This will be the post where I cover the biggest mistakes that I made as an institutional bond and stock investor. In general, in my career, my results were very good for those who employed me as a manager or analyst of investments, but I had three significant blunders over a fifteen-year period that cost my employers and their clients a lot of money.  Put on your peril-sensitive sunglasses, and let’s take a learning expedition through my failures.

Manufactured Housing Asset Back Securities — Mezzanine and Subordinated Certificates

In 2001, I lost my boss.  In the midst of a merger, he figured his opportunities in the merged firm were poor, and so he jumped to another firm.  In the process, I temporarily became the Chief Investment Officer, and felt that we could take some chances that the boss would not take that in my opinion were safe propositions.  All of them worked out well, except for one: The — Mezzanine and Subordinated Certificates of Manufactured Housing Asset Back Securities [MHABS].  What were those beasts?

Many people in the lower middle class live in prefabricated housing in predominantly in trailer parks around the US.  You get a type of inexpensive independent living that is lower density than an apartment building, and the rent you have to pay is lower than renting an apartment.  What costs some money is paying for the loan to buy the prefabricated housing.

Those loans would get gathered into bunches, put into a securitization trust, and certificates would get sold allocating cash flows with different probabilities of default.  Essentially there were four levels (in order of increasing riskiness) — Senior, Mezzanine, Subordinated, and Residual.  I focused on the middle two classes because they seemed to offer a very favorable risk/reward trade-off if you selected carefully.

In 2001, it was obvious that there was too much competition for lending to borrowers in Manufactured Housing [MH] — too many manufacturers were trying to sell their product to a saturated market, and underwriting suffered.  But, if you looked at older deals, lending standards were a lot higher, but the yields on those bonds were similar to those on the badly underwritten newer deals.  That was the key insight.

One day, I was able to confirm that insight by talking with my rep at Lehman Brothers.  I talked to him about the idea, and he said, “Did you know we have a database on the loss stats of all of the Green Tree (the earliest lender on MH) deals since inception?”  After the conversation was over, I had that database, and after one day of analysis — the analysis was clear: underwriting standards had slipped dramatically in 1998, and much further in 1999 and following.

That said, the losses by deal and duration since issuance followed a very predictable pattern: a slow ramp-up of losses over 30 months, and then losses tailing off gradually after about 60 months.  The loss statistics of all other MH lenders aside from Vanderbilt (now owned by Berkshire Hathaway) was worse than Green Tree losses.  The investment idea was as follows:

Buy AA-rated mezzanine and BBB-rated subordinated MHABS originated by Green Tree in 1997 and before that.  The yield spreads over Treasuries are compelling for the rating, and the loss rates would have to jump and stick by a factor of three to impair the subordinated bonds, and by a factor of six to impair the mezzanine bonds.  These bonds have at least four years of seasoning, so the loss rates are very predictable, and are very unlikely to spike by that much.

That was the thesis, and I began quietly acquiring $200 million of these bonds in the last half of 2001.  I did it for several reasons:

  • The yields were compelling.
  • The company that I was investing for was growing way too rapidly, and we needed places to put money.
  • The cash flow profile of these securities matched very well the annuities that the company was selling.
  • The amount of capital needed to carry the position was small.

By the end of 2001, two things happened.  The opportunity dried up, because I had acquired enough of the bonds on the secondary market to make a difference, and prices rose.  Second, I was made the corporate bond manager, and another member of our team took over the trade.  He didn’t much like the trade, and I told my boss that it was his portfolio now, he can do what he wanted.

He kept the positions on, but did not add to them.  I was told he looked at the bonds, noticed that they were all trading at gains, and stuck with the positions.

Can You Make It Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death?

I left the firm about 14 months later, and around that time, the prices for MHABS fell apart.  Increasing defaults on MH loans, and failures of companies that made MH, made many people exceptionally bearish and led rating agencies to downgrade almost all MHABS bonds.

The effects of the losses were similar to that of the Housing Bubble in 2007-9.  As people defaulted, the value of existing prefabricated houses fell, because of the glut of unsold houses, both new and used.  This had an effect, even on older deals, and temporarily, loss rates spiked above the levels that would impair the bonds that I bought if the levels stayed that high.

With the ratings lowered, more capital had to be put up against the positions, which the insurance company did not want to do, because they always levered themselves up more highly than most companies — they never had capital to spare, so any loss on bonds was a disaster to them.

They feared the worst, and sold the bonds at a considerable loss, and blamed me.

[sigh]

Easy to demonize the one that is gone, and forget the good that he did, and that others had charge of it during the critical period.  So what happened to the MHABS bonds that I bought?

Every single one of those bonds paid off in full.  Held to maturity, not one of them lost a dime.

What was my error?

Part of being a good investor is knowing your client.  In my case, the client was an impossible one, demanding high yields, low capital employed, and no losses.  I should have realized that at some later date, under a horrific scenario, that the client would not be capable of holding onto the securities.  For that reason, I should have never bought them in the first place.  Then again, I should have never bought anything with any risk for them under those conditions, because in a large enough portfolio, you will have some areas where the risk will surprise you.  This was less than 2% of the consolidated assets of the firm, and they can’t hold onto securities that would likely be money good amid a panic?!

Sadly, no.  As their corporate bond manager, before I left, I sold down positions like that that my replacement might not understand, but I did not control the MHABS portfolio then, and so I could not do that.

Maybe $50 million went down the drain here.  On the bright side, it helped teach me what would happen in the housing bubble, and my next employer benefited from those insights.

