The Trump Trade Goes on Holiday

After watching U.S. stocks fizzle in March, investors are following first-quarter earnings reports closely for signs that the economy is not losing steam. While U.S. stock prices soared in the wake of President Trump’s victory last November, an equally compelling story mostly has been ignored:  Compared to U.S. stocks, many foreign markets are undervalued.

To be sure, investors have good reason to be wary about committing their capital to Europe while the EU is under attack from some of its own members. As for China, although it has recovered nicely over the past year after crashing hard in 2015, the country is currently involved in trade negotiations with the Trump administration.  If those talks take a bad turn, China’s recovery could derail temporarily, but neither market should suffer from any lasting effects.

Over the past two years, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index increased nearly 15%. Meanwhile, during the same period, the Shanghai stock exchange decreased by roughly the same amount, and the FTSE 100, which tracks Europe’s largest companies, eked out only a modest gain. Since mid-March, when the Republicans slammed into a healthcare reform wall, the Chinese and U.S. markets have reversed roles. Now, the Shanghai index is up, while the S&P 500 is down, with Europe again splitting the difference, at or near breakeven.

It’s too soon to draw any firm conclusions from this switch, but if the pattern continues in the second quarter, this may signal that investors are shifting toward foreign stocks because of their attractive values.  At the end of the first quarter, the S&P 500 was priced at roughly 21 times estimated forward earnings, which is 20% above the index’s long-term average. At the same time, the FTSE 100 was valued at 15 times estimated earnings, but all eyes are now on France to see if the EU’s political problems are overblown or about to get worse.

If there is a Trump counter-trade to be made, buying into Asia while many investors are still clinging to the hope that the U.S. economy will somehow miraculously double its growth rate may be it. The one long-term demographic trend that exerts the biggest influence over economic growth, relative age cohorts within an economy and the spending habits that accompany them, is now working against America while clearly boding well for China and India.

Unlike in the past when the “China Miracle” was built upon flimsy financial projections, the boom in middle-class consumers in these two countries is underway and clearly definable. The long-term ramifications of this trend won’t show up in this month’s set of quarterly earnings report, which are just starting to come out en masse. But they will drive the overall direction of the stock market as quarterly numbers give way to annual reports in the years to come.

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