The Dow Jones Index Average (DJIA) closed above 10,000 yesterday. Unfortunately, hardly any American understands the reasons for the increase and bounce off the March lows.
Most DJIA companies receive at least half of their revenues from abroad. Coca Cola (KO), McDonald's (MCD), Procter and Gamble (PG) have been expanding overseas for decades. Even Wal-Mart (WMT)--unfairly stereotyped as a rural, "red state" store--has been expanding aggressively in Mexico, the U.K., and the EU.
Why are these international forays relevant? Over the past year, the American dollar has collapsed. The Canadian dollar, once the laughingstock of the world, is almost at parity (again) with the American dollar. Almost every major currency, except for the Mexican peso (FXM), has increased approximately 30% against the greenback. Thus, as a result of international sales, most DJIA companies will receive an artificial boost in earnings per share due to the dollar's decline. For example, let's say GE sold 1,000 widgets in Germany in February 2008 and made 1,000 dollars. If GE sells 1,000 widgets at the same price one year later, it will record approximately 1,300 dollars. On paper, GE appears to be making 30% more money; in reality, nothing has changed except currency values.
While the dollar's weakness has caused an artificial boost to earnings per share, the DJIA has also increased because other countries' currencies are strong or artificially depressed. For example, despite some barbed words between China and America, China continues to depress the value of its currency. China is smart to do so--its manufacturing sector is still booming (while America's is declining), and a weaker currency gives Chinese companies an advantage in exporting their products. In the meantime, the euro and yen continue to be strong. The ECB, unlike the Federal Reserve, has a singular mandate to maintain a stable/strong currency, and Japan's Finance Minister doesn't seem interested in devaluing the yen.
Where does that leave the United States? It leaves American companies in a stronger position to sell products to Europeans, the Chinese middle class, and the Japanese. In fact, I would not want to own any Japanese or EU-based stocks right now. European and Japanese companies now have to compete against American products, which will be cheaper because of the dollar's decline. Although American products used to have quality issues when compared to European and Japanese products, most American companies have closed the quality gap. Thus, I see American products cutting into "home-team" sales in Europe and Japan, especially with Germany being more willing to open up its markets to outside competition.
One exception to increasing American dominance will be European healthcare companies, because European governments subsidize healthcare. Thus, if you own Sanofi-Aventis (SNY), Roche, or Novartis AG (NVS), you may ignore this paragraph. Meanwhile, the Chinese will continue diversifying away from the American dollar by buying hard assets and commodities. The Australian and Canadian dollars will continue to benefit, and the American dollar will continue to look for support.
Why should American investors care about these currency-based developments? The DJIA has increased because companies and investors expect the weak American dollar to boost spending by Europeans, British and Japanese consumers. If the foreign consumers fail to buy, the market's gains may perish.
What about Indian and Chinese consumers? Although both countries have increased the size of their middle class, Indian and Chinese consumers tend to save money, not spend it. While this cultural predilection towards saving may change in ten or twenty years, it is naive to believe that Chinese and Indian consumers will spend enough now to return the world economy to its glory days. Although it is easy to imagine Americans (and Russians) spending like drunken sailors, it is more difficult to imagine Chinese and Indian consumers spending money they don't have. (Note: I said spending money they don't have, so please don't cite Indian gold-buying binges and opulent weddings, which are usually paid with cash or some other non-credit source.)
Why do I lack faith in the Chinese and Indian consumer? Currently, Chinese and Indian culture tend to focus on family and tradition, not individualism, which dampens unreasonable materialism. Of course, this is changing, but for now, I believe my hypothesis holds true. If I am correct, that means Mr. Market expects Europeans, Russians, and Japanese to spend enough to boost the world economy, and this expectation is already priced in the DJIA. God help the DJIA if this increased spending fails to occur.
There are other signs Mr. Market has gotten ahead of himself. First, look at the price of gold. Gold is an excellent barometer of consumer sentiment. Right now, gold is above $1,000 an ounce, which tells you that consumers are skeptical about any long-term economic recovery.
Second, don't forget the U.S. unemployment rate. It keeps getting worse, and the BLS numbers don't seem to accurately record people working multiple jobs or people who've given up looking for work. Also, as an employment lawyer in Silicon Valley, I'm seeing some unique layoff notices, which might disrupt any steadily improving employment numbers. For example. some major companies are informing employees that they will be laid off in six months unless they find another position within the company. (This unique form of notice is done partly to comply with the federal and state WARN acts.) In addition, a small business came to me yesterday for advice on laying off one employee. My limited personal experience indicates the unemployment rate is getting worse, not better.
Why does the unemployment rate matter if it's a "lagging indicator"? Without a lower unemployment rate, wages will stagnate or decline, and consumers cannot and will not spend. If American consumers do not spend, then businesses will not spend or hire. Surely, you see the problem: if the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians don't come through, and the United States continues to have a high unemployment rate, no one will be left with the financial capacity to boost the world economy.
What, then, is a conservative investor supposed to do?
1. Recognize that the DJIA's recent gains are due in part to artificial reasons, not organic reasons like increased sales or better margins.
2. Understand that cash is still king, even though it may not feel like it. I, too, grit my teeth over abysmal money market rates, but I also own foreign currencies (FXA, FXC, CYB) to earn more interest.
3. There is some debate about deflation versus inflation. I have hedged my bets by buying a seven year Treasury note paying 3% and also iShares Barclays TIPS Bond (TIP); T. Rowe Price Inflation-Protected Bond Fund (PRIPX); and Pimco 1-5 Year U.S. TIPS Index Fund (STPZ). Months ago, I added a GNMA fund (PRGMX) to earn a higher yield. Even with these investments, most of them in retirement accounts, I am still cash-heavy.
Mr. Market's recent euphoria--caused by currency fluctuations, expectations of foreign spending, and stimulus money--should subside in time. While everyone else seems happy to party like it's 2006, I will be ready to take advantage of opportunities in 2010. As the DJIA rises day by day, I am reminded of Shakespeare: "Only / Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, And falls on th'other..."
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