Picture Credit: Roadsidepictures from The Little Engine That Could By Watty Piper, Illustrated By George & Doris Hauman | That said, for every one that COULD, at least two COULDN’T

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So what do you think of the market?  Why are both actual and implied volatility so low?  Why are the moves so small, but predominantly up?  Is this the closest impression of the Chinese Water Torture that a stock market can pull off?

Why doesn’t the market care about external and internal risks?  Doesn’t it know that we have divisive, seemingly incompetent President who looks like he doesn’t know how to do much more than poke people in the eyes, figuratively?  Doesn’t it know that we have a divided, incompetent Congress that can’t get anything of significance done?

Leaving aside the possibility of a war that we blunder into (look at history), what if the inability of Washington DC to do anything is a plus?  Government on autopilot for four years, maybe eight if we decide we are better of without change — is that a plus or minus?  Just ignore the noise, Trump, other politicians, media… ahh, the quiet could be nice.

Then think about Baby Boomers showing up late for retirement, and wondering what they are going to do.  Then think about their surrogates, the few who still have defined benefit pension plans.  What are they going to do?  Say that the rate that they are targeting for investment earnings is 7%/year forever.  Even if my model for investment returns is wrong in a pessimistic way — i.e., my 4% nominal should be 6%/year nominal, you still can’t hit your funding target.  As for those with defined contribution plans, when you are way behind, even contributing more won’t do much unless investment earnings provide some oomph.

I am personally not a fan of TINA — “there is no alternative” to stocks in the market, but I recognize the power of the idea with some.  It is my opinion that more people and their agents will run above average risks in order to try to hit an unlikely target rather than lock in a loss versus what is planned.  Most will “muddle in the middle” taking some risk even with a high market, and realizing that they aren’t going to get there, but maybe a late retirement is better than none.

That’s the power of bonds returning 3% at best over the forecast horizon, unless interest rates jump, and then we have other problems, like risk assets repricing.  If you are older, almost no plan is achievable at reasonable cost if you are coming to the game now, rather than starting 15+ years ago.

And so I come to “the little market that could…” for now.  My view is that those with retirement obligations to fund are bidding up the market now.  That does two things.  Shares of risk assets (stocks) move from the hands of stronger investors to weaker investors, while cash flows the opposite direction.  In the process, prices for risk assets get bid up relative to their future free cash flows.

Unlike “the little engine that could,” the little market that could has climbed some small hills relative to the funding targets that investors need. Ready for the Himalayas?  The trouble with those targets is that regardless of what the trading price of the risk assets is, the cash flows that they produce will not support those targets.

Thought experiment: imagine that the stock market was gone and all the shares we held were of private companies that were difficult and expensive to trade.   Pension plans would estimate ability to meet targets by looking at forecasts of the underlying returns of their private investments, rather than a total return measure.

Well, guess what?  In the long run, the returns from public stock investments reflect just that — the distributable amount of earnings that they generate, regardless of what a marginal bidder is willing to pay for them at any point in time.  Stocks aren’t magic, any more than the firms that they represent ownership in.

So… we can puzzle over the current moment and wonder why the market is behaving in a placid, slow-climbing manner.  Or, we can look at the likely inadequacy of asset cash flows versus future demands for those cash flows for retirement, etc.  Personally, I think they are related as I have stated above, but the second view, that asset returns will not be able to fund all planned retirement needs is far more certain, and is one mountain that “the little market that could” cannot climb.

Thus, consider the security of your own plans, and adjust accordingly.  As I commented recently, for older folks with enough assets, maybe it is time to lock in gains.  For others, figure out what adjustments and compromises will need to be made if your assets can’t deliver enough.

Tough stuff, I know.  But better to be realistic about this than to be surprised when funding targets are not reached.

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Recently I read Jonathan Clements’ piece Enough Already.  The basic idea was to encourage older investors who have made gains in the risk assets, typically stocks, though it would apply to high yield bonds and other non-guaranteed investments that are highly correlated with stocks.  His pithy way of phrasing it is:

If I have already won the game, why would I keep playing?

His inspiration for the piece stems from a another piece by William Bernstein [at the WSJ] How to Tell if Your Retirement Nest Egg Is Big Enough.  He asked a question like this (these are my words) back in early 2015, “Why keep taking risk if your performance has been good enough to let you reduce risk and live on the assets, rather than run the possibility of a fall in the market spoiling your ability to retire comfortably?”

