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What is Liquidity? (Part VII)

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

For those that want the quick hit and don’t care about the underlying ideas, here is the main idea:

A vehicle holding assets may appear more liquid than the assets themselves, but that is only true in bull markets.  When bad times come, the liquidity proves elusive, particularly for large trades.

ETPs are wonderful things, but there is one thing that ETPs can’t do.  They can’t change the underlying assets that they own.  Merely because you have the ability to buy or sell at will does not change the performance of the assets held.  Like most investment products, the amount of assets invested expands in a bull market and contracts in a bear market.

People follow trends.  As they follow trends, they tend to lose money, because they buy and sell too late.  As such, average investors in ETPs tend to lose money relative to buy and hold investors.

In this sense, liquidity is not your friend.  Just because you can trade, does not mean that you should.  Speculators tend to lose to the longer-term investors, who hold for longer periods of time.  Trading itself is a zero-sum game, but bearing risk is a positive sum game, if done with a margin of safety.

Also, if you are trying to do an institutional-size trade in an ETP, you will find that the market impact costs are significant.  Just because there is an exit door in the theater does not mean that everyone can get out instantly.

Repo Transactions

But here is my favorite bugbear in liquidity: repo transactions.  Repurchase transactions turn a long-term asset financed short into a short term asset.  Now the Fed thinks that it can control the repo market.

Honestly, the easy solution is to disallow the accounting treatment of repos, and force those who do them to display them as a long asset and a short liability.  Why?

Because in crises, the long assets are illiquid, and as such the value shrinks when liquidity is prized.  The liquid liabilities still demand to be paid at par.

The accounting change would be better than what the Fed thinks that it might do.  You can’t make long-dated assets liquid.  The cash flows are distant.  Yes, there may be some interest payments that are near, but ultimate repayment of principal is distant.

Let me suggest a better concept of liquidity: assets are liquid to the degree that you can turn the underlying into cash.  When I say that, I do not mean trading big blocks of stock, but selling companies for cash.  That is liquidity, and as such most risky assets do not have significant liquidity, though many trade every day during bull markets.

Liquidity is a scaredy cat, it disappears when it is most needed.  That happens because people think they can sell at par when they can’t.

All for now, but remember this — liquidity is a bull market phenomenon.  People are far more likely to trade when they have unrealized gains rather than losses.

 

Post 2500: What is the Aleph Blog About?

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Every hundred or so posts, I take a step back, and try to think about broader issues about blogging about finance.  Tonight, I want to explain to new readers what the Aleph Blog is about.

There have been many new followers added to my blog recently,  through e-mail, RSS, and natively.  This is because of this great article at Marketwatch, which builds off of this great article at Michael Kitces’ blog.

I am humbled to be included among Barry Ritholtz, Josh Brown, and Cullen Roche, and am genuinely surprised to be at number 4 among RIAs in social media influence.  Soli Deo Gloria.

What Does the Aleph Blog Care About?

I’m writing this primarily for new readers, because I’ve written a lot, and over a lot of areas.  I write about a broader range of topics than almost all finance bloggers do because:

  • I’m both a quantitative analyst and a qualitative analyst.
  • I’m an economist that is skeptical about the current received wisdom.
  • I like reading books, so I write a lot of book reviews.
  • I’m also a skeptic regarding Modern Portfolio Theory, and would like to see it discarded from the CFA and SOA syllabuses.
  • I believe in value investing, in both the quantitative and qualitative varieties.
  • I believe that risk control is a core concept for making money — you make more money by not losing it.
  • I believe that good government policy focuses on ethics, not results.  The bailouts were not fair to average Americans.  What would have been fair would have been to let the bank/financial holding companies fail, while protecting the interests of depositors.  The taxpayers would have been spared, and there would have been no systematic crisis had that been done.
  • I care about people not getting cheated.  That includes penny stocks, structured notes, private REITs, and many other financial innovations.  No one on Wall Street wants to do you a favor, so do your own research and buy what you want to own, not what someone wants to sell you.
  • Again, I don’t want to see people cheated, so I write about  insurance.  As a former actuary, and insurance buy-side analyst, I know a lot about insurance.  I don’t know this for sure, but I think this is the blog that writes the most about insurance on the web for free.  I write as one that invests in insurance stocks, and generally, I buy the stocks because I like the management teams.  Ethical, hard working insurance management teams do the best.
  • Oddly, this is regarded to be a good accounting blog, because as a user of accounting statements, I write about accounting issues.
  • I am a skeptic on monetary and fiscal policy, and believe both of them tend to sacrifice the future to benefit the present.  Our grandchildren will hate us.   That brings up another issue: I write about the effects of demographics on the markets.  In a world where populations are shrinking in developed nations, and will be shrinking globally by 2040, there are significant economic impacts.  Economies don’t do well when workers are shrinking in proportion to those who are not working.  (Note: include stay-at-home moms and dads in those who work.  They are valuable.)
  • I care about the bond market.  There aren’t that many good bond market blogs.  I won’t write about it every day, but I will write about i when it is important.
  • I care about pensions.  Most of the financial media knows things are screwed up there, but they do not grasp how bad the eventual outcome will likely be.  This is scary stuff — choose the state you live in with care.

