Investing ideas come in many forms:

  • Factors like Valuation, Sentiment, Momentum, Size, Neglect…
  • New technologies
  • New financing methods and security types
  • Changes in government policies will have effects, cultural change, or other top-down macro ideas
  • New countries to invest in
  • Events where value might be discovered, like recapitalizations, mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs, etc.
  • New asset classes or subclasses
  • Durable competitive advantage of marketing, technology, cultural, or other corporate practices

Now, before an idea is discovered, the economics behind the idea still exist, but the returns happen in a way that no one yet perceives.  When an idea is discovered, the discovery might be made public early, or the discoverer might keep it to himself until it slowly leaks out.

For an example, think of Ben Graham in the early days.  He taught openly at Columbia, but few followed his ideas within the investing public because everyone was still shell-shocked from the trauma of the Great Depression.  As a result, there was a large amount of companies trading for less than the value of their current assets minus their total liabilities.

As Graham gained disciples, both known and unknown, they chipped away at the companies that were so priced, until by the late ’60s there were few opportunities of that sort left.  Graham had long since retired; Buffett winds up his partnerships, and manages the textile firm he took over as a means of creating a nascent conglomerate.

The returns generated during its era were phenomenal, but for the most part, they were never to be repeated.  Toward the end of the era, many of the practitioners made their own mistakes as they violated “margin of safety” principles.  It was a hard way of learning that the vein of financial ore they were mining was finite, and trying to expand to mine a type of “fool’s gold” was not a winning idea.

Value investing principles, rather than dying there, broadened out to consider other ways that securities could be undervalued, and the analysis process began again.

My main point this evening is this: when a valid new investing idea is discovered, a lot of returns are generated in the initial phase. For the most part they will never be repeated because there will likely never be another time when that investment idea is totally forgotten.

Now think of the technologies that led to the dot-com bubble.  The idealism, and the “follow the leader” price momentum that it created lasted until enough cash was sucked into unproductive enterprises, where the value was destroyed.  The current economic value of investment ideas can overshoot or undershoot the fundamental value of the idea, seen in hindsight.

My second point is that often the price performance of an investment idea overshoots.  Then the cash flows of the assets can’t justify the prices, and the prices fall dramatically, sometimes undershooting.  It might happen because of expected demand that does not occur, or too much short-term leverage applied to long-term assets.

Later, when the returns for the investment idea are calculated, how do you characterize the value of the investment idea?  A new investment factor is discovered:

  1. it earns great returns on a small amount of assets applied to it.
  2. More assets get applied, and more people use the factor.
  3. The factor develops its own price momentum, but few think about it that way
  4. The factor exceeds the “carrying capacity” that it should have in the market, overshoots, and burns out or crashes.
  5. It may be downplayed, but it lives on to some degree as an aspect of investing.

On a time-weighted rate of return basis, the factor will show that it had great performance, but a lot of the excess returns will be in the early era where very little money was applied to the factor.  By the time a lot of money was applied to the factor, the future excess returns were either small or even negative.  On a dollar-weighted basis, the verdict on the factor might not be so hot.

So, how useful is the time-weighted rate of return series for the factor/idea in question for making judgments about the future?  Not very useful.  Dollar weighted?  Better, but still of limited use, because the discovery era will likely never be repeated.

What should we do then to make decisions about any factor/idea for purposes of future decisions?  We have to look at the degree to which the factor or idea is presently neglected, and estimate future potential returns if the neglect is eliminated.  That’s not easy to do, but it will give us a better sense of future potential than looking at historical statistics that bear the marks of an unusual period that is little like the present.

It leaves us with a mess, and few firm statistics to work from, but it is better to be approximately right and somewhat uncertain, than to be precisely wrong with tidy statistical anomalies bearing the overglorified title “facts.”

That’s all for now.  As always, be careful with your statistics, and use sound business judgment to analyze their validity in the present situation.

I was writing to potential clients when I realized that I don’t have so much to write about my bond track record as I do my track record with stocks.  I jotted down a note to formalize what I say about my bond portfolios.

One person I was writing to asked some detailed questions, and I told him that the stock market was likely to return about 4.5%/yr (not adjusted for inflation) over the next ten years.  The model I use is the same one as this one used by pseudonymous Philosophical Economist.  I don’t always agree with him, but he’s a bright guy, what can I say?  That’s not a very high return — the historical average is around 9.5%.  The market is in the 85th-90th percentiles of valuation, which is pretty high.  That said, I am not taking any defensive action yet.

