A quiet giant of investing weighs in on Donald Trump

Andrew Ross Sorkin discusses a private letter to investors written by Seth A. Klarman, the 59-year-old value investor who runs Baupost Group, a hedge fund which manages about $US30 billion:

While Mr Klarman has long kept a low public profile, he is considered a giant within investment circles. He is often compared to Warren Buffett, and The Economist magazine once described him as “The Oracle of Boston”, where Baupost is based. For good measure, he is one of the very few hedge managers Mr Buffett has publicly praised.

In his letter, Mr Klarman sets forth a countervailing view to the euphoria that has buoyed the sharemarket since Mr Trump took office, describing “perilously high valuations”.

“Exuberant investors have focused on the potential benefits of stimulative tax cuts, while mostly ignoring the risks from America-first protectionism and the erection of new trade barriers,” he wrote.

“President Trump may be able to temporarily hold off the sweep of automation and globalisation by cajoling companies to keep jobs at home, but bolstering inefficient and uncompetitive enterprises is likely to only temporarily stave off market forces,” he continued. “While they might be popular, the reason the US long ago abandoned protectionist trade policies is because they not only don’t work, they actually leave society worse off.”

Investors are hypnotised

In particular, Mr Klarman appears to believe that investors have become hypnotised by all the talk of pro-growth policies, without considering the full ramifications. He worries, for example, that Mr Trump’s stimulus efforts “could prove quite inflationary, which would likely shock investors”.

Much of Seth Klarman’s anxiety seems to emanate from the leadership style of US President Donald Trump.

And he appears deeply concerned about a swelling national debt that he suggests can undermine the economy’s growth over the long term.

“The Trump tax cuts could drive government deficits considerably higher,” Mr Klarman wrote. “The large 2001 Bush tax cuts, for example, fueled income inequality while triggering huge federal budget deficits. Rising interest rates alone would balloon the federal deficit, because interest payments on the massive outstanding government debt would skyrocket from today’s artificially low levels.”

Much of Mr Klarman’s anxiety seems to emanate from Mr Trump’s leadership style. He described it this way: “The erratic tendencies and overconfidence in his own wisdom and judgment that Donald Trump has demonstrated to date are inconsistent with strong leadership and sound decision-making.”

He also linked this point – which is a fair one – to what “Trump style” means for Mr Klarman’s constituency and others.

‘Shockingly unpredictable’

“The big picture for investors is this: Trump is high volatility, and investors generally abhor volatility and shun uncertainty,” he wrote. “Not only is Trump shockingly unpredictable, he’s apparently deliberately so; he says it’s part of his plan.”

While Mr Klarman clearly is hoping for the best, he warned: “If things go wrong, we could find ourselves at the beginning of a lengthy decline in dollar hegemony, a rapid rise in interest rates and inflation, and global angst.”

From the letter, it is hard to divine exactly how Mr Klarman is investing his fund’s money. His office declined to comment on the letter. His fund has more than 30 per cent in cash. He has lost money in only three of the past 34 years.

The New York Times

Forward P/E for the S&P 500 is falling, so I do not agree that valuations are spiraling out of control. But if, at some point, earnings take a hit, either from tighter Fed monetary policy or a trade war, then we are in for a wild ride.

I do agree that protectionism is dangerous and can lead to uncompetitive industries. Trump has to be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when abandoning international trade agreements. There are unfair elements that need to be fixed* but once these are addressed the US would stand to gain more than it gives in return.

We will have to assess the impact of tax cuts when the full proposal is on the table. At present I see some good, some bad, so am not too alarmed about the effect on the national debt. Hopefully saner heads will prevail.

But I share Klarman’s concern about Trump’s unpredictability. Though this may be exaggerated by a hostile media, we have seen enough to be concerned.

It would be wise to overestimate the abilities of some of the USA’s competitors (and some allies) and to underestimate his own. Trump faces some shrewd and wily statesmen with many years of experience to whom he must seem like a kid in short pants, full of enthusiasm and naivety. That way way we are less likely to be taken by surprise.

Source: A quiet giant of investing weighs in on Donald Trump

  • The primary source of unfairness, currency manipulation, could be minimized by negotiation of a new monetary order — governing monetary policy and exchange rates — to replace the Bretton Woods system abandoned by Nixon in the early 1970s.