October 27, 2020

Tomorrow all eyes will be on the Senate hearing with the heads of Facebook, Google and Twitter. 

The hearing is titled, "Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?"

Arguably, the last U.S. election was won by Trump's use of Twitter.  And this time around, he may lose it by the use of social media against him. 

Here is what is protecting big tech from any recourse from bad behavior on behalf of the actions of their users, or from bad behavior their own actions. 

This is from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act …

 
This was written in 1996. Clearly, the world, technology and the internet have changed a bit. There was about 45 million people in the world using the internet when this law was written.  Today, that number is 4.5 billion. 

If these companies lose this privileged status, the business model changes.  That means the multiple changes (i.e. lower multiple).  Right now, Google trades at 35 earnings (ttm).  Facebook trades at 35 earnings (ttm).  Twitter trades at around 27 times earnings (pre-crisis full 2019 earnings). 

But this would be far from the end of the big tech giants. Ironically, if this rule were to be revised, to hold these big platforms accountable, it would only strengthen their competitive moat.  There will never be another dorm room startup that could conceive of competing with them.  The cost of regulatory compliance, in house content management and enforcement, and the liability would preclude any new competition.  

October 26, 2020

Stocks are getting hit, to open the week.

With eight days until the very high stakes election, the market seems to be coming to the realization that a second fiscal stimulus/ aid package isn't coming. 

With respect to the stimulus, both parties should just take the deal in front of them, and then work to reallocate funds (to the extent they can, to meet their own policy objectives) after the election.  In the event of a split Congress (highest probability), both candidates would not see another stimulus penny, unless the economy melts down again.  

On the election front, what are the prospects of a drawn out vote count, or even contested election?   

These scenarios would likely come into play if Trump were to win the key toss up states.  Why?  Among those states, six out of eleven require that mail-in ballots only to be postmarked by November 3rd (PA, NC, OH, MN, TX and NV).  That would create a window of several days where there would be an unknown outcome.  And if the election day outcome were overturned with mail-in votes, it's pretty safe to say the election would be disputed, with the potential of ending up in the hands of the Supreme Court. 

Now, as we know, stocks are not only a barometer of confidence, but also can influence confidence in the economy.  With that, stocks test this big trendline today — the line coming in from the March lows.  This chart will be key to watch in the coming days. 

 
While down 2% to open the week looks shaky for stocks, there does not appear to be a significant "flight to safety" underway. Gold is flat on the day.  And the 10-year U.S. yield (Treasuries), which traded as high as 87 basis points last week, holds in around 80 basis point this afternoon.  So the bond market, which has been reflecting an improving economy, isn't telling a very different story to start the week.     
 

October 23, 2020

China was actually mentioned in the debates last night — fifty-five times, to be exact. 

For a country in turmoil from a virus that originated from China, and further thrown into discord from disinformation campaigns from China, it sounds reasonable to ask both candidates for the next President of the United States what they plan to do about China.

Add to that, as we discussed yesterday, given that a communist country is on the doorstep of becoming the global economic superpower, dealing with China and fighting off China’s ambitions for world domination, is what this election is all about.

So, last night, we got this question:  Would you make China pay for not being fully transparent in regards to the virus (i.e. sanctions)? 

Sadly, we didn't get much of a response.

Biden said he would coordinate with allies and make China "play by the rules" (economically).  Leveling the economic playing field (playing by the rules) has been the hallmark of Trump's two-plus year trade fight with China.  Trump had nothing meaningful to say on the “what are you going to do about China” question.  The moderator moved on.

We did, however, get this today … 

 

 
As we’ve discussed, since Pompeo made his speech at the Nixon Library in July, where he called the Chinese Communist Party a threat to the future of the free world, he has been out alliance building. He has Japan on board.  He has Australia on board.  He has India on board.  And he’s working on Vietnam and South Korea. 
 
Who hasn’t been so eager to align with the U.S. against China?  Europe.
 
