A Brief Look at the World—China, the US, Europe and the Lake Forest Investment Society

I am heading out to Chicago for one of the triannual meetings of the Lake Forest Investment Society.  We have been meeting three times a year (yes, triannual can mean three times a year) for many years to talk about the economy and the markets, including providing some specific stocks for a “portfolio.” The best performing security for the period between meetings gets its touter a free lunch. The portfolio, an unaudited, equally weighted hodge-podge of names is actually up  427% vs. the S&P at 130% over the 16 years this group has been meeting.  The Society originated as a group of ex-Mitchell Hutchins employees and some of their favorite clients who wanted an excuse to share some provocative ideas on stocks, the economy, the world and life, eat high cholesterol meals, and maybe play a little golf. Some of the members and their origins have changed over the years, but the dialogue continues. The following are some thoughts I expect to share at the meeting:

China’s Role

This global deficit crisis won’t really be resolved until China enters the picture. China needs an export market to provide sufficient jobs while it tries to move to a consumer economy. It cannot find itself with a slow-growth economy if it wants to avoid political disruption, particularly at a time of leadership change. The developed world, both the US and Europe, needs to be showing some growth in order to be consumers of Chinese goods. With new leadership coming in 2012 there is an opportunity for China to provide some form of quantitative easing through the purchase of longer-dated securities or other mechanisms.  This could be combined with the purchase of real assets and intellectual property as well in both the US and Europe. Until we see some movement by China, the developed world markets will face continued uncertainty, as the resources available to resolve the European crises, specifically, are just not adequate. However, I doubt China will move until both Europe and the US take stronger steps on their own to develop long-term deficit solutions and near-term stimuli.

The US’s Role

Contrary to what has been a continual reduction in GDP forecasts and increasing odds of a double dip by the pundits, I think the US could show decent growth in the second half of this year—not enough to create a lot of jobs, but decent. This does assume that the Super Committee or some variation thereof comes out with a long-term deficit reduction program combined with some near-term stimulus, and Congress actually supports this effort. I think the odds are greater than 60% that they will. This doesn’t necessarily provide a boost for the second half of the year, but it clears the air for next year and eliminates some elements of uncertainty in the minds of business and investors. My guess is we could have one more horrendous scare, probably coming out of Europe, before the world comes to its senses and responds to what could be a real crisis otherwise. What needs to happen long term is a whole ‘nother post, but one could read Friedman’ and Mandelbaum’s new book, “That Used to be Us,” to get a sense of some of what has to happen.

Europe

What a mess. It does not appear that the mechanisms exist to deal with the Greek deficits without putting the European banking system and maybe some other financial entities at grave capital risk. Whatever does come out of Europe as a solution—and I think it will take the Chinese to at least have the appearance of a solution—growth will be slow, as the European banks will not be in a position to lend for some time.  This is an opportunity for the Chinese probably to the detriment of the US, if they choose to pursue it.  China bashing in the US will likely drive China closer to Europe. China can also be more specific in its actions by dealing with individual countries and companies as opposed to the Union.

Other Topics

In spite of what most of the Republican primary candidates say—Jon Huntsman excluded–climate change is happening. We have no coherent policies in place and what was previously there is slowly being dismantled in Congress and by the Administration. Fiscally, we don’t seem to believe we have the resources to tackle this issue now, in spite of the long-term job creation possibilities.  And, the fascination with “fracking” and what that could do for energy independence is in the forefront with massive resources from the energy industry devoted to selling the story. In the meantime the failure of an over-funded science project, Solyndra, has raised issues about government involvement in clean tech.  These are their own topics, which I will deal with separately in other posts. In the meantime, back to the LFIS meeting, I will have a hard time coming up with a good stock idea. My personal portfolio is in cash and private illiquid companies. My compatriots will have some very interesting ideas, particularly at this moment in the market. I am not so sure the public market is as cheap as many opportunities in the private market today, particularly away from some of the frenzy around social media and other Internet related companies. Maybe one more crack in the public markets will get it there if it is combined with some stimulus in response.  In the meantime, real private companies are having a hard time finding funds from the traditional venture capital sources. We appear to be going back to the original sources of capital for venture companies, rich families either in the form of family offices or direct.  They can name their prices.  We are back to the old maxim that one makes the most money on a good price going in vs. the price going out.

Shutting Down Nuclear Power in Germany? This May be the Best Thing for Renewable Energy and Emissions Reductions.

