One of the constants in investing is that average investors show up late to the party or to the crisis.  Unlike many gatherings where it may be cool to be fashionably late, in investing it tends to mean you earn less and lose more, which is definitely not cool.

One reason why this happens is that information gets distributed in lumps.  We don’t notice things in real time, partly because we’re not paying attention to the small changes that are happening.  But after enough time passes, a few people notice a trend.  After a while longer, still more people notice the trend, and it might get mentioned in some special purpose publications, blogs, etc.  More time elapses and it becomes a topic of conversation, and articles make it into the broad financial press.  The final phase is when general interest magazines put it onto the cover, and get rich quick articles and books point at how great fortunes have been made, and you can do it too!

That slow dissemination and gathering of information is paralleled by a similar flow of money, and just as the audience gets wider, the flow of money gets bigger.  As the flow of money in or out gets bigger, prices tend to overshoot fair value, leaving those who arrived last with subpar returns.

There is another aspect to this, and that stems from the way that people commonly evaluate managers.  We use past returns as a prologue to what is assumed to be still greater returns in the future.  This not only applies to retail investors but also many institutional investors.  Somme institutional investors will balk at this conclusion, but my experience in talking with institutional investors has been that though they look at many of the right forward looking indicators of manager quality, almost none of them will hire a manager that has the right people, process, etc., and has below average returns relative to peers or indexes.  (This also happens with hedge funds… there is nothing special in fund analysis there.)

For the retail crowd it is worse, because most investors look at past returns when evaluating managers.  Much as Morningstar is trying to do the right thing, and have forward looking analyst ratings (gold, silver, bronze, neutral and negative), yet much of the investing public will not touch a fund unless it has four or five stars from Morningstar, which is a backward looking rating.  This not only applies to individuals, but also committees that choose funds for defined contribution plans.  If they don’t choose the funds with four or five stars, they get complaints, or participants don’t use the funds.

Another Exercise in Dollar-Weighted Returns

One of the ways this investing shortfall gets expressed is looking at the difference between time-weighted (buy-and-hold) and dollar-weighted (weighted geometric average/IRR) returns.  The first reveals what an investor who bought and held from the beginning earned, versus what the average dollar invested earned.  Since money tends to come after good returns have been achieved, and money tends to leave after bad returns have been realized, the time-weighted returns are typically higher then the dollar-weighted returns.  Generally, the more volatile the performance of the investment vehicle the larger the difference between time- and dollar-weighted returns gets.  The greed and fear cycle is bigger when there is more volatility, and people buy and sell at the wrong times to a greater degree.

(An aside: much as some pooh-pooh buy-and-hold investing, it generally beats those who trade.  There may be intelligent ways to trade, but they are always a minority among market actors.)

HSGFX Dollar Weighted Returns

HSGFX Dollar and Time Weighted Returns

That brings me to tonight’s fund for analysis: Hussman Strategic Growth [HSGFX]. John Hussman, a very bright guy, has been trying to do something very difficult — time the markets.  The results started out promising, attracting assets in the process, and then didn’t do so well, and assets have slowly left.  For my calculation this evening, I run the calculation on his fund with the longest track record from inception to 30 June 2014.  The fund’s fiscal years end on June 30th, and so I assume cash flows occur at mid-year as a simplifying assumption.  At the end of the scenario, 30 June 2014, I assume that all of the funds remaining get paid out.

To run this calculation, I do what I have always done, gone to the SEC EDGAR website and look at the annual reports, particularly the section called “Statements of Changes in Net Assets.”  The cash flow for each fiscal year is equal to the net increase in net assets from capital share transactions plus the net decrease in net assets from distributions to shareholders.  Once I have the amount of money moving in or out of the fund in each fiscal year, I can then run an internal rate of return calculation to get the dollar-weighted rate of return.

In my table, the cash flows into/(out of) the fund are in millions of dollars, and the column titled Accumulated PV is the accumulated present value calculated at an annualized rate of -2.56% per year, which is the dollar-weighted rate of return.  The zero figure at the top shows that a discount rate -2.56% makes the cash inflows and outflows net to zero.

From the beginning of the Annual Report for the fiscal year ended in June 2014, they helpfully provide the buy-and-hold return since inception, which was +3.68%.  That gives a difference of 6.24% of how much average investors earned less than the buy-and-hold investors.  This is not meant to be a criticism of Hussman’s performance or methods, but simply a demonstration that a lot of people invested money after the fund’s good years, and then removed money after years of underperformance.  They timed their investment in a market-timing fund poorly.