Thus the lesson is: only choose investments that your client will be capable of holding even during horrible times, because the worst losses come from panic selling.

Next time, my two worst stock losses from my hedge fund days.

Photo credit: jonesylife

Photo credit: jonesylife || Oh look, there are twelve doves flying!

March 2015April 2015Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January suggests that economic growth has moderated somewhat.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in March suggests that economic growth slowed during the winter months, in part reflecting transitory factors.Shades GDP down.  Why can’t the FOMC accept that the economy is structurally weak?
Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate. A range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish.The pace of job gains moderated, and the unemployment rate remained steady. A range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources was little changed.Shades labor use down.
Household spending is rising moderately; declines in energy prices have boosted household purchasing power. Business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow and export growth has weakened.Growth in household spending declined; households’ real incomes rose strongly, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices, and consumer sentiment remains high. Business fixed investment softened, the recovery in the housing sector remained slow, and exports declined.Shades down their view of household spending.  Adds a comment on consumer sentiment.

Also shades down business fixed investment and exports.

 

Inflation has declined further below the Committee’s longer-run objective, largely reflecting declines in energy prices. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Inflation continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and decreasing prices of non-energy imports. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Notes lower prices of energy and imports.

TIPS are showing lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.10%, up 0.16% from January.

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 continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.Although growth in output and employment slowed during the first quarter, the Committee continues to expect that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.No real change. They are fitting Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing, and expecting a different outcome.
The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. Inflation is anticipated to remain near its recent low level in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of energy price declines and other factors dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. Inflation is anticipated to remain near its recent low level in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.CPI is at -0.0% now, yoy.  No change in language.
To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, 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 and international developments.To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, 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 and international developments.No change.
Consistent with its previous statement, the Committee judges that an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remains unlikely at the April FOMC meeting. Deleted
The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.No change.

No rules, just guesswork from academics and bureaucrats with bad theories on economics.

This change in the forward guidance does not indicate that the Committee has decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range. Deleted
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. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.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. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.  Changing that would be a cheap way to effect a tightening.
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. 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.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. 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.“Balanced” means they don’t know what they will do, and want flexibility.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.No change, sadly.

We need some people in the Fed and in the government who realize that balance sheets matter – for households, corporations, governments, and central banks.  Remove anyone who is a neoclassical economist – they missed the last crisis; they will miss the next one.

Comments

  • With this FOMC statement, people should conclude that they have no idea of when the FOMC will tighten policy, if ever. This is the sort of statement they issue when things are “steady as you go.”  There is no hint of imminent policy change.
  • The FOMC has a weaker view of GDP, labor use, household spending, business fixed investment and exports.
  • 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.
  • Forward inflation expectations have reversed direction and are rising, and the twitchy FOMC did not note it.
  • Equities rise and long bonds rise. Commodity prices fall and the dollar rises.  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 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.
  • We have a congress of doves for 2015 on the FOMC. Things will be boring as far as dissents go.  We need some people in the Fed and in the government who realize that balance sheets matter – for households, corporations, governments, and central banks.  Remove anyone who is a neoclassical economist – they missed the last crisis; they will miss the next one.

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp || Some bad ideas should be locked away…

Dan Primack of Fortune wrote in his daily email:

Saving unicorns from themselves? There was an interesting piece last week from Martin Peers in The Information (sub req), arguing that the private markets need some sort of shorting mechanism so that there is a check on unreasonable valuation inflation. It would make the market more efficient, Peers argues, even though implementation would require several structural changes (particularly to stock transfer rules). He writes:

“Private companies will probably resist the development of a short-selling market, given it would hurt valuations, which in turn can undermine the value of employee option programs, and give them less control over their shareholder group. But those risks are likely to be outweighed by the long term benefits of bringing more buyers into the market and ensuring the company’s valuation can be sustained outside of the constraints of the private market.”

Leaving out the technical difficulties — including the lack of ongoing price discovery — one big counter could be that shorts didn’t so much to stop the earlier dotcom bubble (which largely took place in the public markets).

Adam D’Augelli of True Ventures pointed me to a 2002 academic paper (Princeton/London Biz School) that found “hedge funds during the time of the technology bubble on the Nasdaq… were heavily tilted towards overpriced technology stocks.” They add that “arbitrageurs are concerned about attacking the bubble too early without support from their peers,” and that they’re more likely to ride the bubble until just a few months before the end.

That would seem to be too late to impose price discipline in private markets, but I’m curious in your thoughts. Does some sort of private shorting system make sense? And, if so, how would it be structured?

I’m going to take a stab at answering the final questions.  There is often a reason why the financial world is set up the way it is, and why truly helpful financial innovations are rare.  The answer is “no, we should not have any way of shorting private companies, and it is not a flaw in the system that we don’t have any easy way to do it.”

Two notes before I start: 1) I haven’t read the paper at The Information, because it is behind a paywall, but I don’t think I need to do so.  I think the answer is obvious.  2) I ran into this question answered at Quora.  The answers are pretty good in aggregate, but what exists here are my own thoughts to present the answer in what I hope is a simple manner.

What is required to have an effective means of shorting assets

  1. An asset must be capable of being easily transferred from one entity to another.
  2. Entities willing to lend the asset in exchange for some compensation over a given lending term.
  3. Entities willing to borrow the asset, put up collateral adequate to secure the asset, and then sell the asset to another entity.
  4. An entity or entities to oversee the transaction, provide custody of the collateral, transmit payments, assure return of the asset at the end of the lending term, and gauge the adequacy of collateral relative to the value of the asset.