Now, if you want my most basic advice, visit my personal finance category.

If you want my view of what my best articles have been, visit my best articles category.

If you want to read about my “rules,” read the rules category.

Maybe you want to read some of my most popular series:

My blog is not for everyone.  I write about what I feel most strongly about each evening.  Since I have a wide array of interests, that makes for uneven reading, because not everyone cares about all the things that I do.  If that makes my readership smaller, so be it.  My blog expresses my point of view; it is not meant to be the largest website on finance.  I want to be special, even if that means small, expressing my point  of view to those who will listen.

I thank all of my readers for reading me.  I appreciate all of you, and thank you for taking the time to read me.

As one final comment, I need to say this.  I note people unfollowing my blog at certain times, and I say to myself, “Oh, I haven’t been writing about his pet issue for a while.”  Lo, and behold, after these people leave, I start writing about it again.  That is not intentional, but it is very similar to how the market works.   People buy and sell investments at the wrong times.

To all my readers, thank you for reading me.  I value all of you, and though I can’t answer all e-mails, I read all e-mails.

In summary: the Aleph Blog is about ethics and competence.  I want to do what is right, and do what gives the best investment performance, in that order.

 

Questions from Readers

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Miscellaneous questions post — here goes:

Thank you very much for your blog! I am hooked since I found it and have been getting smarter by the day!

I like Safety Insurance Group, found it through your blog, noticed you were no longer long. They don’t do life insurance, just cars and houses – I know you say not to mix because they are sold and underwritten differently. They had a rough Q1 but a good 2013, seems like the winter Mass weather might have done it. They are over Book of 1 so there are other insurers that are cheaper, but they look like a good compliment to NWLI (also found through you and like very much) in the auto space, in a small (and thus dominate-able) market. 

Am I missing something about SAFT? 

Many sincere thanks David!

I like the management team at Safety Insurance.  When I met with them years ago, they impressed me as bright businessmen competing well in one of the most dysfunctional insurance markets in the US — Massachusetts.  Most major insurers did not write auto and home insurance there as a result.  But then the state of Massachusetts began to loosen up their tight regulations, and some of the bigger insurers that stayed away have entered — GEICO, MetLife, Liberty Mutual, etc.

When the market was more closed, SAFT had strategies that allowed them to profitably take market share Commerce Group [now Mapfre].  With more competition in Massachusetts, Safety’s earnings have suffered.  I can’t get excited about a short tail P&C insurer trading above book at 13-14x forecast earnings.

Maybe people are buying it for the 4%+ dividend.  I don’t use dividend yield as an investment criteria, for the most part.  I would avoid Safety Insurance.  It’s well-run, but the price of the stock is too high.  If it drops below $35, it would be a compelling buy.

Hi David,

I was interested in your comment on Normalized Operating Accruals as an indicator of accounting quality.

Why is this?

I tend to view changes in accruals as an indication of the underlying strength of a business, but would appreciate your insight on this.

Thanks

The idea behind net operating accruals is that accrual entries represent future cash flows, which are less certain than cash flows that have already happened.  Companies that report high levels of accounts receivable, inventories, etc., as a fraction of assets or earnings, tend to offer negative earnings surprises, because many of those accruals will not convert to cash as expected.

Here is how I measure Net Operating Accruals:

(Total assets – Cash  - (Total liabilities – Short-term debt – Preferred stock – Long-term debt))/Total assets (or earnings)

An apology here, because the term commonly used is “net operating accruals” and I messed up by calling it “normalized.”

Companies with conservative accounting (fewer accruals) tend to have stronger earnings than those that are more liberal in revenue recognition.

Dave, you and I are too old school. We need to move into this century. The way that most people seem to get into the investment industry has nothing to do with what you talk about. It is far easier to become a “financial advisor” that pushes annuities on the 60+ crowd. You don’t really have to learn anything about investing. All you need to know is about salesmanship. Offer a free lunch/dinner and reel them in!