Yet.

But then it hit me.  The yield on my bond portfolio is around 4.5% also.  Now, it’s not a riskless bond portfolio, as you can tell by the yield.  I’m no longer running the portfolio described in Fire and Ice.  I sold the long Treasuries about 30 basis points ago.  Right now, I am only running the Credit sensitive portion of the portfolio, with a bit of foreign bonds mixed in.

Why am I doing this?  I think it has a good balance of risks.  Remember that there is no such thing as generic risk.  There are many risks.  At this point this portfolio has a decent amount of credit risk, some foreign exchange risk, and is low in interest rate risk.  The duration of the portfolio is less than 2, so I am not concerned about rising rates, should the FOMC ever do such a thing as raise rates.  (Who knows?  The economy might actually grow faster if they did that.  Savers will eventually spend more.)

But 10 years is a long time for a bond portfolio with a duration of less than 2 years.  I’m clipping coupons in the short run, running credit risk while I don’t see any major credit risks on the horizon aside from weak sovereigns (think the PIIGS), student loans, and weak junk (ratings starting with a “C”).  The risks on bank loans are possibly overdone here, even with weakened covenants.  Aside from that, if we really do see a lot of credit risk crop up, stocks will get hit a lot harder than this portfolio.  Dollar weakness and US inflation (should we see any) would also not be a risk.

I’ve set a kind of a mental stop loss at losing 5% of portfolio value.  Bad credit is the only significant factor that could harm the portfolio.  If credit problems got that bad, it would be time to exit because credit problems come in bundles, not dribs and drabs.

I’m not doing it yet, but it is tempting to reposition some of my IRA assets presently in stocks into the bond strategy.  I’m not sure I would lose that much in terms of profit potential, and it would increase the overall safety of the portfolio.

I’ll keep you posted.  That is, after I would tell my clients what I am doing, and give them a chance to act, should they want to.

Finally, do you have a different opinion?  You can email me, or, you can share it with all of the readers in the comments.  Please do.

Photo credit: jonesylife || Oh look, a dozen doves flying at the FOMC!

Photo credit: jonesylife || Oh look, a dozen doves flying at the FOMC!

 

April 2015June 2015Comments
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.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April suggests that economic activity has been expanding moderately after having changed little during the first quarter.Shades GDP up.  Why can’t the FOMC accept that the economy is structurally weak?
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.The pace of job gains picked up while the unemployment rate remained steady. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources diminished somewhat.Shades labor use up.
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.Growth in household spending has been moderate and the housing sector has shown some improvement; however, business fixed investment and net exports stayed soft.Shades up their view of household spending.  Drops a comment on consumer sentiment (that only lasted one month).
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.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; energy prices appear to have stabilized.Notes stable prices of energy, even though prices have risen over the last two months.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.No change.  TIPS are showing lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.03%, down 0.07% from April.
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.
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.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.No real change.
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.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 earlier declines in energy and import prices dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.CPI is at -0.1% 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.
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.

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.No Change.

“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

  • This FOMC statement was a great big nothing. No significant changes.
  • People should conclude that the FOMC has 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 stronger view of GDP, energy prices and labor use.
  • 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.
  • Equities rise and long bonds are flat. Commodity prices rise and the dollar falls.  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 continue to 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.

I had the fun today of taping a segment with Ameera David on RT Boom/Bust. The above video covers the first half of the session, and lasts about seven minutes. We covered the following topics (with links to articles of mine, if any are applicable):

The second half, should it make it onto the show, deals mostly with international issues.  Enjoy the video, if you want to.

Photo Credit: Bowen Chin || What's more Illiquid than Frozen Tundra?

Photo Credit: Bowen Chin || What’s more Illiquid than Frozen Tundra?

My last piece on this topic, On Bond Market Illiquidity (and more), drew a few good comments.  I would like to feature them and answer them.  Here’s the first one:

Hello David,

One issue you don’t address in your post, which is excellent as usual, is the impact of what I’ll call “vaulted” high quality bonds. The explosion and manufacturing of fixed income derivatives has continued to explode while the menu of collateral has been steady or declining. A lot of paper is locked down for collateral reasons.

