The Aleph Blog

Retirement – A Luxury Good

Recently I was approached by Moneytips to ask my opinions about retirement. They sent me a long survey of which I picked a number of questions to answer. You can get the benefits of the efforts of those writing on this topic today in a free e-book, which is located here: http://www.moneytips.com/retiree-next-door-ebook.  The eBook will be available free of charge through September 30th.  I have a few quotes in the eBook.

Before I move onto the answers, I would like to share with you an overview regarding retirement, and why current and future generations are unlikely to enjoy it to the degree that the generations prior to the Baby Boomers did.

The first thing to remember is that retirement is a modern concept. That the world existed without retirement for over 5000 years may mean that it is not a necessary institution. For a detailed comment on this, please consult my article, “The Retirement Tripod: Ancient and Modern.” Here’s a quick summary:

In the old days, when people got old, they worked a reduced pace. They relied on their children to help them. Finally, they relied on savings.

Savings is the difficult concept. How does one save, such that what is set aside retains its value, or even grows in value?

If you go backwards 150 years or further in time, there weren’t that many ways to save. You could set aside precious metals, at the risk of them being stolen. You could also invest in land, farm animals, and tools, each of which would be the degree of maintenance and protection in order to retain their value. To the extent that businesses existed, they were highly personal and difficult to realize value from in a sale. Most businesses and farms were passed on to their children, or dissolved at the death of the proprietor.

In the modern world we have more options for when we get old – at least, it seems like we have more options. In retirement, we have three ways to support ourselves: we have government security programs, corporate security programs, and personal savings.

Quoting from an earlier article of mine, Many Will Not Retire; What About You?:

Think of this a different way, and ignore markets for a moment.  How do we take care of those that do not work in society?  Resources must be diverted from those that do work, directly or indirectly, or, we don’t take care of some that do not work.

Back to markets: Social Security derives its ways of supporting those that no longer work from the wages of those that do work.  That’s one reason to watch the ratio of workers to retired.  When that ratio gets too low, the system won’t work, no matter what.  The same applies to Medicare.  With a population where growth is slowing, the ratio will get lower. If the working population is shrinking, there is no way that benefits for those retiring will be maintained.

Pensions tap a different sort of funding.  They tap the profit and debt servicing streams of corporations and other entities.  Indirectly, they sometimes tap the taxpayer, because of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which guarantees defined benefit pensions up to a limit.  There is no explicit taxpayer backstop, but in this era of bailouts, who can tell what will be guaranteed by the government in a crisis?

That said, not many people today have access to Defined-Benefit pensions. Those are typically the province of government workers and well-funded corporations. That leaves savings as the major way that most people fund retirement aside from Social Security.

One of the reasons why the present generations are less secure than prior generations with respect retirement is that the forebears who originally set up defined-benefit pensions and Social Security system set up in such a way that they gave benefits that were too generous to early participants, defrauding those who would come later. Though the baby boomers are not blameless here, it is their parents that are the most blameworthy. If I could go back in time and set things right, I would’ve set the defined-benefit pension funding rules to set aside considerably more assets so that funding levels would’ve been adequate, and not subject to termination as the labor force aged.

I also would’ve required the US government to set benefits at a level equal to that contributed by each generation, and given no subsidy to the generations at the beginning of the system. Truth, I would eliminate the Social Security system and Medicare if I could. I think it is a bad idea to have collective support programs. There are many reasons for that, but a leading reason is that it removes the incentive to marry and have children. Another reason is that it politicizes generational affairs, which will become obvious to the average US citizen over the next 10 to 15 years.

Back to Savings

As for personal savings today we have more options than our great-great-great-grandparents did 150 years ago. We can still buy land and we can still store precious metals – both of those have a great ability to retain value. But, we can buy shares in businesses and we can buy the debt claims of others. We can also build businesses which we can sell to other people in order to fund our retirement.

But investing is tricky. With respect to lending, default is a significant risk. Also, at the end of the term of lending, what will the money be worth? We have to be aware of the risks of inflation and deflation.

In evaluating businesses more generally, it is difficult to determine what is a fair price to pay. In a time of technological change, what businesses will survive? Will the business managers be clever enough to make the right changes such that the business thrives?

You have an advantage that your parents did not have, though. You can invest in the average business and debt of public companies in the US, and around the world through index funds. This is not foolproof; in fact, this is a pretty new idea that has not been tested out. But at least this offers the capability of opening a fraction of the productive assets in our world, diversified in such a way that it would be difficult that you end up with nothing, unless the governments of the world steal from the custodians of the assets.

With that, I leave you to read my answers to some of the questions that were posed to me regarding retirement:

What is a safe withdrawal rate?