I honestly think that more folks are going this route instead of the “hard way” you have outlined. . .

Maybe you can do a sarcastic post: “How to NOT be valuable, but make a lot of money in the Investment Business.”

Personally I find the annuity and non-traded REIT pushers very repulsive. At the same time, I know several of them that have done very well . . .

There are two factors at work here — yield and illiquidity.  The need for yield is driven by monetary policy.  Particularly with a sizable increase in retirees, many of whom can’t make enough “income” when interest rates are so low, they take undue risks to get “income,” not realizing the risks of capital loss that they are taking.

When I was an analyst/manager of Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities, there was a key fact one needed to understand: safe mortgages do not depend on whether the businesses leasing the properties operate well or not.  Safe mortgages have no operational risk, and thus avoid theaters, marinas, etc.  Stick to the four food groups: Multifamily, Retail, Office, and Industrial.

There will be negative events with insecure investments offering a high yield.  You may not get the return of your money, as you try to get a high return on your money.

Then there is the illiquidity — that is what allows the sponsors the ability to pay high commissions to those who sell the annuities and non-traded REITs.  Because the investors can’t leave the game, the income stream of the sponsor is very certain.  They take a portion of the anticipated income stream, and pay it in a lump sum to their agents as a commission.  And that is why the agents are so highly motivated.

Eventually, the demand for yield will be disappointed.  Uncertain yields will fail in a crisis, and reset much lower.  Income that stems from dividends, preferred dividends, MLPs, junk bonds, structured notes, etc., is not secure in the short-to-intermediate run.  It is far better to invest to grow value than to invest for income.  They can pay you a yield, sure, but if the underlying value is not growing, you will eventually get capital losses, and after that, much less yield.

Look for safety in yield investments.  If you are going to take risks in investing, take risk, but ignore the income component.  Don’t stretch for yield.

Book Review: What’s Behind the Numbers?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

71zM0CNU4QL This is an ambitious book.  It tries to draw together financial statement analysis, value investing, short-selling, technical analysis, market timing, and portfolio management into one slim book of 254 pages.

It spends the most time on financial statement analysis, going over revenue recognition, inventories, and all of the squishier areas of accounting that most industrial companies face.  It will not help you much with financial companies, they are far more complex, and deserve a book all their own.

I was surprised that the book did not suggest common summary measures of accounting quality, such as Normalized Operating Accruals.  It did feature Cash Flow from Operations less Net Income, which is almost as good.

The book focuses on the short side — how do you make money from failure?  The long side suggests maxing out on small cap value stocks, and idea which  I like, but can get overfished at times.

Think of it this way: do you want to run a portfolio that is systematically short company size, long value, short liquidity, long quality, etc?  I helped do that for 4.5 years at a hedge fund, and boy that ride was bumpy.  The market can remain insane longer than you can remain solvent.

But, to the book’s credit, it understands position sizing for short positions, which is momentum following.  Short more of things that fall.  Do not add to shorts when the prices rise.  This is a key insight of the book, and it is a reason why value managers often don’t do well in a long-short context.

My last complaint is that the book does not explain even in broad terms how they balance the various portfolio management ideas.  If you buy this book, you are on your own.  You do not  have a full roadmap to guide you.  If you were going to use this as a main strategy, you would have to fill in a lot of holes.

Now, I’m often critical of turn-the-crank books — follow my rules, and you will make money.  But I am more critical of almost turn-the-crank books — follow my rules, and you still won’t know exactly what to do.

Is this a good book?  Yes.  Read it and you will learn a lot.  Will it help you analyze stocks?  Also yes.  You can make a lot more money by avoiding stocks with a high probability of losing money.  Will it tell you exactly what to do?  No.  That is a strength and a weakness — I’m not sure any book on investing that offers a formula can be exact, and be good.  Investing is an art, not a science.  Then again, science is an art, not a science, but that’s another topic — all the great discoveries come from not following the scientific method.

So if you want to learn, this is a good book.  If you want a foolproof way to make money, sorry, this won’t do it for you, and the same for almost every other investment book.

Quibbles

There are far better books on all of the topics that they cover, and most of them have been reviewed at my blog.  Far better to read books that specialize on a single topic, than one that is a hodgepodge.

Summary

This is a good book, but average investors should not buy it as a formula, because they can’t implement it.  Average investors could benefit from the book, because it gives them a taste of a wide number of investing topics.  Just be aware that you aren’t getting a full dose of anything.  If you still want that, you can buy it here: What’s Behind the Numbers?: A Guide to Exposing Financial Chicanery and Avoiding Huge Losses in Your Portfolio.