Here’s the best diagram I saw on the internet to help describe it (credit to this Latvian website):

short selling

I’m leaving aside the concept of naked shorting, because there are a lot of bad implications to allowing a third party to create ownership interests in a firm, a power which is reserved for the firm itself.

The Troubles Associated with Shorting Private Assets

I can think of four troubles.  Here they are:

  1. The ability to sell, lend, or buy shares in a private company are limited by the private company.
  2. Lending over long terms with no continuous price mechanism to aid in the gradual adjustment of collateral could lead to losses for the lender if the borrower can’t put up additional capital.
  3. The asset lender can decide only to lend over lending terms that will likely be disadvantageous to the borrower.  Getting the asset returned at the end of the lending term could be problematic.
  4. It is difficult enough shorting relatively illiquid publicly traded assets.  Liquidity is required for any regular shorting to happen.

The first one is the killer.  There are no advantages to a private company to allow for the mechanisms needed to allow for shorting. That is one of the advantages of being private.  Information is not shared openly, and you can use the secrecy to aid your competitive edge.  Skeptical short-sellers would not be welcome.

The second problem is tough, because sometimes successive capital rounds are at considerably higher prices.  The borrower will likely not have enough slack assets to increase his collateral, and he will be forced to buy shares in the round to cover his short because of that.  The lender could find that the borrower cannot make good on the loan, and so the lender loses a portion of the value his ownership stake.

But imagining the first two problems away, problem three would still be significant.  If the term for lending were not all the way to the IPO, next capital round or dissolution/sale, at the end of the term, the borrower would have to look for someone to sell shares to him.  It is quite possible that no one would sell them at any reasonable price.  They know they have a forced buyer on their hands, and there could be informal collusion on the price of a sale.

Perhaps another way to put it is don’t play in a game where the other team has significant control over the rules of the game.  One of the reasons I say this is from my days of a bond manager.  There were a lot of games played in securities lending, and bonds are not the most liquid place to short assets.  I remember it being very difficult to get a bond back from an entity that borrowed it, and the custodian and trustee did not help much.  I also remember how we used to gauge the liquidity of bonds we lent out, and if one was particularly illiquid, we would always recall the bond before selling it, which would often make the price of the bond rise.  Games, games, games…

What Might Be Better

Perhaps using collateralized options or another type of derivative could allow bets to be taken, if the term extended all the way to the IPO, the next capital round, or dissolution/sale of the company.  The options would have to be limited to the posted collateral being the most the seller of the option could lose.  Some of the above four issues would still be in play at various points, but aside from issue one, this would minimize the troubles.

What Might Be Better Still

The value of the shorts is that they share information with the rest of the market that there is a bearish opinion on an asset.  Short-sellers are nice to have around, but not necessary for the asset pricing function.  It is not unreasonable to live with the problem that some assets will be overvalued in the intermediate-term, rather than set up a complex method to try to enable shorting.  As Ben Graham said:

“In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

The weighing machine will do its job soon enough, showing that the overvalued asset will never produce free cash adequate to justify its current high price.  Is it a trouble to wait for that to happen?  If you don’t own it, you shouldn’t care much.

If you want to short it, I’m not sure that will hasten the price adjustment process that much, unless you can convince the existing owners of the asset that it isn’t worth even the current price.  Given that buyers have convinced themselves to own the asset, because they think it will be worth more in the future, intellectually, convincing them that it is worth less is a tough sell.

In the end, only asset and liability cash flows count, regardless of what secondary buyers and sellers do.  Secondary trading does not affect the value of assets, though it may affect the perception of value in the short run.  Thus, you don’t need short sellers to aid in setting secondary market prices, but they are an aid there.  In the primary markets, where whole companies are bought and sold, the perceived cash return is all that matters.

Conclusion

Ergo, live with short run overvaluation in private markets.  It is a high quality problem.  Sell overvalued assets if you own them.  Watch if you don’t own them.  Shorting, even if possible, is not worth the bother.

Welcome back to this irregular series where I go through the large blunders that I have committed in my investments.  Let’s start with an unusual one: a telecommunications partnership.

In the late ’80s the US government allocated some telecom spectrum via a lottery process.  I had some friends that participated in the first lottery, and received a decent amount of valuable spectrum.  The only thing they had to do was have the engineering documents drawn up, which a third party consultant did.  I said to myself that if it ever came around again, I would try to participate.

In the early ’90s, lo and behold, a second lottery with the same rules.  I invested enough to gain a 30% interest in a partnership that would be going after the center of the US, ignoring the east and west coasts.  I had seven partners with 10% interests, and they elected me to be the lead partner.  So far, so good, right?

Well, seemingly.  The thing is, why should the government allocate spectrum by lottery?  Shouldn’t they sell it off to the highest bidder?  After all, that’s what most people did with the spectrum they received in the first lottery.  (I was planning on trying to create an operating company.)  Shouldn’t the US government cut out the middlemen, and receive more for a valuable and somewhat limited asset?

Prompted by the telecommunication firms, who preferred having fewer and larger auctions rather than buying from a bunch of disparate individuals, the US government acted in its own interests, and cancelled, even after all of the lottery participants plans had been approved.

In the end, we got back our fees from the government, but lost the money that we spent on engineering documents.  After writing off the losses, it was a loss of 50%.  That said, I also lost any profits from investing the money in stocks over the eight years that the money was tied up.  (The promoter that did the engineering documents went into hiding, having lost their shirts in the process, with a lot of annoyed people that bought their services.)

