Photo Credit: Daniel Broche || To the victor goes the spoils, or, does a victory get spoiled?


I was at a CFA Baltimore board meeting, and we were talking before the meeting.  Most of us work for value investors, or, growth-at-a-reasonable-price investors.  One fellow who has a business model somewhat like mine, commented that all the money was flowing into ETFs which were buying things like Facebook, Amazon and Google, which was distorting the market.  I made a comment that something like that was true during the dot-com bubble, though it was direct then, not due to ETFs, and went to a different group of stocks.

Let’s unpack this, starting with ETFs.  ETFs are becoming a greater proportion of the holders of stocks, and other assets also.  When do new shares of ETFs get created?  When it is profitable to do so.  The shares of the ETF must be worth more than the assets going into the ETF, or new shares will not get created.

It is the opposite for ETFs if their shares get liquidated. That only happens when it is profitable to do so.  The shares of the ETF must be worth less than the assets going out of the ETF, or shares will not get liquidated.

Is it likely that the growth in ETFs is driving up the price of shares? Not much; all that implies is that people are willing to pay somewhat more for a convenient package of stocks than what they are worth separately.  Fewer people want to own individual assets, and more like to hold bunches of assets that represent broad ideas.  Invest in the stock market of a country, a sector, an industry, a factor or a group of them.

The creators and liquidators of ETF shares typically work on a hedged basis.  They are long whatever is cheaper, and short whatever is more expensive — but on net flat.  When they have enough size to create or liquidate, they go to the ETF and do that.  Thus, the actions of the creators/liquidators should not affect prices much.  Their trading operations have to be top-notch to do this.

(An aside — long-term holders of ETFs get nipped by the creation and liquidation processes, because both diminish the value of the ETF to long-term holders.  Tax advantages make up some or more than all of the difference, though.)

Does the growth in ETFs change the nature of the stickiness of the holding of the underlying stocks?  Does it make the stickiness more like a life insurer holding onto a rare “museum piece” bond that they could never replace, or like a day trader trying to clip nickels?  I think it leans toward less stickiness; my own view of ETF holders is that they fall mostly into two buckets — traders and investors.  The investors hold a long time; the traders are very short term.

As such, more ETFs owning stocks probably makes the ownership base more short-term.  ETFs are simple looking investments that mask the underlying complexity of the individual assets.  There is no necessary connection between a bull market and and growth in ETFs, or vice-versa.  In any given market cycle there might be a connection, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

ETFs don’t create or retire shares of underlying stocks or bonds.  And, the ETFs don’t necessarily create more net demand for the underlying assets.  Open end mutual fund holders and direct holders shrink and ETFs grow, at least for now.  That may make a holder base a little more short-term, but it shouldn’t have a big impact on the prices of the underlying assets.

My friend made a common error, confusing primary and secondary markets.  No money is flowing into the corporations that he mentioned.  Relative prices are affected by greater willingness to pay a still greater amount for the stock of growthy, highly popular, large companies relative to that of average companies or worse yet, value stocks.

Now the CEOs of companies with overvalued shares may indeed find ways to take advantage of the situation, and issue stock slowly and quietly.  The same might apply to value stocks, but they would buy back their stock, building value for shareholders that don’t sell out.  In this example, the secondary markets give pricing signals to companies, and they use it to build value where appropriate — secondary markets leads primary markets here.  The home run would be that the companies with overvalued shares would buy the companies with undervalued shares, if the companies were related, and it seemed that management could integrate the firms.

What we are seeing today is a shift in relative prices.  Growth is in, and value is out.  What we aren’t seeing is the massive capital destruction that took place when seemingly high growth companies were going public during the dot-com bubble, where cash flowed into companies only to get eaten by operational losses.  There will come a time when the relative price of growth vs value will shift back, and performance will reflect that then.  It just won’t be as big of a shift as happened in the early 2000s.

Photo Credit: Philipp Messner || Every culture should learn their alphabet 😉


In my view, these were my best posts written between May and July 2014:

Look to the Liabilities to Understand the Assets

Why do new asset classes work very well for a time and then fail?

I Have My Doubts

Learning to live with uncertainty and thrive amid it.

Asset Value Illusion

People don’t need assets as much as they need streams of income derived from the assets (dividends, capital gains) that allow them to purchase the goods and services that they want and need.  (Low interest rates mean assets aren’t worth as much.)

Illusory Investment Income

Some naively say, “Dividends don’t lie.”  Well yes, the money you receive is yours, but is the company as healthy after the dividend?  Will they be able to keep it up?  Often that is not the case.

A Bond Manager Thinks about the Equity Premium

This is a more logical way to think of the equity premium by decomposing it into three more understandable parts: yield curve slope, credit spread, and economic earnings.

