevy-20161207.pdf