The Case for Europe, March 21, 2017

Sevens Report - The Case for EuropeThe Case for Europe, an excerpt from today’s full Sevens Report. Join hundreds of advisors from huge brokerage firms like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo Advisors, Raymond James and more… see if The Sevens Report is right for you with a free trial.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been consistently mentioning Europe as an attractive tactical investment idea. Today, I wanted to more fully lay out the investment thesis, one that is based on 1) Compelling relative valuation, 2) Continued central bank support (i.e. QE), and 3) Overestimation of political risks.

I believe those three factors have created an attractive medium-term risk/reward opportunity in European stocks, and I believe the region can outperform the US over the coming months, especially if we see policy disappointment from Washington.

Bullish Factor #1: Compelling Relative Valuation.

The reasoning here is simple. The S&P 500 is trading at the top end of historical valuations: 18.25X 2017 EPS, and 17.75X 2018 EPS. There’s not much room for those multiples to go higher, and if we get policy disappointment or the economic data loses momentum, markets could hit a nasty air pocket.

Conversely, the MSCI Europe Index is trading at 15.1X 2017 earnings, and 13.8X 2018 earnings. That’s a 17% and 22% discount to the US. So while it’s true Europe should trade at a lower multiple vs. the US given the still-slow growth and political issues, those discounts are pretty compelling. In a world where most equity indices and sectors are fully valued, Europe offers value.

Bullish Factor #2: Ongoing Central Bank Support.

This one also is pretty simple… the ECB is still doing QE. The ECB is still planning to buy 60 billion euros worth of bonds through December of this year. That will support the economy, help earnings and push inflation higher, all of which are positive for stocks. Now, there is a risk that the ECB could begin to taper its QE program before December, or end it all together in December, but neither risk looms immediately, and the much more likely result is that the ECB tapers QE starting in 2018 and ends the program in June 2018. In that scenario, the outlook for Europe over the coming months remains positive.

Bullish Factor #3: Overblown political risk.

We’ve been talking about this for a while, but the fact is that political risks in Europe are overblown, and just like people underappreciated risks in 2016, I believe they are now overreacting to Brexit and Trump by extrapolating those results too far.

Going forward, there are really two important elections this year: France and Germany. The worry is that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen will win the presidency, but that remains extremely unlikely. The top end of her support looks to be just 25%, which might be enough to win the first round of voting (where voters will cast ballots for no less than 11 candidates). Yet according to all the polling, she badly loses the second round of voting by margins as big as 30% to 70%. Point being, Le Pen is not Brexit, and she’s not Trump.

Second, Germany will have elections in September, and Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz will challenge Merkel for the Prime Minster position. Schultz is a former President of the European Parliament, and he’s not anti EU at all. So, if he wins, from an EU outlook standpoint, it isn’t a negative. Now, I’m not going to get into the details of his politics, because they aren’t yet important for this investment. The bigger point is that it’s not really a problem for the European economy if Schultz wins. Bottom line, we’ve done well in international investments in the past (Japan during Abenomics, Europe when they started QE), and we believe this is another opportunity to outperform.

How to Play It: VGK vs. EZU vs. HEDJ. For subscribers only.

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Senate Math Primer. March 7, 2017

Senate Math Primer from the Sevens Report: One of the easiest ways to cut through the seemingly unending amount of political noise in the markets is to focus on the fact that there are only two important questions that need to be answered.

  1. Will Republicans agree on border adjustments and a corporate tax cut?
  2. Can that plan get approved in the Senate?
Senate in Session

Republicans have a simple 52 to 48 majority—but that’s not really that powerful.

We’ve already covered the first question from multiple angles in the full subscriber edition of the Sevens Report, but I think the second question is just as important.

In fact, part of the reason I’m covering this is because I get the sense that a lot of people think that once a plan has general Republican support it will automatically become law, because Republicans “control” the House, Senate and the presidency.

While the first and the last are truly under control from Republican leadership, the Senate is anything but.