A safe withdrawal rate is the lesser of the yield on the 10 year treasury +1%, or 7%. The long-term increase in value of assets is roughly proportional to something a little higher than where the US government can borrow for 10 years. That’s the reason for the formula. Capping it at 7% is there because if rates get really high, people feel uncomfortable taking so much from their assets when their present value is diminished.

How should you handle a significant financial windfall?

If you have debt, and that debt is at interest rates higher than the 10 year treasury yield +2%, you should use the windfall to reduce your debt. If the windfall is still greater than that, treat it as an endowment fund, invest it wisely, and only take money out via the safe withdrawal rate formula.

What are some ways to learn to embrace frugality?

This is a question of the heart. You have to master your desires to have goods and services today that are discretionary in nature. Life is not about happiness in the short term but happiness and long-term. Embrace the concept of deferred gratification that your great-grandparents did and recognize that work and savings provide for a secure and happy future.

How can the average worker start earning passive income?

Passive income is a shibboleth. People look at that as a substitute for investing, because they can’t control investment returns, and they think they can control income.

Income comes from debt or a business. If from debt, it is subject to prepayment or default; it is not certain. Also, income that comes from debt is typically fixed. That income may be sufficient today, but it may not be so if inflation rises. Also your capital is tied up until the debt matures. When the debt matures, reinvestment opportunities may be better or worse than they were when you started.

If income comes from a business, it is subject to all the randomness of that business; it is not certain. It is subject to all of the same problems that an investment in the stock market is subject to, except that you have to oversee the business.

There is no such thing as a truly passive income. Get used to the fact that you will be investing and working to earn an income.

What can those workers who are not employed by a large company or the public sector do to maximize their retirement savings?

You can start an IRA. Until the rules change, you can create healthcare savings account, not use it, and let it accrue tax-free until you’re 59 1/2. Oh, you get an immediate income deduction for that too.

If you are a little more enterprising, you can start your own business. If your business succeeds, there are a lot of ways to put together a pension, deferring more income than an individual can. By the time you get there, the rules will have changed, so I won’t tell you how to do it today; at the time, get a good pension consultant.

Why is calculating how much you’ll need for retirement an important exercise?

You have to understand that retirement is a new concept. In the ancient world, retirement meant continued work at a slower pace on your farm, living off of savings (what little was storable then – gold, silver, etc.), and help from your children whom you helped previously as you raised them.

Today’s society is far more personal, far less family centered, and far more reliant on corporate and governmental structures. Few of us produce most of the goods and services that we need. We rely on the division of labor to do this.  Older people will still rely on younger people to deliver goods and services, as the older people hand over their accumulated assets in exchange for that.

Practically, modern retirement is an exercise in compromise. You will have to trade off:

  • How long you will work
  • At what you will work
  • What corporate and governmental income plans you participate in
  • How much income with safety your assets can deliver, with an allowance for inflation
  • How much you will help your children
  • How much your children will help you

As such, calculating a simple figure how much your assets should be may be useful, but that one variable is not enough to help you figure out how you should conduct your retirement.

Why don’t more people consult investment professionals? What keeps them from doing so?

There are two reasons: first, most people don’t have enough income or assets for investment professionals to have value to them. Second, people don’t understand what investment professionals can do for them, which is:

  • They can keep you from panicking or getting greedy
  • They can find ways to reduce your tax burdens
  • They can diversify your assets so that you are less subject to large drawdowns in the value of your assets

Other than maximizing your annual contribution, what other things can you do to get the most out of your IRA and 401(k)?

Diversify your investments into safe and risky buckets. The safe bucket should contain high quality bonds. The risky bucket should contain stocks, tilted toward value investing, and smaller stocks. New contributions should mostly feed investments that have been doing less well, because investments tend to mean-revert.

Stocks are clearly risky and investors have emotional reactions to that. How can investors rationally manage their stock investments so that they are less likely to regret their decisions?

When I was a young investor, I had to learn not to panic. I also had to learn not to get greedy. That means tuning out the news, and focusing on the long run. That may mean not looking at your financial statements so frequently.

As for me as a financial professional, I look at the assets that I manage for my clients and me every day, but I have rules that limit trading. I do almost all trading once per quarter, at mid-quarter, when the market tends to be sleepy, and not a lot of news is coming out. When I trade, I am making business decisions that reflect my long-term estimates of business prospects.

Closing

And if that is not enough for you, please consult my piece The Retirement Bubble.  You can retire if you put enough away for it, but it is an awful lot of money given that present investments yield so little.