Full disclosure: I borrowed this book via Interlibrary Loan.  It is going back tomorrow, and I will not buy a copy to replace it.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

Book Review: Why Stocks Go Up and Down, Fourth Edition

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Book Cover

This is a good book to help the inexperienced learn about investing.  It begins by teaching the rudiments of accounting through the adventures of a man and his company who have built a better mousetrap.

He starts the business on his own, but needs more capital.  In the process of growing, he taps bank loans, private investors, public investors, bonded debt, and preferred stock.  All of this is done with simple explanations in a step-by-step manner.

The book then explains bonds and preferred stocks.  At first I was a little skeptical, because this is supposed to be a book about stocks, and the authors made a small initial error in that section.  That was the last error they made.  I became impressed with their ability to explain corporate bonds and preferred stocks, even some arcane structures like trust preferred securities, and other types of hybrid debt.

Now, if I were trying to shorten the book, a lot of those sections would have been cut.  For those that do want to learn about bonds in the midst of a stock book, you get a free bonus.  If you don’t want to spend the time on bonds, you can skip those sections with little effect on your ability to understand the rest of the book.

Then the book turns to trickier aspects of accounting, explaining cash flow from operations, and free cash flow.  It’s all good stuff, but here is my first problem with the book: what is the most common way of giving a distorted picture of earnings?  Revenue recognition policies.  The book does not talk about revenue recognition, and the most basic idea of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles [GAAP], which is revenue gets taken into earnings proportionate to the delivery of goods and services.  With financial companies, revenues are earned proportionate to release from risk.

That brings up another point.  The book is very good for describing the analysis of an industrial company, but does little to describe how to deal with financial companies.  Financial companies are different, because most of the cash flow statement has no meaning.

Then the book moves on to valuation of common stocks, and that is where I have my biggest problem with the book.  Though they mention other means of valuing stocks, their main valuation method is earnings.  The book does not mention price-to-book as a metric, which is a considerable fault.  Price-to-book is the main way to value financials versus ROE, while price-to-sales is a very good way to measure industrials relative to relative to profit margins.

Further, it suggests that P/E multiples should remain constant as a company grows.  I’m sorry, but P/E multiples tend to shrink as a company grows.  This is because the highest margin opportunities are exploited first, and then lesser opportunities.  For the P/E to remain constant, or even expand means that new opportunities are being exploited that have higher margins.  Investors should not count on that.

These mistakes are minor, though, compared to the good that the book does for an inexperienced investor.

Quibbles

Already expressed.

Who would benefit from this book: This is a classic book that will aid inexperienced investors to learn the basics.  Just remember, it is only the basics, and it covers most things, but not all things. It would be an excellent book for one of your relatives or friends that think they know what they are talking about in investing, but really doesn’t know.  If you want to, you can buy it here: Why Stocks Go Up and Down.

Full disclosure: The publisher sent me the book after asking me if I wanted it.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

Two More Good Questions

Friday, November 29th, 2013

I had two more good questions in response to my piece Why I Resist Trends.  Here we go:

I think you have some idea which ones are the best by the discount to intrinsic value. If you were running a business (which you are when you are investing) and you had 10 projects with lets say a minimum return of 5% but a spread of 20% to 5% wouldn’t you first invest in the 20% return project and fund each project in descending order of return. By equally weighing aren’t you equally investing in the 5% and 20% projects? If you were a CEO shouldn’t the shareholders fire you? I know the markets have more volatility than projects due to the behavioral aspects of investing but in my view equally weighting is more important when you do not know much about your investment and less important when you do. I think you know a lot about the companies you invest in. Why not try an experiment. Either in real time or historically take a look at what would have happened overtime if you would have weighed you selections by discount from intrinsic value. I think you will be pleasantly surprised. I and John Maynard Keynes have been pleasantly surprised.

I do this in a limited way.  In the corporate bond market we have the technical term “cheap.”  We also have the more unusual technical term “stupid cheap” for bonds that are very undervalued.

When I have a stock that is “stupid cheap” I make it a double weight, if it passes margin of safety and other criteria.  On one rare occasion I had a triple weight.

But I meant what I said  in Portfolio Rule Seven — “Run a largely equal-weighted portfolio because it is genuinely difficult to tell what idea is the best.”  I have been surprised on multiple occasions as to what would do best.  Investing is not as simple as assessing likely return.  We have to assess downside risks, and possibilities that some things might go better than the baseline scenario.