That’s a good point.  When I was a bond manager, I often had to deal with bonds that were salted away in the vaults of insurance companies, which tend to be long-term holders of long-term bonds, as they should be.  They need them in order to properly fund the promises that they make, while minimizing cash flow risk.

Also, as you mention, some bonds can’t be sold for collateral reasons.  That can happen due to reinsurance treaties, collateralized debt obligations, accounting reasons (marked “held to maturity”), and some other reasons.

But if the bonds are technically available for sale, it takes a certain talent to get an insurance company to sell some of those bonds without offering a steamy price.  You can’t sound anxious, rushed, etc. My approach was, “I’d be interested in buying a million or two of XYZ (mention coupon rate and maturity) bonds in the right price context.  No hurry, just get back to me with any interest.”  I would entrust this to one mid-tier broker familiar with the deal, who had previously had some skill in prying bonds out of the accounts of long-term holders before.  I might have two or three brokers doing this at a time, but all working on separate issues.  No overlap allowed, or it looks like there is a lot of demand for what is likely a sleepy security.  No sense in driving up the price.

Because it is difficult to get the actual cash bonds, it is tempting for some managers to buy synthetic versions of those bonds, or synthetic collateralized debt obligations of them instead.  Aside from counterparty risk, the derivatives exist as “side bets” in the credit of the underlying securities, and don’t provide any additional liquidity to the market.

My point here would be that these conditions have existed before, and I think what we have here is a repeat of bull market conditions in bond credit.  This isn’t that unusual, and it will eventually change when the bull market ends.

Here’s the next comment:

Hi David,

I hope you’re doing well.  I’ve been reading your blog for about a year now and really appreciate your perspective and original content.  Just wanted to ask a quick question regarding your most recent post on bond market liquidity. 

Our investment committee often talk about the idea of bond liquidity (and discusses it with every bond manager who walks in our doors), and specifically how there are systematic issues now which limit liquidity and considerably push the burden onto money managers to make markets vs. the past, when banks themselves were free to make more of a market with their own balance sheets.

My (limited) understanding is that legislation since 2008 has changed the way that investment banks are permitted to trade on their own books, and this is a big part of the significantly decreased liquidity which has thus far been a relative non-issue but which could rear its head quickly in the face of a sharp correction in bonds.

Do you have any thoughts about this newer paradigm of limited market-making at the big banks?  You didn’t seem to mention it at all in your article and I’m wondering if my thoughts here are either inaccurate or not impactful to the bottom line of the liquidity conversation.

I’m sure you’re a busy guy so I won’t presume upon a direct response but it may be worthwhile to post an update if you think these questions are pertinent.

Another very good comment.  I thought about adding this to the first piece, but in my experience, the large investment banks only kept some of the highest liquidity corporates in inventory, and the dregs of mortgage- and asset-backed bonds that they could not otherwise sell.  The smaller investment banks would keep little-to-no-inventory.  Many salesmen might have liked the flexibility of their bank to hold positions overnight, or buying bonds to “reposition” them, but the experiences of their risk control desks put the kibosh on that.

As a result, I think that the willingness of investment banks to make a market rely on:

  • The natural liquidity of the securities (which comes from the size of the issue, market knowledge of the issue, and composition of the ownership base), and
  • How much capital the investment bank has to put against the position.

The second is a much smaller factor.  Insurance companies have to deal with variations in capital charges in the bonds that they hold, and that is not a decisive factor in whether they hold a bond or not.  It is a factor in who will hold a bond and what yield spread the bond will trade at.  Bonds tend to gravitate to the holders that:

  • Like the issuer
  • Like the cash flow profile
  • Have low costs for holding the bonds

Yes, the changed laws and regulations have raised the costs for investment banks to hold bonds in inventory.  They are not a preferred habitat for most bonds.  Therefore, if an investment bank buys a bond in order to sell it (or vice-versa) in the present environment, the bid-ask spread must be wider to compensate for the incremental costs, thus reducing liquidity.

To close this evening, one more letter on bonds from a reader:

First off, thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge via your blog.  It is much appreciated.

Now for a bond question from someone learning the fixed income ropes…

What is the advantage/reasoning behind a company co-issuing notes with a finance subsidiary?  Even with reading the prospectus/indenture I can’t understand why a finance sub (essentially just set up to be a co-issuer of debt) would be necessary especially since the company is an issuer anyway and they also may have other subs guarantee the debt also.  I’m probably missing something obvious.