Redacted Version of the September 2014 FOMC Statement

July 2014September 2014Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that growth in economic activity rebounded in the second quarter.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in July suggests that economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace.This is another overestimate by the FOMC.
Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further. However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.On balance, labor market conditions improved somewhat further; however, the unemployment rate is little changed and a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.More people working some amount of time, but many discouraged workers, part-time workers, lower paid positions, etc.
Household spending appears to be rising moderately and business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.Household spending appears to be rising moderately and business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.No change

 

Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth, although the extent of restraint is diminishing.Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth, although the extent of restraint is diminishing.No change.  Funny that they don’t call their tapering a “restraint.”
Inflation has moved somewhat closer to the Committee’s longer-run objective. Longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Inflation has been running below the Committee’s longer-run objective. Longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.TIPS are showing slightly lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.52%, down 0.08% from July.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators and inflation moving toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators and inflation moving toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.No change.  They can’t truly affect the labor markets in any effective way.
The Committee sees the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced and judges that the likelihood of inflation running persistently below 2 percent has diminished somewhat.The Committee sees the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced and judges that the likelihood of inflation running persistently below 2 percent has diminished somewhat since early this year.CPI is at 1.7% now, yoy.  They shade up their view down on inflation’s amount and persistence.
The Committee currently judges that there is sufficient underlying strength in the broader economy to support ongoing improvement in labor market conditions.The Committee currently judges that there is sufficient underlying strength in the broader economy to support ongoing improvement in labor market conditions.No change.
In light of the cumulative progress toward maximum employment and the improvement in the outlook for labor market conditions since the inception of the current asset purchase program, the Committee decided to make a further measured reduction in the pace of its asset purchases. Beginning in August, the Committee will add to its holdings of agency mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $10 billion per month rather than $15 billion per month, and will add to its holdings of longer-term Treasury securities at a pace of $15 billion per month rather than $20 billion per month.In light of the cumulative progress toward maximum employment and the improvement in the outlook for labor market conditions since the inception of the current asset purchase program, the Committee decided to make a further measured reduction in the pace of its asset purchases. Beginning in October, the Committee will add to its holdings of agency mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $5 billion per month rather than $10 billion per month, and will add to its holdings of longer-term Treasury securities at a pace of $10 billion per month rather than $15 billion per month.Reduces the purchase rate by $5 billion each on Treasuries and MBS.  No big deal.

 

The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction.No change
The Committee’s sizable and still-increasing holdings of longer-term securities should maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative, which in turn should promote a stronger economic recovery and help to ensure that inflation, over time, is at the rate most consistent with the Committee’s dual mandate.The Committee’s sizable and still-increasing holdings of longer-term securities should maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative, which in turn should promote a stronger economic recovery and help to ensure that inflation, over time, is at the rate most consistent with the Committee’s dual mandate.No change.  But it has almost no impact on interest rates on the long end, which are rallying into a weakening global economy.
The Committee will closely monitor incoming information on economic and financial developments in coming months and will continue its purchases of Treasury and agency mortgage-backed securities, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate, until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially in a context of price stability.The Committee will closely monitor incoming information on economic and financial developments in coming months and will continue its purchases of Treasury and agency mortgage-backed securities, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate, until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially in a context of price stability.No change. Useless paragraph.
If incoming information broadly supports the Committee’s expectation of ongoing improvement in labor market conditions and inflation moving back toward its longer-run objective, the Committee will likely reduce the pace of asset purchases in further measured steps at future meetings.If incoming information broadly supports the Committee’s expectation of ongoing improvement in labor market conditions and inflation moving back toward its longer-run objective, the Committee will end its current program of asset purchases at its next meeting.Finally the end of QE is in sight.  For now.
However, asset purchases are not on a preset course, and the Committee’s decisions about their pace will remain contingent on the Committee’s outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as its assessment of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchases.However, asset purchases are not on a preset course, and the Committee’s decisions about their pace will remain contingent on the Committee’s outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as its assessment of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchases.No change.
To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy remains appropriate.To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy remains appropriate.No change.
In determining how long to maintain the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments.In determining how long to maintain the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments.No change.  Monetary policy is like jazz; we make it up as we go.  Also note that progress can be expected progress – presumably that means looking at the change in forward expectations for inflation, etc.
The Committee continues to anticipate, based on its assessment of these factors, that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and provided that longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.The Committee continues to anticipate, based on its assessment of these factors, that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and provided that longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.No change.  Its standards for raising Fed funds are arbitrary.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.No change.
The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.No change.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Stanley Fischer; Richard W. Fisher; Narayana Kocherlakota; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Stanley Fischer; Narayana Kocherlakota; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Fisher and Plosser dissent.  Finally some with a little courage.
Voting against was Charles I. Plosser who objected to the guidance indicating that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for “a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends,” because such language is time dependent and does not reflect the considerable economic progress that has been made toward the Committee’s goals.Voting against the action were Richard W. Fisher and Charles I. Plosser. President Fisher believed that the continued strengthening of the real economy, improved outlook for labor utilization and for general price stability, and continued signs of financial market excess, will likely warrant an earlier reduction in monetary accommodation than is suggested by the Committee’s stated forward guidance. President Plosser objected to the guidance indicating that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for “a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends,” because such language is time dependent and does not reflect the considerable economic progress that has been made toward the Committee’s goals.Thank you, Messrs. Plosser and Fisher.  But what happens when the economy weakens?

