Daily Comment (October 4, 2021)

by Bill O’Grady, Thomas Wash, and Patrick Fearon-Hernandez, CFA

[Posted: 9:30 AM EDT] | PDF

Good morning on the first Monday of October.  Risk markets are generally lower this morning as uncertainty in Washington and worries about valuations weigh on sentiment.  USTR Tai will discuss the trade relationship with China today.  We discuss what we expect below, but the short answer is that tariffs will remain in place.  Our coverage begins with the state of the budget and infrastructure legislation.  Next, we look at the situation at Facebook (FB, USD, 343.01) and the Pandora report, followed by the Fed.  Continued tensions in the South Caucasus are discussed as well.  Our regular coverage begins with China news.  Economics and policy follow, with the international roundup next, and we close with pandemic coverage.

Legislative drama continues:  President Biden went to Capitol Hill and apparently sided with the progressives.  Moderates were promised a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package and then didn’t get one.  Progressives now say they are willing to scale back the $3.5 trillion budget.  The new “deadline” is now Halloween.  It appears the progressives won on this round, but the battle isn’t over yet.  Is anything going to get done?  Probably, but it isn’t going to be easy to watch.  There will likely be an abundance of budget adjustments; programs will be shortened in duration to reduce their spending impact, for example.  Our take is that the markets don’t like the uncertainty.  Although a major increase in tax rates would be a negative, clarity in either direction—the measures fail or something passes—will likely improve market sentiment.

We note a couple of observations.  First, the president appeared to side with progressives.  Since Biden was a moderate for most of his career, we view his position as a political calculus.  Moderates fear that an expansive fiscal package will be a problem for their reelection in 2022.  It looks like Biden has concluded that Congress is likely to flip to the GOP anyway, so he has decided to support the progressives to ensure that as much gets passed as possible.  Second, the interparty negotiations have deeply undermined party unity.  That development isn’t a surprise.  Unity comes in acquiring power. Maintaining it while in power is always hard.  But the trust deficit that has developed will reduce the party’s ability to pass much next year.

Facebook:  Anytime your company is the focus of a 60 Minutes interview, the leadership of the firm has to be nervous.  Frances Haugen, a former product manager for the firm, gave a lengthy interview that aired last night, where she put the firm in a harsh light.  Haugen was apparently the source for a recent group of articles that were published in the Wall Street Journal.  For anyone following the company, or for that matter, social media in general, nothing revealed here should be a surprise.  So far, the revelations haven’t affected equity performance significantly.  However, if the information results in new regulations, we could see the tech sector affected.

Pandora:  No, it is not the streaming service or those charm bracelets but something more akin to the box of Greek mythology.  The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published their third, and arguably their most, comprehensive data regarding how the wealthy and politically connected use a web of offshore accounts and trusts to avoid taxes and shelter assets from scrutiny.  Vladimir Putin, King Abdullah of Jordan, and former U.K. PM Tony Blair figure prominently, although there are many others caught in the database.  Some observations—political leaders are prominent in the disclosures.  Five continents are represented.  Surprisingly, South Dakota trusts are also quite popular.  Mostly, offshore accounts are used to hide assets and, for some leaders, provide an “exit strategy” if they need to leave the country.  Another interesting sidelight is how aggressively Chinese firms used offshore tax havens to create variable interest entities (VIE) to allow for listing on U.S. exchanges and facilitate capital flight.  Even state-owned firms had VIE’s for various purposes.  The papers also show that U.S. sanctions have forced Russian oligarchs to take aggressive actions to protect their assets.

What is the impact of these disclosures?  We seriously doubt if they will lead to significant prosecution.  Those involved are too powerful for that outcome.  The biggest issue may be that this revelation will deepen the mistrust of political elites.  Trust among the ruled is already low, as evidenced by populist movements across the West.  The evidence shows that the powerful create legal means to avoid scrutiny.  It’s hard to argue for shared sacrifice when the data suggests the sacrifice isn’t shared or likely to be shared at any time.