The answer here can vary.  Some companies guarantee their finance subsidiaries, and some don’t.  Those that don’t are willing to pay more to borrow, while bondholders live with the risk that in a crisis, the company might step away from its lending subsidiary.  They would never let the subsidiary fail, right?

Well, that depends on how easy it is to get financing alternatives, and how easy it might be for the parent company to borrow, post-subsidiary default.

If things go well, perhaps the subsidiary could be spun off as a separate company, or sold to another finance company for a gain.  After all, it has had separate accounting done for a number of years.

Beyond that, it can be useful to manage lending separately from sales.  They are different businesses, and require different skills.  Granted, it could be done as two divisions in the same company, but doing it in separate companies would force separate accountability if done right.

There may be other reasons, but they aren’t coming to my mind right now.  If you think of one, please note it in the comments.

This will be a short piece, because what I have to say is simple.  My portfolio rule eight requires me to make changes to the portfolio 3-4 times a year.  Here’s the rule:

Make changes to the portfolio 3-4 times per year. Evaluate the replacement candidates as a group against the current portfolio. New additions must be better than the median idea currently in the portfolio. Companies leaving the portfolio must be below the median idea currently in the portfolio.

It’s a useful rule, but what if the search that I do doesn’t come up with any suitable candidates for purchase better than what I currently own?

That is what has happened in the second quarter of 2015.

This hasn’t happened before.

I did my main search, and came up empty-handed.  I then did about five additional searches that I never ordinarily do, but are other ways of sourcing portfolio buy ideas.  Three also came up empty.  One gave me an idea off of a spinoff happening later this month, and another idea that was kind of interesting, but made me edgy regarding margin of safety.  The last search gave me four ideas that I am still working through, but none of them thrill me, for various reasons.

I know what my most marginal ideas are in my current portfolio, and I can honestly say at present I like all of them more than all of the remaining  ideas I am still kicking around, minus the spinoff.  (The key question on the spinoff is how cheaply it trades post-spin.)

After all of my searching, it makes me wonder from a bottom-up point of view whether the market isn’t overvalued.  Top down, the market should return about 4.5%/yr over the next ten years, which is about the 87th percentile in terms of expensiveness.

A lot of money can be lost speculating on that idea, and I am not a market timer, so I will let others fight about that.  This is just a straw blowing in the wind.  Practically, it means this period I do nothing with the portfolio, most likely.  It gets tougher if this repeats next quarter.

Your opinions are welcome in the comments.

 

I was riding home with child number seven after a basketball practice about four months ago — this is the child that if any of mine has the capability of taking over for me someday, this is the one. She said to me, “Dad, I always knew we were better off than most, but it finally sank home to me how much better off we are than most of the people we know.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

7: “I’ve been talking with my friends after basketball practice, after church, and other times, and I hear about what happens when their parents have a $500 surprise bill for a repair, and things like that.  They have to scrape for months to deal with the added expense, and they can’t do a lot of things that they do normally while they rebuild their finances.”

Me: “Okay, so what makes us different?”

7: “We just had three disasters hit us at the same time, and you just dealt with them for the long term without making a lot of noise about it.  Had that happened to any of my friends’ families, they would not know what to do, it would be impossible for them to do it without help.”

Me: “Actually there are a few of your friends whose families would likely survive what hit us easily, but yes, you’ve hit on something that I think is the most significant initial lesson on finance for the 75% of the population on the low end of incomes.  People need to start saving early, and build a buffer against disasters, etc.  If I were going to give a talk at most churches on personal finance, I would talk only about that, and almost nothing more.  Earn, budget, save, and be generous.  After that, we can talk about investing, but it is only relevant to a minority of the population with enough discipline to save early and often, initially aiming for 3-6 months of expenses.”

7: “When did you and Mom finally have that much saved?”

Me: “Going into our marriage back in 1986.  I had been a graduate student, and your mom a high school teacher in one of the poorest school districts in California, but we still both lived low on the hog, and saved money.  That gave us enough money that we were able to buy a small house at an opportunistic time six months after we married.  Within a year, we had rebuilt the buffer, and we haven’t been without it since.”