 

Comments

  • Pretty much a nothing-burger. Few significant changes, if any.
  • Despite lower unemployment levels, labor market conditions are still pretty punk. Much of the unemployment rate improvement comes more from discouraged workers, and part-time workers.  Wage growth is weak also.
  • Small $10 B/month taper. Equities rise and long bonds fall.  Commodity prices are flat.  The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • Don’t know they keep an optimistic view of GDP growth, especially amid falling monetary velocity.
  • The FOMC needs to chop the “dead wood” out of its statement. Brief communication is clear communication.  If a sentence doesn’t change often, remove it.
  • In the past I have said, “When [holding down longer-term rates on the highest-quality debt] doesn’t work, what will they do? I have to imagine that they are wondering whether QE works at all, given the recent rise and fall in long rates.  The Fed is playing with forces bigger than themselves, and it isn’t dawning on them yet.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain’t moving rates up, absent improvement in labor market indicators, much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.

Making Systematic Risk Disappear, Not

Yesterday I was at a conference for Registered Investment Advisors. There were about 11 of us in the room, and a variety of different parties pitched us on their services. Some of the pitches were harder, most were softer.

Two of the presentations I felt were deceptive, though I don’t believe the presenters intended to be deceptive. The idea was, you need to provide alternative investments to your clients, because clients can’t earn what they need to in stocks and bonds. Private equity investments and real estate outperform stocks, and we have new durable income vehicles that outperform bonds. What’s more, we can remove a lot of volatility from the portfolio.

Imagine for a moment that you’re investing in two private companies that after you buy them, you will have to own them for 10 years. The money is committed, and you have no way to get liquidity from the companies until the 10 years are up. One of the companies will leverage up a little bit, and invest in stocks. The other company will leverage up a great deal, and invest in bonds; it will behave like a shadow bank.

Now imagine on your brokerage statement, that your broker does not have to mark the positions to market.  After all, the corporations are not publicly traded and so the companies are valued at the amount of your investment until they dissolve and pay out their proceeds at the end of 10 years.

Does this method of investing limit volatility? It looks like it does, but it really doesn’t. Your investments are subject to all of the vicissitudes of the stock and bond markets, and then some, because the private companies took on some leverage. Though the values may be constant on the accounting statements, the volatility of the investing will be delivered in full at the end of the 10 years.

That’s the way some of these alternatives work, except they get applied not to public stocks and bonds, but private companies, real estate, mortgages, etc.  They are subject to the same economic forces as the public stocks and bonds, and once you strip out the effect of the additional leverage they perform about the same.

The story was told that this is the way that the wealthy got wealthy, by investing in private corporations, and investing in real estate. This is true as far as it goes except that the wealthy concentrated their investments in a few real estate projects and a few corporations that they themselves actively managed. Those offering alternative products investing in private equity and real estate are investing far more broadly in order to reduce risk. Even if the investments do well, you won’t get wealthy off them, though you might do well.

What is also not mentioned is that many more people who try to become wealthy by concentrating their investments fail. If this were easy, everyone would be doing it. The volatility is not eliminated; far from it, the volatility is amplified, and for those wealthy that succeed, that was the road to wealth for them.

As with public equity and bond investments, you will find that there are talented managers who can outperform the rest. Many of the talented managers in private investments limit the amount they manage, and money from new investors is not welcome.  The best managers of alternative investments are not open to the public, and not to these private investment middlemen as the conference.

The same logic applies to hedge funds. There are many different types of hedge funds, and performance data for them is dirty. Some managers are good, some are bad, and on average they’re about as good as markets they invest in. As for some of the data abnormalities, the good ones get into the databases before they’re actually taking money from outside clients which overstates the returns to clients. The bad ones exit the databases early, so the returns on their failure do not get reported.

Though some notable managers will do well, average managers will not outperform investments in public stocks and bonds. This is another case where the actual underlying investments matter more than the legal form that the investments take. Private and public investments exist in the same economy and get roughly the same returns. This should be no surprise.