Decent question.  If you are young enough, your time horizon is long enough that you can ignore it.  But if you are older, you might want to consider it.

Here’s the problem, though.  What do you reinvest in?  My article How to Invest Carefully for Mom took up some of the problem — if I were reducing exposure to stocks, I would invest in high quality short and long bonds, probably weighted 50/50 to 70/30 in that range.  Examples of tickers that I might consider be MINT and TLT.  Trouble is, you only get a yield of 2% on the mix.  The short bonds help if there is inflation, the long bonds help if there is deflation.  Both remove the risk of the stock market.

I’m also happier in running with my mix of international stocks and quality US value investments versus holding the S&P 500, because foreign and value have underperformed for so long, almost feels like 1999, minus the crazed atmosphere.

Now, Clements at the end of the exercise doesn’t want to make any big changes.  He still wants to play on at the ripe old age of 54.  He is concerned that his nest egg isn’t big enough.  Also, he thinks stocks will return 5-6%/year over the long haul (undefined), versus my model that says 2-6%/year over the next ten years.

What would I say?  I would say “do half.”  Whatever the amount you would cut from stocks to move to bonds if you were certain of it, do half of it.  If disaster strikes, you will pat yourself on the back for doing something.  If the market rallies further, you will be glad you didn’t do the whole thing.

What’s that, you say?  What am I doing?  At age 56, I am playing on, but 10-12% higher in the S&P 500, and I will hedge.  At levels like that future market outcomes are poor under almost every historical scenario, and even if the market doesn’t seem nuts in terms of qualitative signals, the amount you leave on the table is piddly over a 10-year horizon.  If I see more genuine nuttiness beyond certain logic-free zones in the market, I could act sooner, but for now, like Jonathan, I play on.

Full disclosure: long MINT and TLT for me and my fixed income clients

Photo Credit: Christopher || Maintaining a marriage is simple… if you do it right…

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There are at least eight reasons why taking a simple approach to investing is a wise thing to do.

  1. Understandable
  2. Explainable
  3. Reduced “Too smart for you own good risk”
  4. Clearer risk management
  5. Less trading
  6. Taxes are likely easier
  7. Not Trendy
  8. Cheap

Understandable

You have to understand your investments, even if it’s just at the highest overview level.  If you don’t have that level of understanding, then at some point you will be tempted to change your investments during a period of market duress, and it will likely be a mistake.  Panic never pays.  How to avoid panic?  Knowledge reduces panic.  Whatever the strategy is, follow it in good times and bad.  Understand how bad things can get before you start an investment program.  Make changes if needed when things are calm, not in the midst of terror.

Explainable

You should be able to explain your investment strategy at a basic level, enough that you can convey it to a friend of equal intelligence.  Only then will you know that you truly understand it.  Also, in trying to explain it you will discover whether your investments are truly simple or not.  Does your friend get it, even if he may not want to imitate what you are doing?

Take an index card and write out the strategy in outline form.  Would you feel confident talking for one minute about it from the outline?

Reduced “Too smart for your own good risk”

If you have simple investments, you will tend not to get unexpected surprises.  One reason the rating agencies did so badly in the last crisis was that they were forced to rate stuff for which they did not have good models.  The complexity level was too high, but the regulators required ratings for assets held by banks and insurers, and so the rating agencies did it, earning money for it, but also at significant reputational risk.

Why did the investment banks get into trouble during the financial crisis?  They didn’t keep things simple.  They held a wide variety of complex, illiquid investments on their balance sheets, financed with short-term lending.  When there was doubt about the value of those assets, their lenders refused to roll over their debts, and so they foundered, and most died, or were forced into mergers.

I try to keep things simple.  Stocks that possess a margin of safety and high quality bonds are good investments.  Stocks have enough risk, and high quality bonds are one of the few assets that truly diversify, along with cash.  That makes sense from a structural standpoint, because fixed claims on future cash are different than participating in current profits, and the change in expectations for future profits.

Clearer risk management

When assets are relatively simple, risk management gets simple as well.  Assets should succeed for the reasons that you thought they would in advance of purchase.  Risk assets should primarily generate capital gains over a full market cycle.  fixed Income assets help provide a floor, and limit downside, so long as inflation remains in check.