-==–=-=-=-==-=-=–==-=-=-=-=–=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-==-=–=-=-==-=-

In personal finance, you have to develop good habits early, and learn that life isn’t about how much you spend.  I try to teach my kids that — Seven understands it, as does three or four of her siblings.  The other three or four don’t understand, despite my best efforts — some of it seems to be personality-driven, but I have seen one or two of them change and get better at money management.  We’ll see… they are still developing.

In finance, you have to focus on what you can control.  You have reasonable control over ordinary spending.  You have less control over what you earn, and almost no control over accidents and investment returns.  Thus the first bit of advice is to live below your means and save.  The second bit is to plan against catastrophes on a reasonable level.  Insurance can be useful to protect against some of the worst outcomes.  Just remember, insurance is an expense and not an investment.

Along with the above article cited, note these four basic articles and one book review on personal finance:

The last one is useful for learning to live less expensively, while still having most reasonable comforts that others have.

Now, what I have written about above has been noted in the financial media lately regarding a study done by JP Morgan on how many people don’t keep a buffer around, no matter how much they earn.  Here are two articles that talk about that study (one, two — good articles both, read them if you can).  Personally, I’m not surprised having worked with people who earned a lot and spent to the limit.  They lived far more opulent lives than I do, but decided they would save later.

If you want to save, start now.  Most good habits have to be started now, or they won’t get started.  Most good intentions don’t die from a frontal assault, but from the idea that you have plenty of time to change.  As a result — you don’t change.  And that is not just you, it is me in my life also.  Change must start now, or it does not start.

Two more articles worth a read:

These largely follow my point of view on personal finances.  Save, protect against bad risks, and take moderate risks to earn money both in work and in investing.  You can do it too, but remember, it is not a question of knowledge, it is a question of whether you have the will to do it or not.  I wish you the best in your efforts.

Now if you haven’t done it yet, go build the buffer.

Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn || What's more illiquid than the desert?

Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn || What’s more Illiquid than the desert?

I’ve read a lot of articles about bond market illiquidity, and I don’t think it is as big of an issue as many are making it out to be.  The bond market often runs hot and cold, and when prices and yields are moving, it is difficult to get off trades at levels you might like unless you are resisting the trend.  And if you are resisting the trend, will you like the trade one week later, when the trade might look poor in hindsight?

Part of the difficulty is that the buy side has gotten more concentrated.  Bigger players by their nature can’t move in and out of positions without moving the market against their interests.  Illiquidity is a rule of life for them.  They may as well become market makers to some degree — offering bonds they want to keep at prices at which only the desperate would want to buy.   Also, they could bid for bonds at levels at which only the desperate would want to sell.

Add into that the amount of bonds tucked away in ETFs.  The ETFs may seem to offer liquidity at no cost, but retail investors tend to panic more rapidly than institutional investors.  If retail investors run away from any part of the market, the ETFs in that part of the market will be among the managers selling into a falling market, and there is a cost to that, at least for those slower to sell the ETFs in question.

But away from that, current monetary policy leaves many on pins and needles waiting for short rates to rise.  Now, there is no guarantee that short rates will rise in 2015.  The Fed has shown itself to be extra slow to act in this cycle, and the current FOMC has no hawks — not that the hawks matter — their views are not a part of current monetary policy.

But even if short rates rise, there is no guarantee that long rates will follow.  In the last tightening cycle, long rates stayed the same with a lot of noise that included falling long yields in the early phases.  The global economy isn’t that strong, and interest rates in the middle of the curve tend to track nominal GDP growth (with a lot of noise).

You can position yourself for rising short rates, but you have to give up a lot of income (carry) to do so.  How long can you bear to earn very little, particularly if you are earning a management fee that eats up a lot of the income?

Situations like this are naturally twitchy, because things are unclear, but as things clarify, there may be many who will want to sell longer bonds to buy shorter bonds where rates will rise.  If long rates do rise along with short rates, who pray tell will be the philanthropist that holds onto the long bonds and eats losses for clients that want positive (or at least small negative) total returns?

There is a price for almost every asset, but there is no guarantee of being able to sell a lot of long bonds if rates are rising, and certainly not without offering a large price concession.  That’s illiquidity, which naturally happens if you try to trade against a large trend in the bond market.

That brings me to my main point:

Bonds should be illiquid now.  Why should you expect otherwise?

No one is out to do you voluntary favors in the markets.  Why should markets have narrow bid-ask spreads when there is significant policy uncertainty, and large players that hold a large fraction of the total bond market?  At a time like this, I would only want to make a market if the compensation was significant.

