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Gambling Shows Consumers Are Spending. Cannabis Trumps Alcohol.

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(The chart above averages the rates of gambling growth for

Detroit, Maryland, Connecticut, Atlantic City, & Pennsylvania.)

Where We Are In The State Of Gambling.

Gamblers are back.

Money is flowing into consumer pockets.

The local casinos are seeing positive growth, and online gambling is jumping even higher. (Atlantic City saw a 10% jump in online gambling revenue.)

Lower income gamblers are particularly happy. Las Vegas adds a little bit of color.

Recall that the Las Vegas Strip caters to more upscale visitors. And downtown casinos cater to more lower income visitors. Strip year-over-year (yr/yr) growth is: 5% Downtown yr/yr is: 16%.

This is a reversal of sorts: the Strip saw double-digit growth in Q1 (Jan-March) whereas Downtown was in the low single-digits.

In other words, the upper income saw the tax cut benefits sooner. Lower income households began to feel the effect only recently.

Key point: U.S. Consumers have begun to spend again.

Where We Are In The Green Economy

Last year, Aspen reported $11 million (M) in cannabis revenues, compared to $10M for alcohol. In fact, pot sales are smoking alcohol sales across many other cities in Colorado (pun intended).

It’s most noticeable in tourism areas that cater to outdoor activities like skiing. Alcohol impairs skiing – not to mention leaving a hangover. But skiing while stoned is very common.

(Recall that back in 1998 in the first ever Olympic snowboarding competition, Gold medalist Ross Rebagliati was found guilty of having THC in his blood. Yes: he was stoned when winning gold medals.)

Other reasons consumers are favoring pot over alcohol start with the downside of driving under the influence: stoners are less likely to be caught because of testing mechanics.

Drunk drivers can blow into a breathalyzer as soon as they get pulled over. Stoners can’t: THC can only be measured reliably with a blood test.

Blood tests aren’t administered by police officers. So that means an average of 2~3 hours from the time a driver is pulled over to the time the blood is drawn by a nurse. That’s long enough for someone stoned to be measured below the legal limit.

Unlike alcohol, the THC metabolism varies incredibly. Generally speaking, studies are showing that a few puffs on a joint (or the equivalent) move the THC blood content to 100 ng/ml in the first few minutes, after which it rapidly metabolizes.

Within an hour, the concentration falls into the single digits.

Simply put, someone getting completely stoned can be pulled over and be far above the legal limits but, by the time they get measured, be comfortably legal.

So this is fueling the switch away from alcohol over to cannabis. In Colorado, it is illegal to drive with more than 5mg/mL.

Basically, pot smoking is cannibalizing alcohol drinking.

This is the trend: alcohol sales in  Colorado dropped (-15%) last year. MolsonCoors (NYSE: TAP), which is based in Colorado, reported sales were down 5% yr/yr in Q1 2018. In fact, North America sales have been falling $100M per quarter.

So here’s the problem: on the one hand bars are losing revenue while, on the other, pot dispensaries aren’t picking up the slack. It’s illegal to smoke pot in the dispensaries or in bars.

This means people buy and go home, instead of going out.

So last month a bill was presented to the Governor of Colorado: legalize ‘tasting rooms’ at cannabis dispensaries. He just vetoed it. Not coincidentally, the wine lobby has spent $100M over the last decade lobbying against cannabis. They know a threat when they see one.

The heart of the matter is and always will be money.

Given the choice between going out and drinking or staying home and smoking, consumers are voting with their feet.

In the spirit of if-you-can’t-beat-‘em, join-‘em, bars should be allowed to sell pot.

They can already sell cigarettes and alcohol, both controlled substances and both demonstrably bad for the health. The tax revenue is reliably collected (which is of paramount importance to the State).

Cannabis becomes just one more thing to sell.

The interests of the State, bars and cannabis producers are in alignment here, even if bars can’t see it.

Cannabis will continue to become even more mainstream.

Sincerely,

Andrew Zatlin

Editor of Moneyball Economics

Is Trump Good Or Bad For This Market?