Europe has a lot of economic interests with China, which include huge investments from China, into Europe, surrounding the 2011-2012 European sovereign debt crisis — which helped Europe stave off massive defaults, a collapse in the union and in the common currency.
 
So, this meeting U.S./EU meeting looks like a big step.  Of course, in two weeks, Pompeo could be a lame-duck Secretary of State (in the midst of a major national security crisis), and we could have a lame-duck Treasury Secretary, in the middle of an economic crisis.  That doesn't sound good. 
 

October 22, 2020

The last debate is tonight. 

As suspected, and consistent with the evolution in 2016, the gap in the national polls has been narrowing into the final two weeks before the election — though it remains wide at +7.9 Biden (wider than the +4.6 for Clinton at this stage).     

We've talked a lot about the China national security threat this week. But as we've also discussed, we've heard practically nothing on this topic in the debates and town halls.  With big media in complete control of the election narrative, it's seems to be a forbidden topic.  Not surprisingly, big tech (social media) and traditional media both rely heavily on Chinese investment, ad dollars and the lure of market opportunities in China. 

Even the FBI report last night on foreign election interference, while calling out Russia and Iran, made no mention of China.  Remember, Twitter alone removed over 170,000 accounts back in June, tied to Chinese disinformation schemes.

 
Forget everything else, dealing with China is what this election is all about. 
 
Why?  What rational person thinks it's a good idea for a communist country to become the global economic superpower? 
 
If they do, I suspect they won't be promoting democracy.
 
You can see in this survey from Pew Research, from last December, China is nearly there (i.e. global economic superpower) …

We'll see if China comes up tonight. 
 

October 21, 2020

We talked yesterday about the significance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in this Presidential election, and the related propaganda wars being run through traditional and social media.
 
There are big stakes, and plenty of influence is being peddled.
 
Trump stands between China and the success of their multi-decade plan to become the economic superpower of the world. 

The finish line has been in sight for the CCP.  But Trump has spent the past two years trying to stop and reverse it, using the leverage of tariffs to force China into long-term compliance on "fair trade."     

With this in mind, earlier this month we also talked about the two other major forces at work against Trump, which are likely contributors to the propaganda war. 

In addition to threatening China's path to global power, Trump has also threatened the careers of D.C. politicians

After four years in D.C., he remains an outsider.  And he's an equal opportunity career destroyer.  Democrate or republican, if you're against him, he will destroy you. 

 
As we've discussed, it’s safe to say they will do anything and everything to get rid of Trump.

The other force fighting against a Trump re-election, with everything they have? Climate change activists.

As we've discussed here in my daily notes, climate change activists believe that climate change is an existential threat to the world.  And the financial backing is nearly unlimited.  A group called Climate Action 100+ has the most powerful investors in the world (representing $32 trillion in assets under management).  And they have been dictating how major energy companies are deploying capital on new projects – forcing the pivot to climate responsible initiatives.  Major global government entities/cooperatives are also largely behind the activist movement, feeding the effort with cash and subsidies.   

 

With that, one of the top investors in Silicon Valley today said this on Twitter …

He's right!  The Biden plan will be driven by a multi-trillion clean energy plan that will completely transform the U.S. economy.  Many trillions of dollars will follow the government money.   
 
The biggest investors in the world have placed their bets (in on the relative ground floor), and the payoff will be huge.  They are all in, and near the finish line.  Standing in the way has been Trump.  They view Trump as a climate change denier, and therefore have explicitly said he (Trump) is an existential threat to the world. 
 

With that, to what extent would they go to, to remove Trump?  Whatever it takes.   

October 20, 2020

The Wall Street Journal's top story of the day is an opinion piece from a retired Navy admiral.  It's titled, Biden Will Make America Lead Again.  

If you have a subscription, you can find it here.  Here are my observations …  

What's interesting in this piece, from a former top U.S. military leader:  Not one mention of China

Sadly, the media has done its job framing this election as a personality and character contest.  Even the admiral has taken the bait. 

With that, there has been little-to-no discussion about dealing with China on the debate and town hall stages.  