With simple asset allocations, you don’t tend to get negative surprises.  Does an income portfolio fall apart when the stock market does?  It probably was not high quality enough.  Does you asset allocation give large negative surprises close to retirement?  Maybe there were too many risk assets in the portfolio after a long bull run.

Cash and commodities (in small amounts) can help as well.  Those don’t have yield, and don’t typically provide capital gains, but they would help if inflation returned.

Less trading

Simplicity in asset allocation means you can sleep at night.  You’ve already determined how much you are willing to lose over the bear portion of a market cycle, so you aren’t looking to complicate your life through trying to time the market.  Few people have the disposition to sell near near top, and few have the disposition to buy near near the bottom.  Almost no one can do both.  (I’m better at bottoms…)

Pick a day of the year — maybe use your half-birthday (as some of my kids would say — it is six months after your birthday).  Look at your portfolio, and adjust back to target percentages, if you need to do that.  Then put the portfolio away.  If you have set your asset allocation conservatively, you won’t feel the need to make radical changes, and over time, your assets should grow at a reasonable rate.  Remember, the more conservative asset allocation that you can live with permanently is far better than the less conservative one that you will panic over at the wrong time.

Taxes are likely easier

Not that many people have taxable accounts, though half the assets that I manage are taxable, but if you don’t trade a lot, taxes from your accounts are relatively easy.  Unrealized capital gains compound untaxed over time, and there is the option to donate appreciated stock if you want to get a write-off and eliminate taxes at the same time.

Not Trendy

You won’t get caught in fads that eventually blow up if you keep things simple.  You may be pleasantly surprised that you buy low more frequently than your trendy neighbors.  Remember, people always brag about their wins, but they never tell you about the losses, particularly the worst ones.  Those who don’t lose much, and take moderate risks typically win in the end.

Cheap

Simple investment strategies tend to have lower management fees, and fewer “soft” costs because they don’t trade as much.  That can be a help over the long run.

That’s all for this piece.  For most investors, simplicity pays off — it is that simple.

I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to contribute a chapter to this book.  I am going to encourage you to buy this book, but let me give some of the reasons not to buy this book:

  • Don’t buy it to give me something.  I don’t get anything from sales of this book.  Neither does Mebane Faber, who is giving all of the profits to charity.
  • Don’t buy it to read my article.  You can read it for free here.  Better, you can read the updated version of the article, which I publish quarterly, here.  (Those reading this at Amazon, there are links at my blog.  Google “Alephblog The Best Investment Writing” to find them.)
  • Don’t buy it to get current ideas.  There are none here.  The weakness of the book is that the articles are dated by 9-21 months or so, BUT… that doesn’t keep the book from being relevant.
  • Don’t buy it if you want one consistent theme.  It’s like reading RealMoney.com, except with a broader array of authors.  There is no “house view.”
  • Don’t buy it for the graphics in the book.  The grayscale images in the book are good for black & white, but some are hard to read.  The graphs for my article are far better at my blog.

The book is a good one because there is something for everyone here.  Do you want quantitative finance?  There is a good selection here. Do you want good basic articles about how to think about investing?  There are a good number of those as well, particularly from well-known financial journalists, and some of the most well-regarded bloggers.  Do you want a few unusual articles that might cause you consider some asset sub-classes or techniques that you haven’t considered before?  They are here too.

The writers fall into four buckets — journalists, asset managers, pundits/authors, and those who sell information at their websites.  I will tell you that my personal favorites from this volume are Tom Tresidder, Mebane Faber, Chris Meredith, Ben Carlson (how was he the only one with two articles in the book?), Jason Hsu & John West, and Cullen Roche.

Don’t get me wrong, I like almost all of the authors in this volume, and am proud to be featured among them.  For a number of them, though, I would have picked other things they have written in 2016 that had more punch, and offered more of a difference in perspective.

Why buy this?  After you read this, you will be a smarter, more well-rounded investor.  In my calculations, that’s  pretty good — 32 articles that will take you 4 hours to read.  Got seven minutes?  Read an article; it just might help you a great deal.

Quibbles

Already stated, though if you don’t like statistics, one-third of the articles may not appeal to you.  Also, a few articles veer into political commentary (not that I would ever do that 😉 ).

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

Though almost anyone could benefit from this book, it is geared toward investors with intermediate-to-higher levels of knowledge and experience.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: The Best Investment Writing: Selected writing from leading investors and authors.

Full disclosure: I received two free copies of the book for contributing the article.  That’s all, unless someone buys the book through the link above.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, including books, 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.