The upshot of what I’m trying to say is that if you are not investing in alternatives, don’t feel bad because you’re not missing anything on average. Just beware slick marketing pitches designed to make you feel inferior because you’re not one of the “cool kids” investing in illiquid private securities.  After the next bear market, many “cool kids” will find that they lost a lot of money along with everyone else, if their alternatives mature in the bear market.

A Final Note — Fixed Income or Banking Income?

I also believe that income investors in some of these new approaches will be the most disappointed in the next bear market. When I was a portfolio manager managing mortgage bonds, we had a rule: don’t buy mortgages on operating properties like hotels, marinas, casinos, theaters, etc. When you do that, you cease to be a lender, because the underlying cash flows of the property are not stable enough to support a loan. If you do such a loan, you have a smaller loan that is real, and the rest is an equity investment.  In a bear market, that “equity investment” could prove worthless.

People will find out this same thing with durable income products, they will prove far more risky than ordinary fixed income investments in the next bear market because they are running a levered lending business. And in the few cases where the business is not levered, the riskiness of the investments is higher than what would commonly expect.

And thus my counsel is focus on the return of your money, rather than the return on your money. Play it safe with your fixed-income investments.

End the “Code of Silence”

I was asked to contribute to a survey recently, and one question made me think.  It was a question about why don’t more people consult investment professionals, and What keeps them from doing so.  I gave a fairly standard answer for me:

There are two reasons: first, most people don’t have enough income or assets for investment professionals to have value to them. Second, people don’t understand what investment professionals can do for them, which is:

  • They can keep you from panicking or getting greedy

  • They can find ways to reduce your tax burdens

  • They can diversify your assets so that you are less subject to large drawdowns in the value of your assets

After I wrote it, I submitted it for publication, but I wasn’t really happy with my answer.  The thing that left me less than happy are the various tales that I hear where investment advice is subpar, communicated poorly, etc.  Personally, I expect the real reason many people don’t consult investment professionals is fear of a bad experience, which may often stem from a a bad experience that they have had or a friend my have had.

I sympathize with the goals of the CFA Institute’s Future of Finance Initiative.  That said, I think it is a nice-sounding idea that won’t get far.  I have four main reasons why:

  • We don’t have a financial system where all financial professionals have to be under a common ethics code, with additional ethics code sections for areas of specialization.
  • We don’t have a culture among investment professionals that really wants to clean up the system, and talk about abusive practices, such that they become well-known and go away.
  • We don’t have enough of a culture among investment professionals that wants to genuinely educate the investors that want it, and in ways that don’t directly benefit us.
  • Because we don’t have one unified theory of investing, there will be enough gray areas where people will still get hurt by professionals.

On the first point, I would note a recent article of mine on self-regulation financial markets, where I said:

The guy from the National Futures Association emphasized the idea that mandatory membership in the association as a requirement to do business was paramount for an SRO and I can see that.  The SRO then has the “death penalty” hanging over the heads of those they regulate.  That said, consider this: the CFA Institute may dream of the day when all involved in investing *must* hold a CFA Charter.

I have no doubt that this would be a good thing.  Ethics codes are good for the industry, and to kick out bad apples would be a good thing.

On the second point, it would be worthwhile for financial writers and some larger firms to take on common practices that are abusive.  This will be controversial, because not everyone will agree on every item, but even getting a stoplight list where red is bad practices, green is good practices, and yellow means be careful would be a good start.

On the third point, we need to advocate for the best practices even where it doesn’t exactly fit where our businesses make profits.  Think of it this way: it often helps in home repair when someone who comes to fix one thing gives me some free advice on another matter that he doesn’t do, but sees it and tells me.  That builds goodwill for a later date, because I know that person cares about me, and not just what I pay him.

On the last point, my earlier article went over many of the disagreements:

Ethics aren’t neutral; people disagree about what is right and wrong to a high degree.  Even in finance, there are considerable disagreements in what is the correct behavior:

  • Active vs Passive mangement
  • Value vs Growth
  • Does Technical Analysis work?  (Is there truly a single discipline there?  I don’t think so.)

That’s a considerable reason why it would be difficult to enforce the views of the CFA Institute over the markets.  There is no commonly agreed-upon view of how the markets work.  The views of the academics are ridiculous, and do not reflect market realities. But many asset allocators trust them, even though their results are poor.

But even if this results in some squabbles, at least people can be aware that there are differences of opinion, and maybe that can inform the way we talk to clients.  Long only managers should tell their clients to buckle in, because they do not time the markets.  Traders should tell clients that they won’t do well in choppy markets, and that methods to limit losses and let gains run have their limitations.  Time horizons for investment decisions should be clearly identified, so that investors can set their expectations reasonably.