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The market has been on a tear since Trump moved into the oval office. But is he good or bad for the market?

His style is combative and divisive. This brings on volatility. The opposite of what investors want. Investors prefer predictability.

However, his trade and economic moves are good for the economy. It should continue to drive the stock market higher.

(What I’m about to say is somewhat political, so please keep that in mind).

I believe that the role of domestic and foreign politics are playing a huge impact on the Trump agenda, so I’d like to start there.

First some historical context.

For nearly 20 years, U.S. foreign policy has been dominated by military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In order to effectively prosecute two major wars, the U.S. required real foreign support. The U.S. needed on-the-ground support to move military material. (For example, we needed bases in Turkey.  Bargains and compromises were made.)

Also, fighting on 2 fronts weakened the U.S. ability to project military power because everyone knew that a 3rd front couldn’t be opened.

The wars demanded a lot of money, time and focus.

Our allies and adversaries took advantage of the U.S.’s distraction and military weakness:

  • Turkey attacked the Kurds because they knew the U.S. would value the air bases in Turkey over supporting the Kurds.
  • Russia annexed Crimea because they knew we wouldn’t intervene militarily.
  • China built island naval bases in order to expand their military presence

And so on.

But each of these countries also understood the window of opportunity was closing: at some point the U.S. would leave the morass and be less distracted.

Seeing the end game, Russia seized Crimea because they correctly calculated that Obama would not put U.S. troops into yet another battlefield. This would not be the case a few years hence. They were correct: Obama enacted sanctions but took no military action.

But the U.S. is more inclined to revert to their position as global leader – economically and militarily -with Iraq/Afghan war requirements winding down.

The controversy now is Trump shaking up the talks with our biggest allies (ie Canada, the E.U., Mexico). The U.S. needs other countries less, and other countries need the U.S. more.

So the quid pro quos change.

Instead of sacrificing foreign policy and trade in return for military support, the U.S. offers military support and trade access and expects foreign policy and trade support.

When Saudi Arabia recently petitioned the U.S. for military support, Trump told them to pay for it.

When the UN voted against U.S. agendas, Trump told them that the U.S. would review the support and money it gives to countries that consistently work against the U.S.

The message is clear: whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

In some way, shape, or form, the U.S. was going to return to a more U.S.-centric approach to the world.

It’s what happened after the U.S. left Vietnam. Trump has simply accelerated the process and his style is hardly diplomatic. Indeed, other countries have not adjusted to the new reality of an assertive U.S., much less the Trump combativeness.

Except…they are responding in exactly the way they must. China will buy more U.S. goods. The E.U. and Canada will change their tariffs and buy more U.S. goods.  Because Trump is very correct: the U.S. is the senior partner and forces change whether the world likes it or not.

As an investor, this is powerful stuff.  Trump will most definitely push for – and get – at least $100 billion in incremental annual exports from China and Europe.  The economic impact is huge.
And the market is waking up to the way Trump’s various moves are adding up to solid economic benefits

So to answer the question: Is Trump good or bad for this market?

My answer is yes – the bull market has legs.

Sincerely,

Andrew Zatlin

Editor of Moneyball Economics

Why China’s Soft-Landing Isn’t Looking So Good

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Over the past few months, I have been pointing to slower growth coming out of Asia (i.e. China) and the E.U. (i.e. Germany).

We can track the slowdown by looking at semiconductors and the overall supply chain. These two factors give us an insight into how it could affect future Central Bank decisions.

  • Part 1: Asia coping with China’s ‘soft’ landing
  • Part 2: EU growth is barely positive
  • Part 3: US macro remains robust

CHINA: ENGINEERING A SOFT LANDING

  • China is trying to engineer a soft landing
  • Slower growth will depress trading partners – especially Taiwan and South Korea
  • Cheap yuan a continued target – depending on U.S./China trade talks advances

China’s dependence on industrial production and exports

For over two decades, China has been following the post-World War II Japanese playbook for achieving economic growth: exports.  