I’d say this is getting boring, but it’s pretty fascinating watching the rally run.  Now, this is the seventh time I have done this quarterly analysis.  The first one was for December 2015.  Over that time period, the expected annualized 10-year return went like this, quarter by quarter: 6.10%, 6.74%, 6.30%, 6.01%, 5.02%, 4.79%, and 4.30%.  At the end of June 2017, the figure would have been 4.58%, but the rally since the end of the quarter shaves future returns down to 4.30%.

We are now in the 93rd percentile of valuations.

Wow.

This era will ultimately be remembered as a hot time in the markets, much like 1965-9, 1972, and 1997-2001.

The Internal Logic of this Model

I promised on of my readers that I would provide the equation for this model.  Here it is:

10-year annualized total return = 32.77% – (70.11% * Percentage of total assets held in stocks for the US as a whole)

Now, the logic of this formula stems from the idea that the return on total assets varies linearly with the height of the stock market, and the return on debt (everything else aside from stocks) does not.  After that, the formula is derived from the same formula that we use for the weighted average cost of capital [WACC].  Under those conditions, the total returns of the stock market can be approximated by a linear function of the weight the stocks have in the WACC formula.

Anyway, that’s one way to think of the logic behind this.

The Future?

Now, what are some of the possibilities for the future?

Above you see the nineteen scenarios for where the S&P 500 will be in 10 years, assuming a 2% dividend yield, and looking at the total returns that happen when the model forecasts returns between 3.30% and 5.30%.  The total returns vary from 2.31%/year to 6.50%, and average out to 3.97% total returns.  The bold line above is the 4.30% estimate.

As I have said before, this bodes ill for all collective security schemes that rely on the returns of risky assets to power the payments.  There is no conventional way to achieve returns higher than 5%/year for the next ten years, unless you go for value and foreign markets (maybe both!).

Then again, the simple solution is just to lighten up and let cash build.  Now if we all did that, we couldn’t.  Who would be buying?  But if enough of us did it such that equity valuations declined, there could be a more orderly market retreat.

The attitude of the market on a qualitative basis doesn’t seem nuts to me yet, so I am at maximum cash for ordinary conditions, but I haven’t hedged.  When expected 10-year market returns get to 3%/year, I will likely do that, but for now I hold my stocks.

PS — the first article of this series has been translated into Chinese.  The same website has 48 of my best articles in Chinese, which I find pretty amazing.  Hope you smile at the cartoon version of me. 😉

Photo Credit: Carl Wycoff || It is a long way to the end of retirement.  People are getting ready for it.  Are you?

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Assuming that you could throw stones on the financial internet, it would be hard to toss a stone and miss articles talking about how high the stock market is.  One good article from last week was Why Do U.S. Stocks Keep Hitting Records? Here Are Five Theories from the Wall Street Journal.  Here were the five theories:

  1. Stocks Reflect the Resurgent Health of American Corporations
  2. The Global Outlook Is Looking Brighter
  3. The U.S. Economy Is in a ‘Goldilocks’ Situation
  4. Passive Funds Are Propping Up Prices
  5. There Is No Alternative

Of this list, I think answers 1, 3 and 5 are correct, and 2 and 4 are wrong.  I have a few other answers that I think are right:

  1. Demographics are leading people to buy assets that will provide long-term cash flows. Monetary policy has led to asset price inflation, not goods price inflation.
  2. People are overestimating the resiliency of the political and social constructs that make all of this possible.
  3. The “Dumb Money” hasn’t arrived yet, but the sale of volatility by retail contradict that.

I disagree with point 2 from the WSJ article because a stronger global economy not only means that profits will rise, but also the cost of capital.  Depending on which factor is stronger, a stronger global economy can make stocks go up, down, or be neutral.

On point 4, I’ve written about that in Overvaluation is NOT Due to Passive Investing.  What matters more than the active/passive mix is the total shift in portfolio holdings into stocks versus everything else.  When people hold a lot of their portfolio in stocks, stock prices tend to be high.

The active/passive mix does have effect on the relative prices of securities in the indexes versus outside the indexes. The clearest place to see the impacts of ETFs and indexing is in bonds, where bonds that are in the indexes trade at lower yields and higher prices than similar non-index bonds.

