Posts tagged ‘infrastructure’

Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (May 1, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

We live in a time of confusing dichotomies, which makes deciphering the flood of daily data quite challenging. In that context, determining whether the current economic fundamentals should be viewed from a glass half empty of glass half full perspective can be daunting.

More specifically, stock markets have again recently hit new all-time record highs, yet if you read the newspaper headlines, you might think we’re in the midst of Armageddon. Last month, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stock index eclipsed 21,000 and the technology-heavy NASDAQ index surpassed the psychologically important 6,000 threshold. In spite of the records, here’s a sampling of the steady stream of gloomy feature stories jamming the airwaves:

  • French Elections – Danger of European Union Breakup
  • Heightened Saber Rattling by U.S. Towards North Korea
  • Threat of U.S. Government Shutdown
  • First 100 Days – Obamacare repeal failure, tax reform delays, no significant legislation
  • NAFTA Trade Disputes
  • Russian Faceoff Over Syrian Civil War & Terrorism
  • Federal Reserve Interest Rate Hikes Could Derail Stock Market
  • Slowing GDP / Economic Data

Given all this doom, how is it then that stock markets continue to defy gravity and continually set new record highs? Followers of my writings understand the crucial, driving dynamics of financial markets are not newspaper, television, magazine, and internet headlines. The most important factors are corporate profits, interest rates, valuations, and investor sentiment. All four of these elements will bounce around, month-to-month, and quarter-to-quarter, but for the time being, these elements remain constructive on balance, despite the barrage of negative, gut-wrenching headlines.

Countering the perpetual flow of gloomy, cringe-worthy headlines, we have seen a number of positive developments:

  • Record Breaking Corporate Profits:  Profits are the chief propellant for higher stock prices, and so far, for the 1st quarter, S&P 500 company profits are estimated to have risen +12.4%  –  the highest rate since 2011, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. As I like to remind my readers, stock prices follow profits over the long-run, which is evidenced by the chart below.

Source: Trading Economics

  • Interest Rates Low: With interest rate levels still near generational lows (10-Year Treasury @ 2.28%), and inflation relatively stable around 2%, this augurs well for most asset prices. For U.S. consumers there are many stimulative effects to lower interest rates, whether you are buying a house, purchasing a car, paying off a school loan, and/or reducing credit card debt. Lower rates equal lower payments.
  • Potential Tax Reform: There are numerous stimulative components to the largest planned tax-cut in history. First of all, cutting the tax rate from 35% to 15% for corporations and small businesses (i.e. pass-through entities like LLCs and S-Corps) would place a lot of dollars back in the pockets of taxpayers and should stimulate economic growth. Other components of the White House proposal include the termination of the estate tax, the elimination of the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) targeted at wealthier households, and the doubling of the standard deduction to help middle-income families. All of this sounds great on paper, but not a lot of details have been provided yet on how these benefits will be paid for – removing state tax deductions alone is unlikely to fully offset revenue declines. The chart below highlights how high U.S. corporate income tax rates are relative to other foreign counterparts.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

  • Business Spending & Confidence on the Rise: Ever since the 2008-09 Great Recession, the U.S. has been a better house in a bad neighborhood relative to other global developed economies. However, the recovery has been gradual and muted due to tight-fisted companies being slow to hire and invest. Although recent Q1 GDP economic data came in at a sluggish +0.7% growth rate, the bright spot embedded in the data was a +12% annualized increase in private fixed investment. This is consistent with the spike we’ve seen in recent business and consumer confidence surveys (see chart below). Although this confidence has yet to translate into an acceleration in broader economic data, the ramp in capital spending and positive business sentiment could be a leading indicator for faster economic growth to come. Stimulative legislation enacted by Congress (i.e., tax reform, infrastructure spending, foreign repatriation, etc.) could add further fuel to the economic growth engine.

Source: Trading Economics

  • Economy Keeps Chugging Along: As the wealthiest country on the planet, we Americans can become a little spoiled with success, which helps explain the media’s insatiable appetite for growth. Nevertheless, the broader economic data show a continuing trend of improvement. Simply consider the trend occurring in these major areas of the economy:
    • Unemployment – The jobless rate has been chopped by more than half from a 10.0% cycle peak to 4.5% today.
    • Housing  –  The number of annual existing home sales has increased by more than +60% from the cycle low to 5.7 million units, which still leaves plenty of headroom for growth before 2006 peak sales levels are reached.
    • Consumer Spending – This segment accounts for roughly 70% of our country’s economic activity. Although we experienced a soft patch in Q1 of 2017, as you can see from the chart below, we Americans have had no problem spending more to keep our economy functioning.

Source: Trading Economics

While key economic statistics remain broadly constructive, there will come a time when prudence will dictate the pursuit of a more defensive investment strategy. When will that be? In short, the time to become more cautious will be when we see a combination of the following occur:

  • Sharp increase in interest rates
  • Signs of a significant decline in corporate profits
  • Indications of an economic recession (e.g., an inverted yield curve)
  • Spike in stock prices to a point where valuation (prices) are at extreme levels and skeptical investor sentiment becomes euphoric

To date, there is no objective evidence indicating these dynamics are in place, so until then, I will remain thirsty and grab my half glass full of water.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 1, 2017 at 2:37 pm Leave a comment

Fiscal Cliff: Will a 1937 Repeat = 2013 Dead Meat?