It is achieved by dominating high-volume manufacturing and is enabled by (1) market protection, (2) intellectual property theft, and (3) currency manipulation.

At the same time, domestic infrastructure consumption is boosted.

Now comes the difficult part.  Multiple waves are hitting. The soft landing for such a big country economically will be tough.

Domestic demand is slowing – the big projects are done and the white elephant projects are limping along.  China has entered the Japan desperation stage where cementing over rivers is the only way to achieve growth.

Export growth is low and is set to slow. Exports from China to the U.S. are up a mere 5% in the past 4 years. And that’s after taking into account the surge in demand for smartphones. What this means is demand is actually dropping for other made-in-China products.

What’s worse for Chinese exports is demand for smartphones are now slowing. In a way, this could be China’s achilles heel as smartphones now account for ~30% of the growth in Chinese exports to the U.S.

China’s Debt Bubble

China’s bubble is huge.

China’s debt has gone from 140% of GDP to 280% over the past 10 years. It’s still growing. It compares with the U.S. and other mature economies, except that China lacks an equivalent purchasing parity. They borrowed trillions of debt, but the debtors can’t pay it off.

Soft or hard landing? Never in history has a country taken on so much debt in such a short time without there being a hard landing. China can do their best to try. The strategy underway is simple: pop the debt bubble but avoid a hard landing by boosting export growth.

That’s where the One Belt One Road comes into play: Chinese government loans will enable domestic producers to acquire growth in nearby countries.  It doesn’t matter if Pakistan can’t pay back for the roads and bridges and solar power stations. What matters is that for at least the next 5~10 years, the Chinese producers are kept busy.

A fragile soft landing. 

Part 1 is underway: slowing domestic growth.  

As the PBoC slows the credit growth (M1 supply is now growing in single digits), growth is slowing. For example, Imports and Exports have fallen from +15% year/year to -5% year/yr. It’s still falling.

The Trump Administration isn’t doing any favors either.  China is very exposed to smartphones, and this over-reliance makes them vulnerable to tariffs. (Which is why Trump hit them there with a proposed 25% tariff.)

In fact, the glory days for China exports are probably over for now. The squeeze by the PBoC is similarly cooling imports: Chinese iron ore demand continues to track the drop in credit growth.

Indeed, the cooling effect of the engineered soft landing is visible in domestic consumption. Home price growth continues to slow in lockstep with the tightening credit.

Another example of cooling growth: Retail spending growth has slipped from 12% y/y to 9% y/y.

Semiconductors Confirm Slower Growth Ahead

A couple weeks ago, Applied Materials (AMAT) guided down 2018 revenues. From an expected 20% to round 16%. Still healthy, but the market hates slower growth. I’d consider this the trickle in the dam.

Why slower semi sales matters: Semiconductors are the universal common denominator in all goods and services. Facebook runs on servers. Cars are made with chips inside. And APAC demand is at the center of global production.  APAC semiconductor demand is a proxy for global macro growth.

Growth is slower than appears. Thanks to crypto currency mining, the past year has seen a boom in demand for semiconductors. But it is still a slowing market. Strip out the crypto boost, and growth is much slower than perceived. Applied Materials (the world’s largest maker of semiconductor manufacturing equipment) essentially signaled that business is set to slow even faster.

Bottomline, it means that Q4 is looking shaky for delivering the goods on global growth.

China Sneezes – Taiwan & South Korea Catch Colds

Taiwan and South Korea depend on exports, especially high tech exports (especially to China). They have both collapsed as a result of China’s own problems.

For Taiwan, the impact on Industrial Production has been profound – IP growth has again started to stall.

What next for Central Bankers?

If macro growth is synchronized, then for APAC it is moving down in step with China’s slowdown.

Central Bankers in these countries must balance capital flow concerns with the impact of higher rates on macroeconomic growth.