Looking at the math, as mentioned yesterday, Republicans have a simple 52 to 48 majority—but that’s not really that powerful.

First, it’s well short of a filibuster-proof 60-person majority, and there’s zero chance eight Democrats will break with Republicans on Obamacare or corporate tax cuts.

That’s why both those issues have to be passed via a budget process called “reconciliation.” Reconciliation only requires a simple majority, so 52 to 48 would work.

But, it gets more complicated than that.

First, to say Republicans have a hard 52 votes on any issue is an overstatement. Senator Susan Collins of Maine (technically a Republican) acts much more like an independent. The same can be said for Alaska Senator Murkowski (she’s taking a hard line against supporting an Obamacare repeal that rolls back Medicaid expansion).

Then, there are Senators McCain and Graham. Both are solid Republican votes, but I think it’s fair to say they despise President Trump for multiple reasons. So while it’s unlikely they’d derail passage of Obamacare repeal/replace or tax cuts, they are going to be tough “gets.”

Finally, Rand Paul is more Libertarian than Republican, and he (and others) will have a hard line approach to any tax cuts that might increase the deficit.

Bottom line, while Republicans “control” the legislative and executive branches of government, the Senate is still a bottleneck in the legislative process, and getting Obamacare repeal/replace through the Senate by Memorial Day will be a tough task—never mind corporate tax reform by the August recess (remember, there aren’t even hearings scheduled for the Supreme Court nominee yet).

Again, I’m not trying to throw cold water on this rally, or the optimism fueling it. I’m just trying to keep everyone focused on facts, and the outlook for passage of major reforms through the Senate remains dicey at best.

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If A Rate Hike Is Expected, Why Aren’t Rates and the Dollar Higher? March 3, 2017

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If A Rate Hike Is Expected, Why Aren’t Rates and the Dollar Higher? 

If a rate hike is expected, why isn’t the dollar index higher?

That’s a fair question to ask, given two weeks ago there was no expectation of a May rate hike. Then, a week ago, there was no expectation of a March rate hike. Now, a March hike is fully expected.

Yet despite that relatively quick shift, as mentioned the Dollar Index still isn’t materially above 102, and still not close to the recent 103 high. Meanwhile, the 10-year yield is still decently below 2.60%.

The reasons we haven’t seen greater rallies in the dollar or yields are twofold.

First, a rate hike is not a foregone conclusion because of the jobs report next Friday. If it’s disappointing then a May hike makes more sense.

Second, the market still doesn’t believe the Fed is materially more hawkish. So, even if the Fed hikes now, the market still expects just three hikes the remainder of the year, which is what the Fed said in December.

The point is, the currency and bond markets still haven’t fully priced in a March hike yet, nor have they accepted the existence of a “hawkish.” Fed. However, if that jobs number is strong I believe we’ll see further upside in the dollar and yields.

But the big jumps in both will come when the market realizes the Fed is more hawkish than it currently expects, and that likely won’t happen until we see more inflation or proof of actual fiscal stimulus.

Regardless, barring an economic set back the trend higher in the dollar and rates is close to resuming, and investors should be positioned accordingly.

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How Far Could Stocks Go? Let’s Look at the Charts. March 2, 2017

How Far Could Stocks Go?

Stocks have screamed to all-time highs in recent weeks, and with new highs always comes the question of how far could stocks go? We like to regularly offer fundamental valuation updates as we did two weeks ago, but it is also important to outline what the charts are telling us as far as upside targets and key support levels for near-term price movements.

This stock market technical update is an excerpt from our March 1st Sevens Report. Claim your free 2-week trial today and cut through the jargon to specifics to support your client conversations. 

In the wake of the election there were a lot of very important technical developments. The two most notable were the shift from a bear market signal to a bull market signal in Dow Theory when the S&P was trading at 2165, and confirmation of that signal when the S&P broke to all-time highs November 21.

