The Longer View, Part 4

In my continuing series where I try to look beyond the current furor of the markets, here are a number of interesting items I have run into on the web:


1) Asset Allocation


  • Many people who want to stress the importance of their asset allocation services will tell you that asset allocation is responsible for 90% of all returns, so ignore other issues.  An article on the web reminded me of this debate.  The correct answer to the question, as pointed out by this paper, is that asset allocation explains 90% of the variability of the returns of a given fund across time, but only explains only 40% of the variability of a fund versus other funds.  Security selection matters.
  • Two interesting papers on asset class correlation.  Main upshots: historical correlations are not fully reliable, because risky assets tend to trade similarly in a crisis.  Value tends to march to its own drummer more than other equity styles in a crisis.  The effects on correlation in crises vary by crisis; no two are alike.  Natural resources and globa bonds tend to be good diversifiers.
  • In bull markets, risky asset classes all tend to do well.  Vice-versa in the bear markets.  My reason for this correlation is that you have institutional asset buyers all focusing on asset classes that were previously under-recognized, and are now investing in them, which raises the correlation level, not because the economics have changed, but becuase the buyers have very similar objectives.
  • There are a few good states, but by and large, public pensions are a morass.  Most are underfunded, and rely on future taxation increases to support them.  When a public system realizes that it is behind, the temptation is to take more investment risk by purchasing alternative asset classes that might give higher returns.  This will end badly, as I have commented before… I suspect that some state pension plans are the dumping grounds for a lot of overpriced risk that Wall Street could not offload elsewhere.


2) Insurance



3) Investment Abuse of the Elderly


It’s all too common, I’m afraid.  Senior citizens get convinced to buy inappropriate investments.  Even the SEC is looking into it.  This applies to annuities as well, mainly deferred annuities, which I generally do not recommend, particularly for seniors.  The comment that a CEO doesn’t fully understand his own annuity products is telling.


Now fixed immediate annuities are another thing, and I recommend them highly as a bond substitute for those in retirement, particularly for seniors who are healthy.


The only real cure for these deceptive practices is to watch out for the seniors that you care for, and tell them to be skeptics, and to run all major investment decisions by you, or another trusted soul for a second opinion.


4) Accounting


  • I am against the elimination of the IFRS to GAAP reconciliation for foreign firms.  What is FASB’s main goal in life — to destroy comparability of financial statements?  We may lose more foreign firms listed in the US, which I won’t like, but a consistent accounting basis is critical for smaller investors.
  • Congress moves from one ditch to the other.  This time it’s sale of subprime loans.  Too many modifications, and sale treatment is at risk, so Congress tries to soften the blow for the housing market.  Let auditors be auditors, and if you want the accounting rules changed, then let Congress do the job of the FASB, so that they can be blamed for their incompetence at a complex task.
  • As I’ve said before, I don’t like SFAS 159.  It will lead to more distortions in financial statements, because managements will tend to err in favor of higher asset and lower liability values, where they have the freedom to set assumptions.


5) Volatility


  • Earn 40%/year from naked put selling?  Possible, but with a lot of tail risk.  I remember how a lot of naked put sellers got smashed back in October 1987.  That said, it looks like you can make up the loss with persistence, that is, until too many people do it.
  • Here’s an interesting graph of the various VIX phases over the past 20 years.  Interesting how the phases are multiyear in nature.  Makes me think higher implied volatility is coming.
  • I don’t think a VIX replicating ETF would be a good idea; I’m not sure it would work.  If we want to have a volatility ETF, maybe it would be better to use variance swaps or a fund that buys long delta-neutral straddles, and rebalances when the absolute value of delta gets too high.


That’s all for now.  More coming in the next part of this series.