Author: Mark Sloss (page 1 of 5)

Only Nixon could go to China

The on again off again trade spat with China seems to be peaking this week. Tonight is when the new tariff regime is supposed to go into effect if the two sides do not come to a different accommodation. There is of course some question of whether President Trump (or Xi) will blink and business can continue as usual. If we learned anything from the government shutdown over the holidays, it is that DJT will not hesitate to do a Thelma & Louise and take us collectively over the cliff. In his bare-knuckles negotiating style, the other side has to believe there is no bridge too far to get what you want.

And, there is a very strong case that has been made over decades that China needs to bend. They have benefited from overly generous policy for decades now that allowed them to build their economy while Western markets used them as a cheap outsourcing factory. Part of the price paid was a systematic forfeiture of intellectual property and inability to truly participate in their market. The benefit was, in two words, cheap stuff. With low wages, few environmental controls, and a myriad of other reasonable and questionable policies and practices, we enjoyed a tremendous arbitrage between their ability to make and our ability to consume that gave us everything from full shelves at dollar stores to affordable smart phones and other consumer electronics.

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To Brexit or not to Brexit

That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged citizens, or to take votes against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

We have been watching this theatre of the absurd since the exit vote passed, with calumnies hurled back and forth, plans drafted and shredded, ministers appointed, ministers departed, political lines in the sand drawn and redrawn, and no actual progress on either following or revisiting the will of the people. Parliament is so feckless they cannot pass a vote to move in any direction, nor can they muster the support to remove the leadership and try something else. Fortunately for the markets, even with trouble looming on the horizon, the net of doing nothing is that the status quo remains. It appears March 29th will come and go without any action beyond resolving the intent to plan for a discussion about the plan. Monty Python could not have written it better.

What to do?

There is simply no way the UK is going to stumble toward Brexit without some form of roadmap in hand. There are too many unmanaged and ugly consequences otherwise, from re-establishing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to trading internationally, even across the Channel, with no trade accords. With various structural events between now and Summer including the EU parliamentary elections in late May, there are plenty of reasons and plenty of opportunities to do something, even if that something is to resolve to do nothing. It may be that staring into the abyss is enough to compel the UK and the EU to address the Queen’s subjects’ major concerns around immigration, home-rule, etc. through the parliamentary and rulemaking process and belay or even ultimately put aside an exit. It could also be that the UK finds a way to rescind Brexit through whatever constitutional means are at their disposal.

But what if they do stumble out the door with no plan or path? It would be ugly and intensely unpleasant for everyone and may re-open old geopolitical wounds, but the free markets will price the new reality and, as the Brits say, carry on. We have seen a threat to asset prices in the UK and EU and have been significantly underweight relative to our policy benchmarks, although not exclusively for those reasons. Europe appears to be sputtering, including in economic powerhouse Germany, which has given us ample reason to believe the near term opportunities for investors are in North America and Asia. If the UK gives Europe Her Majesty’s middle finger, that could unleash instability and a repricing as markets try to find a new equilibrium based on conditions that have not existed since before many market participants got their educations and first jobs.

What we can do right now is watch closely. A disorganized Brexit could send markets into a period of significant turbulence. An orderly and well structured Brexit, or even no Brexit at all, could potentially herald a new moment for stability and growth and a reason to consider reinvestment in the region.

A moment of gratitude

As we have stated in the past, we consider days like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day to be opportunities to speak less and listen more. Dr. King helped us all to better understand the value to society and to every individual in justice, inclusivity, respectfulness, shared dignity, and equality. These are messages and ideals that should ring throughout the year and not just on a single day. These are messages and ideals that should inform how we live, how we govern, and how we conduct business.

Thank you to Dr. King, and to his compatriots and successors, for words and deeds by which to live and thrive.

Finding the floor

When the market is in free fall, the question we always ask before being willing to assume more risk is “What will put in the bottom?”  We have found through our years of analysis and portfolio decisionmaking that the bottom usually arrives when a significant gesture from outside the market changes the direction of sentiment. The severe market correction stemming from the financial crisis a decade ago effectively stopped in March of 2009 when Treasury Secretary Geithner gave form and substance to the ideas put forth in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP). Europe stopped bleeding in late July of 2012 when Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, said in his comments to the Global Investment Conference in London “…the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro.”

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WCM Chart of the Week for Nov. 28, 2018

After several months of outflows and painful underperformance, estimated money flows into the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Market ETF (VWO) — a popular investment vehicle — are picking up. Since its near-term bottom on October 29th, this particular security has risen nearly 6% after having fallen to a level last seen in early 2017. It may be early days, but this could be an encouraging development because the MSCI All Country World Index has only risen about 1.7% over the same time frame. Expanding investor interest in emerging markets may mark a point where appetite for risk assets begins to rise, which would be a welcome sign given the past two months of turbulence in global capital markets. We are optimistic on the prospects for emerging markets, especially Asia, in the long run. However, there are still significant headwinds—the slowdown in Chinese economic growth, the potential for continued trade-related friction, the strong US dollar and rising interest rates. Any stabilization in these factors could be supportive for further gains in the world’s emerging equity markets.

