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China? What return would you like?

The Days Ahead: Inflation and headline risk on trade and tech 

One-Minute Summary:  Ouch! Those payroll numbers were 20,000, down from back to back months of 300,000 new jobs. If you're Chair Powell, your call on staying patient back in January looks like mighty fine timing.

So is this the economy weakening? Yes. Are the recession bears right? No. There’s a lot of noise in any one-month print and the new jobs number has an over/under deviation of 75,000…so this number may be 95,000 or a loss of 55,000. What we’re looking for is are people worried about job security and will that cycle into declining spending? There is no sign of either. Hey, look, there is no doubt the economy is slower. You can see it in housing, manufacturing and trade. But a full tip into recession? No.

As for wage gains, yes, average hourly earnings increased 0.4% over the month and 3.4% over the year. But if your employer gives you an hourly wage increase at the same time as fewer hours, you're not ahead (although the BLS says you are). And that’s what happened. The average workweek fell.

So there’s something in the numbers for the bears (low numbers) and the bulls (wages) but we’d stay our hand until there are clearer trends. Treasuries rallied. The 10-Year Treasury is at 2.63% compared to 3.2% in November. It’s likely to stay at these lower bands. At the start of the year, we expected the Fed to postpone any further rate hikes until June. But if we get another few months of this, the Fed’s next move may be to cut, not raise.

Stocks were down every day this week. It was mostly a global growth story. Slower in U.S., China and Germany and a very accommodative (bearish) statement from the ECB. This is fine. We think the market was oversold last December and over bought up until a few weeks ago. I mean how many times can the market rally on “hopes for a China trade deal” headline?

1.     Did the trade policy backfire? Well, it ain’t over but if you're looking at the halftime score, then, yes. Here’s the full report. A quick way to look at it is with 2018 and (2017) numbers:

  1. The U.S. ran a $891bn ($807) goods deficit. 

  2. It ran a $271bn ($255bn) service surplus (things like transport, travel and financial services)

  3. And an overall trade deficit of $620bn ($552bn)

 The big changes were:

  1. A much narrower petroleum deficit of $53bn ($61bn) but that used to run over $300bn as recently as 2012

  2. A much bigger deficit of $129bn ($110bn) in technology parts

  3. A deteriorating trade deficit with China at $419bn ($375bn)

There's no real mystery to this. One, last year’s tax cut was equivalent to a fiscal stimulus while at full employment. You do this and demand leaks into imports almost straight away. Two, dollar strength. Three, trade tariffs. We'd argue that the third was probably the least important but it did lead to a big drop in food exports. Anyway, here's the goods part. A rising blue column means the deficit is worsening.

The U.S. started to talk tough on trade in early 2018. There was an immediate improvement as importers of U.S. goods brought forward purchases to avoid tariffs. But since the low in mid-May, the monthly deficit has grown 23%.

We don't know where it’s all going to end. But the U.S. cannot simultaneously enjoy tax cuts + low unemployment + low inflation AND a smaller trade deficit + dollar strength. Something has to give and for now, it’s the trade deficit.

 2.     Are China stocks up and away?   What answer would you like? The headline indexes are up 25% to 30% this year but are still down 10% to 15% from last year. The main reasons are a feeling that the trade talks will go China’s way, that the worst is over and a rally from very low valuations…the China market traded at 10x earnings in December or 35% cheaper than the U.S.

Another reason was the power of the index. MSCI, a leading index provider, announced it would start to increase the weighting of China shares in its Emerging Market Index, which is the benchmark for $1.6tr of assets. It will increase China weight in the index from 7% to 10% and the greater China weight (so include Hong Kong and Taiwan) from 42% to 46%. That means around 40% of all Emerging Markets investors must increase their buying of China stocks. They have no choice in the matter.

This matters very much, because, as we've said many times, while we’re big fans of indexing, it really matters what index you use. Here’s the performance of leading China equity indexes over the last two years.

The returns range from -14% for the Shenzhen Index to +23% for the China 100 index. Why the difference? Well the indexes range from Hong Kong listed but China domiciled Blue Chips, Nasdaq type stocks, small caps, all cap stocks and stocks registered only in China with limited foreign ownership rules. The S&P 500 is towards the top at +16%. But you’ll also note how volatile China stocks can be. The peak to trough drop in most of the China indexes was 47% compared to 20% for the S&P 500.

But the biggest lesson? Choose your index carefully.

Meanwhile, we think some of the rally in China is overdone and so like to have downside protection on our Emerging Markets positions.

3.     Did the equity melt down in December hurt households? Yes. By about $4 trillion.

That's the first decline since 2015 and meant that growth in net worth fell to 0.8% from around 5%. But we’re not concerned.

  1. It’s probably temporary. High net worth households holds a large part of the equity holdings. Their propensity to spend is less than the average household.

  2. We'd note from the same report, that net corporate borrowing was flat for most of 2018. Many commentators only cite the gross number. U.S. corporations are not heavily indebted.

  3. Consumer borrowing (so credit cards and mortgages) is around 130% of compensation, down 1% from last year and from a peak of 170%. U.S. households de-levered post 2008 and stayed that way.

  4. Overall debt grew 4.5% but household debt grew 3% and the Federal Government debt grew at 7.6%. Nominal GDP grew 5.2% and as long as debt grows slower than income, we don't have a problem in the household sector.

The Household Financial Accounts report rarely generates market-moving news. But we like it because it confirms that we’re looking at modest debt growth in the corporate, household, state and local government sectors. The Federal Government is another story.

Bottom Line: Some 442 of the S&P 500 companies are up this year and 305 have outperformed the S&P 500. But, in contrast to 2018, performance of the 10 largest companies accounting for 22% of the index has been way below the S&P 500. We'd wait on the sidelines for now.

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Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

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