Two Bad Choices in Tax Debate

I found this article very informative and I think it is worth sharing.

 

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By Patrick Watson

Remember when everyone wanted to cut the federal deficit? Fiscal policy was much simpler back then: balanced budget good, deficits bad. Times change. Now the House and Senate are considering tax legislation that, according to their own numbers, will add $1.5 trillion to annual deficits over the next 10 years.

This is okay, we’re told, because the tax cuts will stoke economic growth, thereby delivering added tax revenue that offsets the rate reductions.Note the bigger point here. Republicans still say they don’t like deficits—but apparently, this particular plan lets them cut taxes without adding more debt. It’s a miracle.

Is their claim really true? Will the GOP tax plans boost economic growth?

That’s the 1.5-trillion-dollar question.

Theory vs. Reality

The Republican plan’s centerpiece is a reduction in corporate tax rates from a 35% top bracket to only 20%. That would put the US more in line with other countries.

What you seldom hear is that most other developed countries also have value-added tax (VAT), a kind of consumption tax. The US doesn’t. Our tax system will remain different, and not necessarily better, under the new proposal.

Anyway, the theory is that lower tax rates will entice businesses to bring back operations they currently conduct overseas. They will build new factories and hire more US workers. Those workers will spend their higher incomes on consumer goods, and we’ll all be better off.

Unfortunately, that thinking has several flaws.

For one, as we saw in the NFIB Small Business Economic Trends report that business owners say that finding qualified workers is their top challenge right now. Reducing corporate tax rates won’t make new workers magically appear, nor will it improve the skills of those already here.

What increasing labor demand might do is spark that inflation the Federal Reserve has wanted for years. There’s also a good chance it could spiral out of control, forcing the Fed to hike interest rates even faster than planned—which could offset any benefit from the tax cuts.

Fortunately, such added labor demand will appear only if businesses respond to the lower tax rates by expanding US production capacity.

Will they? Let’s ask.

“Why Aren’t the Other Hands Up?”

This month, in one of its regular business surveys, the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank asked executives, “If passed in its current form, what would be the likely impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on your capital investment and hiring plans?”

Here are the results.

Image: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Only 8% of the executives surveyed said the bill would make them increase hiring plans “significantly.” Only 11% said they would significantly increase their capital investment plans. A solid majority answered either “no change” or “increase somewhat.”

Other surveys reached similar conclusions.

White House Economic Advisor Gary Cohn had an awkward moment last Tuesday at a Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting. Sitting on stage to promote the tax cuts, Cohn watched as the moderator asked the roomful of executives whether their companies would expand more if the tax bill passed.

When only a few hands rose, Cohn looked surprised and said, “Why aren’t the other hands up?”

So maybe they were distracted or needed a minute to think. Fair enough. A few hours later, White House Economist Kevin Hassett appeared at the same event and asked the same audience the same question.

He got the same result: only a few raised hands.

Pocketing Profits

None of this should surprise us. Tax rates are only one factor businesses consider when deciding to expand. The far more important question is whether consumers will buy whatever the new capacity produces.

Think about it this way: if you’re a CEO and you have difficulty selling your products profitably now, why would lower taxes make you produce more? Even a 0% tax rate is no help if you lack customers.

Former Brightcove CEO David Mendels explained how big companies view this:

As a CEO and member of the Board of Directors at a public company, I can tell you that if we had an increase in profitability, we would have been delighted, but it would not lead in and of itself to more hiring or an increase in wages. Again, we would hire more people if we saw growing demand for our products and services. We would raise salaries if that is what it took to hire and retain great people. But if we had a tax cut that led to higher profits absent those factors, we would ‘pocket it’ for our investors.”

By “pocket it,” Mendels means executive bonuses, share buybacks, or higher dividends. That’s what 10 years of Federal Reserve stimulus produced. A corporate tax cut would likely have a similar effect.

Choose Wisely

As I’ve said for months, I don’t think the House and Senate can agree on any significant tax changes. The two chambers have different political incentives they probably can’t reconcile.

So I think we’ll be stuck with the current tax system. The economy will limp along like it has been and eventually go into recession. The hope-driven asset bubble will pop, hurting many investors.

If I’m wrong and the GOP plan passes in anything like the current form, we will get higher deficits but little additional growth. The tax cuts will flow to asset owners and shareholders, probably blowing the market bubble even bigger. That will make the inevitable breakdown even more painful.

 

Do you agree with Patrick?

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My 200th post: Investing in the Second Machine Age

As a retired senior, I am having difficulty adjusting to ” the Second Machine Age”. The advances in technology are mind blowing. I would never have guessed that self-driving cars in science fiction movies like “Minority Report”  or “I Robot” could become available in my life time.  How about Elon Musk’s vision of offering a rocket ride of only 30 minutes to get to London from L.A., is that just science fiction or a potential reality?

China, the world’s biggest vehicle market, is considering a ban on the production and sale of fossil fuel vehicles in order to reduce pollution and boost the production of electric vehicles. The move would follow a similar ban by France and Britain but they have included a 2040 timeline. However, China has introduced draft regulation to compel vehicle manufacturers to produce more electric vehicles by 2020 through a complex quota system.