And that could be the best part of this: if investors have a good idea up front of how an investment will likely perform in a variety of scenarios, there will be fewer negative surprises, and hopefully, happy clients.

Anyway, that’s what I think the goals should be.  Now, who else wants to make them practical, and be willing to speak up about this?

Post 2600

Every 100 posts or so, I take a step back and think about where I have been, and maybe, where things are heading.  This time, things are a little different.

It started when there was a series of articles published where they were measuring the amount of social media influence various RIAs that blog have.  The early ones placed me twelfth, and then one placed me fourth, without making a big thing that the group was limited to RIAs.  At present (thanks Michael Kitces!), I may be ranked fifth, for what it is worth.

That said, I don’t blog to be at or near the top of anyone’s rankings.  I’ve learned over the years that blogging is a fickle thing.  It’s one reason why I keep a wide variety of topics on hand, because those that specialize in one area (such as scandal or crisis) get put out to pasture when everything normalizes.

After that, I decided to write one post to explain my blog to those who were new readers, because there were a lot of them.  Okay, that was the last century post.  For what it is worth, that one was around 2530, and this one around 2615.

In the middle of this, I decided to update the WordPress software at my blog, and improve the ability of people to comment here using Jetpack, enhance social sharing, and allow people to log in using WordPress, among other things.  If the ability to use my blog as a reader hasn’t improved, please let me know.

Then another weird thing happened.  Yahoo Finance finally decided to cleanse the shire, and tossed out what I felt were a number of subpar content providers.  That’s when I noticed the replacement which was Yahoo Finance Contributors.  I asked to be admitted, and I was happily waved in.

What I didn’t expect was that it would roughly double the readers coming to my blog natively.  Email and RSS are up also.  I suspect that there will be some fall-off from these levels, but it is interesting to see this happen after 7.5 years of blogging and a relatively stable audience over the last five years.

About the only change long time readers should see is a picture at the top of almost all of my pieces from now on, unless like this post, I am not sending it onto Yahoo Finance via my intermediary tumblr blog.  Additional note: if you want to comment at my blog using DISQUS, it is operational on the tumblr site.

I don’t intend on changing anything else at this blog — not topics, style, etc.  I remain happy to answer questions via blog posts, and I have a number of book reviews coming, but the one thing I don’t have any more of are long series of posts on a related topic.  I think all of those are out of my system.

As I end many of these memorial posts, I thank you for spending time on my blog reading my musings.  I hope you always find it valuable, but I realize there are seasons in life, so if you eventually find me not as useful, well, that’s normal for many.  My topics change over time, usually in sync with the markets.  Phrasing it another way, if you find me less useful, you might want to check back in when market events change, because you might find me relevant again (or not).

One final note: if anyone knows a cartoonist that might like to work with me, let me know.  No guarantee that I will do anything there, but I have been musing about a few ideas.  Bye for now!

Book Review: The Little Book of Market Wizards

9781118858691_MF5.inddOver time, I have reviewed a decent number of “Little Books.”  I have a theory as to why I like some of them, and not others.  I like the ones that take a relatively narrow concept and summarize it.  An example of that would be Mark Mobius’ book on emerging markets, or Vitaliy Katsenelson’s book on sideways markets.

But when a concept is broad and not friendly to summary, a “little book” is not so useful.  As examples, John Mauldin’s book on Bulls Eye  Investing went too many directions, and Scaramucci on Hedge Funds could not adequately summarize or describe a large topic.

There are other “Little Books” that I have read that did not even get a review… probably about 10% of the books I read in entire never get the review written because they were so bad, or just hard to decide what the book was.  (What do you want to be if you grow up dear? ;) )

Sorry, too much intro.  For those at Amazon, there are useful links at my blog.

Jack Schwager is generally a good writer, and expert at talking with clever investors in order to break down the main points of how they invest (without giving away the store).  In this “Little Book” he goes a different direction, and looks for commonalities among various clever investors, with each chapter covering a different topic.

My view is that most clever investors fall into one of a bunch of categories, much of which boils down to time horizon for the preferred investment.  Going down the continuum: day trader, swing trader, longer-term trader, momentum-oriented growth investor, growth investor, growth-at-a-reasonable-price investor, and value investor.  After that, you might differentiate between those that go for relative vs absolute returns.

As such, the book posits a bunch of topics that apply to different groups of clever investors.  I think it would have been better to have segmented the book by classes of investors, because then you could have a coherent set of commonalities for each main investor type.