Small Cap Value Forever!

So what was I doing in equity investing in that era?  Small cap value — little companies trading at bargain prices.  Of all the managers that I interviewed when creating the multiple manager funds for my employer, I found the small cap value guys to be the most business-minded and interesting.  A few of us at my firm would research out lesser known companies and share the ideas.  We had some fun with it.  We would occasionally say to each other, “Small Cap Value Forever!”

Now, when the dot-com bubble came around, I was not tempted to play in that area of the market, but I fell into a lesser version of the same trap here.  I started doing this just as small cap value’s period of outperformance was ending, and growth was taking over.

So how did I do?  Not that bad… Small cap value lagged the S&P 500 by about 5%/year over the time I was focused on it, and I was able to beat the S&P 500 by a little bit.  Not the greatest, but not the worst, either.  In the process, I ran into a number of bizarre situations that taught me a lot, particularly with the smallest companies that I invested in.

In one case, I made the mistake of entering a market order to initiate a position.  (Accident: I typically only use limit orders.) The stock was so thinly traded that I got filled at levels an average of 50% above where the bid was.  The price promptly fell back to where it was prior to my purchase.  Adding insult to injury, management ruined the place, and the price fell by over 80%.  I looked at the situation, thought the assets were worth far more, and submitted a bid to an institutional investor to buy out his entire stake (and I would become a 5%+ holder of the company — I had to ask my compliance area if I could do that, and they were bemused at the odd request, and assented.)  The investor did not take my bid, but held on, and the management announced a buyout for the company at a level that would have given me a significant gain had I been able to buy the block of stock, but instead left me with a 80%+ loss on a small position, which wasn’t large enough to consider filing for appraisal rights.

Then there was one that went very well, but taught me the wrong lesson.  A few weeks after I bought a stake in a small electronic parts company, Corcom, another company bought it for cash.  At first I was happy with the quick and sizable win, but then I realized that I might have done better over time if the company hadn’t sold out.

That said, I noticed how wide the arbitrage spread was on the deal, and the annualized rate was 40%/year.  I bought more and more of it, and eventually even used leverage to goose returns (this doesn’t sound like the older me, right?  Right.)  I made a lot of money in the process when the deal completed.

Here’s the wrong conclusion I drew: small deal arbitrage was lucrative and easy.  I started doing that exclusively for two years during 1998-2000.  During that time I learned:

  • It’s not easy.  Small deal arbitrage investing is like investing in high yield bonds where the management teams have disproportionate opportunity to act against the interests of owners.
  • It’s not as lucrative as it looks, either.  One deal gone wrong will eat the profits of ten that go right.
  • It takes a lot of time to find, analyze and compare new deals.  I spent much more time on that than when I was doing value investing.  I felt my time with my family was suffering.

More deals went bad than should have.  My credit analysis on the deals was subpar.  I particularly remember one where the buyer used an obscure clause to get out of the deal, and the company, Advanced Technical Products, took the acquirer to court and lost.

After the loss in court, I sold for a 70%+ loss, and then insult added to injury happened again… after 9/11, the products that they made for structural purposes came into high demand, and the stock shot up more than fifteen times.  Had I held on, I would have quadrupled my original investment.  (I smile and laugh a little as I write this.)

What did I learn?

This was the worst two years of all my investing, so I learned quite a bit:

  • Often your worst errors come trying to repeat a single abnormally large success.
  • Stick to what you know best, which for me was value investing.
  • Don’t chase fads.
  • Analyze management teams of small companies very carefully.  They can potentially get away with a lot more if there are no significant controlling investors.
  • Analyze your own investing to figure out what you are best at.  I did such an analysis afterward, and saw value investing and industry analysis as key strengths.
  • Focus on risk control.  Focus on risk control.  Focus on risk control……
  • Do more analysis of unusual ways of investing before committing money.

On the bright side, this period set me for my best period of investing, which would be 2000-2010.  The lessons and discipline learned would prove invaluable to me, and the companies that I served.

Despite the large and seemingly meaty title, this will be a short piece.  I class these types of investors together because most of them have long investment horizons.  From an asset-liability management standpoint, that would mean they should invest similarly.  That may be have been true for Defined Benefit [DB] pension plans and Endowments, but that has shifted over time, and is increasingly not true.  In some ways, the DB plans are becoming more like life insurers in the way they invest, though not totally so.  So, why do they invest differently?  Two reasons: internal risk management goals, and the desires of insurance regulators to preserve industry solvency.

Let’s start with life insurers.  Regulators don’t want insolvent companies, so they constrain companies into safe assets using risk-based capital charges.  The riskier the investment, the more capital the insurer has to put up against it.  After that, there is cash-flow testing which tends to push life insurers to match assets and liabilities, or at least, not have a large mismatch.  Also, accounting rules may lead insurers to buy assets where the income will show up on their financial statements regularly.

The result of this is that life insurers don’t invest much in risk assets — maybe they invest in stocks, junk bonds, etc. up to the amount of their surplus, but not much more than that.

DB plans don’t have regulators that care about investment risks.  They do have plan sponsors that do care about investment risk, and that level of care has increased over the past 15 years.  Back in the late ’90s it was in vogue for DB plans to allocate more and more to risk assets, just in time for the market to correct.  (Note to retail investors: professionals may deride your abilities, but the abilities of many professionals are questionable also.)