Currently, both the technical trend and upside momentum of the market continue to suggest the path of least resistance is higher for the medium term. That is the case in spite of the fact that there are countless fundamental uncertainties, most important are related to politics and fiscal policy.

Prices taken at market close on Feb 28.

Prices taken at market close on Feb 28.

In a situation like this, where technicals are largely divergent from fundamentals, many financial professionals and investors look for some direction as to how far stocks could rally from current levels and where a pullback would most likely pause if not reverse. So, we put together a few upside targets as well as downside support levels to watch for the S&P 500.

In a quick review, when any issue (stock, bond, commodity or currency) is trading in never-before-seen territory, there are only two ways to come up with targets in the direction of the new highs—measured moves, and likely areas of interest for options traders. The latter is relatively easy to figure out, as options volumes generally cluster around the big round numbers (in this case 2350 and 2400).


Tracking Measured Moves.

Measured moves, on the other hand, are a little more scientific. The idea behind a measured move is that if the market moved a certain distance against the dominant trend, it will more than likely move at least that far back in favor of the trend once it resumes.

  • Our next upside target is actually a combination of two measured moves and a likely area of interest for S&P option traders: 2450. On the daily chart, a measured move can be calculated from the late-October lows (2084) to the late-December digestion area (2271), which results in a measured move to 2458 in the S&P from current levels. In a supporting fashion, a measured move on the weekly chart can be calculated from the previous S&P highs of 2126 to the February ’16 lows of 1810. That results in a target of 2442.
  • This gives us an ultimate target window of 2442-2458, which encompasses a likely options trader target of 2450.

stock market charts, March 2

  • Bottom line, we are not suggesting that this bull market will end in the mid 2400s; however, for those looking to take profits, you likely will not be alone in doing so in that window around the 2450.

Support Levels

Turning to support levels, the February melt-up in stocks has left a large “volume gap” on the chart, which basically means stocks sprinted from around 2300 to 2360. Because of the velocity of that move higher, there were not many logical support levels created in the month of February. And a set up like that raises the odds that there could be a swift move back through that area.

  • There is an initial and minor area of support around 2343, where there was minor consolidation on February 16. This area will at least be noticed by technical traders and volume-driven algorithms.
    Secondary and more formidable support lies near the previous set of new all-time highs established in December in the band between 2270 and 2280. Here there will be buyer support from both bulls who missed out on the breakout as well as faster-money short sellers looking to book profits.

March 2, book profits

  • Our final support zone is derived from a weekly timeframe, and again at a previous all-time high of 2100, where the most consolidation occurred since the tech sell-off finally ended in 2002.

These levels are meant to provide you with a general idea of the most important technical levels on either side of the broader stock market right now. This information, we have heard in the past from advisor subscribers, is very useful in conversations with clients.

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Why It’s Time to Buy Insurance—Right Now! March 1, 2017

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The Practical Takeaway from Low Volatility

One of the bigger conundrums right now is that volatility in the stock market is plumbing multi-year lows despite the presence of multiple major and binary events that will resolve themselves positively or negatively in the coming months.

Some examples (just to name a few): When/if we will get corporate tax reform? Will the US institute tariffs? Will interest rates continue to move higher? Is inflation finally back?

Each of these events could easily cause a pullback in stocks of at least 10%, yet investors seem unimpressed. Case in point, the VIX recently hit 9.97, which is a multi-year low.

Now, the obvious question is… “Why is implied volatility so low?”

First, implied volatility is low because the macro-economic backdrop has been supportive, and stocks have relentlessly gone straight up since November. This has been the longest stretch without a 1% decline in decades.

However, there is a second reason.

The lack of volatility has invited investors and funds to sell options (specifically puts) and collect premium. Given the lack of volatility, that’s been a profitable strategy, and it has invited more competition.

So, more investors selling options (i.e. selling volatility and collecting premium) pushes the price down, and that’s why implied option volatility (which is what the VIX is based on) has dropped extra low.