I don’t use a dividend discount model, or anything like it.  I don’t think you can get that precise with the likely return on a stock.  My investing is based on the idea of getting very good ideas, as opposed to getting the best ideas.  I don’t think one can get the best ideas on any reliable basis.  But can you find assets with a better than average chance of success?  My experience has been that I can do that.

So, I am happy running a largely (but not entirely) equal-weight portfolio.  It is an admission of humility, which tends to get rewarded in investing.  Bold approaches fail more frequently than they succeed.

By the way, though Keynes was eventually successful, he cratered a couple times.  I have never cratered on a portfolio level, because of my focus on margin of safety.

On to the next question:

What are the tests you use to check if accounting is fair?

Start with my portfolio rule 5, here’s a quick summary:

Over time, I have developed four broadbrush rules that help me detect overstated earnings. Here they are:

  1. For nonfinancials, review the difference between cash flow from operations and earnings.  Companies where cash flow from operations does not grow and  earnings grows are red flags.  Also review cash flow from financing, if it is growing more rapidly than earnings, that is a red flag.  The latter portion of that rule can be applied to financials.

  2. For nonfinancials, review net operating accruals.  Net operating accruals measures the total amount of asset accrual items on the balance sheet, net of debt and equity.    The values of assets on the balance sheet are squishier than most believe.  The accruals there are not entirely trustworthy in general.

  3. Review taxable income versus GAAP income.  Taxable income being less than GAAP income can mean two possible things: a) management is clever in managing their tax liabilities.  b) management is clever in manipulating GAAP earnings.  It is the job of the analyst to figure out which it is.

  4. Review my article “Cram and Jam.”  Does management show greater earnings than the increase in book value plus dividends?  Bad sign, usually.  Also, does management buy back stock aggressively — again, that’s a bad sign.

Then add in my portfolio rule 6, here’s a quick summary:

Cash flow is the lifeblood of business.  In analyzing management teams, there are few exercises more valuable than analyzing how management teams use their free cash flow.

With this rule, there are many things that I like to avoid:

  • I want to avoid companies that do big scale acquisitions.  Large acquisitions tend to waste money.

  • I also want to avoid companies that do acquisitions that are totally unrelated to their existing business.  Those also waste money.

  • I want to avoid companies that buy back stock at all costs.  They waste money by paying more for the stock than the company is worth.

  • This was common in the 50s and 60s but not common today, but who can tell what the future will hold?  I want to avoid companies that pay dividends that they cannot support.

Portfolio rule 6 does not deal with accounting per se, but management behavior with free cash flow.  Rules 5 and 6 reveal large aspects of the management character — how conservative are they?  How honest are they?  Do they use corporate resources wisely?

On Ethics in Business and Investing

I would add in one more thing on ethics of the management team — be wary of a company that frequently plays things up to the line ethically and legally, or is always engaged in a wide number of lawsuits relative to its size.

I know, we live in a litigious society — even good companies will get sued.  But they won’t get sued so much.  I realize also that some laws and regulations are difficult to observe, and interpretations may vary.  But companies that are always in trouble with their regulator usually have a flaw in management.

A management team that plats it “fast and loose” with suppliers, labor, regulators, etc., will eventually do the same to shareholders.  Doing what is right is good for its own reasons, but for investors, it is also a protection.  A management that cheats is in a certain sense less profitable than they seems to be, and eventually that reality will manifest.

All for now, and to all my readers, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

With Jeremy Siegel at CFA Institute Baltimore

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

At the CFA Institute at Baltimore, we had the pleasure of having Jeremy Siegel come speak to us this past Thursday.  He was lively, engaging, and utterly convinced of his theses.  Thanks to Wisdom Tree for helping fund the endeavor.

He openly asked us to poke holes in his theories.  This article is an effort to do that.

1) Stock tends to get bought in when it is undervalued, and sold via IPOs when it is overvalued.  Thus the time-weighted rate of return exceeds the dollar-weighted rates of return by a few percent.  This dents the main premise of “Stocks for the Long Run.”  Buying and holding is not possible, because valuable stocks are lost at the troughs, giving us cash, and we are forced to buy more near peaks, of overvalued stocks.

Dollar-weighted returns are what we eat, and they don’t vary much versus time-weighted returns when considering bonds or cash.

Also, in the present day, private equity plays a larger role, and they exacerbate the degree to which stocks get IPOed dear, and acquired cheap.

2) He spent a lot of time defending the concept of the CAPE Ratio, but not its execution.  He began a long argument about how accounting rules for financials were behind the drop in earnings for the S&P 500, and that AIG, Bank of America, and Citi were to blame for all of it.

