This should be a brief article.  I remember back in 1999 to early 2000 how P&C insurance stocks, and other boring slower-growth industries were falling in price despite growing net worth, and reasonable earnings.  I was working for The St. Paul at the time (a Property & Casualty Insurer), and for an investment actuary like me, who grew up in the life insurance business it was interesting to see the different philosophy of the industry.  Shorter-duration products make competition more obvious, making downturns uglier.

The market in 1999-2000 got narrow.  Few groups and few stocks were leading the rise.  Performance-conscious investors, amateur and professional, servants of the “Church of What’s Working Now,” sold their holdings in the slower growing companies to buy the shares of faster growing companies, with little attention to valuation differences.

I remember flipping the chart of the S&P 1500 Supercomposite for P&C Insurers, and laying it on top of an index of the dot-com stocks.  They looked like twins separated at birth, except one was upside down.

When shares are sold, they don’t just disappear.  Someone buys them.  In this case, P&C firms bought back their own stock, as did industry insiders, and value investors — what few remained.  When managed well, P&C insurance is a nice, predictable business that throws of reliable profits, and is just complex enough to scare away a decent number of potential investors.  The scare is partially due to the effect that it is not always well-managed, and not everyone can figure out who the good managers are.

So shares migrate.  Those that fall in the midst of a rally, despite decent economics, get bought by long-term investors.  The hot stocks get bought by shorter-term investors, who follow the momentum.  This continues until the gravitational effects of relative valuations gets too great — the cash flows of the hot stocks do not justify the valuations.

Then performance reverts, and what was bad becomes good, and good bad, but as with almost every investment strategy you have to survive until the turn, and if the assets run from the prior migration, it is cold comfort to be right eventually.

As an aside, this is part of what fuels dollar-weighted returns being lower than time-weighted returns.  The hot money migration buys high, and sells low.

Thus I say to value investors, “Persevere.  I can’t tell you when the turn will be, but it is getting closer.”

Photo Credit: jessica wilson {jek in the box}

David:

It’s been a while since we last corresponded.  I hope you and your family are well.

Quick investment question. Given the sharp run-up in equities and stretched valuations, how are you positioning your portfolio?

This in a market that seemingly doesn’t go down, where the risk of being cautious is missing out on big gains.

In my portfolio, I’m carrying extra cash and moving fairly aggressively into gold. Also, on the fixed income side, I’ve been selling HY [DM: High Yield, aka “Junk”] bonds, shortening duration, and buying floating rate bank loans.

Please let me know your thoughts.

Regards

JJJ

Dear JJJ,

Good to hear from you.  It has been a long time.

Asset allocation is always a marriage between time horizon (when is the money needed for spending?) and expected returns, with some adjustment for risk.  I suspect that you are like me, and play for a longer horizon.

I’m at my lowest equity allocation in 17 years.  I am at 65% in equities.  If the market goes up another 4-5%, I am planning on peeling of 25% of that to go into high quality bonds.  Another 20% will go if the market rises 10% from here.  At present, the S&P 500 offers returns of just 3.4%/year for the next ten years unadjusted for inflation.  That’s at the 95th percentile, and reflects valuations of the dot-com bubble, should we rise that far.

The stocks that I do have are heading in three directions: safer, cyclical and foreign.  I’m at my highest level for foreign stocks, and the companies all have strong balance sheets.  A few are cyclicals, and may benefit if commodities rise.

The only thing that gives me pause regarding dropping my stock percentage is that a lot of “friends” are doing it.  That said, a lot of broad market and growth investors are making “new era” arguments.  That gives me more comfort about this.  Even if the FAANG stocks continue to do well, it does not mean that stocks as a whole will do well.  The overall productivity of risk assets is not rising.  People are looking through the rearview mirror, not the windshield, at asset returns.

I can endorse some gold, even though it does nothing.  Nothing would have been a good posture back in the dot-com bubble, or the financial crisis.  Commodities are undervalued at present.  I can also endorse long Treasuries, because I am not certain that inflation will run in this environment.  When economies are heavily indebted they tend not to inflate, except as a last resort.  (The wealthy want to protect their claims against the economy.  The Fed generally helps the wealthy.  Those on the FOMC are all wealthy.)

