Over the past year and a half, trying to absorb news has felt a bit like drinking water from a fire hose. Like many of you, we have steadily become more concerned and simultaneously more accustomed to the chaos being created by the current US administration. While the actions of our government have deviated from the values of the American people in the past, this disconnect is especially evident today. The government’s high disapproval ratings reinforce the fact that its actions represent a minority of American society. A large majority of Americans are not beguiled by the administration’s base appeals to fear.
Amid all the animosity directed at weaker members of our society, the administration has also undertaken ill-considered actions on trade that we believe will impact investors.
In many industrial fields, US protections for workers and the environment outpace those in developing parts of the world. This, coupled with our relative wealth, creates a situation where set-up costs tend to be higher in the US than they are in less wealthy nations. The international trade norms which have been adopted by much of the world over the past several decades acknowledge this fact. They establish basic labor and environmental protection standards which most nations adhere to. The expectation is that as industries in other countries mature, they face natural pressures to improve labor and environment practices. We can see this dynamic in effect in China, India and much of the developing world as a more assertive labor force organizes itself and citizens demand safer, cleaner, healthier environments. Previous US administrations have largely stuck with this bargain and helped cement it. This administration’s response is markedly different. It has worked relentlessly to demolish protections for workers and the environment, engaging in a race to the bottom. Such an effort will have a long-term impact on our human and ecological capital.
US workers, citizens and enterprises have legitimate concerns about our trade policies. Much of what our country exports is ethereal: movies, software, music, designs and technology are simple to reproduce if the original source is available. American technology companies fend off numerous attempts each day to steal valuable designs or content. Some of these attempts are successful. In several cases, the perpetrators and beneficiaries of such thefts are politically connected businesses.
Prior administrations have worked to slow down and deter such anti-competitive trade practices, opting for targeted action that sought to limit the impact on other industries. The current administration has repeatedly shown a penchant for using a sledgehammer when a scalpel is more appropriate, and this matter is no different. It has embarked on a series of wide-ranging punitive tariffs on a range of goods, from a number of different countries, including China and close allies like the EU and Canada. These countries have begun to respond, slapping tariffs on American exports.
As the cycle of tit-for-tat increases in import duties gathers steam, markets have begun to wobble. Global trade and supply chains rely on orders placed months ahead of time. For the system to function, some degree of price stability has to exist. When prices, or in this case, duties are changing rapidly, traders are apt to overcompensate, not knowing whether the worst of the increases are baked in. An increase in duties can force companies to modify supply chains, moving production to different areas in an effort to avoid tariffs. Newer centers of production take time to ramp up and build expertise. When enough of this happens, supplies become constrained, prices rise, and quality suffers. None of these are good outcomes for enterprise or consumers.
As the administration’s trade war intensifies, driven by a president whose instinct is to always double down, we are not complacent about the risks.
A decline in trade levels will impact a wide swath of American industry, which is deeply interwoven into a global network of production. When trade levels fall, we will see this ripple through corporate expectations and outlook, eventually reducing valuations, earnings and prices.
Based on this outlook, we recommend investors maintain caution and adopt defensive positions. Reducing risk assets and holding a portion of portfolios in low risk securities such as short-term government bonds, fixed deposits or cash remains our priority.
Subir Grewal, CFA, CFP Louis Berger