Sadly, he seems not to know financial accounting so well.  What was liberal in the early and mid-2000s was corrected 2007-2009.  In aggregate the accounting was fair across the decade.  Remember that accounting exists to try to measure change in value of net worth across short periods, and net worth at points in time.

Really, if we were trying to be exact, when a writedown occurs, we would spread it over prior periods, because prior accounting was too liberal – the incidence of the loss occurred over many years prior to the writedown.

Thus I find his argument regarding specialness of financial company accounting to be bogus – he is just searching for a way to justify valuations off of current earnings, rather than off of longer term measures.

3) The longer–term measures agree with CAPE:

  • Q-Ratio
  • Market Cap/ GDP
  • Price-to-Resources
  • Financial Stress indexes
  • Eddy-Elfenbein’s Stock Market if valued like a bond measure

All of these point to an overvalued market.  But markets can be overvalued for a while.  Why might that be in this case?

4) Because profit margins may remain high for some time.  In an era where the prices for labor and resources are cheap, should it be surprising that profit margins are high?  Those conditions will eventually change, but not soon.

With that, I would simply say that:

  • Stocks do outperform bonds and cash over the long run, but not by as much as Dr. Siegel thinks.
  • Stocks are overvalued by long-term balance sheet-oriented measures at present.
  • But stocks may stay high because profit margins are likely to stay high – there will be regression to the mean, but not now.

Finally I would note that he was one of the most graceful and generous speakers to come speak to us in some time, took a long Q&A, staying longer than he needed to, and happily signing the books he had written.  I showed him my First Edition version of his book, signed by him after speaking to the Philadelphia AAII chapter in 1995, and said, “We were much younger then.”  He smiled and said, “Yes, we were.”

I may disagree with him on some points, but he is one very bright and personable guy.

On Principles-Based Accounting for Financials

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

I may lose some friends in the industry for writing this.  Accounting bases vary for three reasons at minimum:

  • Accurate portrayal of the change in value of the firm (GAAP, IFRS)
  • Assuring solvency of financial institutions (Statutory)
  • Making sure taxes get paid (Tax)

Here’s the problem: when assets or liabilities get complex, accounting rules have a hard time setting values for them.  This is especially difficult for anything that does not trade regularly, if at all, and anything that has unique personal characteristics.  The value of a life insurance contract varies from person to person, even if major underwriting variables are the same.

But this applies to other areas.  Living benefits for variable insurance contracts do not have a good theory behind them, because the performance of asset markets is unpredictable.

Another example: letting banks set reserves for credit losses off of internal models.  Remember the rating agencies calculating subordination levels for ABS, RMBS & CMBS?  These securities had never been through a failure cycle, so they used default rates from non-securitized lending.  But those that lend and retain the risk are more conservative than those that lend and sell the risk.

The internal models have the potential to be more accurate than accounting rules, but they have greater potential to be more liberal, as management teams lean on accountants, quants, and actuaries for a desired accounting result.

I think it is better the the accounting standards setters to spend some money, hire people with expertise, and craft better rules.  Here’s another example: I think that the pension accounting standard should not allow investment earnings and discount rate assumptions higher than 2% over the ten-year Treasury.

I am in favor of rules-based accounting for solvency purposes.  Let the regulators be conservative.  Principles based accounting might be fine for GAAP/IFRS, but it destroys comparability across companies, and makes equity analysis a lot harder.  Better to have rules-based accounting there too.

If we had God doing accounting, yes, principles-based would be better, because he knows the future perfectly.  But we don’t know the future, so we have to build in conservatism via rules.

I have two more ideas for accounting simplification.  First, tax financial companies on their GAAP income.  That aligns taxation with their priorities.  If they offer a modified GAAP income that reflects how value is delivered, tax them on that.  Income should be taxed on the true increase in value.

Second, eliminate the statutory accounting basis by using GAAP/IFRS, and boost the level of statutory capital that financial firms need to hold.  Adjust the capital levels off of the business mix, penalizing secondary guarantees.

These two proposals would radically reduce the accounting efforts that financial firms go through, while increasing taxes, and enhancing solvency.

One final note: require that those who prepare the squishy parts of financial statements have an ethics code, like CFAs and Actuaries.  That’s not perfect, but training in ethics generally makes people more conservative in accounting.

The Rules, Part XXXVIII

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

There is probably money to be made in analyzing the foibles of money managers, to create new strategies by taking on the opposite of what they are doing.

What errors do most money managers make today?