I also hold more cash than normal.  The three of them, gold, cash and long Treasury bonds form a good hedge together against most bad situations.

The banks are in good shape, so the coming troubles should not be as great as during the financial crisis, as long as nothing bizarre is going on in the repo markets.

That said, I would be careful about bank debt.  Be careful about the covenants on the bank debt; it is not as safe as it once was.  I don’t own any now.

Aside from that, I think you are on the right track.  The most important question is how much you have invested in risk assets.  Prudent investors should be heading lower as the market rises.  It is either not a new era, or, it is always a new era.  Build up your supply of safe assets.  That is the main idea.  Preserve capital for another day when risk assets offer better opportunities.

Thanks for writing.  If you ever make it to Charm City or Babylon, let me know, and we can have lunch together.

Sincerely,

David

Credit: Roadsidepictures from The Little Engine That Could By Watty Piper Illustrated By George & Doris Hauman c. 1954

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I wish I could have found a picture of Woodstock with a sign that said “We’re #1!”  Snoopy trails behind carrying a football, grinning and thinking “In this corner of the backyard.”

That’s how I feel regarding all of the attention that has been paid to the S&P being up every month in 2017, and every month for the last 14 months.  These have never happened before.

There’s a first time for everything, but I feel that these records are more akin to the people who do work for the sports channels scaring up odd statistical facts about players, teams, games, etc.  “Hey Bob, did you know that the Smoggers haven’t converted a 4th and 2 situation against the Robbers since 1998?”

Let me explain.  A month is around 21 trading days.  There is some variation around that, but on average, years tend to have 252 trading days.  252 divided by 12 is 21.  You would think in a year like 2017 that it must  have spent the most time where 21-day periods had positive returns, as it did over each month.

Since 1950, 2017 would have come in fourth on that measure, behind 1954, 1958 and 1995.  Thus in one sense it was an accident that 2017 had positive returns each month versus years that had more positive returns over every 21 day period.

How about streaks of days where the 21-day trialing total return never dropped below zero (since 1950)?  By that measure, 2017 would have tied for tenth place with 2003, and beaten by the years 1958-9, 1995, 1961, 1971, 1964, 1980, 1972, 1965, and 1963.  (Note: quite a reminder of how bullish the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s were.  Go-go indeed.)

Let’s look at one more — total return over the whole year.  Now 2017 ranks 23rd out of 68 years with a total return of 21.8%.  That’s really good, don’t get me wrong, but it won’t deserve a mention in a book like “It Was a Very Good Year.”  That’s more than double the normal return, which means you’ll have give returns back in the future. 😉

So, how do I characterize 2017?  I call it The Little Market that Could.  Why?  Few drawdowns, low implied volatility, and skepticism that gave way to uncritical belief.  Just as we have lost touch with the idea that government deficits and debts matter, so we have lost touch with the idea that valuation matters.

When I talk to professionals (and some amateurs) about the valuation model that I use for the market, increasingly I get pushback, suggesting that we are in a new era, and that my model might have been good for an era prior to our present technological innovations.  I simply respond by saying “The buying power has to come from somewhere.  Our stock market does not do well when risk assets are valued at 40%+ of the share of assets, and there have been significant technological shifts over my analysis period beginning in 1945, many rivaling the internet.”  (Every era idolizes its changes.  It is always a “new era.”  It is never a “new era.”)

If you are asking me about the short-term, I think the direction is up, but I am edgy about that.  Forecast ten year returns are below 3.75%/year not adjusted for inflation.  Just a guess on my part, but I think all of the people who are making money off of low volatility are feeding the calm in the short-run, while building up a whiplash in the intermediate term.

Time will tell.  It usually does, given enough time.  In the intermediate-term, it is tough to tell signal from noise.  I am at my maximum cash for my equity strategy accounts — I think that is a prudent place to be amid the high valuations that we face today.  Remember, once the surprise comes, and companies scramble to find financing, it is too late to make adjustments for market risk.