  • China will move to unlock other forms of financial support.  Like relaxing reserve requirements. Or inviting foreign banks into the banking sector (the better to move bad loans off their books).
  • Korea and Taiwan will resist rate hikes as long as possible

 

Sincerely,

Andrew Zatlin

Editor of Moneyball Economics

 

 

The Key Risk In The Market I’m Looking At Right Now

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The knock-on effects of higher interests is the key risk I’m following these days.

You may have seen headlines about the risk of rising interest rates. The 10-Year Treasury yield now sits above the 3% line.

You see, the interest rate is at the heart of doing business. As interest rates rise, the cost of doing business increases with it.

Consider margin impact first. Rising commodity prices are getting passed to consumers.  Deere (NYSE: DE) reported higher steel costs. This is forcing them to raise prices.

Next consider a stronger dollar.

Shortly after Trump was elected, the dollar was super-strong – worth almost 1 Euro.   

Trump talked the strong dollar down 20% – to 0.81 Euros.  

A weak dollar is great for US stocks (foreign exchange boosts the value of off-shore sales, for example).

But now the dollar has started to reverse: it is now $.85 Euros (a 5% increase). This isn’t “panic-worthy,” but it does dent corporate profits.

The trajectory is really what matters – it hurts stocks. Especially with another rate hike around the corner: money will flow to the dollar, further strengthening it.

Lastly, there is also rising borrowing costs. From a fundamental perspective, the impact is textbook: higher interest rates means higher borrowing costs and more expensive mortgage rates for the average American.

This will slow the housing and auto markets (we know how core they have been to the US economy). So we should expect companies in these sectors to guide down. (However, other companies benefit from higher rates – like banks).

An equally important issue tied to higher borrowing costs is corporate debt.

When money was practically free, companies loaded up on debt and bought back shares.  But now rates are a lot higher, which reduces share buybacks. And that cuts stock price premiums.

Now all these companies saddled with debt will have to refinance. And guest what… rates are now higher. Many companies will tank. Some will go under (think Toys’R’Us).

In essence, the market is asking a question: what growth can you deliver at higher levels of interest rates?

If these companies cast any doubt about their growth prospects, look out below…

Sincerely,

Andrew Zatlin

Editor of Moneyball Economics

 

The Markets Finally Start To Look At Valuations

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We are firmly in earnings season and the market keeps getting disappointed.

Don’t look at earnings because they are heavily pumped up by the Trump tax change. And by a weak dollar.

What you should really focus on this earnings season is revenue growth.

Consider Google.  Google crushed earnings because of the Trump tax change. Their revenues grew 23% (after FX issues). It beat expectations but was inline with what they’ve been doing for a few years.
But Google had to spend a ton to get those users (traffic acquisition costs surged 40%+). That’s why the market dinged them. In fact, Google’s stock price hasn’t moved in 6 months.

The market is suddenly discovering valuations. Google has a forward P/E of 35.  But expected growth is ~20%.  So they have a pretty big premium baked into their price. And that’s including the surprise jump in earnings per share (EPS) from its tax benefits.

In fact, many tech stocks are trading with quite lofty valuations. The cost of capital is set to rise a lot faster this year (if they need to refinance their current debt. Or issue new debt). Hence the sell-off.

If we are finally returning to fundamentals… then the market needs to drop another 1% to be “fairly valued.”  If the S&P falls below 2600, I might be a buyer.

A lot depends on the macroeconomic data coming out. The key concern is inflation.  Too much and the Fed may hike rates more frequently. That would really spook the market. Be sure to keep an eye on inflation data coming out. It’s the metric the Fed’s look at.

On a separate note, we are seeing the volatility (just as I predicted a few months ago):

  1. Valuations: Stocks have to compete with bonds, which are becoming more valuable (as its yields rise). Plus higher interest rates squeeze margins, adding more stress to valuations.
  2. Rate hikes: The Fed is raising rates. That will slow the economy. It will slow housing. Buckle yourself in.

If you like options, this is definitely a time to play the game. Buying the VIX would also be a good play today.

Sincerely,

Andrew Zatlin

Editor of Moneyball Economics