Over that time, the rate used to discount DB plan liabilities became standardized and attached to long high quality bonds.  Together with a desire to minimize plan funding risks, and thus corporate risks for the plan sponsor, that led to more investments in bonds, and less in equities and other risk assets.  Some plans try to cash flow match expected future plan payments out to a horizon.

Finally, endowments have no regulator, and don’t have a plan sponsor that has to make future payments.  They are free to invest as they like, and probably have the highest degree of variation in their assets as a group.  There is some level of constraint from the spending rules employed by the endowments, particularly since 2008-9, when a number of famous endowments came to realize that there was a liability structure behind them when they ran low on liquidity amid the crisis. [Note: long article.]  You might think it would be smart to have the present value of 3-5 years of expenditures on hand in bonds, but that is not always the case.  In some ways, the quick recovery taught some endowment investors the wrong lesson — that they could wait out any crisis.

That’s my quick summary.  If you have thoughts on the matter, you can share them in the comments.

 

15 years is a long time to wait for a 1%/yr return

15 years is a long time to wait for a 1%/yr return

The big news of the day is that the NASDAQ Composite hit a new high for the first time in 15 years.  Nice, except as you note from the above graph, that if you adjusted for inflation, you still haven’t made a new high.  By the time the NASDAQ Composite hits a new high, it will have to rack up at least another 2000 points, which is 40% or so away.  Now if you add dividends back in since March 10th, 2000, you get to roughly a 1% return.

That’s a lot of pain for not much gain.  That said, few if any rode out this storm in a fund like the NASDAQ composite. The pain would have been so great that most would have given up in 2002, and those that survived would have given up in 2008-9.  We aren’t designed to take that much pain and hold on.  I have a stronger financial pain tolerance than most, and I can’t think of a stock I hung on to past a 75% decline that ever came back in full.  50%?  Yes.  75%?  No.

I haven’t run the dollar-weighted return calculation for the QQQ, but I’ll try to run that calculation in a future blog post, and who knows, maybe I will run the calculation for John Hussman’s main fund at some future point also.

Look Elsewhere

Looking at the NASDAQ Composite is more a glimpse at the past rather than the future.  But let me take two more glimpses at the past before I give you a guess at the future.

I remember March 10th, 2000, and the months around it.  As the dot-com bubble expanded, what industry did the worst, and bounced back the hardest?  Property/Casualty Insurance.  I tell my story in detail in this post that I find amusing.  To shorten this article, I can tell you that if you invested in undervalued industries in 2000-2001, you didn’t get hurt badly at all; you may even have made money like me.  2002 was another matter — everything got smashed.

But many famous value investors never got to participate in that rally, because they got fired, or retired amid the furor of the dot-com bubble.  This is yet another reason why it is so hard as an asset manager to hold onto promising assets that are out of favor… if your clients leave you because they can’t take any more pain, you will be forced to liquidate because of them.  If you are a big enough holder of those assets, the process may drive the price down further, adding insult to injury.

In my own case, I got derided by peers in early 2000 by owning a lot of property/casualty insurers, particularly my own company, The St. Paul (now part of the Travelers).

Here’s another glimpse: Sometime in 2005, I got introduced to a company called Industrias Bachoco [IBA].  It was a medium-sized chicken producer based in Celaya, Mexico.  Today, I believe it is second to Tyson Foods in North America as far as chicken production goes.

It looked interesting and underfollowed, in an industry that I thought had good prospects, because in a world with a growing middle class, meat would be a premium food product in demand.  So I bought some, and mostly held on.

Yummy Chicken, no?

Yummy Chicken, no?

If you had bought IBA on March 10th, 2000, and held until today, you would have gotten a little more than a 17%/year return.  4% of that came from dividends.  Not quite a Peter Lynch 10-bagger from that point, but getting closer by the day.

Because I got there later, my returns haven’t been as good as that, but still well worth owning over the last ten years.  I highlight IBA because I know it well, and it serves as a good example of a winning stock that few would have been likely to choose.  Agriculture is not a sexy industry, whereas technology gets lots of admirers.  But with an intelligent management team and conservative finances, IBA has done very well.  Now, what will do well in the future?

This is why I tell you to look elsewhere for ideas, away from the crowds.  Not that everything will do as well as IBA did, but where are the good assets that few are looking at?

Tough question.  I’ll give you a few ideas, but then you have to work on it yourself.

1) Look at higher quality names in out-of-favor industries.  The advantage of this approach is that your downside is likely to be limited, while the upside could be significant.  I’ve seen it work many times.  Note: avoid “buggy whip” industries where the decline is final; the internet is eating a lot of industries.

2) Look at companies outside the US that act in the best interests of outside, passive, minority investors like you and me.  There is less competition there from analysts and clever US-focused investors.  Note: spend extra time analyzing how they have used free cash flow in the past.  Is management rational at allocating capital, or even clever?

3) Look at firms that can’t be taken over, where a control investor seems savvy, and acts in the best interests of outside, passive, minority investors.  Many won’t invest in those firms because they are less liquid, and a takeover is very unlikely.

4) Look at smaller firms pursuing a growing niche in an otherwise dull industry.  Or smaller firms that have good finances, but have some taint that keeps investors from re-examining it.

5) Look through 13F filings for new names that look promising, before too many people learn about the company.  Or, IPOs and spin-offs in industries that are dull.

6) Analyze stocks that are in the lowest quartile of performance over the last 3-5 years.

7) Or, go to Value Line, and look at the stocks with the highest appreciation potential, with an adequate safety rank.