Normally, this would catch my attention, but a conversation I had with a friend in the insurance business made me both intrigued and concerned that this inherent “complacency” is prevalent throughout the economy. Here’s why.

It's time to buy insurance.

I’ve almost never been an advocate of buying puts… yet buying puts to preserve market performance may not be a bad idea.

He said in his entire career, commercial and property insurance rates have never been lower than they are now.

And, if you think about it, I guess that makes sense.

I started my conversation with him because I asked my friend if my property insurance would go up because of Hurricane Matthew last year, and he said, “No way.”

He went on to tell me that the insurance companies are so flush with cash, they are just dying to write contracts to take in premium, and with so many competitors out there, it’s caused the price of insurance to drop sharply.

Empirically, that makes sense. With bond yields so low, insurance companies need to generate income and writing insurance over the past several years has been profitable (broadly speaking, we haven’t had any major disasters for the non-health insurance business).

But at this point, my friend remarked that it’s getting a bit ridiculous, as insurance companies are taking on a lot of exposure just to collect a little bit in premium (at least according to his experience).

Practical Takeaways

First, don’t assume that a low VIX means a drop in the stock market is looming. Implied volatility can’t get much lower, but it can stay down here for a while.

Volatility stayed around these levels for about two years in the ’93-’95 period, and again in the ’05-’07 period. Point being, low VIX is not a reason to expect a correction.

Second, insurance in the market (i.e. puts) is cheap, so we should consider buying insurance (i.e. buying puts).

As I said in Monday’s report, I’m almost never been an advocate of buying puts because I hate buying insurance.

Yet given we could easily see an air pocket open up in this market if corporate tax reform dies, or the Fed hikes rates in March, buying puts to preserve performance may not be a bad idea.

For less-experienced options investors, just buying near-the-money puts here might make sense.

For more experienced options investors, buying an at-the-money put and selling an out-of-the-money put may be attractive.

Here’s my logic. We think there’s strong support for the market around 2275, so as long as fundamentals are generally “ok,” we’d be ok buying the S&P 500 at that level.

So, we could sell 2275 puts (meaning we’d get put the stock at that level) and then use those proceeds to reduce the cost of an at the money put, say at 2370. That way, we’ve insured ourselves against any 5% or less drop in stocks, and also have the opportunity to buy the mar-ket cheaper at a level we’re comfortable with.

Third, actual insurance appears cheap, so I’m re-pricing life insurance and other insurance to try and lock in low prices.

Finally, generally, the idea that low yields and a chase for income is pushing both investors and insurance companies to increase exposure in exchange for reduced compensation is making my blood pressure go up.

As we’ve all seen, this can last for a long time, so it doesn’t mean a calamity is around the corner. Still, we all know that’s the kind of anecdotal behavior that leads to nasty consequences. Here’s to hoping it’s different this time.

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“Is the Stock Market Too Expensive?” February 23, 2017

“Is the Stock Market Too Expensive?” 

That’s a question I’m getting asked a lot lately by subscribers and colleagues.

With stocks at record highs, there is a lot of worry that the market is unsustainably expensive. But, that’s simply not the case.

Yesterday, in the full edition of The Sevens Report, we broke it down.

  • Provided a three-part analysis of what makes the market 1) Expensive, 2) Fairly Valued (with some room for upside) and 3) Cheap
  • Named each catalyst that would decide that valuation level
  • Listed specific sector and style ETFs that we believe can outperform in this valuation environment.

Excerpt from that research below:

Valuation Update: How Overvalued Are Stocks?

It’s no secret that stocks are richly valued, but while those high valuations make me generally uncomfortable (I’m a value investor at heart) I do feel the need to push back a bit on the idea that valuations, alone, are a reason to lighten up on equity exposure.

Yes, in some scenarios the stock market is simply “too expensive.” Still, there are other, more plausible scenarios where I can show the market as reasonably valued or even cheap. Here are a few of those scenarios.

