Andrew co-founded Platinum in 1994 as the Deputy Chief Investment Officer, having worked alongside Kerr for several years at Bankers Trust and perfecting the craft of.. More
Trade war dominates, distracts and detracts...
The escalation of protectionist measures by the US government can only detract from economic prospects for the US and the rest of the world. The real question, however, is how significant will the collateral damage be and how readily can it be overcome by other policy measures? In spite of an agreement reached between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the June G20 meeting, the uncertainty created by the trade dispute is likely to continue to weigh on investment decisions the world over.
The events of the last 18 months have created a chaotic environment for any business directly or indirectly involved in world trade. The US government first imposed China-specific tariffs of 25% on US$50 billion of imports in July and August last year. In September, the US imposed 10% tariffs on a further US$200 billion of imports from China, with a threat to escalate these to 25% in January 2019. Then in December, at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, the two governments reached an agreement to defer the January tariff increase as they worked towards a resolution.
When trade negotiations broke down in early May this year, the US moved swiftly to increase tariffs to 25% on the US$200 billion of imports from China, and threatened to apply 25% tariffs to an additional US$300 billion of imports, which was essentially the balance of the US’s imports from China. Then at the end of June, at another G20 meeting, there was yet another agreement to negotiate and defer the next round of tariffs.
The US’s trade war with China is only part of the story. The Trump government first imposed tariffs on imports of all solar panels and washing machines in January 2018. Tariffs on steel and aluminium imports (with only a handful of countries exempted) followed shortly after in March 2018. While beneficial for US producers of these goods, the tariffs were detrimental to US manufacturers, as steel and aluminium are essential inputs to their business, and they often compete globally against companies without such imposts. There are also the ongoing threats of tariffs on European auto producers. Closer to the US borders, Canada and Mexico needed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (New NAFTA) and on signing, the US threatened to renege on the deal with Mexico over issues relating to immigration. Most recently, the US government placed restrictions on the sale of US technology to Huawei, the world’s largest producer of telecom and networking equipment. While theoretically based on national security issues, the decision now appears to be on hold post the June G20 meeting.
Implications for business investment
On face value, the one clear message to US businesses is they need to reduce their dependency on China as a source of supply, and indeed many companies are considering this. In theory, it sounds like a simple decision, but in reality, there are numerous challenges. These include, readily finding the quantity of labour with the requisite flexibility, as well as securing the full supply chain of services, such as design, packaging, logistics and financing, that are very well developed in China1. Submissions by US businesses to the recent public hearings on the proposed 25% tariffs on the remaining US$300 billion of China imports, highlight these challenges, with many simply seeing no alternatives to China for acquiring critical inputs to their business. The most likely pathway would be to pass on the tariffs to customers via higher prices with the potential to cause substantial damage to their business and a significant loss of revenues.
Nevertheless, some businesses will pursue alternative supply arrangements for their manufactured goods, which is a risk if a trade agreement is reached with China down the track, as they may be committed to less-than-ideal arrangements. This risk is clearly highlighted by threats to place tariffs on imports from Mexico if they don’t meet the US’s immigrations demands. Until this point, Mexico probably ranked as the next best place to source manufactured goods after China. In such an environment of so much uncertainty, it seems highly likely that companies of all sizes, both in the US and elsewhere, will defer investment where possible until the trade issues have been resolved.The decision to place Huawei on the US “Entity List” in May, which effectively restricts the sale of American-made parts and components to Huawei, creates another more specific area of uncertainty. It is not clear to what extent the bans, will prevent Huawei from manufacturing its product lines, but its inability to access certain key components from US suppliers is likely to dramatically curtail its business. While telecommunication network operators could simply replace the Huawei product with a Samsung, Ericsson, Cisco, or Nokia product, in most cases the networks will need to be re-engineered so they are compatible, which may mean subsequent delays to other investments already in the pipeline.
In addition to the recent ban, legislation passed in the US in 2018 restricted the purchase of Huawei equipment by any entity accessing government funding, with a two-year deadline to remove Huawei equipment from expenditures. In early June this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House’s Acting US Budget Chief was looking to delay the deadline by a further two years due to difficulties in sourcing alternatives to Huawei equipment2. Even where simple fixes are available, the sheer size of Huawei will limit competitors’ ability to fill the gap quickly. As a result of the Huawei bans, investment in communication networks is expected to be on hold as operators look for alternatives. The Huawei bans are however, likely to have a much bigger impact on the broader economy. For every dollar spent on Huawei equipment, there are multiples of dollars spent on the equipment of other vendors and associated services.
The agreement reached between the US and China at the most recent G20 meeting to delay the next round of tariff increases and place a hold on the Huawei ban while further negotiations take place, is undeniably good news. However, it hardly provides the certainty businesses need to make longer-term investment decisions. Ultimately, negative consequences for investment spending and economic growth in the US is to be expected. The US significantly increased tariffs as recently as May this year, which effectively acts as a tax on the US economy, and as such, will weigh on growth. These disruptions come at a time when the US manufacturing sector is already showing signs of weakness as evidenced by a leading survey of manufacturers, the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI)3, which fell to a three-year low of 52 in June 2019, well down from 60 in August last year (see Fig. 1).