Start today, and give for the long term

Today is Giving Tuesday. Numerous worthwhile charities are raising their hands and asking for our attention and our dollars in pursuit of their missions. The difficulty with a one-day campaign is that, while it may bring in new dollars from existing donor relationships, there is a low probability of establishing durable relationships with new donors. Whether the connection is spiritual or practical, driven by a single crisis or by a lifelong pursuit, connecting givers with worthy recipients is a process. Not only does a donor, whether organization or individual, need to find that alignment of purpose, that donor also needs to go through some degree of due diligence to see whether the receiving organization is a good steward of donated capital and creating meaningful and measurable impact with it over time.

Let today not just be a flash in the pan, but let it be the start of an ongoing process for kind and caring individuals, families, and institutions to discover and build long term relationships with impactful organizations creating positive change in the world. As part of that, donors should also consider solutions that help create a platform for purposeful giving that could last months, years or even generations. Consider donor advised funds (DAFs), private foundations, community trusts, and other solutions that make it possible to institutionalize giving, make larger financial commitments that can be disbursed systematically, and provide partners and resources to help identify and evaluate potential recipients.

A Tale of Two Koreas

We didn’t vaporize in a white hot nuclear flash, and the tone of the Singapore talks was cordial and concluded with few decisive next steps but at least a commitment to detente. We are looking for the market story in all this, and often like to look beyond the four walls of WCM for insight from other market participants. Here is a link to some insightful commentary on Korea from Michael Oh of Matthews Asia, a boutique we currently use in our ESG portfolios for emerging Asia exposure.

Matthews Asia Perspective June 12, 2018

Only Nixon Could Go to China

And here we find ourselves on the cusp of… something. Only Trump (ok, maybe Dennis Rodman too) could go to North Korea or at least meet with them in Singapore. Conflict has continued on the Korean peninsula and with the Japanese for a century, and was codified on the map as a contest between two political philosophies at the 38th parallel in the closing days of WWII. Even though we have maintained a military presence in Korea post-armistice, and of course have troop exposure elsewhere in the Pacific theater, it is only in the last few years that they have become a true direct threat to the US. Whether it is the dubious reach of their ICBMs, or simply the potential leak of fissile material and weapons technology to other state- and non-state actors, they have achieved their objective of becoming players of global consequence.

The latest Talchum has unfolded like a WWE match between Little Rocket Man and the Dotard with grandstanding, trash-talking, outright threats, cancellations and reinstatements. What do we make of it as investors? Good theater but not much real-world consequence. Of course nuking Seoul or Tokyo would devastate Asian and global markets, but that was an improbable outcome especially while Trump waved his hand over his “much bigger and more powerful” (nuclear) button. Kim’s regime needs food, energy, technology, medicine, general economic vitality and some degree of acknowledgement and respect on the global stage, none of which would be achieved under a mushroom cloud.

If Trump and Kim part company having not advanced anything, we have the status quo and both leaders can return to their countries claiming they got the other to the table. The market continues along as it did yesterday, last week and last month with no new information. If they come to some accord, geopolitically there is a great deal of relief and we can back up the Armageddon clock a couple seconds, but little changes economically. NoKo coming into the international trading community does not have the same consequence as Iran with their oil and cash wealth. An open North Korea might in the fullness of time become a venue for producing nations to trade and in decades could be a candidate for a German-style reunification, but in the immediate future they are at best aid recipients.

If the talks degenerate into name calling, chair throwing, and fallaway moonsault slams which, if the White House can pick a fight with Canada at the G-7, could happen, we will update this blog from the basement. Absent that outcome, we remain committed to Asia, particularly developing Asia, and see a status quo for the market.

Persia Perplexed

Following through on a campaign commitment, President Trump announced that he is withdrawing the United States from the multilateral accord that halted Iran’s nuclear program development and opened it to international verification in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. We will leave the analysis and commentary on the reasoning as well as the implications for regional stability to others. Our specific concern is what the implications for global public markets might be.

The most obvious place market participants are looking for a signal is in the oil market. Our view is that there will be little direct impact on the global supply-demand equation since consumption patterns are unlikely to change and most of the world can still access Iran’s output.

Where we think there is underappreciated and largely unmeasured risk is in the asymmetrical application of a sanctions regime in global fixed income and equities. Continue reading

Stormy Weather

Made you look. No, this is not about that. This is also not about tariffs and trade wars. This is a reminder that there are more forces at work in the market, more fundamental forces, than just headline news.

The Technology and Consumer spaces have been having a bit of a Waterloo moment. A steady drumbeat of information breaches from tech firms, consumer credit firms, major merchants, health insurers and others has shown that our digital lives are the new currency of commerce, and thieves will gladly take and then sell this information to the highest bidder.

To date, the response has been largely profiteering. Play on the concerns of the citizenry that companies cannot be trusted to care for their personal identifiable information and sell them identity protection and credit protection services, in some cases crassly by the very same companies that fumbled the information into the open in the first place.

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