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The divisiveness which marked the US election campaign was plain to see during a road trip that portfolio manager Michiel Plakman took when Donald Trump beat all the odds to become President.
He was in the US visiting a conference and investee companies with two colleagues from the Robeco Global Equities team during the 8 November poll. They met with two distinctly different corporate cultures in the country: the staunchly blue-collar and pro-Republican industrials of the mid-West, and the high-tech elites backing the Democrats in California.
“We visited industrial companies in the Chicago area on the Monday before the election, and the thing that was really striking was they were all really bullish on Trump’s ability to win,” says Plakman. “When he did win, they were euphoric. Mid-Western industrial companies tend to be blue collar, and they could see fiscal stimulus coming, with deregulation and lower taxation.”
“We saw a sentiment that runs deep within the blue-collar companies in that Obama and the Democrats always focused on the east coast and west coast, and the so-called flyover states have been neglected for 10 or 20 years, and they felt that now it’s their turn to have a piece of the pie. It was fascinating to be there at the time.”
“Many of them believe that ‘globalization has brought us nothing’, and when Trump says ‘Make America Great Again’, that’s such a strong sentiment among blue-collar workers who feel that China and Mexico have stolen their jobs, and that Trump will level the playing field.”
“Then we went to San Francisco and Palo Alto, and the mood of the tech side was completely different. They tend to be firmly in the Democrat camp with a lot of vocal Hillary Clinton supporters, and of course they were disappointed with the outcome. Silicon Valley tends to be more elitist, with a lot of self-made-millionaire type people and a lot more of an environmentalist nature. There’s also the green energy movement and a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters who thought that he would have had a better chance against Trump than Clinton did.”
‘On the more controversial issues he’ll be pragmatic’
Plakman says this bipolar ‘tale of two Americas’ was reflected in how the rival camps view Trump. “It was said that Trump’s supporters take him seriously but not literally, whereas the Democrats take him literally but not seriously. Certainly, he’s serious about tax cuts, deregulation and stimulating the economy and job growth, while refocusing attention on the US and away from foreign policy. But on the more controversial issues we think he’ll be pragmatic.”
“One of the areas to focus on is tax cuts and how he will pay for these. We’ll find that the trillion dollars promised in fiscal stimulus will actually be over ten years at about 100 billion a year, and only 10% of it will come from adding public debt; it will really be a public-private initiative. So it’s worthwhile sifting through the details to see what is real, what he can actually do, and which plans really require a lot more work.”
While auto companies and their workers generally support Trump, his protectionist plans may well work against them, Plakman says. “We talked to US car component makers who are producing a great deal of their modules in Mexico, because all the major US carmakers have their fabrications facilities across the border, and then they re-import them. So if they start getting a 25% tariff penalty at the border, or if NAFTA is repealed, it could have a far-reaching impact on their businesses.”
The Global Equities team are now focusing on what Trumponomics will mean for their portfolios, particularly the Robeco Global Stars Equities fund which contains a lot of US companies, including large stakes held in Comcast, Citigroup, Oracle and Alphabet.
‘The impact on our US companies is likely to be major’
“When we came back we’ve looked at what are the current tax rates of our holdings, how Trump could change things such as the tax deductibility of interest payments or R&D credits, or change the ability to depreciate capacity within a single year. So the impact on our US companies is likely to be major,” Plakman says.
“Now we’re sifting through all the plans because there’s been a lot of rhetoric, but nothing concrete announced, so we need to see the people he chooses for different roles, and what these implications will be. We’re looking at what something like the repeal of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, or the Glass-Steagall Act for banks would actually mean.”
Plakman says what Trump does in the US may well have knock-on effects in Europe, making it important to maintain a global perspective when looking for the best equities. “The normalization of interest rates and stimulating the US economy with fiscal rather than monetary policy may lead to a significant rise in inflation, which may lead to the ECB changing course. Any economic boom, rising inflation and then a complete change in central bank policy has enormous implications for debt and equity markets.”
“We had three black swans for equities in 2016 – unfounded fears that China would collapse, followed by the Brexit and then Trump – where equities tumbled and then recovered, ending the year at record levels. So as a fundamental global investor, it was a rollercoaster year dominated by macro and politics rather than company fundamentals. With elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany, this year looks like being no different.”
A new era dawns for the United States, but how long will it take newly inaugurated President Trump to change the course of the supertanker that is America? In a series of four articles we analyze the likely economic effects, and the effect on the US companies in which we invest.