With stocks, it is probably the same, but harder to prove; I wrote about this here.  In the short run, the companies in the popular indexes are getting a tailwind. That will turn into a headwind at some point, because the voting machine always eventually becomes a weighing machine.

Why are stocks high?

Profit margins are high because of productivity increases from the application of information technology.  Also, there is a lot of lower paid labor to employ globally which further depresses wage rates in developed countries.

Points 3 and 5 of the WSJ article are almost saying the same thing.  Interest rates are low.  They are low because inflation is low,, and general economic activity is not that robust.  As such, the cost of capital is low, people are willing to pay high prices for stocks and bonds relative to their cash flows.

Part of this stems from demographics, which was my first additional point.  For those that are retired or want to retire, there aren’t a lot of ways to transfer money earned in the present so that you can get the equivalent purchasing power or better far into the future.  There are a few commodities that you can store, like gold, but most can’t be stored.  Thus you can buy bonds if you don’t think inflation will be bad, or inflation-protected bonds if you can live with low real returns.  Money market funds will keep your principal stable, but also provide little return.  You can buy stocks if you are willing to get some inflation protection, and run the risk of a rising cost of capital at some point in the future.  Same for real estate, but substitute in rising mortgage rates.

A shift can happen when the marginal dollar produced by monetary policy shifts from being saved to being spent.  For now, monetary policy inflates asset prices, not goods prices (much).

My second point says that people are willing to spend more on stocks when they think that the system will remain stable for a long time.  That seems to be true today, but as I have pointed out before, it discounts the probability of trade wars, real wars, resurgent socialism, and bad future demographics.  Nations with shrinking populations tend to have poor asset returns.  Also, nations with unproductive cultures don’t tend to make economic progress.

My third point is equivocal.  I don’t see a lot of people yelling “buy stock!”  There’s a lot of disbelief in the market; this is what Jason Zweig was talking about in his most recent WSJ column.  That said, when I see lots of activity from people shorting volatility through exchange traded products in order to earn returns, it makes me wonder.  As I have said before, “Nothing brings out the financial worst in people like the lure of seemingly free money.”  Eventually those trades sting those that stay at the party too long.

So, where does that leave me?  The market is high, as my models indicate.  It may remain high for a while, and may get higher still.  That said, it would be historically unprecedented to remain in the top decile of valuations for more than three years.  It would be healthy to have the following:

  • A garden-variety recession
  • A garden-variety bear market
  • More varied sector/industry performance

Will we get any of those?  I don’t know.  I can tell you this, though.  For now, my asset allocation risk is on the low side for me, with stocks at around 70% (that is high for most people, but that is how I have lived my life).  If we get over the 95th percentile of valuations, I will hedge what I can.  For now, I reluctantly soldier on.

Picture Credit: Denise Krebs || What RFK said is not applicable to investing.  Safety First!  Don’t lose money!

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Investment entities, both people and institutions, often say one thing and mean another with respect to risk.  They can keep a straight face with respect to minor market gyrations.  But major market changes leading to the possible or actual questioning of whether they will have enough money to meet stated goals is what really matters to them.

There are six factors that go into any true risk analysis (I will handle them in order):

  1. Net Wealth Relative to Liabilities
  2. Time
  3. Liquidity
  4. Flexibility
  5. Investment-specific Factors
  6. Character of the Entity’s Decision-makers and their Incentives

Net Wealth Relative to Liabilities

The larger the surplus of assets over liabilities, the more relaxed and long-term focused an entity can be.  For the individual, that attempts to measure the amount needed to meet future obligations where future investment earnings are calculated at a conservative level — my initial rule of thumb is no more than 1% above the 10-year Treasury yield.

That said, for entities with well defined liabilities, like a defined benefit pension plan, a bank, or an insurance company, using 1% above the yield curve should be a maximum for investment earnings, even for existing fixed income assets.  Risk premiums will get taken into net wealth as they are earned.  They should not be planned as if they are guaranteed to occur.

Time

The longer it is before payments need to be made, the more aggressive the investment posture can be.  Now, that can swing two ways — with a larger surplus, or more time before payments need to be made, there is more freedom to tactically overweight or underweight risky assets versus your normal investment posture.

That means that someone like Buffett is almost unconstrained, aside from paying off insurance claims and indebtedness.  Not so for most investment entities, which often learn that their estimates of when they need the money are overestimates, and in a crisis, may need liquidity sooner than they ever thought.

