Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market
  • Apr 2, 2024

U.S. Elections: Potential Implications for Businesses and Consumers


Ariana Salvatore: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Arianna Salvatore from Morgan Stanley's US Public Policy Research Team.

Alex Straton: And I'm Alex Straton, head of the North America Softlines Retail and Brands team.

Ariana Salvatore: On this episode of the podcast, we'll discuss some key policy issues that may play into the U.S. presidential election and their potential impact on businesses and consumers.

It's Tuesday, April 2nd, at 10 am in New York.

Election season is fully underway here in the U.S. and as in past election cycles, trade policy and tax reform are once again a big concern.

With that in mind, I wanted to discuss the potential implications on the retail space with my colleague Alex. So, let's start there. In general, Alex, how are retail stocks impacted leading up to the U.S. presidential elections?

Alex Straton: So, look, this kind of surprised us when we had looked into some of this data. But if you look at the last six elections or so, on a full year basis, trading activity can be super volatile in my coverage; and it depends on what's at stake.

But what we do broadly observe is back half underperformance to a bigger magnitude than is typical in a normal year. So, there is pressure on these stocks, in a way that you don't see in non-election years. Makes sense, right? Kind of a makes sense hypothesis that we confirmed. But I think the more interesting nugget about softlines retail and brand stocks leading into elections is that the higher frequency data can actually look worse than what actually comes to fruition in the top line or the sales numbers.

So, by that I mean, you'll see surveys out of our economics team or out of, you know, big economics forums that say, ‘Oh, sentiment is getting worse.’ And then we'll see things like traffic is getting worse, these higher frequency indicators; and they actually end up almost exacerbating the impact than what we actually see when we get the true revenue results later on.

So, my point being -- beware, as you see this degradation in the data; that doesn't necessarily mean that these businesses fundamentals are going to deteriorate to the same degree. In fact, it shows you that -- yes, maybe they're a little bit worse, but not to that extent.

Alex Straton: So, Ariana, let's look at the policy side. More specifically, let's talk about some potential changes in tax policy that's been a hot topic for companies I cover. So, what's on the horizon, top down?

Ariana Salvatore: Yeah, so, lots of changes to think about the horizon here.

Just for some quick context, back in 2017, Republicans under former President Trump passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and that included a whole host of corporate and individual tax cuts. The way that law was structured was set to start rolling off around 2022, and most, if not all, of the bill is set to expire by the end of 2025.

So that means that regardless of the election outcome, the next Congress will have to focus on tax policy, either by extending those cuts, or allowing some or all of them to roll off. So, in general, we think a Democratic sweep scenario would make it more likely that you would see the corporate rate, perhaps tick up a few points; while in a Republican sweep, we think you probably would maintain that 21 per cent corporate rate; and perhaps extend some of the other expiring corporate provisions.

So, Alex, how do you expect these potential changes in the corporate tax side to impact the retailers and the brands that you cover?

Alex Straton: Yeah. So, high level, I think about it on a sub-sector basis. And so, the headline you should hear is that my brand or wholesale coverage, which has more international revenue experience exposure, is better off than my retail coverage, which has more domestic or North America exposure.

And it all just comes back to having more or less foreign exposure. The more North America exposure you have, the more subject you are to a change in tax rate. The more foreign exposure you have, the less subject you are to a change in tax rate. So that's the high-level way to think about it.

We did run some analyses across our coverage, and if we do see the US corporate tax rate, let's say, lowered to 15 per cent hypothetically, we'll call that the Trump outcome, if you will. We calculate about a 5 per cent average benefit to 2025 earnings across our coverage. Now on the other hand, if we see something like a corporate tax rate that goes to 25 per cent, Biden outcome -- let's just label it that. We calculate 3 per cent average downside to the 2025 EPS estimates in our coverage.

So that's how we sized it. It's not a huge swing, right? And the only reason why there's what I would call more of a benefit than a downside impact of that analysis is because of where the current tax rate sits and the relative magnitudes we took around it.

Alex Straton: Now back over to you. You've highlighted trade policy as another key issue for the [20]24 election. Why is it so crucial in this election cycle compared to prior ones we've seen?

Ariana Salvatore: Right. So, in contrast to some of the tax changes that we were just talking about, those would require full congressional agreement, right?

So, you need either sweep scenario to make changes to tax policy in a really significant way. Trade policy is completely different because it is very much at the discretion of the president alone. So, to that end, we've envisioned a few different scenarios that can range from things like targeted tariffs on particular goods or trading partners, you know, something akin to the first Trump administration; to things like a universal baseline tariff scenario, and that's more similar to some of the more recent proposals that the former president has been talking about on the campaign trail.

So, there are a whole host of different circumstances that can lead to each of those outcomes, but it's critically important, that level of discretion that I mentioned before. And we think for that reason, that investors really need to contemplate each of these different scenarios and what they could mean for, you know, macro markets and their individual stocks that they cover. Because, frankly, a lot can change.

So, to that point, how do you think changes in trade policy are going to affect the side of the retail sector that you cover? Obviously, you mentioned North American exposure, so I imagine that's going to be critical again.

But what kind of businesses will be most affected under the different scenarios that I just mentioned?

Alex Straton: Yeah, so the way we examined this on our end, so from a Softlines, Retail, and Brands perspective, was looking at what a incremental China tariff means.

I do think there's important background for people to understand in my space that differs this time around versus an election cycle, you know, four or eight years ago, whatever it may have been -- in that my companies have intentionally diversified out of China.

The fact I love to give people is that US apparel imports from China has fallen from nearly 40 per cent to 20 per cent in the last, you know, decade or so; with 10 points of that in the last five years alone. So, the headline you should hear is there's not as much China exposure as there used to be. So that's good if there is a tariff put on for my companies. But with that backdrop, turning to the numbers, we have about 20 per cent cost of goods sold exposure to China on average across Softlines, Retail and Brands businesses.

So, if that goes up by an incremental 10 per cent what we calculate is about a 15 per cent impact to 2025 earnings across my coverage. One final thing I would say is that it's very rare for businesses to have a North America based supply chain. But there are some companies -- very few, but select ones -- that do have a majority domestic supply chain. You can think about some of the favorite jeans you might wear on an everyday basis. Maybe more often than not, you don't realize they're actually made in America. And that's a benefit in a scenario like that.

Ariana Salvatore: Makes sense. Alex, thanks for taking the time to talk.

Alex Straton: It was great speaking with you, Ariana. Thanks for having me.

Ariana Salvatore: And thank you for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please leave us a review wherever you listen to the show and share the podcast with a friend or colleague today. 

We discuss how the upcoming U.S. elections could affect trade and tax policy, and which scenarios are most favorable to retailers and brands.