Remember, just three months ago, Pompeo made speech at the Nixon Library that sounded like a war speech.  He called for a "new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies" to take action against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  He then said, if they don't act, the "CCP will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our societies have worked so hard to build.  If we bend the knee now, our children's children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, whose actions are the primary challenge today in the free world" (speech transcripts, here).

Pompeo has since been alliance building in China's neighborhood.  Australia, India and Japan are on board, and he has been working on Vietnam and South Korea.  

With all of this, nothing about the threat from the Chinese Communist Party in the American election narrative.  It's seemingly off the table for traditional and social media industries, that rely heavily on Chinese investment, advertising dollars and market opportunities. 

So, with days until the election, the media and social media platforms have successfully distracted the American people from the real issues — even an imminent threat to the country.

Remember, the CCP is in in the late innings of a three-plus decade plan to become the economic superpower of the world.  China has grown 37-fold since the early 90s, while the U.S. has grown just three-fold.  Thanks to nefarious economic policies like currency manipulation, it’s been at the expense of the entire world – not just the U.S.

So, China can see the finish line, overtaking the U.S. as the world's economic leader, and therefore global power.  Then came Trump.  He has threatened to blow it all up, through forcing China into compliance with "fair trade."

With that, to what extent would they go to get rid of him?  We're seeing it. 

 
Worse than the virus, has been the sophisticated propaganda and subversion tactics used by the CCP (made easy by social media).  Twitter shut down more than 170,000 accounts back in June, that were spreading and amplifying misinformation.  Who knows how many have been removed since, and who knows how many continue to operate, and how big the network is.
 

So, we've been in a multi-decade economic war with China (and losing).  We've been in a trade war with China (and losing).  We are very likely, currently, in a disinformation and psychological war with China (and losing).  What's next?   Pompeo has been trying to take the CCP case to the American people, but has been ignored by the media.  In a Biden presidency, he doesn't appear to have any intent on stopping, much less reversing the threat.  

October 19, 2020

It's a big earnings week.  We'll hear from about 20% of the S&P 500. 

To this point, for Q3, 86% of those that have reported have beaten earnings estimates — and 82% have beaten revenue estimates.

Positive surprises are great, but the earnings decline is running around 18% — that's aggregate earnings down 18% from the same period a year ago. 

Of course, earnings can opportunistically be managed lower/weaker.  And the pandemic environment offers an easy opportunity for companies to take their medicine now — to put all the bad news (write-offs, write-downs, divestitures, etc.) on the table, to optimize earnings coming out of the economic downturn.  

With that, what is maybe most interesting number to watch in this earnings season, is year-over-year revenue change.  On that note, despite the record economic contraction of the second quarter, the year-over-year Q3 revenue decline (to this point in the reporting) is only 3%.  

This is thanks, in large part, to the sharp recovery in personal consumption expenditures  — now down just 3.4% from the record highs of February. 

And PCE is thanks to this chart …   
Household net worth has recovered to record highs.
 

And that is clearly thanks to the multi-trillion dollar policy response, which has 1) put money directly in the hands of consumers, 2) kept many of them attached to a job, with the visibility of re-employment, 3) kept employers solvent, and 4) promoted higher asset values. 

So, the policy bridge has worked, to this point.  But as we know, the path of the economy depends on the path of the virus.  The positive news on that front:  While cases continue to grow, the death rate continues to decline

The case fatality rate continues to trend down — now down to 2.6%.  The infection fatality rate, which factors in the CDC's assumption on the real infection rate (which includes undiagnosed infections, which they believe to be at least 10x that of diagnosed infections) continues to converge toward the annual flu rate.  Applying a 10x multiple to diagnosed cases, we get a real infection fatality rate of 0.26%.  This argues for a continuation of the economic recovery path, even without more stimulus. 

October 16, 2020

We now have 18 days until the election.  And the level of uncertainty should only rise as the day nears. 