So, Germany is shutting down all of its nuclear plants by 2022. At the peak the plants produced 27.5% of Germany’s electricity. Renewable Energy is now up to 17.5%. There is a big gap to fill in a short period of time and it has German industry and the utilities screaming. This is on the path to have 80% of all its electrical energy come from non-carbon sources by 2050 in addition to a 50% reduction in consumption.  While one could question eliminating Nuclear from the clean energy picture, what Germany is doing will very likely produce an acceleration in innovation, efficiency and the development of intellectual property that will 1) keep Germany’s energy costs from rising, 2) expand Germany’s trade surplus 3) increase Germany’s share of global Intellectual Property and 4) reduce the world’s CO2 emissions more than would have occurred otherwise. This is a bold, audacious step and does require a leap of faith that the German engineers and scientists will accelerate the pace of economic renewable energy development, and German industry and its people will further increase the efficiency of energy usage. I think they will do it, primarily because they have to and they have the talent to do it. This may be one of the most exciting moves by a government to date in the renewable energy field—and a positive move on emissions.

In the meantime, the US is looking for more carbon in less mature formations to fill its energy needs. We’ve basically found all the pooled oil and gas that took 300 million years or more to produce and are now going after “tight” carbon in shale formations as our solution to meet energy demand and produce energy independence. While the shale gas most likely will produce fewer emissions than coal over the 100 year life of a formation, it is still producing carbon and requiring a fairly aggressive use of other resources, primarily water, and some real brute force in liberating the carbon. This, too, is a bold step with some big environmental risks associated with it. It may prove to be a bold step in the wrong direction. We will take a closer look at this in a future blog. The move by Germany is an exciting one, but it saddens me to see the innovation and the aggressive steps to produce the lower carbon world we need taking place elsewhere.

Trade Deficits, Energy Independence and, Oh Yes, CO2 Emissions

Our trade deficit with the rest of the world widened in September to $36.5 Billion, more than was expected.  Oil prices, a weak dollar and a rising deficit with China were viewed as the culprits. To the extent the trade deficit widens it reduces the growth of GDP. So economists are lowering their growth rate numbers for the third quarter and shaving numbers for the future as well. With President Obama’s trip to China in the news, journalists and others have jumped on the “undervalued” Chinese currency as a systemic problem that China must correct to solve the US’s trade problems and maybe those of the rest of the world as well.  It is highly unlikely, in my view, that a rise in the value of the yuan would do much beyond shifting the manufacture of some of the goods the Western world is buying from China to other Asian countries. I also think those countries, which already have strong trading relationships with China, would remain within the Chinese supply chain.  Nominally, our trade deficit with China might shrink, but it would rise with the other lower cost countries within the Asian sphere that are increasingly an integrated  part of the new center of manufacturing for the world. Of course, in the short term, deficits would rise as US companies would not easily shift from the established supply chains they have which are working well. Some combination of profit margins falling and prices rising on finished goods would be the more likely result.

So let’s, instead, turn to something that we control that would over time reduce our trade deficit—eliminating imported oil. I wrote about this in my post “Our Mileage Standards Are a Joke,” but let’s do it again with some refinement.  I apologize for all the numbers but we have to deal in facts if we want to get to a solution:

We are still importing close to 10 million barrels of oil a day, about half from OPEC (with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela the biggest), a fourth from Canada and a little more than 10% from Mexico. We have about 240 million cars on the road traveling about 3 trillion miles a year, consuming 4 billion barrels of gasoline or about 11 million barrels per day. At a scrappage rate of 4.5% a year we will have a new fleet of cars on the road in 20 years.  By the way, the current rate of new car sales is about equal to the scrappage rate.  We aren’t adding to the fleet. If we pushed our mileage standards up to get us to 55 miles per gallon on new cars in 20 years (which is where the rest of the world is going already), our usage would only be 5 1/2 million barrels per day on its way down every year after that as continued scrappage eliminated the lower mileage vehicles. Given what we are seeing already from the new start-up car companies and Ford and GM I think we could blow those standards away. I also think scrappage would accelerate if there was a real breakthrough in miles per gallon on a broader class of new cars.  The eVolt gives us a hint of what could happen.

So what about the trade deficit?  Well, the reduction of 5.5 million barrels per day of oil equivalent at, say, $70 per barrel (pick your price) is a $140 Billion annual reduction in imported oil. That is giving no credit for exports of the technology created to meet these mileage standards if the US government truly supports the development of these technologies within this country. The ARRA and DOE grants to new vehicle and battery companies are a start.  It also gives no credit for a possible share gain by US based auto manufacturers as the new technologies grab hold.

And CO2 emissions? A little more problematic a calculation since it depends on what gets one to 55 miles per gallon.  The simple calculation is the elimination of 83 billion gallons of gasoline at 20  pounds of CO2 per gallon or about 830 Megatons of CO2 per year.

Certainly, this is not the only thing we can do to reduce the trade deficit, but it provides a partial solution to existing geopolitical, economic and climate change problems that we don’t really seem to be addressing.