Liquidity

High quality assets that can easily be turned into spendable cash helps make net wealth more secure.  Unexpected cash outflows happen, and how do you meet those needs, particularly in a crisis?  If you’ve got more than enough cash-like assets, the rest of the portfolio can be more aggressive.  Remember, Buffett view cash as an option, because of what he can buy with it during a crisis.  The question is whether the low returns from holding cash will get more than compensated for by capital gains and income on the rest of the portfolio across a full market cycle.  Do the opportunistic purchases get made when the crisis comes?  Do they pay off?

Also, if net new assets are coming in, aggressiveness can increase somewhat, but it matters whether the assets have promises attached to them, or are additional surplus.  The former money must be invested coservatively, while surplus can be invested aggressively.

Flexibility

Some liabilities, or spending needs, can be deferred, at some level of cost or discomfort.  As an example, if retirement assets are not sufficient, then maybe discretionary expenses can be reduced.  Dreams often have to give way to reality.

Even in corporate situations, some payments can be stretched out with some increase in the cost of financing.  One has to be careful here, because the time you are forced to conserve liquidity is often the same time that everyone else must do it as well, which means the cost of doing so could be high.  That said, projects can be put on hold, realizing that growth will suffer; this can be a “choose your poison” type of situation, because it might cause the stock price to fall, with unpredictable second order effects.

Investment-specific Factors

Making good long term investments will enable a higher return over time, but concentration of ideas can in the short-run lead to underperformance.  So long as you don’t need cash soon, or you have a large surplus of net assets, such a posture can be maintained over the long haul.

The same thing applies to the need for income from investments.  investments can shoot less for income and more for capital gains if the need for spendable cash is low.  Or, less liquid investments can be purchased if they offer a significant return for giving up the liquidity.

Character of the Entity’s Decision-makers and their Incentives

The last issue, which many take first, but I think is last, is how skilled the investors are in dealing with panic/greed situations.  What is your subjective “risk tolerance?”  The reason I put this last, is that if you have done your job right, and properly sized the first five factors above, there will be enough surplus and liquidity that does not easily run away in a crisis.  When portfolios are constructed so that they are prepared for crises and manias, the subjective reactions are minimized because the call on cash during a crisis never gets great enough to force them to move.

A: “Are we adequate?”

B: “More than adequate.  We might even be able to take advantage of the crisis…”

The only “trouble” comes when almost everyone is prepared.  Then no significant crises come.  That theoretical problem is very high quality, but I don’t think the nature of mankind ever changes that much.

Closing

Pay attention to the risk factors of investing relative to your spending needs (or, liabilities).  Then you will be prepared for the inevitable storms that will come.

What could be more a propos to investing than a bubble spinner?

What could be more à propos to investing than a bubble spinner?

 

A letter from a “reader” that looked like he sent it to a lot of people:

Hello my name is XXX,
After looking through your website I have really been enjoying your content.
I am also involved in the investing space and wanted to ask a quick question.
I was curious as to what you think the biggest problems are for investors today?
For example do they not have enough investment choices? Do they just not have enough knowledge? Really anything that you have noticed.
I would love to hear your perspective on this. I really appreciate the help. If you have any questions feel free to ask. Thanks.

This was entitled “Love what your doing, my question will only take 2 minutes.”  I wrote back:

This is not a 2 minute question.

That said, it’s a decent question.  Here are my thoughts:

  • The biggest problem for investors is low future returns.  Bonds have low rates of returns, and equities have high valuations.  You’ll see more about equity valuations in my next post.
  • The second largest problem is investment monoculture — there is a handful of large cap growth stocks that dominate the major indexes, and there is a self-reinforcing cycle of cash flow going on now that is forcing their prices well above what can be justified in the long run.
  • Third is inadequate ability to diversify.  This is largely a function of the two problems listed before, and benchmarking and indexing, which has been correlating the markets more and more.  I’m not talking about short-term correlations — diversification applies of the time horizon of the assets, which is long.
  • Fourth is bad government and central bank policy.  The growth in government debt is the growth in unproductive capital, which drives the first problem.
  • Fifth, too many people are relying on investments to fund their future spending — that also exacerbates the first problem.

That’s all — if you can think of more, leave your suggestion in the comments.

PS — my apology to those I tweeted to on Friday about a post on equity valuations.  That will appear Saturday night.  Thanks.

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This will be a short post, though I want to toss this question out to readers: what investment strategies do you know of that are simple, and work on average over the long-term?