  • Chasing performance
  • Over-diversification
  • Benchmarking / Hugging the index
  • Over-trading
  • Relying too heavily on earnings growth
  • Analyzing the income statement only
  • Refusing to analyze industries
  • Buy newsy companies
  • Relying on the sell-side
  • Trusting management too much

 

Let me handle these one-by-one:

Chasing performance

In writing this, I am not against using momentum.  I am against regret.  Don’t buy something after you have missed most of the move, as if future stock price movement is magically up.  Unless you can identify why the stock is underappreciated after a strong move up, don’t touch it.

Over-diversification

Most managers hold too many stocks.  There is no way that a team of individuals can follow so many stocks.  Indeed, I am tested with 36 holdings in my portfolio, which is mirrored for clients.  Leaving aside tax reasons, it would be far better to manage fewer companies with more concentrated positions.  You will make sharper judgments, and earn better returns.

Benchmarking / Hugging the index

It is far better to ignore the indexes and invest in what you think will yield the best returns over the next 3-5 years.  Aim for a large active share, differing from the benchmark index.  Make some real nonconsensus investments.     Show real moxie; don’t be like the crowd.

Yes, it may bring in more assets if you are never in the fourth quartile, but is that doing your best for clients?  More volatility in search of better overall returns is what investors need.  If they can’t bear short-term volatility, they should not be invested in stocks.

Over-trading

We don’t make money when we trade.  We make money while we wait.  Ideas take time to work out, and there are frequently disappointments that will recover.  If you are turning over your portfolio at faster than a 50% rate, you are not giving your companies adequate time to grow, turn around, etc.  For me, I have rules in place to keep from over-trading.

Relying too heavily on earnings growth

Earnings growth is far less predictable than most imagine.  Companies with high profit margins tend to attract competitors, substitutes, etc.

When growth companies miss estimates, the reaction is severe.  For value companies, far less so.  Disappointments happen; your portfolio strategy should reflect that.

Analyzing the income statement only

Every earnings report comes four, not just one, major accounting statements, and a bevy of footnotes.  In many regulated industries, there are other financial statements and metrics filed with the government that further flesh out the business.  Often an earnings figure is less than the highest quality because accrual entries are overstated.

Also, a business may be more or less valuable than the earnings indicate because of the relative ability to convert the resources of the company to higher and better uses, or the relative amount to reinvest in capex to maintain the earnings stream.

Finally, companies that employ a lot of leverage to achieve their earnings will not do well when financing is not available on favorable terms during a recession.

Refusing to analyze industries

There are two ways to ignore industry effects.  One is to be totally top-down, and let your view of macroeconomics guide portfolio management decisions.  Macroeconomics rarely translates into useful portfolio decisions in the short run.  Even when you are right, it may take years for it to play out, as in the global financial crisis – the firm I was with at the time was five years early on when they thought the crisis would happen, which was almost as good as being wrong, though they were able to see it through to the end and profit.

Then there is being purely “bottoms up,” and not gaining the broader context of the industry.  As a young investor that was a fault of mine.  As a result, I fell into a wide variety of “value traps” where I didn’t see that the company was “cheap for a reason.”

Buying newsy companies

Often managers think they have to have an investable opinion on companies that are in the news frequently.  I think most of those companies are overanalyzed, and as such, don’t offer a lot of investment potential unless one thinks the news coverage is wrong.  I actually like owning companies that don’t attract a lot of attention.  Management teams do better when they are not distracted by the spotlight.

Relying on the sell-side for analysis

Analysts and portfolio managers need to build up their own industry knowledge to the point where they are able to independently articulate how an industry makes money.  What are the key drivers to watch?  What management teams seem to be building value the best?  This is too important to outsource.

Trusting management too much

I think there is a healthy balance to be had in talking with management.  Once you have a decent understanding of how an industry works, talking with management teams can help reveal who are at the top of the game, and who aren’t.  Who is honest, and who bluffs?  This very long set of articles of mine goes through the details.

You can do a document-driven approach, read the relevant SEC filings and industry periodicals, and not talk with management ever – you might lose some advantage doing that, but you won’t be tricked by a slick-talking management team.  Trusting management implicitly is the big problem to avoid.  They are paid to speak favorably regarding their own firm.

Summary

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  I’m sure my readers can think of more foibles.  I can think of more, but I have to end somewhere.  My view is that one does best in investing when you can think like a businessman, and exclude many of the distractions that large money managers fall into.

The Rules, Part XXXVII

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The foolish do the best in a strong market

“The trend is your friend, until the bend at the end.”  So the saying goes for those that blindly follow momentum.  The same is true for some amateur investors that run concentrated portfolios, and happen to get it right for a while, until the cycle plays out and they didn’t have a second idea to jump to.

