politics

A Dangerous Fairy Tale

© Can Stock Photo / andreykuzmin

We have written about the power of narrative—stories—before. Stories help us understand and organize the world, and our lives. But not every narrative is helpful, or positive, or improves things.

Much of our political discourse today revolves around a central narrative that does not stand up to examination. We strive to be nonpolitical at 228 Main. Our clients come from every walk of life, and you run from one end of the political spectrum to the other. But the false narrative going around today has the potential for great mischief in our economy and markets. We therefore must address it.

The general theme is that other countries, both allies and enemies, have sorely abused the United States by crafting trade agreements that our leaders were stupid to sign. This has supposedly gone on for decades, because nobody until now has cared about the working person.

We are “losing” hundreds of billions of dollars every year, the story goes. Our factories and jobs have been stolen. And meanwhile we donate to and defend these countries that have mistreated us so. NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and other international agreements are allegedly at the heart of our misery.

The mischief rests in the remedies proposed to right these wrongs. Trade deficits will be cut by simply eliminating trade. Retalitory tariffs will straighten out the bad behavior. Students of history or economics know how this ends up: it is the story of the Great Depression.

Here is a competing narrative. The whole world and the U.S. have enjoyed decades of progress and prosperity unparalleled in history. A billion people have been lifted from extreme poverty, more people than ever before are working in America for more money than ever before, unemployment is at a forty year low.2

Trade has helped to make us all richer and our lives better, on the whole. We have been fairly free to purchase the goods and services we want, without regard to origin. Our choices, yours and mine, are what determines the volume of trade between countries.

We have a global system of relatively free trade because enlightened leaders HAVE cared about American workers and American prosperity. Let’s examine some facts:

1. NAFTA hurts us terribly? The United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person is 24% higher than Canada’s, and 205% higher than Mexico. 2 We have added 40 million jobs since NAFTA was signed.1 If they are killing us, why aren’t they richer than us?

2. Our companies can hardly do business in Europe? We sold $501 billion in goods and services there in 2017. Our GDP per person is 19% higher than Germany, 36% higher than France, and 57% higher than Italy. They supposedly have been taking advantage of us for decades, yet we do a lot more business than they do?

3. China is a special case, and the U.S. has legitimate grievances. Although its per person GDP is lower even than Mexico, piracy and lack of protection for patents and trademarks are serious issues. These need to be addressed. But a trade war, or mounting a new regime of tariffs, is the wrong approach. There are other means and mechanisms.

Millions of people in the US and virtually all of our farmers are dependent on exports. Our Fortune 500 companies do about half their business overseas. Retaliatory tariffs, trade embargoes or restrictions will hurt them—and all of us.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length, please email us or call. We aren’t looking for political arguments. We do believe we will all be better off if we stop believing harmful fairy tales.

1Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

2All GDP numbers derived from the World Factbook at cia.gov.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

The Coming Boom?

© Can Stock Photo / devon

We wrote more than a year ago about the steady if slow growth of the economy. Just as a slow-burning fire might last longer than a raging conflagration, we expected that the economic expansion would persist longer than some commentators believed.

Another way to say it is, a bust is less likely without a boom first. The excesses that build in boom times usually contribute to the bust that follows.

For the first time in a decade, conditions may be ripe for a boom. The improvement in small business sentiment and increased money flowing into the equity markets had us on the lookout for signs of a boom. Then the tax law passed.

The tax law has pro-cyclical features that may strongly encourage economic growth now, but plants the seeds for a later slowdown. There may be political aspects that contribute to this syndrome, too.

Businesses investing in long-lived capital investments will be able to deduct the full cost up front, instead of taking smaller depreciation deductions over many years. This increases the financial attractiveness of projects; capital spending is likely to rise. A dramatically lower tax rate on corporate income, combined with a feature to bring overseas money back to the US, are further inducements for more business activity.

For two administrations in a row, the signature achievement of each has been done on a partisan, party line vote. When the minority party becomes the majority party, that achievement gets attacked and the unwinding begins. We’ve seen it with the Affordable Care Act; some Democrats are pledging to undo the tax law as soon as they are able.

So the favorable treatment of capital spending begins to phase out in a few years, and corporations may ‘get while the getting is good’ before the law gets weakened or unwound. These conditions might begin to affect things precisely when excesses from the boom have created more potential for a slowdown.

Boom, then bust. We know how this works. Clients, we will continue to monitor all of this, and work to take advantage of our thinking. No guarantees.

If you would like to discuss any of this in more detail, or have something else on your agenda, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

All investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific tax issues with a qualified tax advisor.

 

Review and Outlook: Perception and Reality

© Can Stock Photo / sborisov

The gap between perception and reality is a key concept for us, as contrarian investors.

Year-end is a logical time to stand back and assess the year just ending, our current situation, and prospects for the next year. Many others ably describe the facts and statistics and the major themes. We will look at a pair of critically important things that may have fallen into the gap.

We believe the president has a flawed understanding of global trade. He recently spoke again of disastrous trade deals, massive profits to other nations, and millions of American jobs lost. The reality is, trade lets us get more for everything we produce, and pay less for everything we consume. It enriches America and the world.