Regardless, look forward from here, and look at assets that are cheap relative to future prospects that few others are looking at.  There is little value in searching where everyone else does, such as the main stocks in the NASDAQ Composite.

Full Disclosure: long IBA and TRV for clients and me

Photo Credit: -Mandie-

Photo Credit: -Mandie-

You can catch part 1 here, where the first six reasons were:

  • Arrive at the wrong time
  • Leave at the wrong time
  • Chase the hot sector/industry
  • Ignore Valuations
  • Not think like a businessman, or treat it like a business
  • Not diversify enough

On to the last six reasons:

7) Play around with pseudo-stocks

ETFs are simple.  Perhaps they are too simple, allowing people to implement their investment views very rapidly, when have not done sufficient due diligence on the target of their investing.

As a quick example, consider the CurrencyShares series of ETFs.  You know that if you use these, you are making an unsecured loan to JP Morgan, right?  Well, you might be bright, but most people think these funds are collateralized.

ETFs are complex, particularly if you use any that are short or levered.  They attempt to mirror the price move of a day, and typically underperform if held over longer periods.  Again, you might know this, but most people don’t.  Personally, I would ban them on public policy grounds.

Commodity ETFs and Bond ETFs have their own issues, as do ETNs with their credit risk, etc., etc.  How many people actually look through the prospectus, or at least the information sheet provided by the fund?  Precious few, I think.

If you use ETFs, stick to the good ones. (Article one, Article two)

8) Gamble

This one should be obvious.  Most good investing focuses on avoiding losses, and compounding gains in a predictable manner.  Taking chances, like speculating on the short-term direction of markets through puts and calls is a way to lose money predictably.  (I leave out covered calls and married puts.)  It is hard enough to get a good idea of where a stock is going in the long run.  Getting it in the short run is much harder.

9) Ignore Balance Sheets and Cash Flow

Those who follow the fundamentals of most companies pay attention to the most manipulated of the three main financial statements — the income statement.  Companies often try to make their earnings numbers, and compromise their accounting in the process.

Accrual entries depend on assumptions and can be tweaked to favor management’s view of profitability.  Cash for the most part is a lot harder to fake, and most companies wouldn’t consider faking it, because few look there.

Looking at the change in net worth per share with dividends added back is often a better measure of financial progress than earnings per share.  Beyond that, investing is not just about earnings, but about the margin of safety in the company.  Many things look very cheap that have a significant risk of failure.  Analyzing the balance sheet can keep you from many situations that will result in losses.

10) Try a little of this and a little of that – No strategy / No edge

It takes a while to become good at a method of investing.  Read about different methods and settle on one that fits the whole of your life.  I gave up on certain methods because they took up too much time, and I had a family to tend to.

I rarely short assets, because to do it right would require large changes to the way I do risk control.  (The same applies to options.)  Good risk control is easy when the choice is between long assets and cash only.  It gets a lot harder when you can short or go leveraged long, because you no longer have full control over what you are doing — the margin clerks will have some say over your assets.

Also, understand your circle of competence.  What is your edge, and where does it apply?  I avoid investing in biotechnology because I can’t tell a good idea from a bad one there, aside from estimating how long the company has before it needs to raise more capital.  I do more with insurance than most do, because I intuitively understand how the companies work, and what a good insurance management team is like.

That doesn’t mean you can’t broaden your strategy or increase your circle of competence.  But it does mean that you will have to study if you want to do it well.  This is a business if you are going to make active bets in a big way.  You will need to spend time equivalent or greater than that of a significant hobby.

11) Trade Aggressively

In general, you don’t make money when you trade.  You make it while you wait.  Most ideas in investing take time to work out, unless you are gambling on a short-term event, or speculating on a move in the stock price.

Most of the studies that I have done on investment in mutual funds of all sorts, including ETFs, show that buy-and-hold investors typically do better than the average investors in the mutual funds.  On average, the losers are the ones who do the trading.  That’s not to say there aren’t some clever traders out there.  There are, but you are not likely to be one of them.  Frequent trading, unless carefully controlled, is more likely to result in a lot of losses, and few gains, because fear causes many to panic in the short-run.

Even if successful, most aggressive traders get taxed more heavily than those with long-term gains.  Most of my investment income qualifies for the lowest tax rates, and since I use big gains for charitable giving, my effective rates are lower still.

12) Short incautiously

This may affect the fewest number of my readers, but I have seen even professionals struggle with making money from shorting, particularly when they think an asset is worth nothing ultimately.

Shorting is a difficult way to make money, because your downside is unlimited, and your upside is limited to 100% if the asset goes to zero.  Another way to say it is that your risk gets larger with shorting as the position moves against you.  The risk gets smaller when long positions move against you.

if you must short, then treat it like a business and do it tactically.

  • Diversify shorts much more than longs.
  • Be tactical, and go for lots of little wins rather than a few big wins.
  • Set a time limit on your short positions at inception, and close out the positions no later than that.
  • Be aware that you are likely embedding factor bets on steroids, which can blow up in the wrong market environment. (E.g., short size, long value, short quality, short liquidity, short momentum, etc., would be common for a value oriented hedge fund)

Conclusion

Be aware of the foibles that exist in investing.  There are many of them, as described in this article and the last one.  If you want to profit over the long haul, act to avoid the traps that derail most retail investors.  If you get knocked out of the game, and no longer invest as a result of a trap, you forgo all of the gains that you might have otherwise gotten with more diligence and patience.