In a strong bull market, if you knew it was a strong bull market, you would want to take as much risk as you can, assuming you can escape the next bear market which is usually faster and more vicious.  (That post deserves updating.)

Here are four examples, two each from stocks and bonds:

  1. In 1998-2000, tech and internet stocks were the only place to be.  Even my cousins invested in them and lost their shirts.  People looked at me as an idiot as I criticized the mania.  Buffett looked like a dope as well because he could not see how the enterprises could generate free cash reliably at any intermediate time span.
  2. In 2003-2007, there were 3 places to be — owning homebuilders, owning depositary financials or shadow banks, and buying residential real estate directly.  This was not, “Buy what you know,” but “Buy what you assume.”
  3. In 1994 many took Mexican credit risk through Cetes, Mexican short-term government debt.  A number of other clever investors thought they had “cracked the code” regarding residential mortgage prepayment, and using their models, invested in some of the most volatile mortgage securities, thinking that they had eliminated all risk, but gained a high yield.  Both trades went badly.  Mexico devalued the peso, and mortgage prepayments did not behave as expected, slowing down far more than anticipated, leading the most levered players to  blow up, and the least levered to suffer considerable losses.
  4. 2008 was not the only year that CDOs [Collateralized Debt Obligations] blew up.  There were earlier shocks around 2002, and the late ’90s.  Those buying them in 2008 and crying foul neglected the lessons of history.  The underlying collateral possessed no significant diversification.  Put a bunch of junk debt in a trust, and guess what?  When the credit cycle turns, most of those bonds will be under stress, and an above average amount will default, because the originators tend to pick the worst bonds with a rating class to maximize the yield, which allows the originator to make more.  Yes, they had a nice yield in a bull market, when every yield hog was scrambling, but in the bear market, alas, no downside protection.

I could go on about:

  • The go-go years of the ’60s or the ’20s
  • The various times the REIT market has crashed
  • The various times that technology stocks have wiped out
  • And more, like railroads in the late 1800s, or the money lost on aviation stocks, if you leave out Southwest, but you get the point, I hope.

People get beguiled by hot sectors in the stock market, and seemingly safe high yields that aren’t truly safe.  But recently, there has been some discussion of a possible “safety bubble.”  The typical idea is that investors are paying up too much for:

  • Dividend-paying stocks
  • Low-volatility stocks
  • Stable sectors as opposed to cyclical sectors.

A “safety bubble” sound like an oxymoron.  It is possible to have one?  Yes.  Is it likely?  No.  Are we in one now?  Gotta do more research; this would be a lot easier if I were back to being an institutional bond manager, and had a better sense of the bond market pulse.  But I’ll try to explain:

After 9/11/2001, institutional bond investors did a purge of many risky sectors of the bond market; there was a sense that the world had changed dramatically.  At my shop, we didn’t think there would be much change, and we had a monster of a life insurer sending us money, so we started the biggest down-in-credit trade that we ever did.  Within six months, yield starved investors were begging for bonds that we had picked up during the crisis.  They had overpaid for safety — they sold when yield spreads were wide, and bought when they were narrow.

But does this sort of thing translate to stocks?  Tenuously, but yes.  Almost any equity strategy can be overplayed, even the largest and most robust strategies like momentum, value, quality, and low volatility.  In August of 2007, we saw the wipeout of hedge funds playing with quantitative momentum and value strategies, particularly those that were levered.

Those with some knowledge of market  history may remember in the ’60s and ’70s, there was an affinity for dividends, with many companies borrowing to pay the dividend, and others neglecting necessary capital expenditure to pay the dividend.  When some of those companies ran out of tricks, they would cut or eliminate the dividend, and the stock would fall.  Now, earnings coverage of dividends and buybacks seems pretty good today, but watch out if one of the companies you own has a particularly high dividend.  You might even want to look at some of their revenue recognition and other accounting policies to see if the earnings are perhaps somewhat liberal.  You also compare the dividend to what the cash flow from operations is, less cash needed for maintenance capital expenditure.

I don’t know whether we are in a “safety bubble” now for stocks.  I do think there is a “yield craze” in bonds, and I think it will end badly when the credit cycle turns.  But with stocks, I would simply say look forward.  Analyze:

  • Margin of safety
  • Valuation, absolute & relative
  • Return on equity
  • Likely and worst case earnings growth

And then balance margin of safety versus where you have the best opportunities for compounding capital.  If relative valuations have tipped favorably to less common areas for stock investing that considers safety, then you might have to consider investing in industries that are not typically on the “safe list.”  Just don’t  compromise margin of safety in the process.

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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