From now until election day, based on the evolution of the polls in 2016, we should expect the polling gap between Biden and Trump to narrow, which will add to the uncertainty

With this in mind, we approach this very high stakes day, with stocks (S&P 500) up almost 8% for the year.  That’s in-line with the long run average return on stocks – in a year of an economic shutdown and pandemic!

 

But this number will almost certainly change, and likely dramatically over the next four weeks. 

Remember, this is what the chart of stocks looked like on the night of the 2016 election.  

And you can also see how that compares to the surprise Brexit vote, that summer.

But you'll also notice, in both cases, stocks came back quickly.  These sharp declines have more to do with air pockets in liquidity, rather than an abundance of sellers running for the exits.  For example, the sharp decline in 2016 was in the futures market overnight (very thin markets).  By the time the cash market opened, the losses were mostly recovered (and stocks finished up big on the day).

Add to this:  This year, unlike 2016, the Fed is on red alert.  In the Fed's view, stocks are key in maintaining confidence and stability. With that, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Fed (post-election) intervene in the stock market (if needed), to keep stocks stable-to-rising.  They're already outright involved in the stock market as buyers of corporate bond ETFs.  

October 15, 2020

With the election looming large, we get town halls tonight from both Biden and Trump, head-to-head on different networks. 

Everyone knows how the polls lean.  Let's take a look at how things look, at this stage, compared to 2016. 

Here's a look at the evolution of the polls for both Trump/Clinton and Trump/Biden. 

As you can see, the margin has been even more favorable for Biden, than it was for Clinton for much of the way.  But the path has been similar, and that would suggest that we should start seeing the polls tighten from here on out.  And we have a catalyst at work, with the town halls tonight. 

Let's take a look at the electoral map …

As we know, the electoral map favors democrats.  Before the voting starts, Real Clear Politics has the democrats starting line is at 216 electoral votes, the republicans start at 125 — assuming the gray states are close enough to call "toss-ups."  The winner needs 270. 

Let's talk about stimulus.  I've thought for a while now that there was no path to a deal.  I'm beginning to think we might see a deal before the election, because Trump my concede.  Why? If he wins the election and continues with a split Congress, he won't get another penny from Congress, unless the economy gets very, very ugly.  Same can be said for a Biden win.  If Biden wins and has a split Congress, there is no path to executing his $2 trillion clean energy plan — unless the economy gets very, very ugly.  
 

October 14, 2020

Yesterday we talked about earnings from Citi and JPMorgan.

Both were positive surprises on earnings and revenues.

Remember, as we discussed going into last quarter's reports, the banks have been primed by Fed and government intervention, to be profit printing machines.

So, let's take a look at the other two, of the biggest four banks in the country—Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

The results reported today were pretty much in line with estimates. But like Citi and JPM, both look a lot better than the headlines suggest.

For Bank of America, deposits were up 23% yoy. Investment banking fees were up 15%. And wealth management client balances hit record levels. If you add back the $1.4 billion they added to their war chest of loan loss reserves, their EPS gets closer to 0.70 a share, which is in line with 2019 quarterly numbers.

Wells Fargo is the worst of the bunch, by far, and may be one of the most hated bank stocks—which makes it interesting.

It's an early turnaround story, still working off the wounds of an account churning scandal from many years ago. And for a CEO that's only a year on the job, he has been given the opportunity to take all the medicine—to pull forward all the losses. There is no better time than in a global crisis (especially when the Fed has your back) to put all the bad news you can muster on the table. And it looks like CEO Charlie Scharf is working on it.

Wells put up $2 billion in net income in the third quarter, after taking $2.4 billion in charges. That includes booking losses to the tune of $961 million for "customer remediation" (refunds to customers for overcharging accounts) and $718 million for "restructuring charges" (severance payments). And it realized $769 million for credit losses, against a war chest of more than $20 billion in loan loss reserves.

As we discussed yesterday, assuming a continued economic recovery, the banks will ultimately distribute a lot of their loan loss reserves to shareholders.  In the case of Wells Fargo, that's over $20 billion.