A Survey on Trading/Investing

How I think about Buying and Selling Stocks

Investment Management: A Science to Teach or an Art to Learn?

It is better to have an accurate uncertainty, than an inaccurate certainty.  We are better of professing ignorance of what we don’t know, than being certain about things where we are wrong.

Self-Regulation in the Financial Markets: My Thoughts

Self-regulation is a better idea in theory than practice.  Either it needs to be regulated, or not.  Adversarial regulation is unavoidable if regulation is needed.

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

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

Enabling Others

Whether on a micro-level (a business) or on a macro-level (a government) the way to build value comes from a simple concept.  What can I/we do to enable the goals of others?  Growth and success come through service.

The Tails of the Distribution do not Validate the Mean

Asset classes that average in the results of astounding successes and total failures do not adequately represent what can happen to individuals in their specific investments.

Avoid Illiquidity

What are the significant costs and benefits of investing in illiquid assets?

The Value That Investment Advisers Deliver

Registered Investment Advisers [RIAs] offer value to their clients in 10 ways, most particularly helping them to not sell in a panic or buy out of greed.

On Fixed Payment Annuities

The value of having income that you can’t outlive

Pity the Multiemployer Pension Plans

Why many of these pension plans will fail

On Berkshire Hathaway and Asbestos

Why Berkshire Hathaway reinsures a huge amount of all of the asbestos claims outstanding

On Learning Compound Interest Math

Why it is important for everyone to learn it.

One More Note on Failure

What does it take for a big failure of any sort to occur, despite some planning?

The Reason for Failure Matters

How to see in advance how failures can indicate that a bigger problem is here, or not.

Understanding Insurance Float

Why most people who read Buffett don’t understand the value of insurance float properly.  It is valuable, but not as valuable as naive acolytes of Buffett believe.

Full disclosure: long $BRK/B for clients and me


There’s a lot of bits and bytes spilled in the war between Elliott Associates (and those that favor their position) and the current board of Arconic.  I want to point out a few things, having held Alcoa since prior to the breakup, and added to my positions in both new Alcoa and Arconic post-breakup.

  • Profitability will likely improve more if Elliott’s nominees are elected to the board, and Larry Lawson is CEO.
  • The existing management team does not deserve credit for the recent rise in the stock price for two reasons: a decent amount of the rise in Arconic’s stock price anticipates a rising probability that the board and management team will be replaced.  Second, a decent amount of the increase in the stock price of Alcoa has been due to a rise in the price of aluminum, for which no single entity can take credit.  Current Arconic benefited from that, at least until it sold its whole stake in Alcoa.
  • To their discredit, the existing management team and board resisted the breakup of the company into upstream and downstream for years.  (See point 2 of this Elliott letter, Was Dr. Kleinfeld the Driving Force Behind the Separation?)
  • Existing management was not a good capital allocator.
  • Prior to the agitation by Elliott, Alcoa and Arconic sold at low valuations, because earnings prospects were poor.  Now new Alcoa is in better hands, and that might be true for Arconic in the future, which may further improve valuation.
  • The existing board has low ownership in Arconic.  Many of the existing board members have been around too long.
  • The current board are late to the party of improving corporate governance.  Though their proposals are good, it looks like they were dragged there by the activists, and therefore, can’t be trusted to maintain these improvements.

That’s my short summary; it is not meant to be detailed, as Elliott’s arguments are.  In general, I agree with the arguments over at New Arconic, and will be voting the blue proxy card.  If you disagree, then you should vote the white proxy card sent out by the existing board.

I’m not telling you what to do.  Vote the proxy that reflects your view of what will improve Arconic the most.

Full disclosure: long AA & ARNC for my clients and me (Note: Aleph Investments, LLC, is dust on the scales in this fight, representing less than 0.01% of outstanding shares.)

Photo Credit: Hanan Cohen || Anyone need a copy?


In my view, these were my best posts written between February and April 2014:

On the Structure of Berkshire Hathaway

On the Structure of Berkshire Hathaway, Part 2, the Harney Investment Trust

This set of posts is unique in going through how the insurance entities of Berkshire Hathaway allow Buffett to hold as much as he does of his stocks/businesses through his insurance companies.  It also explains as much as can be publicly known about the secretive Harney Investment Trust.

On the “770” Account

How to dress up Permanent Life Insurance as a sexy investment vehicle, and get guaranteed underperformance.

The Good ETF, Part 2 (sort of)

If you are investing in any levered, inverse, or non-equity fund exchange traded product, then read the fine print of the prospectus.  If you fail to do that, you have no right to complain if you lose money.

Why it is Hard to Win in Investing

Most profitable investing takes an uncomfortable view versus the consensus, and buys when the market offers good deals.  If there are no good deals, profitable investing sits on cash, and waits for a better day.