Some possible investments to consider

  1. Millions of dollars are pouring into the Global X lithium & Battery ETF (LIT). It has had a massive gain in value of 58% so far this year. It has also attracted short sellers who are betting on a pullback in price.
  2. For stock pickers, the top ten holdings of LIT include five U.S. listed companies, ticker symbols Tsla, FMC, SQM, ENS and ALB. A word of caution, some of these stocks have very high valuations and can be very volatile.

There is little doubt in my mind that advances in digital automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will change your living standards over the next decade. Just think how companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Apple have already influence our lives during the past decade.

A 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will potentially be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years. Those individuals working in transportation, logistics, office management and production are likely to be the first to lose their jobs to robots, according to the report.

Some possible investments to consider to capitalize on this trend

  1. Robotics and Automation ETF (ROBO) which contains three U.S. listed companies in their top ten holdings. Ticker symbols, AVAV, HOLI and CGNX
  2. Global X Robotics & Artificial Intelligence ETF (BOTZ) which contains three U.S. listed companies in their top ten holdings. Ticker symbols: NVDA, ISRG and TRMB
  3.  Semiconductor ETFs like SOXX or SMH which include companies that provide key components for self-driving vehicles, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. The top ten holdings of these ETFs are places to look for individual names that could outperform the overall market.

There is also an interesting book that I am thinking about buying.

Synopsis: According to the authors, the book has three sections.

  • Chapters 1 through 6 describe “the fundamental characteristics of the second machine age,” based on many examples of modern use of technology.
  • Chapters 7 through 11 describe economic impacts of technology in terms of two concepts the authors call “bounty” and “spread.” What the authors call “bounty” is their attempt to measure the benefits of new technology in ways reaching beyond such measures as GDP, which they say is inadequate. They use “spread” as a shorthand way to describe the increasing inequality that is also resulting from widespread new technology.
  • Chapters 12 through 15, the authors prescribe some policy interventions that could enhance the benefits and reduce the harm of new technologies.

You can also search you-tube “The second machine age” to listen to the authors speak. 

 

Disclaimer: Do your own research, these investment ideas can be very volatile. 

A big disconnect between the Stock Market and the Canadian Economy

Canada’s economy is expanding at its fastest annualized rate in six years according to Statistics Canada. That’s a quarterly expansion rate of 4.5% which is the highest figure since the third quarter of 2011. It was led by the biggest binge in household spending since before the 2008-2009 global recession.

Economists had predicted Canada to grow around 3.7% and the Bank of Canada latest forecast was for GDP to expand at 3% in their July press release. When combined with the 3.7% expansion of the first quarter, it’s the strongest six month start in 15 years.

Why isn’t money pouring into the Toronto Stock Market?

Often times the equity market is moving well before the economy does and of course the Canadian equity market had a robust year in 2016. Investors may already have priced in all the good news last year, when Canada’s stock index gained 18 percent, one of the world’s best performances.

Part of the problem is that Canada’s stock market isn’t totally reflective of the economy, since it’s heavily reliant on energy and financials. Those two sectors account for 54 percent of the S&P/TSX Composite Index.

The outlook for oil is very subdued, it is still trading below $50 a barrel even with the shutdown of refineries due to hurricane Harvey. Global inventories continue to stay high and OPEC’s has lost its influence in cutting production. Crude oil prices in the future’s market are still below $50 a barrel for all of 2018 and part of 2019. Foreign investors are taking money out of the Alberta’s oil patch.

Continued growth in residential investments which was up an annualized 16 percent in the first quarter is also likely to fade as the impact of government measures to cool housing markets kick in. Although, bank earnings have beat expectations by a wide margin, loan growth going forward is expected to decline and loan losses are expected to increase. U.S. hedge funds are still shorting Canadian financials expecting the housing bubble to burst.

Investors believe that this robust growth will force the Bank of Canada to continue raising interest rates this year. It could add extra pressure to lowering consumer spending due to high indebtedness of Canadian households. It will also add a cooling effect to the hot housing prices in both the Vancouver and Toronto real estate markets. The rapid rise in the value of the Canadian dollar is added proof that currency traders are betting that a hike in interest rates is coming soon.

Uncertainty over NATFA  renegotiation

Global political developments aren’t helping, with renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement which started in August, created a new spat with the U.S. erupting over aerospace manufacturing.

Already, data suggest investment into the country is cooling. Foreign direct investment in Canada dropped 25 percent to C$8.68 billion in the first quarter, according to separate data released Tuesday. The country relies heavily on foreign funding to finance spending — totaling C$130 billion over the past two years, according to balance of payment data.

Canada has benefited from a convergence of developments that include a coordinated global recovery and rising trade volumes. The bottoming of the oil shock in western Canada, along with federal deficit spending, rising industrial production in developed economies. Canadian consumers have benefited from a buoyant jobs market and rising home values, resulting in a surge in consumer spending.