Source: StockCharts.com

The presidential election is upon us and markets around the globe are beginning to factor in the results. More importantly, in my view, will be the post-election results of the “fiscal cliff” discussions, which will determine whether $600 billion in automated spending cuts and tax increases will be triggered. Similar dynamics in 1937 existed when President FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) felt pressure to balance the budget after his 1933 New Deal stimulus package began to rack up deficits and lose steam.

What’s Similar Today

Just as there is pressure to cut spending today by Republicans and “Tea-Party” Congressmen, so too there was pressure for FDR and the Federal Reserve in 1937 to unwind fiscal and monetary stimulus. At the time, FDR thought self-sustaining growth had been restored and there was a belief that the deficits would become a drag on expansion and a source of future inflation. What’s more, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, believed that continued economic growth was dependent on business confidence, which in turn was dependent on creating a balanced budget. History has a way of repeating itself, which explains why the issues faced in 1937 are eerily similar to today’s discussions.

The Results

FDR was successful in dramatically reducing spending and significantly increasing taxes. Specifically, federal spending was reduced by -17% over two years and FDR’s introduction of a Social Security payroll tax contributed to federal revenues increasing by a whopping +72% over a similar timeframe. The good news was the federal deficit fell from -5.5% of GDP to -0.5%. The bad news was the economy went into a tail-spinning recession; the Dow crashed approximately -50%; and the unemployment rate burst higher by about +3.3% to +12.5%.

Source: New York Times

Source: Blue Mass Group

What’s Different This Time?

For starters, one difference between 1937 and 2012 is the level of unemployment. In 1937, unemployment was +14.3%, and today it is +8.1%. Objectively, today there could be higher percentage of the population “under-employed,” but nonetheless the job market was in worse shape back then and labor unions had much more power.

Another major difference is the stance carried by the Fed. Today, Ben Bernanke and the Fed have made it crystal clear they are in no hurry to take away any of the monetary stimulus (see Hekicopter Ben QE3 article), until we have experienced a long-lasting, sustainable recovery. Back in early 1937, the Fed increased banks’ reserve requirements twice, doubling the requirement in less than a year, thereby contracting monetary supply drastically.

Furthermore, we live in a much more globalized world. Today, central banks and governments around the world are doing their part to keep growth alive. Emerging markets are large enough now to move the needle and impact the growth of developed markets. For example, China, the #2 global superpower, continues to cut interest rates and has recently implemented a $158 billion infrastructure spending program.

Net-Net

Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, everyone generally agrees that job creation is an important common objective, which is consistent with growing our economy. The disagreement between parties stems from the differing opinions on what are the best ways of creating jobs. From my perch, the frame of the debate should be premised on what policies and incentives should be structured to increase competitiveness. Without competitiveness there are no jobs. At the end of the day, money and capital are agnostic. Cold hard cash migrates to the countries in which it is treated best. And where the money goes is where the jobs go.

There is no single silver bullet to solve the competiveness concerns of the United States. Like baseball (since playoffs are quickly approaching), winning is not based solely on hitting, pitching, defense, or base-running. All of these facets and others are required to win. The same principles apply to our country’s competitiveness.

In order to be a competitive leader in the 21st century, here are few necessary areas in which we must excel:

Education: Chicago school unions have been in the news, and I have no problems with unions, if accountability can be structured in. Unfortunately, however, it is clear to me that for now our system is broken (a must see: Waiting for Superman). We cannot compete in the 21st century with an illiterate, uneducated workforce. Our colleges and universities are still top-notch, but as Bill Gates has stated, our elementary schools and high schools are “obsolete”.

Entitlements: Social safety nets like Social Security and Medicare are critical, but unsustainable promises that explode our debt and deficits will not make us more competitive. Politicians may gain votes by making promises in the short-run, but when those promises can’t be delivered in the medium-run or long-run, then those votes will disappear quickly. The sworn guarantees made to the 76 million Baby Boomers now entering retirement are a disaster waiting to happen. Benefits need to be reduced and or criteria need to be adjusted (i.e., means-testing, increase age requirements). The problems are clear as day, so Americans cannot walk away from this sobering reality.

Strategic Government Investment: – Government played a role in building our country’s railways, highways, and our military – a few strategic areas of our economy that have made our nation great. Thoughtful investments into areas like energy infrastructure (e.g., smart grid), internet infrastructure (e.g., higher speed super highway), and healthcare (e.g., human genome research) are a few examples of how jobs can be created while simultaneously increasing our global competitiveness. The great thing about strategic government investments is that government does NOT have to do all the heavy lifting. Rather than write all the checks and do all the job creation from Washington, government can implement these investments and create these jobs by providing incentives for the private sector. Strategic public-private partnerships can generate win-win results for government, businesses, and job seekers. If, however, you’re convinced that our government is more efficient than the private sector, then I highly encourage you to go visit your local DMV, post office, or VA to better appreciate the growth-sucking bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Taxes / Regulations / Laws: Taxes come from profits, and businesses create profits. In order to have a strong and competitive government, we need strong and competitive businesses. Higher taxes, excessive regulations, and burdensome laws will not create stronger and more competitive businesses. I acknowledge that reckless neglect and consumer exploitation will not work either, but reasonable protections for consumers and businesses can be instituted without multi-thousand page regulations. Reducing ridiculous subsidies and loopholes, while tightening tax collection processes and punishing tax dodgers makes perfect sense…so why not do it?