Photo Credit: Alcino || What is the sound of negative one hand clapping?

Photo Credit: Alcino || What is the sound of negative one hand clapping?

As with many of my articles, this one starts with a personal story from my insurance business career (skip down four paragraphs to the end of the story if you want):

25 years ago, when it was still uncommon, I wanted to go to an executive course at the Wharton School for actuaries that wanted to better understand investment math and markets.  I went to my boss at AIG (a notably tight-fisted firm on expenses) and asked if the company would pay for me to go… it was an exclusive course, and very expensive compared to any other conference that I would ever go to again in my life.  I tried not to get my hopes up.

Lo, and behold!  AIG went for it!

A month later, I was with a bunch of bright actuaries at the Wharton School.  The first thing I noticed was aside from the compound interest math, and maybe some bond knowledge, the actuaries were rather light on investment knowledge, and I would bet that all of them had passed the Society of Actuaries investment course.  The second thing I noticed were some of the odd investments described in the syllabus: it was probably my first taste of derivative instruments.  At the ripe old age of 29, I was learning a lot, and possibly more than the rest of my classmates, because I had spent a lot of time studying investments already, both on an academic and practical basis.

I had already studied the pricing of stock options in school, so I was familiar with Black-Scholes.  (Trivia note: an actuary developed the same formula for valuing optionally terminable reinsurance treaties six years ahead of Black, Scholes and Merton.  That doesn’t even take into account Bachelier, who derived it 73 years earlier, but no one knew about it, because it was written in French.)  At this point, the professor left, and a grad student came in to teach us about the pricing of bond options.  At the end of his lesson, it was time for the class to have a break.  I went down to make a comment, and it went like this:

Me: You said that we have to adjust for the fact that interest rates can’t go negative.

Grad student: Of course.

Me: But interest rates could go negative.

GS: That’s ridiculous!  Why would you ever lend money and accept back less than you gave them, and lose the time value of money?!

Me: Almost of the time, you wouldn’t.  But imagine a scenario where the demand for loanable funds leaves interest rates near zero, but the times are insecure and violent, leaving you uncertain that if you stored your cash privately, you would run too large of a risk of having it stolen.  You need your cash in the future for a given project.  In this case, you would pay the bank to store your money.

GS: That’s an absurd scenario!  That could never happen!

Me: It’s unlikely, I admit, but I wouldn’t say that you can never have negative interest rates.

GS: I will say it again: You can NEVER have negative interest rates.

Me: Thanks, I guess.

Well, so much for the distant past.  Here is why I am writing this: yesterday, a friend of mine wrote me the following note:

Good evening.  I trust you had a blessed Lord’s Day in the new building. 

Talking bonds today with my Econ class.  Here’s our question. Other than playing a currency angle why would anyone buy European debt with a negative yield?  The Swiss and at least one other county sold 10 year notes with a negative yield.  Can you explain that?  No interest and less principle [sic] at the end.

Now, I didn’t quite get it perfectly right with the grad student at Wharton, but most of it comes down to:

  • Low demand for loanable funds, with low measured inflation, and
  • Security and illiquidity of the funds invested

The first one everyone gets — inflation is low, and few want to borrow, so interest rates are very low.  But that doesn’t explain how it can go negative.

Things are different for middle class individuals and large financial institutions.  Someone in the middle class facing negative interest rates from a checking or savings account could say: “Forget it.  I’m taking most of my money out of the bank, and storing it at home.”  Leaving aside the inconvenience of currency transaction reports if the amount is over $10,000, and worries over theft, he could take his money home and store it.  Note that he does have to run a risk of theft, though, so bringing the money home is not costless.

The bank has the same problem, but far larger.  If you don’t invest the money, where would you store it?  Could you even get enough currency delivered to do it?  if you had a vault large enough to store it, could you trust the guards?  Why make yourself a target?  If you don’t have a vault large enough to store it, you’re in the same set of problems that exist for those that warehouse precious metals, but with a far more liquid commodity.

Thus in a weak economic environment like this, with low inflation, banks and other financial institutions that want certainty of payment in the future are willing to pay interest to get their money back later.

Part of the problem here is that the fiat currencies of the world exist only to be units of account, and not stores of value.  Thus in this unusual environment, they behave like any other commodity, where the prices for futures are often higher than the current spot price, which is known as backwardation.  (Corrected from initial posting — i.e. it costs more to receive a given cash flow in the future than today, thus backwardation, not contango.)  The rates can’t get too negative, though, or some institutions will bite the bullet and store as much cash as they can, just as other commodities get stored.

To use another analogy, a while ago, some market observers couldn’t get why anyone would accept a negative yield on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities [TIPS].  They did so because they had few other choices for transferring money to the future while still having inflation protection.  Some people argued that they were locking in a loss.  My comment at the time was, “They’re trying to avoid a larger loss.”

Thus the difficulty of managing cash outside of the bond/loan markets in a depressed economy leads to negative interest rates.  The financial institutions may lose money in the process, but they are losing less money than if they tried to store and protect the money, if that could even be done.

How does capital get allocated to the public stock markets?  Through the following means:

  • Initial Public Offerings [IPOs]
  • Follow-on offerings of stock (including PIPEs, etc.)
  • Employees who give up wage income in exchange for stock, or contingent stock (options)
  • Through rights offerings
  • Company-issued warrants and convertible preferred stock, bonds, and bank debt (rare)
  • Receiving equity in exchange for other claims in bankruptcy
  • Issuing stock to pay for the purchase of a private company
  • And other less common ways, such as promoted stocks giving cheap shares to vendors to pay for goods or services rendered.  (spit, spit)

How does capital get allocated away from the public stock markets?  Through the following means:

  • Companies getting acquired with payment fully or partially in cash.  (including going private)
  • Buybacks, including tender offers
  • Dividends
  • Buying for cash company-issued warrants and convertible preferred stock, bonds, and bank debt
  • Going dark transactions are arguable — the company is still public, but no longer has to publish data publicly.