Is this Sustainable? I think not!

Economists had been predicting a slowdown in growth to about 2 percent in the second half of this year, but are revising numbers up after the GDP report. I believe this surge in economic growth is temporary. The higher value of the Canadian dollar and higher interest rates will dampen economic growth.

The Toronto stock market returns for all of 2017 are flat which could indicate that foreign investors also believe the future going forward isn’t so rosy!

 

 

 

How has the Trump circus effective your investments?

As a Canadian, I think that the Washington circus is no longer funny. It has become “very scary”. We came very close to a nuclear war. Tensions regarding North Korea have lessen temporarily and the market sell off could have been a lot worse. So far, investors have ignored the noise coming out of Washington as U.S. corporate earnings have been better than expected.

Canadian and European investors with holdings in U.S. dollars have seen their investment returns reduced by the falling value of the U.S. dollar. For example, my investment club’s U.S. portfolio is up 10.2% as of the end of July. However, it is up only 2.3% when converted into Canadian dollars. The value of the Euro is also up 10% compared to the U.S. dollar.

The recent rally in gold is another sign of a weakening value of the U.S. dollar. A falling dollar not only increases the value of other currencies, it also increases the demand for commodities like gold. Investors buy gold as a hedge against a further weakening of the U.S. dollar.

American investors with holdings outside of the U.S. have benefited the most from a weaker dollar. Corporations that generate revenue outside the U.S. will get an earnings boost from foreign profits.   Keep in mind that the bond market doesn’t believe the Trump growth agenda will get passed any time soon. The yield on 10 year treasuries has fallen back to pre-election lows. Returns in U.S. bond portfolios have been positive for American investors.

Biggest Market Risks

  1. More inflammatory tweets from Trump regarding North Korea
  2. The resignation of Trump’s key economic advisors, Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin
  3. The Fed increasing short term rates causing an inverted yield curve which historically causes a U.S. recession.
  4. In fighting within the Republican Party continues and they are unable to pass meaningful economic fiscal policy.
  5. Trump’s desperation for a win causes him to tear up the NAFTA agreement?

I find this very disturbing:

President Trump’s approval rating is at its lowest since he took office with only 35% of Americans giving him a positive rating, according to a Marist Poll released Wednesday.

Although he is still popular among Republicans, his key constituency, his job performance rating has dropped among strong Republicans from 91% in June to 79% now.

Hard to believe that 79% of Republicans still approve of President Trump!

Lets hope that American voters will come to their senses during the 2018 elections!!

Share buyback binge is going strong, investors beware!

Is there anything wrong with this? Yes, it means that companies are spending more money on “financial engineering” than on capital spending. It certainly does indicate that companies are at a loss on how to improve their top line, which is what will ultimately improve the bottom line. It leads to frequent complaints by analysts about the “quality” of earnings.

It’s a very important point. Apple is part of an elite group I call “buyback monsters,” companies that have been aggressively buying back stock for years. Apple’s shares outstanding topped out in 2013 at roughly 6.6 billion shares. Since then it has been down every year and now stands at 5.2 billion.

That is a reduction of 21 percent in shares outstanding since 2013. What’s that mean? It means all other things being equal, the company’s earnings per share are 21 percent higher than they would have been had it not done the buybacks.

But that’s only since 2013 … there are companies that have been doing this much longer. IBM shares outstanding topped out at 2.3 billion way back in 1995, it’s been going down almost every year since then, and now stands at 939 million shares. Think about that. That’s a 60 percent reduction in shares outstanding in a little more than 20 years.

Same with Exxon Mobil, after the Mobil acquisition in 1999, shares outstanding topped out at just shy of 7 billion in 2000 and have been going almost steadily downhill since. There’s now 4.2 billion shares outstanding, a reduction of 40 percent since 2000.

Here are just a few more buyback monsters:

  • Northrup Grumman: 50 percent since 2003
  • Gap: 55 percent since 2005
  • Bed Bath & Beyond: 50 percent since 2005
  • McDonald’s: 36 percent since 2000
  • Microsoft: 30 percent since 2004
  • Intel: 30 percent since 2001
  • Cisco: 32 percent since 2001

Why are there buybacks at all? They were originally used to support the issuance of stock options. The options increased the share count outstanding, so to keep the countdown the company bought back shares. But as the opportunity for significant top-line growth waned, buybacks to reduce share counts became a separate strategy to prop up earnings growth.

What is my beef with buybacks? Part of management’s compensation packages include stock options. Buying back company shares ensures that their stock options don’t expire worthless.  It not only fools investors that the earnings are growing but it rewards poor management.

Take IBM for example, despite being one of the most aggressive buyback monsters on the Street, you can’t say IBM’s stock price has soared in the last decade. In 2014, the company eased off a bit on its buybacks, and the stock headed south. It headed south because IBM was beset by fundamental growth issues: Its revenues from its old line businesses were shrinking and there was not revenue from emerging  businesses (like Watson and artificial intelligence) replacing it.

The lesson: No amount of financial engineering like buying back shares can replace management’s inability to grow the business.