Following the election of Donald Trump, instead of the large correction that many experts predicted, developed equity markets and commodities have staged a strong rally. The market hopes the new President’s economic policies will be the panacea to the low-growth world we have been muddling through in the wake of the GFC. Most economists and forecasters are now confidently lifting their economic growth expectations.
Investors Mutual (IML) will readily admit that we cannot with any great accuracy forecast the performance of the economy over the next year or two. While many economists like to make confident predictions about the future, we would rather stick to our own investment philosophy of identifying undervalued quality companies that can grow their earnings and dividends in the years ahead.
Trump’s pro-growth rhetoric and proposed stimulatory policies have led to predictions of higher inflation in the US, with the implication of further US interest rate increases through 2017. Federal Reserve officials have already readied the markets to expect three interest rate increases throughout 2017.
The truth is that Trump’s reflation rally could run out of steam before it begins, with the impact that higher borrowing costs courtesy of higher bond yields could weigh on the US economic recovery. The US 10-year bond yield has already moved from its all-time low of 1.4% in July 2016 to around 2.5% as of December 2016, with significant impacts on the affordability of new houses for borrowers in the US.
The rise in US interest rates has also sent the US dollar to its strongest level in over 13 years against its major trading partners. The strength in the US dollar is another obstacle that Trump must overcome as he looks to rebalance the economy in favour of US manufacturing and US exports. The strong rhetoric from the White House towards supposed ‘currency manipulators’, namely China and Germany, is an attempt to talk down the US dollar.
Trump’s much anticipated growth policies
Now in its eighth year of expansion since the GFC, the US economic recovery is mature and is already running at close to full capacity in certain areas. Removing regulatory burdens, as proposed by the new President, will be favourable for businesses, but extra spending on areas such as infrastructure could put further pressure on labour markets and the supply of materials.
Trump’s team has not placed much emphasis on infrastructure spending since the election and little in substance has been provided to date. The new President must also get his policies through Congress. Although dominated by Republicans, many of these are unwilling to watch the US deficit balloon any further and they may well demand spending cuts to match any such spending initiatives. Trump’s answer to this is that stronger levels of economic growth will provide the plank to pay for the additional stimulus. This is political rhetoric at its best in our view.
Trump’s proposed tax cuts for corporate America, while encouraging on the surface, also need to translate into higher investment spending by companies to boost economic growth. In the last few years, rather than build new plants, many US companies have used the low interest rate environment to focus on capital management via share buybacks, which have soared to record levels. Share buybacks may be good for companies’ earnings per share (EPS) and help increase the value of CEOs’ stock options, but they do not create many new jobs except possibly at investment banks and legal firms!
The low interest rate environment has not meaningfully boosted US investment. Instead, it has boosted leverage as companies have opted for financial engineering. Trump’s mooted corporate tax cuts have the potential to increase company earnings by up to 10-15%, but unless corporate behaviour changes, real economic growth will not jump as high as many are predicting.
Trump’s intention of raising taxes on foreign-sourced production and effectively favouring domestic US production may lift US output, but it will do so via the substitution of overseas manufacturing. Consequently, global growth might be little changed as companies shift production in response to changing tax regimes rather than produce more overall.
Australia and China
The health of the Chinese economy remains crucial to the Australian economy. As witnessed at the beginning of 2016, commodity prices, including our most significant exports, coal and iron ore, sold off heavily on concerns of a hard landing in China. Chinese policy makers responded by loosening bank lending requirements and increasing infrastructure spending that helped double the price of iron ore and coal through the remainder of 2016.
The performance of Australia’s resource sector remains heavily dependent on the strength in demand from China. The price rally of 2016 helped propel Australia’s income and will provide some respite to the Federal Government’s growing Budget Deficit, which is coming under closer scrutiny by the ratings agencies.
Positioning in a low growth environment
At IML, we are conditioned to the mindset of investing without overreliance on strong world growth. Our style has always focussed on the quality and value of the underlying companies we own. With so many potential uncertainties still facing the global economy, we favour companies that can grow from their own initiatives rather than relying on higher GDP growth. These initiatives include market share gains, cost outs, restructuring, contracted growth and accretive bolt on acquisitions, where management has the capability to execute on their strategies effectively and where we are confident earnings can grow without relying on much help from the economy.
Anton Tagliaferro is Investment Director and Hugh Giddy is a Senior Portfolio Manager and Head of Investment Research at Investors Mutual Limited. This article contains general information only and does not consider an individual’s own circumstances.