As it is, the book relies heavily on anecdotes, which isn’t entirely a bad thing; nothing motivates a topic like a story.  But if you were reading this to try to develop your own philosophy of managing money in order to fit your own personality, you might have a hard time doing it with this book.  I think you would be better off reading one of Schwager’s longer books, and reading about each clever investor separately.  At least then you get to see the full package for an investor, and how the different aspects of investing in a given style work together.

Quibbles

Already expressed.

Summary

If you just want a taste of what a wide variety of different investors do to be effective, this could be the book for you.  For most other people, get one of Schwager’s longer books, and read about the different investors as individual chapters.  If you still want to buy it, you can buy it here: The Little Book of Market Wizards: Lessons from the Greatest Traders.

Full disclosure: I received a copy from the author’s PR flack.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

Goes Down Double-Speed (Update 2)

This is the third time I have written this article during this bull market.  Here are the other two times, with dates:

The first time, we had doubled since the bottom.  Second time, up 2.5x.  Now it is a triple since the bottom.  That doesn’t happen often, and this rally is getting increasingly unusual by historic standards.  That said, remember that every time a record gets broken, it shows that the prior maximum was not a limit.  If you think about that, after a bit you know that idea is obvious, but that isn’t the way that many people practically think about extreme statistics.

Let’s look at my table, which is the same as the last two times I published, except for the last line:

spx_31294_image002

Since the second piece, the gains have come slowly and steadily, though faster than between the first and second pieces.  As I said last time,

In long recoveries, gains first come quickly, then slowly, then near the end they often come quickly again.  Things are coming quickly again now, but who can tell how long it might persist.”

Indeed, and after the first piece, the market did nothing for about 16 months, after which the market started climbing again at a rate of about 1.5% per month for the last 27 months.  Though not as intense as the rally in the mid-’80s, this is now the third longest rally since 1950, and the third largest.  It is also the third most intense for rallies lasting 1000 calendar days or more.  This is a special rally.

 

spx_8180_image001

And now look at the cumulative gain:

spx_24509_image001

 

Does this special rally give us any clues to the future?  Sadly, no.  Or maybe, too much.  Let me spill my thoughts, and you can take them for what they are worth, because I encouraged caution the last two times, and that hasn’t been the winning idea so far.

  1. To top the rally of the ’90s for total size, we would have to see 2700 on the S&P 500.
  2. It is highly unlikely that this rally will top the intensity of that of the ’50s or ’80s.  Gains from here, if any, are likely to be below the 1.7%/month average so far.
  3. For this rally to set a length record, it would have to last until 12/14/16 (what a date).
  4. Record high profit margins should constrain further growth in the S&P 500, but that hasn’t worked so far.  As it is, there are very good reasons for profit margins to be high, because unskilled and semi-skilled labor in the capitalist world is not scarce.
  5. Rallies tend to persist longer when they go at gradual clips of between 1-2%/month.  Still, all of them eventually die.
  6. At present the market is priced to give 5.5%/year returns over the next 10 years.  That figure is roughly the 85th percentile of valuations.  Things are high now, but they have been higher, as in the dot-com bubble.  We are presently higher than the peak in 2007.
  7. On the negative side, it doesn’t look like the market is pricing in any war risk.
  8. On the positive side, I’m having a hard time finding too many industries that have over-borrowed.  Governments and US students show moderate credit risk, as do some industries in the finance and energy sectors.
  9. Finally, the most unusual aspect of this era is how little competition bonds are giving to stocks.  In my opinion, that idea is getting relied on too heavily for a relative value trade.  Instead, what we may find is that if bond yields rise, stocks, particularly dividend paying stocks, will get hit.  By relying on a relative yield judgment for stocks, it places them both subject to the same risks.

I still think that we are on borrowed time, but maybe you need to regard me as a stopped digital clock with a date field, which isn’t even right twice per day.  Historically, if the rally persists, stock prices should only appreciate at a 8-9% annual rate with the bull this old.

That’s all for now.  I’m not hedging my equity portfolio yet, but maybe my mind changes near 2300 on the S&P 500, should we get there.

PS — the title comes from the fact that markets move down twice as fast as they go up, so be ready for when the cycle turns.  The first article in the series focused on that.

The FSOC is Full of Hot Air

I’ve written about this before, but if the FSOC wants to prove that they don’t know what they are doing, they should define a large life insurer to be a systemic threat.

It is rich, really rich, to look at the rantings of a bunch of bureaucrats and banking regulators who could not properly regulate banks for solvency from 2003-2008, and have them suggest solvency regulation for a class of businesses that they understand even less.