The Fed:  In a similar vein, the Fed has been rocked by trading scandals among the regional bank presidents.  It came out over the weekend that Vice-Chair Clarida made large trades just before Chair Powell announced pandemic measures.  Although the trades were pre-arranged and cleared by the Fed’s ethics official, the optics are terrible.  Clairda’s term ends on Jan. 31, 2022.  This news likely precludes any chance of him being renominated.

War in the South Caucasus?  Last week, we noted rising tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.  It looks like tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan are escalating again.  This conflict is over the troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is claimed by both sides.  Last year, Azerbaijan won territory from Armenia; it appears that the conflict didn’t settle the matter.  There are two complications from this escalating conflict.  First, it will involve outside powers.  Russia supports Armenia while Turkey aids Azerbaijan.  Second, oil from the Caspian Sea region flows through this territory, meaning that if a hot war develops, it might reduce oil supplies when prices are already elevated.  And, if that’s not enough (no wait, there’s more!), Azerbaijan has arrested Iranian truck drivers delivering exports to Armenia.  There are unconfirmed reports that Iran is massing military assets on the Azerbaijan frontier.

China news:  Trade and real estate dominate the news.

  • There was a surge of Chinese military air incursions over Taiwan’s airspace over the weekend. Reports indicate that over 93 sorties were conducted by Chinse military aircraft, prompting a warning from Washington.
  • As noted above, USTR Tai will give a speech today on China’s trade policy. All indications suggest the Biden administration will maintain the Trump era trade deal, meaning tariffs will remain in place.  Essentially, it looks like Tai is going to argue that China isn’t complying with the Phase One part of the Trump trade agreement.
  • The Evergrande (EGRNF, USD, 0.355) saga continues. The company has missed several scheduled interest payments, and it is unlikely many of them will be made.  It appears failure of the company is a foregone conclusion; this issue now is how will the fallout be managed.  Parts of the company are being prepared for sale.  It looks like the goal is to ring-fence the firm, not to save itResidential real estate is a very large part of the Chinese economy.  Bringing the sector under control (along with its associated debt) is probably only possible with a notable decline in China’s economic growth.
  • We are seeing a global energy crisis. It’s a combination of several factors.  Oil and gas investments have declined due to the pandemic and environmental restrictions, and  ESG concerns have played a role in limiting investment funds.  Meanwhile, the recovery from the pandemic has led to a surge in demand, which is hitting constrained supply.  We have been discussing these issues for weeks in our Weekly Energy Update.  China isn’t immune to these issues, but the rolling energy crisis in China has some unique characteristics as well.  Pollution in China has been a problem for years, one that General Secretary Xi has promised to address.  Reducing coal consumption is part of this goal.  At the same time, frayed relations with Australia have led to a sharp curtailment in coal imports.  To bring emissions down and deal with constrained coal stocks, China is cutting factory output and electricity, which is affecting production.  These cuts are beginning to affect global goods supplies.  One interesting sidelight is that the drop in Chinese factory output is leading to a sharp fall in shipping rates.
  • The three-year countdown for the delisting of Chinese stocks failing to meet U.S. accounting standards has started.
  • A report in The Lancet suggests that China’s population could fall by 50% by 2100. We noted last week that the CPC has moved 180o on population policy, going from using harsh measures to limit births to a new policy that may be just as draconian in the opposite direction.  Perhaps it was this study that prompted the more aggressive change.

Economics and policy:  Inflation and trade remain key worries.

International roundup: Rising energy and food prices remain a problem.

COVID-19:  The number of reported cases is 234,356,026, with 4,803,322 fatalities.  In the U.S., there are 43,683,392 confirmed cases with 701,178 deaths.  For illustration purposes, the FT has created an interactive chart that allows one to compare cases across nations using similar scaling metrics.  The FT has also issued an economic tracker that looks across countries with high-frequency data on various factors.  The CDC reports that 478,410,525 doses of the vaccine have been distributed with 395,934,825 doses injected.  The number receiving at least one dose is 215,233,625, while the number receiving second doses, which would grant the highest level of immunity, is 185,492,579.  For the population older than 18, 67.2% have been vaccinated.  The FT has a page on global vaccine distribution.

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