I’m sure there are more for each of the above categories, but I think I got the big ones.  But note what largely does not matter:

  • The stock price going up or down, and
  • who owns the stock

Now, I have previously commented on how the stock price does have an effect on the actual business of the company, even if the effects are of the second order:

My initial main point is this: capital allocation to public companies does not in any large way depend on what happens in secondary market stock trading, but on what happens in the primary market, where shares are traded for cash or something else in place of cash.  When that happens, businessmen make decisions as to whether the cash is worth giving up in exchange for the new shares, or shares getting retired in exchange for cash.

In the secondary market, companies do not directly get any additional capital from all the trading that goes on.  Also, in the long run, stocks don’t care who owns them.  The prices of the stocks will eventually reflect the value of the underlying claims on the business, with a lot of noise in the process.

My second main point is this: as a result, indexing, or any other secondary market investment management strategy does not affect capital allocation much at all.  Companies going into an index for the first time typically have been public for some time, and do not issue new shares as a direct consequence of going into the index.  The price may jump, but that does not affect capital allocation unless the company does decide to issue new shares to take advantage of captive index buyers who can’t sell, which doesn’t happen often.

The same is true in reverse for companies that get kicked out of an index: they do not buy back and retire shares as a direct consequence of going into the index.  They may buy back shares when the price falls, but not because there aren’t indexers in the stock anymore.

So why did I write about this this evening?  I get an email each week from Evergreen Gavekal, and generally, I recommend it.  Generally it is pretty erudite, so if you want to get it, email them and ask for it.

In their most recent email, Charles Gave (a genuinely bright guy that I usually agree with) argues that indexing is inherently socialist because you lose discipline in capital allocation, and allocate to companies in proportion to their market capitalization, which is inherently pro-momentum, and favors large companies that have few good opportunities to deploy capital.

I agree that indexing is slightly pro-momentum as a strategy, and maybe, that you can do better if you remove the biggest companies out of your portfolio.  Where I don’t agree is that indexing changes capital allocation to companies all that much, because no cash gets allocated to or from companies as a result of being in an index.  As a result, indexing is not an inherently socialistic strategy, as Gave states.

Rather, it is a free-market strategy, because no one is constrained to do it, and it shrinks the economic take of the fund management industry, which is good for outside passive minority investors.  Let clever active managers earn their relatively high fees, but for most people who can’t identify those managers, let them index.

If indexing did lead to misallocation of capital, we would expect to see non-indexed assets outperform indexed over the long haul.  In general, we don’t see that, and so I would argue the indexing is beneficial to the investing public.

I write this as one who makes all of his money off of active value investing, so I have no interest in promoting indexing for its own sake.  I just agree with Buffett that most people should index unless they know a clever active manager.

Photo Credit: wackystuff

Photo Credit: wackystuff

No one wants to be a forced seller in a panic. So how does anyone get into that situation?  Two things: bad planning and a bad scenario.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff: the moment you start using leverage, there is a positive probability of total failure, and more leverage increases the probability.  Other factors that raise the probability are lack of diversification of assets, a short term for repayment on the leverage, a run on the bank, or restrictive rules on what happens if your assets decline too much in value.

For the big guys, I think that covers most of it.  With little guys, there is one more painful way that it happens, with insult added to injury.

Assume the man in question has no formal leverage, except maybe a mortgage on his house.  He has a stock portfolio, and like many, has bought popular stocks that everyone thinks will do well.  Then a significant panic hits the market because enough corporate or banking debts are incapable of being repaid.

The value of his portfolio falls a lot, but he doesn’t sell or worry immediately, because he has a solid job and has a buffer of a few months expenses set aside.  Then the shock hits.  In the midst of the panic he faces one of the following:

  • The loss of his job (or severe trouble in his business)
  • Disability with no insurance
  • An uninsured casualty of some sort
  • Divorce
  • Health problems not covered by insurance
  • Death (and his wife has to pick up the pieces)
  • Etc.

Guess what?  Even though he planned ahead, the plan did not consider true disasters, where two things fail at the same time.  His buffer runs out, and in order to live, he has to sell stocks at a time when he thinks they are undervalued.

This happens to some degree in the depths of bear markets, because unemployment and credit panics are correlated.  Other contingencies may not be correlated, but a certain number of them happen all the time — the odds of them happening when the stock market is down is still positive.

What can be done?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Hold a bigger buffer.  Maybe toss in some high quality long bonds, as well as cash.
  • Reduce fixed commitments.
  • Insure most reasonably possible large insurable contingencies — death, disability, health, liability, etc.
  • Keep a rolling hedge of protective puts (costly)
  • Increase portfolio quality and diversification to lessen the hit.

The time plan for a flat tire is before you have one.  As an example, I keep wrenches that are better than what the automakers put in their tire changing kits in my cars.  The same is true for financial disasters.  The planning is best done in the good times, like now.  Consider your financial and personal risks, and adjust your positions accordingly, realizing that no one can survive every panic.  Eventually you have to trust in God, because no earthly security system is comprehensive.