The Market is Too Expensive If: You’re Looking at Current Year Earnings. Looking at current year earnings, the S&P 500 is historically very expensive. With consensus $128 2017 S&P 500 EPS, the S&P 500 is trading at a whopping 18.44X current year earnings. Anything above 18X has proven (longer term) historically unsustainable.

The Market Is Not Too Expensive (Yet) If: You Look At Next Year’s (2018) Earnings (And This is Without Any Tax Cuts). Consensus 2018 (so next year) EPS are around $135, which does not include any benefit from a corporate tax cut. At $135, the S&P 500 is trading at 17.4X next year’s earnings. Yes, that is expensive (the 20-year average is 17.2X per FactSet) but it’s not unsustainable, not in an environment with historically low interest rates and an apparent macro-economic acceleration.

In fact, if the macro set up doesn’t change (and we don’t get any definitively bad news from Washington), I could see investors pushing that multiple to 18X, or 2,430 in the S&P 500 (about 3% higher from here).

Above that, I think the market would get somewhat prohibitively expensive, but that would depend on what’s happening with the economy, inflation and rates.

The Market Is Cheap If: Real, Material Corporate Tax Cuts Get Implemented. If we do get material corporate tax cuts in 2017, most analysts think that would add at least $10/share to S&P 500 EPS, bringing the 2018 number from $135 to $145.

At $145 EPS, the S&P 500 would be trading at just 16.3X next year’s earnings, which in this environment could easily be considered reasonable if not outright cheap.

“Is the stock market too expensive?”

Six Value ETFs That Can (and Have) Outperformed

From a practical standpoint, the fact that the stock market is on the expensive side historically does reinforce my preference for value-oriented ETFs. Since late 2016, we’ve focused our tactical strategies on sectors we considered a “value” and they have handily outperformed the S&P 500:

  • In September of 2016, we strongly advocated getting long banks due to 1) Compelling valuation and 2) The start of the uptrend in bond yields. Since that call on September 26, our preferred bank ETF has risen 41%!
  • In late 2016, while many analysts were chasing cyclical sectors in the wake of the election, we instead advocated buying value in super-cap internet stocks. Our preferred internet ETF has risen 9.8% in 2017, handily outperforming the S&P 500.
  • At the start of 2017, we cited the maligned healthcare sector as our preferred contrarian play for 2017, based on the idea that overly negative political fears had created a value opportunity. Our two preferred healthcare ETFs have risen 7.3% and 7.5% so far in 2017, and we think that trend of outperformance will continue. 
  • More broadly, we have identified two “Value” style ETFs that we believe will outperform the markets in this current macro-environment, and these two broad ETFs remain our preferred vehicle to be generically “long” the market.

The Sevens Report doesn’t just help you cut through the noise and focus on what’s truly driving markets – we also provide tactical idea generation and technical analysis to help our subscribers outperform. You can sign up for your free trial today:

“This is a huge value add. If I can avoid even a modest portion of significant market pullbacks, and be well-invested during bull markets based on your Dow Theory calls, my clients will be extremely happy with me. I already look like a genius to them!” – Financial Advisor with a National Brokerage Firm, New York, NY. 

Disappointing Numbers from Flash February Manufacturing & Service PMIs: February 22, 2017

Below is an excerpt from the “Economics” section of the Sevens Report. The Sevens Report has everything you need to know about the markets by 7am each morning in 7 minutes or less—can get a free trial if you sign up now.

Flash February Manufacturing & Service PMIs

  • Feb. Manufacturing PMI declined to 54.3 vs. (E) 55.5.
  • Fed. Service PMI declined to 53.9 vs. (E) 55.9.


In what was a surprising contradiction to last week’s very strong Empire and Philly manufacturing PMIs, both flash PMIs declined, and implied increased stagflation risk, signaling that further economic acceleration is not a foregone conclusion.