Monetary and fiscal measures could play a role
There are other variables at play though that could potentially offset the impact of the trade deliberations. Most notably, the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have both backed away from tightening monetary policy this year. Markets are already pricing in a 70% probability of two to three interest rate cuts in the US this year. Governments are also likely to be more inclined to use fiscal policy via implementing tax cuts and/or increased spending, to encourage growth in the months ahead. These measures could potentially be enough to counter the negative consequences of the US trade policies.
In China, the economy is stabilising after a period of very tight monetary conditions in the first half of 2018, which were a result of the country’s financial reforms. As discussed in past quarterly reports4, interest rates have fallen sharply in China over the past 18 months, signifying easier monetary conditions, and the government’s fiscal stimulus is estimated at 3% of its output (i.e. GDP). While the economy has not responded with the same vigour as it has in past stimulus cycles, this reflects the impact of the trade situation, which has dampened both business and consumer confidence. If required, the Chinese government has the financial resources to add further stimulus to the financial system. As we learned in 2018, at the margin, China is at least as important, if not more so, than the US, in determining economic prospects for the rest of the world, reflecting its size and current growth rate. An optimistic tilt at the current situation is that the Chinese economy has performed well given the set of conditions that it has faced over the last 18 months. Even mildly stronger performance from the world’s second largest economy is likely to improve economic conditions across much of the world.
Not surprisingly, markets have responded to the trade developments by reverting to a highly risk-averse stance. Global government bond yields have fallen sharply, as central banks changed their stance on future interest rate moves and investors sought risk-free assets. In the equities markets, investors’ desire to avoid uncertainty has continued to favour high-growth companies (predominantly technology companies), that are perceived to be immune to external influences. Safe havens, such as consumer staples, utilities, real estate, and infrastructure have also benefited. Conversely, businesses with any degree of cyclicality were sold off aggressively, notably semiconductor companies, which were impacted by the Huawei ban and auto companies, which remain at the centre of the trade disputes. Commodity stocks also sold off in line with lower metals and energy prices, which weakened on lower growth prospects.
The extremes in valuations are encapsulated well in two groups of stocks. The memory chip industry has in recent years consolidated to three players for DRAM (the memory chips in PCs and data centre servers) and five players for flash memory or NAND (the memory chips in smartphones). The industry has extraordinary barriers to entry in terms of technological and industrial knowhow. Post consolidation, the profitability of the industry has improved dramatically though it remains a cyclical business. With a downturn in smartphone sales and spending on new data centres last year, memory chip prices have fallen and profits are expected to fall by around 50% or more this year. These stocks were sold off heavily last year, and again in recent months, as a result of trade tensions and the Huawei ban. Micron, one of the three producers of DRAM, recently traded close to book value, and on our assessment of likely profits, once the business recovers, was trading on 4 to 5x earnings. In our experience, this is a highly attractive valuation. This industry will grow as the demand for computing grows. On the other hand, e-commerce players and new software business models, which will drive the demand for DRAM and flash memory chips, are trading at extraordinary valuations. Last quarter we highlighted the software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies, many of which trade at valuations in the range of 15 to 25x sales. We believe the likelihood of any company growing their business fast enough for long enough to justify such a valuation is very low.
The contrasting stock market treatment of these two groups of companies is part of a longer-term market phenomenon of growth stocks outperforming value stocks. While we would usually avoid referring to this growth and value categorisation, it helps to highlight the dynamic of investors crowding into growth stocks and avoiding companies with any degree of cyclicality.
Figure 2 shows the performance of US growth stocks over US value stocks in the S&P 500 Index. The descending pattern in the chart over the last 12 years reflects the outperformance of growth over value, with growth stocks rising by far more than value stocks relentlessly since 2007. We would simply note that the last time we were at current levels was in 1999-2000. At this time, tech stock, Cisco Systems (networking equipment) traded at 190x earnings and Diageo (alcoholic beverages) traded on 12x earnings. Cisco’s stock price subsequently fell 85% from its record high in March 2000, and today, remains 30% below its 2000 highs. Meanwhile, Diageo’s stock price subsequently increased seven fold5.
In summary, there are significant parts of the global equity market that are trading at very high, in some cases even exorbitant, valuations. We can’t be bearish enough on these particular companies. It is worth noting that the Nasdaq Stock Market in the US (home of many of the highly valued growth stocks, notably high-tech) has historically had a high correlation with US economic growth. On the other hand, there are groups of stocks globally that trade on attractive valuations versus historical averages. Most of these are cyclical businesses, and although the global economic outlook is problematic, as we outlined earlier in this commentary, our assessment is that their stock prices already more than reflect a recessionary environment.
 See our reports, Observations from a Recent Trip to China, 1 May 2017, https://www.platinum.com.au/Insights-Tools/The-Journal/observations-from-a-recent-trip-to-china and Macro Overview, September 2018, https://www.platinum.com.au/PlatinumSite/media/Reports/ptqtr_0918.pdf
 Source: “Acting US Budget Chief Seeks Reprieve on Huawei Ban”, The Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2019
 The PMI is a good indicator of the economic health of the manufacturing sector, a reading above 50 implies an expansion in activity relative to the previous month and below 50 implies a contraction. Refer to the Glossary, page 40 for a more detailed explanation of PMIs.
 Source: Factset
Market Update - 19 June 2019
Platinum Roadshow 2019
Update - Trade War Escalation