A week in America | 17 June 2022

This week Martin Liptrot shares his thoughts on America's economic woes.

Martin Liptrot

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Doom and Gloom

The US economy formally entered a Bear Market today.

On Wednesday, the Federal Government hiked interest rates by more, and more quickly, than any time since the early 1990’s.

While the markets initially bounced up in response – happy to see any action to address the issue of inflation – only 24 hours later the S&P500 crashed back down and dropped below the financially and psychologically significant 3750 mark, meaning it had fallen the required 20% from its peak at the start of the year to officially be in Bear Market territory.

To be precise, the fall yesterday meant that the US had entered the Bear Market on January 3rd when the drop began, although it is only today, in mid-June, it can be confirmed. To exit a Bear Market, the indices must move upwards 20% from the recent low.

So, the obvious question, and one the talking heads on TV, the radio and internet are asking – How low can we go?

One such expert had spent the morning crunching numbers and was happy to tell all who would listen that typically Bear Markets see falls of 38% from the high points – implying we were only a little way over halfway through this phenomenon.

The next commentator threw shade on day traders and those chasing ‘meme stocks’ for fantastic short-term gains, predicting that they had burnt through any liquid cash or assets trying to predict the market and ride a bounce.

The next smartly-dressed young man on the TV told the viewers, if you could hold your nerve, keep 20% of your portfolio in cash and tilt your portfolio towards ‘value stocks’ – ie. those shares selling for cheaper than the fundamentals of the business would suggest, all will be alright.

No shit, Sherlock.

Now, I’m not qualified to give anyone advice on their finances, but you don’t need to be any kind of genius to say ‘buy low, sell high’ is a decent strategy.

A basic understanding of market forces, human psychology and an awareness of the political climate and calendar are also pretty good tools to get through this, I believe.

I look at my sleepy backwater in Northwest Florida as an example.

First, we are the preferred tourist destination for the good people of the southern states. As food and gas prices rocket, the family budget doesn’t stretch as far as it used to and the annual vacation to the beach may be one area where cutbacks may occur.

They’ll still come, of course – our beaches are delightful – but when they’re here they may ‘eat in’ not out, they may look for better value accommodation or they may come for 5 days instead of 10.

There will be a few knock-on effects to that.

Near the beach, we have a lovely, if expensive Publix supermarket. It is a pleasant shopping experience for vacation home renters, where gently piped Yacht Rock plays while you squeeze the fresh mangoes and Florida citrus. But a cart full of the stuff people buy on vacation – breakfast cereals, barbeque sauce, steaks, litres of soda, cold beer and suntan lotion – will be top dollar.

All those products are also available at the Walmart grocery store a few miles further inland on the busy 98 Highway. And there, they cost a whole lot less, never mind the discount or own-brand versions.

If I was looking to ‘tilt my portfolio’, Walmart would be one of those stocks I favoured, and their purchasing power also helps them in these difficult supply chain times.

The holidaymakers’ belt tightening will also impact the real estate market. As an active realtor supporting developers along this coast, I’ve witnessed, and benefitted from, a buoyant property market.

The population of our county has boomed, people have fled the office to ‘work from the beach’, and home prices have increased more than 30% in the past 18 months, partly driven by short supply and limited land availability.

A big part of that surge was investor/speculators. Homes sold, often sight unseen, to wealthy investors in Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas who only wanted to know what the potential rental income return was versus the historically low mortgage finance costs.

Now with renters looking for better value rental prices and mortgage rates leaping up, those equations are changing.

Already, homes which previously would have sold for cash at full asking price before even making it onto Zillow or Realtor.com, are dawdling as the market starts to cool.

Nobody needs a holiday home – or a new car or business class air travel for that matter – they are classic discretionary spends and the developers and housebuilders, auto companies and airlines will be shed from my portfolio in favour of those companies who make things we still really need and who can pass on any price hike to shoppers – consumer goods, pharmaceuticals and good ol’ gasoline, booze and fags.

Hello J&J, ChevronTexaco, Philip Morris and Anheuser Busch.

The current economic predicament is not restricted to the US – central banks around the world have hiked rates too – and the dilemma is largely shaped by pent up demand from lock down, conflict in Ukraine, the return of COVID in China and broken supply chains.

But the decision to aggressively raise interest rates to slow the economy and reduce wage inflation pressure is one decision the Government has to answer for.

It is even more surprising when US voters are gearing up for critical midterm elections and all parties will be looking to capitalize on the situation.

Joe Biden’s opponents will be keen to remind us that all this has happened on his watch.

The Right in the Republicans will tell us the President and his Democrat colleagues’ failure to take action – without specifying quite what that action should have been, of course – are entirely to blame.

And the Left in Biden’s own party are already whispering that if Joe had punished the big oil companies, clobbered multinational businesses who find ways to pay less tax than you and I, and had redistributed wealth from the super-rich to the very poor like a modern day Robin Hood, all would be well in America.

Perhaps, who knows for certain, but you have to think a global slowdown is more complicated than that.

As the TV morning news shows gave way to soap operas, I asked Alexa to ‘play my favorite economy and politics podcast’, where the news and views aren’t as constrained by big advertising budgets.

Here I learned three bold acts – similar to the demands of the Left in the Democrats – might help.

First, stop super profitable firms from using inflation as an excuse to gouge prices. The US already has effective AntiTrust Regulations and Biden could win a lot of friends – and votes – by sabre-rattling that he is going to use those powers to go after big oil, big tobacco or energy companies – none of whom are his traditional friends – if they are piling on the profits unnecessarily.

Just because they could, doesn’t mean they should” might be his soundbite. He’ll just have to accept the small impact on his party’s campaign fundraising.

Second, issue a decree calling for a one-time windfall tax on any 2022 profits which these firms have made. Chevron quadrupled their profitability in Q1 compared to 2021. Everyone knows that was playing prices not any fundamental brilliance by their board.

And thirdly, find someone else to blame.

Biden and his closest advisors seem reticent to point the finger at firms making his political life difficult. He had a side swipe at Big Oil last week saying “Exxon made more money than God” but then stopped short of saying how, and what he was going to do about it.

As everyone knows, politics as played today is a zero-sum game. For every winner there must be a loser.

Global slowdowns are in large part out of the hands of any individual, but Biden only needs to recall Jimmy Carter and George Bush Snr’s fortunes at the ballot box when they failed to act – or be seen to act – during economic hard times.

His aides need to tell him:

“Mr. President, your polling is terrible, your leadership is described universally as ‘weak’ – Step up, Joe – take a swing, for your own sake at least. What have you got to lose?”

Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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