Now, to be clear, neither number was outright bad in an absolute sense. Both numbers in aggregate are reflective of a decently strong economy. Yet in order to power stocks higher in the context of growing political dysfunction, data needs to continue to show acceleration, and neither of these flash PMIs showed acceleration.

Declines in Nearly Every Sub Index of the PMI

Looking specifically at the manufacturing PMI, New Orders, the leading indicator in the Report, dipped to 56.2 from 57.4 (still a very high absolute reading but a decline nonetheless). In fact, virtually every sub index declined in February except for input prices, which rose slightly to 56.1 from 56.0. Notably, output prices (i.e. selling prices) dipped slightly to 51.7 vs. 51.9, which is indicative of margin compression. One number doesn’t make a trend, but that’s something to keep an eye on.

Bottom line, the flash PMIs are one of the bigger economic numbers each month, and this was a surprising disappointment. It won’t change the trajectory of the rally near term, but strong (and stronger) economic data is a critical support to this market, especially in the face of growing doubts in Washington. So, the rest of February’s data just got a lot more interesting.

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Economics: This Week and Last Week. February 21, 2017

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Both economic growth and inflation accelerated according to last week’s data, and while the former continues to help support stocks despite a darkening outlook from Washington, the latter also is increasing the likelihood of a more hawkish-than-expected Fed in 2017, and a resumption of the uptrend in interest rates. For now, though, the benefit of the former is outweighing the risk of the latter.

If, however, we do not see any dip in the data between now and early May, I do expect the Fed to hike rates at that May meeting, which would be a marginal hawkish surprise. To boot, if we get a strong Jobs report (out Friday, March 3), then a March rate hike two weeks later isn’t out of the question. Point being, upward pressure is building on interest rates again.

Last Week

Both economic growth and inflation accelerated according to last week’s data.

Looking at last week’s data, it was almost universally strong. Retail Sales, which was the key number last week, handily beat expectations as the headline rose 0.4% vs. (E) 0.1% while the more important “Control” retail sales (which is the best measure of discretionary consumer spending) rose 0.4% vs. (E) 0.3%. Additionally, there were positive revisions to the December data, and clearly the US consumer continues to spend (which is more directly positive for the credit card companies).

Additionally, the first look at February manufacturing data was very strong. Empire Manufacturing beat estimates, rising to 18.7 vs. (E) 7.5, a 2-1/2 year high. However, it was outdone by Philly Fed, which surged to 43.3 vs. (E) 19.3, the highest reading since 1983! Both regional manufacturing surveys are volatile, but clearly they show an uptick in activity, which everyone now expects to be reflected in the national flash PMI.

Even housing data was decent as Housing Starts beat estimates on the headline, while the more important single family starts (the better gauge of the residential real estate market) rose 1.9%. Single family permits, a leading indicator for single family starts, did dip by 2.7%, but even so the important takeaway from this data is that so far, higher interest rates don’t appear to be negatively impacting the residential housing market, and a stable housing market is a key, but underappreciated, ingredient to economic acceleration.

Finally, looking at the Fed, Yellen’s commentary was marginally hawkish, as she was upbeat on the economy, basically saying the nation had achieved full employment and was closing on 2% inflation, and reiterated that a rate hike should be considered at upcoming meetings. None of her comments were new, but the reiteration of them reminds us that the Fed is in a hiking cycle, and the risk is for more hikes… not less.

This Week

The big number this week is the February global flash manufacturing PMI, out Tuesday. With last week’s strong Empire and Philly Surveys, expectations will be pretty elevated for the flash manufacturing PMI, so there is some risk of mild disappointment. On the flip side, if this number is very strong (like Empire and Philly) you will likely see a hawkish reaction out of the markets (dollar/bond yields up) and the expectation for a rate hike before June increases. That, by itself, shouldn’t cause a pullback in stocks, but upward pressure will build on interest rates.