And, this is regarding an industry that posed little systemic threat during the financial crisis.  Yes, there were the life subsidiaries of AIG that were rescued by the Fed, and a few medium-large life insurers like Hartford and Lincoln National that took TARP money that they didn’t need.  Even if all of these companies failed, it would have had little impact on the industry as a whole, much less the financial sector of the US.

Life insurance companies have much longer liability structures than banks.  They don’t have to refresh their financing frequently to stay solvent.  It is difficult to have a “run on the company” during a time of financial weakness.  Existing solvency regulation done by actuaries and filed with the state regulators considers risks that the banks often do not do in their asset-liability analyses.

Systemic risk comes from short-dated financing of long-dated assets, which is often done by banks, but rarely by life insurers.  I’ve written about this many times, and here are two of the better ones:

MetLife and other insurers should not have to live with the folly of “Big == Systemic Risk.”  Rather, let the FSOC focus on all lending financials that borrow short and lend long, particularly those that use the repurchase markets, or fund their asset inventories via short-term lending agreements.  That is the threat — let them regulate banks and pseudo-banks right before they dare to regulate something they clearly do not understand.

One Less Mentioned Reason for Stock Buybacks

Buybacks are not my favorite way to redeploy excess capital, in general.  But let me describe to you when they are useful and when they are not [taken from this article]:

 

  • Buybacks are preferred on a taxation basis to dividends.

  • But buybacks are especially good when the stock is trading below its franchise value, and especially bad the further above franchise value the stock is trading.

  • Using slack capital to improve operations, or do little tuck-in acquisitions is probably best of all.  Organic growth is usually the best growth, and small acquisitions can facilitate that.  Small acquisitions are usually not expensive.  Be wary of acquisitions to increase scale, they don’t work so well.

  • Paying a dividend makes management teams more cognizant of the cost of equity capital, which makes them more effective.

  • In the reinsurance business in Bermuda, companies with slack capital tend to buy back shares below 1.3x book value, and issue special dividends if they are above that level.

The whole article is worth a read, but there is one more factor that drives buybacks, especially illogical buybacks where they pay more than the per share intrinsic value of the company: they don’t want to get taken over by another company.  After all, the current management team may never have such nice jobs ever again.

Buying back stock at uneconomic prices temporarily keeps the stock price high, and removes cash from the balance sheet that an acquirer could use to help purchase the company.  We haven’t seen it in a while, but some companies under threat of a takeover would do a semi-LBO and borrow a lot of money to buy back stock, making a purchase of the company less attractive.

Thus, I’m not sure we could ever get rid of buybacks, even when they don’t make sense, except perhaps in the long run by selling the shares of companies that are too aggressive in the buybacks.

Closing Note

I rarely disagree with Josh Brown, but I did not find the HBR article he cited criticizing buybacks to be compelling.  I would find it really difficult to believe that management teams avoid projects offering organic growth at rates exceeding the implied yield from buying back stock.  Also, there are many different ways to run businesses in our country, and if public companies suffer from a buyback bias, then private companies might be able to think longer-term, and invest in profitable organic ventures.

Thus I would not blame buybacks for other problems in society; I might blame too much investment in residential housing and financial institutions, but even then, I would not be certain.  What we invest in as a society does affect future growth, but it is difficult to see where the end-investments take place.  Money from a stock buyback might get redeployed into a business startup.  It may be that public businesses are light on organic investing, and take less risk in investing via buybacks. But that is why we have startups, private equity, etc., much of successful of which go public or get acquired by public companies.

Anyway, just a few thoughts…

 

 

Enjoying Yahoo Finance Portfolio News

Title: Neat and Tidy | Photo Credit: dolanh

Title: Neat and Tidy | Photo Credit: dolanh

I would like to thank Yahoo Finance for cleaning up their news stream that accompanies portfolios that are set up at their site.  It used to be that I would have to copy the news flow from Yahoo Finance, drag it into an Excel spreadsheet, and do some complex operations to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Eventually, I got good enough at doing so, that it only took me five minutes a day to do that.

Fortunately, that only lasted for 18 months.  Now I can just look at the news flow on the portfolio pages, because almost all of the news-clutter is gone.  I’m not asking for perfection from Yahoo Finance.  It’s good enough that I can skip over the few remaining low-quality news sources.

I say this with some hesitation, because after writing for enough time on the web, I have friends in many publishing organizations on the web.  Thus, I would rather not publicly mention names of those excluded, or those who possibly should be excluded from those still allowed into the feed at Yahoo Finance.  I will only say to avoid robotic content.  Yes, we can create programs that can fully or partially automate the writing of certain news stories, but from my experience, those stories are low value, and frequently contain errors that a human specialist could have culled out.

To close: Thanks to Yahoo Finance for making the portfolio news feeds far more useful!

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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