We aren’t here to argue politics. But we are here to understand economics and markets as best we can, for your benefit and ours. The markets may be underestimating the potential for damage to the economy, corporate profits, employment, and stock prices if the president’s rhetoric ever translates into actual policy.

The second concern is about Congress, and a problem to which both parties have contributed (in my opinion.) The American system of governance historically produced major legislation through a bipartisan process. The Civil Rights Act, Social Security, Medicare, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 were all products of give and take between members of both parties. All of these endured.

Without debating the merits of either, the Affordable Care Act and the recent tax legislation are the products of a partisan process. Both featured closed-door negotiations by small groups, deal-making that benefitted narrow groups to win votes, and straight party-line votes that produced less-than-perfect outcomes.

The ACA has been under attack since it was passed, and is now being unraveled by the opposition. The same thing could happen in the years ahead to the tax legislation. Uncertainty about tax policy may create problems for companies and the economy.

The short version of all this is that we are optimistic—as always. But our eyes are wide open. We will continue to diversify into sectors that may be less affected (or unaffected) by these issues. This is consistent with our core principles of seeking the best bargains and avoiding stampedes.

Clients, if you would like to discuss these issues further, or have anything else on your agenda, please write or call. In the meantime, we are enjoying the results of 2017 and hopeful about what will happen in 2018.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

Political Risk Rising

© Can Stock Photo / razihusin

Long time readers know we are fairly neutral about the impact of politics on investing. Our American system of checks and balances has served us well through the decades. The worst fears of those who let politics govern their investments may have not come about.

At the root, however, politics can affect policy that has an impact on the economy and markets. We prefer public policy that enables the greatest number of people to engage in the greatest amount of productive endeavor and enjoy prosperity. This is not always what we get.

There are two things being talked about in Washington that are problematic, in our view. Checks and balances may see us through, or we may end up with policies that hurt our economy.

In theory, trade lets us get more for things we produce and pay less for things we use. America and the rest of the world are potentially better off for it. But there is a political desire to put tariffs in place against major trading partners, we believe primarily for the sake of putting tariffs in place. A narrow slice of people and companies might benefit, but the economy may be hurt overall.

If trade volumes are materially restricted, average family incomes and corporate earnings are likely to decline, and the economy and the stock market may not do as well as they could.

Another thing: if you have ancestors that came from Germany, Ireland, England, Italy, Poland, France, India, Scotland, Norway, or anywhere else, some people that were already here were opposed to those immigrant ancestors of yours. But we believe that America is more prosperous today, with higher average incomes, because of the legacy your ancestors and others left.

But on top of the desire to fix our immigration laws so they make sense and are enforced, there is a desire to cut the volume of legal immigration, possibly up to one half from recent levels1. In our mind there is little doubt that our future wealth, prosperity, and standing in the world will be impaired if this comes to pass. We’ve been enriched by the immigrant scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and others who have come to America in accordance with immigration rules.

You can etch this in stone: we are firmly against cutting our nose off to spite our face. Those who advocate for less trade and less legal immigration are doing just that, in our opinion. We are optimistic that sooner or later, we will end up with good policy—we always have. But there could be some unnecessary turmoil before we get there.

We aren’t suggesting that big changes need to be made in portfolios to reflect the political threats. But we are looking for opportunities that are less sensitive to how these policies work out. Clients, if you would like to discuss these or any other pertinent issues, please email us or call.

1New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/us/politics/trump-immigration.html


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

All investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

We Are All Connected

canstockphoto8203425

Much has been written about the polarization of American society. While noisy disagreement and entirely human behavior has always been part of our fabric, the whole “us” versus “them” theme seems to be a bigger part of our social discourse. It seeps into our politics and economics too, it seems.

Yet everything is connected. What many miss are the interests we share.

If you hope to be collecting Social Security benefits many years into the future, you might have an interest in making sure that each child today grows up to be a healthy and educated and productive citizen. Why? They will pay more Social Security taxes if they do—and better work towards your financial future. You are connected to the next generation.

Some seem to assume that big companies are always out to get them, and favor any new regulation or restraint that might be proposed to limit their activity. Yet if we needed to fly across the country, would we dare do so in an artisanal airplane, built with locally-sourced materials by a local craft person? You are connected to big companies.

Likewise, the largest oil companies in the world routinely spend more than 96% of their revenues helping people get back and forth to work, powering their homes, and providing materials used in everyday life. If you use gasoline or electricity or plastic, you are connected to them.

“Wall Street”—to some, the only villains in the last financial crisis—presents another example. Communities building schools or sewers, employers building facilities or buying machinery, teachers hoping to retire on their pensions, people saving for retirement or living on their capital in retirement: all these depend on services from the securities industry. We are all connected.

Is this an argument for turning a blind eye to bad behavior or hurtful policies or injustice or anything else that cries out for change? No way. We each should challenge the things that deserve to be challenged, and support the things that deserve to be supported. We won’t all agree on which is which.

But perhaps our differences would more often get us to a better place if we each kept in mind that everything—and everyone—is connected.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.