Outside of the flash manufacturing PMIs, the FOMC minutes from the January meeting will be released Wednesday, and investors will parse the comments for any clues as to the likelihood of a March increase. Yet given the amount of political/fiscal uncertainty, and considering the FOMC meeting was before the strong January jobs report and recent acceleration in data, I’d be surprised if the minutes are very hawkish (although given they are dated, I don’t think that not-dovish minutes reduces the chances of a May or even March hike).

Bottom line, the focus will be on the flash manufacturing PMIs, and a good number this week will be supportive for stocks.

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What impact are Trump’s headlines having on markets?

Trump makes a lot of headlines, but what actually impacts the market?

After impacting the markets with his comment about a forthcoming “phenomenal” tax plan, the markets have been surprisingly unmoved by any of the headlines coming in from Washington D.C.

This week, we’ve seen stocks focusing on the good economic data (retail sales, Empire Manufacturing) and ignoring the political drama (Trump’s Labor Secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, withdrew yesterday). Earlier this week, the market also remained steady after the news of National Security Administration Michael Flynn’s resignation.

What might Trump do to impact the market? After campaigning with somewhat hostile trade rhetoric, we’ve the realities of global trade soften his tone a bit. For example, he embraced the “One China” policy of governance over Taiwan. Similarly, so far Trump has resisted instructing the Treasury Department to label China a “currency manipulator” in its semi-annual currency report, due out in late March/early April. That would obviously be bad for stocks.

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How Big a Risk is a Trade or Military Dispute? February 16, 2017

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Earlier this week I began profiling non-political risks to explore when making decisions for your clients and talking with prospects. Here’s number three:

Non-Political Risk #3: Surprise Trade or Military Dispute

Surprisingly, and potentially dangerously, the market has fully embraced Trump’s pro-growth “big three” of tax cuts, infrastructure spending, and deregulation while totally ignoring the hostile trade (and to a lesser degree) military rhetoric—and that selective focus has helped fuel this rally in stocks.

How big a risk is a trade conflict with China?

Part of the reason investors have somewhat ignored the rhetoric is because they assumed that once Trump got into power, the realities of global trade would soften his tone. To a point, that has happened. Last week, Trump embraced the “One China” policy of governance over Taiwan. And, this past weekend visit with Japanese PM Abe came and went with no explicit mention of currency manipulation or unfair trade. But, while those are positives it’d be foolish to think there isn’t a real risk of a trade dispute/war with China.

Originally, the fear was that Trump would instruct the Treasury Department to label China a “currency manipulator” in its semi-annual currency report, due out in late March/early April. That would likely ignite some sort of a trade war as it would place automatic tariffs on Chinese goods. Obviously, that wouldn’t be good for stocks.

Trump appears to have backed away from such a direct confrontation, but as a WSJ article detailed, the administration is looking for a less “in your face” way to punish China for its trade practices (you can read the article if you’re really interested) but basically the strategy is to label currency manipulation an “unfair subsidy,” not just by the Chinese, but by every country. If that’s done, then individual US companies can lobby the Commerce Department to impose du-ties on competitive goods from countries they believe use currency manipulation. It’s basically a less-direct way to put duties/tariffs on Chinese goods.

Here’s the problem: Other countries can retaliate and do the same thing to the US, and cite the Fed’s ultra-low rates as manipulating the US dollar lower.

This will obviously be a fluid situation, but with Peter Navarro as the head of the National Trade Council (remember he wrote the book, Death by China) it’s un-likely that we won’t at least have a trade scare this year with China.

Looking militarily, the only real area of concern right now (well, there are multiple areas of concern, but the most pressing one) is the growing conflict between the US and China regarding their bases in the South China Sea. Trump advisor Bannon is particularly focused on this issue, and military officials have flat-out said that China won’t be allowed to operate a functioning naval or air base on these manufactured islands. Again, this is a low-probability event, but it remains a possibility.

Probability of a disruptive trade war? <30%. While the possibility is there, I’d expect marginal moves to try and correct trade imbalances with China, not all out tariffs or import duties (although I’m sure they will be publicly threatened, which will be negative for sentiment).

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