Here are four (together with posts of mine on the topic):

1) Indexing

Index Investing is not Inherently Socialistic

Why Indexes are Capitalization-Weighted

Why do Value Investors Like to Index?

On Bond Investing, ETFs, Indexes, and the Current Market Environment

2) Buy-and-Hold

Buy-and-Hold Can’t Die

Buy-and-Hold Can’t Die, Redux

Buy and Hold Will Return — 2/15/2009 (what a time to write this)

Patience and a Little Courage

Risk vs Return — The Dirty Secret

3) The Permanent Portfolio

The Permanent Portfolio

Can the “Permanent Portfolio” Work Today?

Permanent Asset Allocation

4) Bond Ladders

On Bond Ladders

I chose these because they are simple.  Average people without a lot of training could do them.  There are other things that work, but aren’t necessarily simple, like value investing, momentum investing, low volatility investing, and a few other things that I will think of after I hit the “Publish” button.

That said, most people don’t need to work on investing.  They need to work on cash management, and I have written a small fleet of articles there.  Managing cash is simple, but it takes self-control, and that is what most people lack in their financial lives.

But for those that have gotten their cash under control, with a full buffer fund, the above strategies will help, and they aren’t hard.

Final note: I realize valuations are high now, so buy-and-hold is not as attractive as at other times.  I realize that interest rates are low, so bond ladders aren’t so great, seemingly.  Indexing may be overused.  Most of the elements of the Permanent Portfolio look unappealing.

But what’s the alternative, and simple enough for average people to do?  My answer is simple.  If they can buy and hold, these strategies will pay off over time, and far better than those that panic when things get bad.  There are few regularities in the markets more reliable than this.

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I will admit, when I first read about the Permanent Portfolio in the late-80s, I was somewhat skeptical, but not totally dismissive.  Here is the classic Permanent Portfolio, equal proportions of:

  • S&P 500 stocks
  • The longest Treasury Bonds
  • Spot Gold
  • Money market funds

Think about Inflation, how do these assets do?

  • S&P 500 stocks – mediocre to pretty good
  • The longest Treasury Bonds – craters
  • Spot Gold – soars
  • Money market funds – keeps value, earns income

Think about Deflation, how do these assets do?

  • S&P 500 stocks – pretty poor to pretty good
  • The longest Treasury Bonds – soars
  • Spot Gold – craters
  • Money market funds – makes a modest amount, loses nothing

Long bonds and gold are volatile, but they are definitely negatively correlated in the long run.  The Permanent Portfolio concept attempts to balance the effects of inflation and deflation, and capture returns from the overshooting that these four asset classes do.

What did I do?

I got the returns data from 12/31/69 to 9/30/2011 on gold, T-bonds, T-bills, and stocks.  I created a hypothetical portfolio that started with 25% in each, rebalancing to 25% in each whenever an asset got to be more than 27.5% or less than 22.5% of the portfolio.  This was the only rebalancing strategy that I tested.  I did not do multiple tests and pick the best one, because that would induce more hindsight bias, where I torture the data to make it confess what I want.

I used a 10% band around 25% ( 22.5%-27.5%) figuring that it would rebalance the portfolio with moderate frequency.  Over the 566 months of the study, it rebalanced 102 times.  At the top of this article is a graphical summary of the results.

The smooth-ish gold line in the middle is the Permanent Portfolio.  Frankly, I was surprised at how well it did.  It did so well, that I decided to ask, what if we drop out the T-bills in order to leverage the idea.  It improves the returns by 1%, but kicks up the 12-month drawdown by 7%.  Probably not a good tradeoff, but pretty amazing that it beats stocks with lower than bond drawdowns.  That’s the light brown line.

ResultsS&P TRBond TRT-bill TRGold TRPP TRPP TR levered
Annualized Return10.40%8.38%4.77%7.82%8.80%9.93%
Max 12-mo drawdown-43.32%-22.66%0.02%-35.07%-7.65%-14.75%

 

Now the above calculations assume no fees.  If you decide to implement it using SPY, TLT, SHY and GLD, (or something similar) there will be some modest level of fees, and commission costs.

 

 What Could Go Wrong

Now, what could go wrong with an analysis like this?  The first point is that the history could be unusual, and not be indicative of the future.  What was unusual about the period 1970-2017?