On Target Prices & Yields

It is better to measure investments against similar alternative investments in order to decide where to invest money, rather than using target prices or yields.

On Approximate Valuation Methods

I suggest different valuation metrics for four different types of stock.

An Expensive Kind of Insurance

Where I suggest that VIX-type products must be used tactically, if at all.  (Note: the logic of this article is fine, but the graphs have not aged well.

On Intrinsic Value

On how it is difficult to calculate, but why a CEO/CFO might experiment with calculating it to have a better idea of when to buy back or issue stock.

On Emergent Phenomena

When are negative surprises more likely to happen?  Leverage and other factors play roles.

Conservation of Liquidity, under most Conditions

Conservation of Liquidity, under most Conditions, Coda

Why the “money parked on the sidelines” (or lack thereof) argument is always bogus.

“Different from the Consensus”

What is the consensus anyway?  When is it smart to think differently than the herd?

The Stock Market Is Rigged! The Stock Market Is Not Rigged!

Never allege a conspiracy when mere stupidity will suffice to explain the problem.

Limit Repo Financing

I am a lonely voice on this, but when repo financing fails, it fails colossally.  It was a moderately large factor in the systemic risk of 2008.

Peterson’s Guide to Financial Blog Commenters

Is it any wonder the most blogs and financial websites have eliminated comment sections at the end of articles?

On a Letter From A Younger Friend

Basic advice on personal finance.

Productivity Inequality

The unpopular truth as to why many people in the US (and other developed nations) are falling behind, and losing net wealth.

The Idea of Contributory Defined Benefit Plans

Solves two pension problems — participants don’t have to make investment choices, and they get an income that they can’t outlive.  Gives them greater choice over how big of a pension to have.

Why are Pensions so Messed Up

Lists in short order the ten main problems with pensions.

And finally, I finished up the “Rules” posts.  Though later, I added two more…

The Rules, Part LVIII

Can contingent claims theory for bond defaults be done on a cash flow/liquidity basis?  KMV-type models seem to fail on severely distressed bonds that have time to breathe and repair.

The Rules, Part LIX

Productivity increases are only so when they result in an increase of desired consumer goods purchasable at prior prices.

The Rules, Part LX

Rapid upward moves in volatility almost always presage a bounce rally.

The Rules, Part LXI (The End… of the Past)

Rule: every rule has exceptions, including this one


Full Disclosure: long BRK/B for myself and clients


In my view, these were my best posts written between November 2013 and January 2014:

Advice For Would-be Bloggers

Be regular (I need that advice myself), write on what you care about, start small.  Not that much different than this recent interview of me regarding blogging.

What Life Insurance to Buy?

Depends on whether you need it for protection or as part of a tax shelter or estate plan.

Protect Your Older Family & Friends

Remember that older folks are very tempting targets for fraudsters, and very nice people delivering subpar service at a high price.

Where to Find Data

I give you my favorite sources.  Most are free.

An Internship at a Hedge Fund

Advice on what to do if you get such an opportunity.

On Position Sizing in Equity Long-Short Hedge Funds

It’s not an easy question, particularly when it comes to shorting or being levered long, but I do offer some ideas that are better than things I have read.

Risks, not Risk, Again

It is better to model the individual risks and manage them, than to rely on an academic-derived model with unstable parameters.

Unconstrained Will Get Overdone

As in any management style, typically the best managers get there first, followed by less talented wannabes.

What are Safe Assets?

It depends on your time horizon(s)

Two Good Questions

How to sort though multiple factors in investing, and is investment in the insurance industry overdone?

Two More Good Questions

On weighting position sizes by expected returns, and What are the tests I use to check if accounting is fair?

On Understanding and Valuing Financial Companies

A compendium piece to the way I reason through investing in financial companies.

Why Great CEOs Look at their Stock Price Every Now and Then

It aids in managing the capital of the company wisely, especially when doing M&A.

When to Worry — An Asset-Liability Management Perspective on Financial Macroeconomics

When those that hold risk assets predominantly have weak balance sheets, with short-dated funding/horizons, it is time to reduce risk.

Systemic Risk Stems from Asset-Liability Mismatches

More on the foolishness of the FSOC and attempts to look for systemic risk where there is none.

Lower the Cap Rate, Not

Rising stock prices does not mean that monetary policy or any other government policy is necessarily good.

A Preview of the Future in Local Government Financing

Not everything is going to fail, but the the worst 1-3% will.  Avoid municipalities under severe stress.

Equality, and its After-Effects

What do you do when the whole world becomes more competitive, and compensation in your industry comes under pressure?

Give Them a Small Bank

How could we make banking regulators more intelligent about the industry that they watch over?  Give them experience in managing a small bank.