Two unrelated notes before I sign off.  First, I sold my position in long Treasuries about a month ago, when 30-year yields crossed 2.80%.  I had owned the long bonds for quite a while and had decent profits on them.  I felt the current selloff might have legs, which may be true (or not).  So, I am below market duration at present, and earning ~4% off of a variety of short investment grade corporates, bank loans, junk bonds, TIPS, and foreign bonds… so far so good, but I can’t express any significant confidence that this strategy will be a winner.  It’s my best guess for now, as I don’t see many immediate credit risks.  After all, look how little damage the energy sector took on even with oil prices that fell hard.  There is a lot of money looking around for bargains.

Second, if I were a large corporate bond issuer, I would look to form a consortium with my fellow large issuers to set up an auction market for the new issuance of bonds, and bypass Wall Street.  Why?  Because the new issue yield premiums are large.  Why should large money managers benefit from the new issue market?  Yes, I know that offering liquidity should receive some reward, but not as large as it is at present.

This is a modern era, and the need for intermediaries in the IPO market for bonds is less needed.  Let the buy side, which is starved for new bonds and yield, pay up for the privilege of receiving the bonds.  Who knows?  Maybe the issuers might borrow a little more as a result.

Hey, CFOs of large bond issuers!  This is your chance to become a hero.  Grab the opportunity, and issue your bonds with your peers through a mutually owned central auction house.  Who knows?  One day you could spin it off, and it could become… an investment bank. 😉

Recently I ran across an academic journal article where they posited one dozen or so risk premiums that were durable, could be taken advantage of in the markets.  In the past, if you had done so, you could have earned incredible returns.

What were some of the risk premiums?  I don’t have the article in front of me but I’ll toss out a few.

  • Many were Credit-oriented.  Lend and make money.
  • Some were volatility-oriented.  Sell options on high volatility assets and make money.
  • Some were currency-oriented.  Buy government bonds where they yield more, and short those that yield less.
  • Some had you act like a bank.  Borrow short, lend long.
  • Some were like value investors.  Buy cheap assets and hold.
  • Some were akin to arbitrage.  Take illiquidity risk or deal/credit risk.
  • Others were akin to momentum investing.  Ride the fastest pony you can find.

After I glanced through the paper, I said a few things to myself:

  • Someone will start a hedge fund off this.
  • Many of these are correlated; with enough leverage behind it, the hedge fund could leave a very large hole when it blows up.
  • Yes, who wouldn’t want to be a bank without regulations?
  • What an exercise in data-mining and overfitting.  The data only existed for a short time, and most of these are well-recognized now, but few do all of them, and no one does them all well.
  • Hubris, and not sufficiently skeptical of the limits of quantitative finance.

Risk premiums aren’t free money — eggs from a chicken, a cow to be milked, etc.  (Even those are not truly free; animals have to be fed and cared for.)  They exist because there comes a point in each risk cycle when bad investments are revealed to not be “money good,” and even good investments are revealed to be overpriced.

Risk premiums exist to compensate good investors for bearing risk on “money good” investments through the risk cycle, and occasionally taking a loss on an investment that proves to not be “money good.”

(Note: “money good” is a bond market term for a bond that pays all of its interest and principal.  Usage: “Is it ‘money good?'”  “Yes, it is ‘money good.'”)

In general, it is best to take advantage of wide risk premiums during times of panic, if you have the free cash or a strong balance sheet behind you.  There are a few problems though:

  • Typically, few have free cash at that time, because people make bad investment commitments near the end of booms.
  • Many come late to the party, when risk premiums dwindle, because the past performance looks so good, and they would like some “free money.”

These are the same problems experienced by almost all institutional investors in one form or another.  What bank wouldn’t want to sell off their highest risk loan book prior to the end of the credit cycle?  What insurance company wouldn’t want to sell off its junk bonds at that time as well?  And what lemmings will buy then, and run over the cliff?

This is just a more sophisticated form of market timing.  Also, like many quantitative studies, I’m not sure it takes into account the market impact of trying to move into and out of the risk premiums, which could be significant, and change the nature of the markets.

One more note: I have seen a number of investment books take these approaches — the track records look phenomenal, but implementation will be more difficult than the books make it out to be.  Just be wary, as an intelligent businessman should, ask what could go wrong, and how risk could be mitigated, if at all.