Politics are sharply polarized at both ends of the spectrum, but no matter who wins, our problems are not going away. We may or may not have a new president of the United States this November, but perhaps more important than the elections themselves will be the outcome of the “fiscal cliff” legislation (or lack thereof). If we want to maintain our economic power as the strongest in the world, solving this “fiscal cliff” is the key to improving our competiveness. Avoiding a messy 1937 (and 2011) political repeat will prevent us from becoming dead meat.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

 

September 23, 2012 at 10:55 pm Leave a comment

Jumping on the Globalization Train

What happens when you mix a group of Saudi Arabians, Germans, Chinese, French, and South Koreans with billions of dollars? This is not the lead-in question to a politically incorrect joke, but rather a teaser related to a multi-billion infrastructure project currently under a bidding process in Saudi Arabia.

The proposed $7 billion, 450 kilometer high speed Saudi Arabian railway connecting Islam’s two holiest cities (Mecca and Medina) is expected to ease congestion of the 2.5 million Muslims making the annual journey to Mecca as part of the Hajj pilgrimage.

Amidst the fallout from the recent global financial crisis, the benefits of capitalism, globalization, and free trade have come under attack. There obviously were some horrible decisions made and the collapse of financial institutions around the world underscored the necessity to shore up our regulatory system. Nonetheless, this microcosm of a project is proof positive that globalization is alive and well (see also Friedman Flat World article). How else can you explain China Railway Construction Corp./Beijing Railway Administration (China), Siemens (Germany), Hyundai/Samsung (South Korea), Alstom  (France), and Saudi Binladin Group (Saudi Arabia) coming together on a multi-billion project bidding process?

Oil Rich Countries Think Strategically

Saudi Arabia is not the only oil-rich country that has used the dramatic increase in oil revenues to fund investments in the future. Beyond Saudi Arabia, other oil rich areas like Qatar, Russia, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) federation are examples of regions wanting to join the 21st Century global party rather than sitting around idly. The billions of black gold being pumped from the oil reservoirs is getting poured into infrastructure, such as technology, roads, bridges, hospitals, and yes…railways. These countries realize the importance of diversifying their economies away from the dependence on any one sector. Leadership from these regions understand the damaging economic impact of boom-bust energy price cycles, therefore they are doing their best by diversifying into other economic areas – including infrastructure. How serious is Saudi Arabia when it comes to investments? Well, the United States stimulus program was a drop in the bucket (single digit percentage of GDP) relative to Saudi Arabia,  which according to BusinessWeek had the largest stimulus package among the Group of 20 (69% of GDP).

The Case for Free Trade

As protectionists and trade union organizers scratch and scream in response to expansion of globalization, competing countries around the world have their economic foot on the pedal when it comes to extending trade borders.

Tariffs, quotas and various other taxes only serve to drag down the competitiveness of our country’s most treasured industries.

These economic trade concepts are not new. Adam Smith, considered by some as the “father of economics” wrote about the “invisible hand” in his famous book Wealth of Nations (1776) and economist David Ricardo explained “comparative advantage” in his book On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). Without getting into the nitty-gritty, suffice it to say the advantages to free trade have been well documented over the centuries.

As the standards of living climbs for hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, these populations are becoming fertile ground for the sale of U.S. technology, pharmaceuticals, appliances, automobiles, and other goods and services.

Rather than pouring sand into the gears of innovation, incentives need to be established to motivate product excellence. Otherwise, capital  and jobs will migrate to other countries. Intel CEO (INTC) Paul Otellini, who was recently quoted in a New York Times article, is urging Congress to improve business, tax, and education incentives. Thanks to  China’s tax policy and availability of a skilled labor pool, Intel is able to save $1 billion on  a $4.5 billion plant being constructed this year – not exactly chump change.

Certainly, rules need to be created that promote fairness and credible enforcement of penalties, otherwise the benefits of trade become diluted.

Overall, the recent financial crisis caused economists, politicians, and various pundits to question the validity and benefits of capitalism, globalization, and free trade. In the vast spanning web of global commerce, the recent high speed Saudi railway may only represent a very tiny thread in the whole world’s infrastructure spend. Nonetheless, this multi-billion project integrating international heavyweights from all over world proves that despite the shortcomings of globalization, capitalism, and free trade, the benefits remain substantial and there is still time to jump back on the train.

Read The Financial Times article on the Saudi Arabia railway project.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in Intel (INTC), China Railway Construction Corp., Beijing Railway Administration, Siemens, Hyundai/Samsung, Alstom, and Saudi Binladin Group or any security mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 22, 2010 at 12:32 am 1 comment


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