  • Went off the gold standard; individual holding of gold legalized.
  • High level of gold appreciation was historically abnormal.
  • Deregulation of money markets allowed greater volatility in short-term rates.
  • ZIRP crushed money market rates.
  • Federal Reserve micro-management of short-term rates led to undue certainty in the markets over the efficacy of monetary policy – “The Great Moderation.”
  • Volcker era interest rates were abnormal, but necessary to squeeze out inflation.
  • Low long Treasury rates today are abnormal, partially due to fear, and abnormal Fed policy.
  • Thus it would be unusual to see a lot more performance out of long Treasuries. The stellar returns of the past can’t be repeated.
  • Three hard falls in the stock market 1973-4, 2000-2, 2007-9, each with a comeback.
  • By the end of the period, profit margins for stocks were abnormally high, and overvaluations are significant.

But maybe the way to view the abnormalities of the period as being “tests” of the strategy.  If it can survive this many tests, perhaps it can survive the unknown tests of the future.

Other risks, however unlikely, include:

  • Holding gold could be made illegal again.
  • The T-bills and T-bonds have only one creditor, the US Government. Are there scenarios where they might default for political reasons?  I think in most scenarios bondholders get paid, but who can tell?
  • Stock markets can close for protracted periods of time; in principle, public corporations could be made illegal, as they are statutory creations.
  • The US as a society could become less creative & productive, leading to malaise in its markets. Think of how promising Argentina was 100 years ago.

But if risks this severe happen, almost no investment strategy will be any good.  If the US isn’t a desirable place to live, what other area of the world would be?  And how difficult would it be to transfer assets there?

Summary

The Permanent Portfolio strategy is about as promising as any that I have seen for preserving the value of assets through a wide number of macroeconomic scenarios.  The volatility is low enough that almost anyone could maintain it.  Finally, it’s pretty simple.  Makes me want to consider what sort of product could be made out of this.

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Back to the Present

I delayed on posting this for a while — the original work was done five years ago.  In that time, there has been a decent amount of digital ink spilled on the Permanent Portfolio idea of Harry Browne’s.  I have two pieces written: Permanent Asset Allocation, and Can the “Permanent Portfolio” Work Today?

Part of the recent doubt on the concept has come from three sources:

  • Zero Interest rate policy [ZIRP] since late 2008, (6.8%/yr PP return)
  • The fall in Gold since late 2012 (2.7%/yr PP return), and
  • The fall in T-bonds in since mid-2016 (-4.7% annualized PP return).

Out of 46 calendar years, the strategy makes money in 41 of them, and loses money in 5 with the losses being small: 1.0% (2008), 1.9% (1994), 2.2% (2013), 3.6% (2015), and 4.5% (1981).  I don’t know about what other people think, but there might be a market for a strategy that loses ~2.6% 11% of the time, and makes 9%+ 89% of the time.

Here’s the thing, though — just because it succeeded in the past does not mean it will in the future.  There is a decent theory behind the Permanent Portfolio, but can it survive highly priced bonds and stocks?  My guess is yes.

Scenarios: 1) inflation runs, and the Fed falls behind the curve — cash and gold do well, bonds tank, and stocks muddle.  2) Growth stalls, and so does the Fed: bonds rally, cash and stocks muddle, and gold follows the course of inflation. 3) Growth runs, and the Fed swarms with hawks. Cash does well, and the rest muddle.

It’s hard, almost impossible to make them all do badly at the same time.  They react differently to changes in the macro-economy.

Upshot

There are a lot of modified permanent portfolio ideas out there, most of which have done worse than the pure strategy.  This permanent portfolio strategy would be relatively pure.  I’m toying with the idea of a lower minimum ($25,000) separate account that would hold four funds and rebalance as stated above, with fees of 0.2% over the ETF fees.  To minimize taxes, high cost tax lots would be sold first.  My question is would there be interest for something like this?  I would be using a better set of ETFs than the ones that I listed above.

I write this, knowing that I was disappointed when I started out with my equity management.  Many indicated interest; few carried through.  Small accounts and a low fee structure do not add up to a scalable model unless two things happen: 1) enough accounts want it, and 2) all reporting services are provided by Interactive Brokers.

Closing

Besides, anyone could do the rebalancing strategy.  It’s not rocket science.  There are enough decent ETFs to use.  Would anyone truly want to pay 0.2%/yr on assets to have someone select the funds and do the rebalancing for him?  I wouldn’t.