Economist Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University, recently published a piece pointing to three shifts that will lead the United States back to being an "export powerhouse":
- Manufacturing that depends less on cheap, overseas labor and more on artificial intelligence and computing.
- The large amount of shale oil and natural gas in America that could make it the "new Saudi Arabia of energy markets."
- A wealthier developing world that will demand more luxury, including America's top exports of automobiles, aircraft, computers, medicine, and entertainment.
First, let's dive deeper into Cowen's predictions. Then we'll look at how investors can align their portfolios to such an outcome.
More computers, fewer people
China's Foxconn, the oft-criticized supplier to most major electronic brands, reported last year that it would be employing 1 million robots in three years, up from 10,000. These robots "will be used to do simple and routine work such as spraying, welding, and assembling which are now mainly conducted by workers," according to Xinhua. Foxconn couldn't be a better bellwether for where industry is headed, with an estimated 50% market share and being the producer of some of the most technologically advanced products that humans make.
Of course, manufacturing won't be alone in the push toward more robots and fewer humans. We've already seen self-checkout at the grocery store, more and more coffee robots, and even robots taking over distribution warehouses. As Fool Alex Planes notes:
Robots never eat, never sleep, never ask for raises, never get injured or suffer nervous breakdowns. Robots never jump off buildings and cause public relations headaches. Eventually, all manufacturing will be robotic from beginning to end.
And with more industries going automated, the benefits of cheap overseas labor disappear.
More American energy
Last year, for the first time since at least 1990, fuel was the United States' biggest export measured in dollars. Yes, part of the reason is the increasing cost of oil, but the volume of American fuel exports is also rising. By volume, exports in 2011 increased more than 292% versus 2001. However, estimates for just how much energy is trapped in America's shale resources change wildly. As Fool Aimee Duffy explains:
In 2011, the EIA estimated that there were 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in U.S. shale. In 2012, that number dropped to 482 Tcf. The agency also commented specifically on gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale. Once pegged at 410 Tcf, the EIA now estimates that number is really closer to 141 Tcf, a 66% reduction.
Even with the uncertainty surrounding just how much energy is actually sitting under America, Cowen points out that the U.S. is better positioned than other countries because it has embraced fracking and its potential, whereas Europe has pushed back against the potential environmental consequences.
More developing world demand
While the greatest proof of reversing roles may be that Chinese tattoo artists are now getting more requests for tattoos in nonsensical English, let's take a look at past trade with the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India, and China.
It appears imports have a long way to catch up with exports. But note that much of this trade deficit, or gap between imports and exports, is attributable to China. In fact, more than 40% of the total U.S. trade deficit is to China, although this number is disputed because of the distribution of value of items manufactured in China not being represented well in trade statistics. And the trend over the past few years has shown U.S. exports to China growing faster than U.S. imports from China:
If this pattern continues, even a potentially overstated trade deficit could shrink.
The stocks to target
Cowen says these changes will happen over a few decades, but there are plenty of opportunities available now.
First, look to the companies positioned to feed, clothe, and entertain the developing world. Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM ) plans to open about 600 restaurants in China, for a total of 1,500 new restaurants overseas. CEO David Novak is clearly focused on emerging markets, writing "We have about 58 Yum! restaurants per million people in the U.S. and only have fewer than 2 restaurants per million people in the top 10 emerging markets."
Additionally, if you don't finish your taco, fried chicken, or pizza, where are you going to put it? Tupperware (NYSE: TUP ) suprisingly has 90% of its sales outside of the U.S., with incredible revenue growth abroad. For example, in India revenue grew 66%; in Brazil, 61%; in Indonesia, 47%; and in China, 24%.
If you're looking to bet on energy in the U.S., but questionable estimates on energy reserves unnerve you, check out the companies in charge of the pipelines. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more patriotically named company than Plains All American Pipeline (NYSE: PAA ) . With more than 30% revenue growth and a new pipeline coming online next year, it stands to benefit from increased U.S. energy production. Enterprise Product Partners (NYSE: EPD ) is also expanding operations, with a new pipeline being built from Pennsylvania to Texas and a new crude oil facility in Houston. Both companies also pay out around a 5% dividend yield.
Finally, more machines and computers mean more data. Data that needs to be stored, sorted, analyzed, and used to improve business processes. One company with the happiest customers in its industry is Teradata (NYSE: TDC ) . No matter where the robots go to work, Teradata can help them work smarter, with only 56% of its revenues coming from the U.S.
The Foolish takeaway
The stocks above are poised to perform well even if Cowen's predictions turn out wrong, but if correct, there's plenty more upside to owning them. If you're interested in more American companies that are set to dominate in selling to emerging markets, check out our free report that further makes the case for Yum! Brands and two other potential picks.