Now, Hussman’s fund may do better when the boom/bust cycle turns if his system makes the right move somewhere near the bottom of the cycle.  That didn’t happen in 2009, and thus the present state of affairs.  I am reluctant to criticize, though, because I tried running a strategy like this for some of my own clients and did not do well at it.  But when I realized that I did not have the personal ability/willingness to buy when valuations were high even though the model said to do so because of momentum, rather than compound an error, I shut down the product, and refunded some fees.

One thing I can say with reasonable confidence, though: the low returns of the past by themselves are not a reason to not invest in Mr. Hussman’s funds.  Past returns by themselves tell you almost nothing about future returns.  The hard questions with a fund like this are: when will the cycle turn from bullish to bearish?  (So that you can decide how long you are willing to sit on the sidelines), and when the cycle turns from bearish to bullish, will Mr. Hussman make the right decision then?

Those questions are impossible to answer with any precision, but at least those are the right questions to ask.  What, you’d rather have the answer to a simple question like how did it return in the past, that has no bearing on how the fund will do in the future?  Sadly, that is the answer that propels more investment decisions than any other, and it is what leads to bad overall investment returns on average.

PS — In future articles in this irregular series, I will apply this to the Financial Sector Spider [XLF], and perhaps some fund of Kenneth Heebner’s.  Till then.

Here are some simple propositions on liquidity:

  1. Liquidity is positively influenced by the quality of an asset
  2. Liquidity is positively influenced by the simplicity of an asset
  3. Liquidity is negatively influenced by the price momentum of an asset
  4. Liquidity is negatively influenced by the level of fear (or overall market price volatility)
  5. Liquidity is negatively influenced by the length of an asset’s cash flow stream
  6. Liquidity is negatively influenced by concentration of the holders of an asset
  7. Liquidity is negatively influenced by the length of the time horizon of the holders of an asset
  8. Liquidity is positively influenced by the amount of information available about an asset, but negatively affected by changes in the information about an asset
  9. Liquidity is negatively influenced by the level of indebtedness of owners and potential buyers of an asset
  10. Liquidity is negatively influenced by similarity of trading strategies of owners and potential buyers of an asset

Presently, we have a lot of commentary about how the bond market is supposedly illiquid.  One particular example is the so-called flash crash in the Treasury market that took place on October 15th, 2014.  Question: does a moment of illiquidity imply that the US Treasury market is somehow illiquid?  My answer is no.  Treasuries are high quality assets that are simple.  So why did the market become illiquid for a few minutes?

One reason is that the base of holders and buyers is more concentrated.  Part of this is the Fed holding large amounts of virtually every issue of US Treasury debt from their QE strategy.  Another part is increasing concentration on the buyside.  Concentration among banks, asset managers, and insurance companies has risen over the last decade.  Exchange-traded products have further added to concentration.

Other factors include that ten-year Treasuries are long assets.  The option of holding to maturity means you will have to wait longer than most can wait, and most institutional investors don’t even have an average 10-year holding period.  Also, presumably, at least for a short period of time, investors had similar strategies for trading ten-year Treasuries.

So, when the market had a large influx of buyers, aided by computer algorithms, the prices of the bonds rose rapidly.  When prices do move rapidly, those that make their money off of brokering trades take some quick losses, and back away.  They may still technically be willing to buy or sell, but the transaction sizes drop and the bid/ask spread widens.  This is true regardless of the market that is panicking.  It takes a while for market players to catch up with a fast market.  Who wants to catch a falling (or rising) knife?  Given the interconnectedness of many fixed income markets who could be certain who was driving the move, and when the buyers would be sated?

For the crisis to end, real money sellers had to show up and sell ten-year Treasuries, and sit on cash.  Stuff the buyers full until they can’t bear to buy any more.  The real money sellers had to have a longer time horizon, and say “We know that over the next ten years, we will be easily able to beat a sub-2% return, and we can live with the mark-to-market risk.”  So, though they sold, they were likely expressing a long term view that interest rates have some logical minimum level.

Once the market started moving the other way, it moved back quickly.  If anything, traders learning there was no significant new information were willing to sell all the way to levels near the market opening levels.  Post-crisis, things returned to “normal.”

My Conclusion

I wouldn’t make all that much out of this incident.  Complex markets can occasionally burp.  That is another aspect of a normal market, because it teaches investors not to be complacent.

Don’t leave the computer untended.

Don’t use market orders, particularly on large trades.

Be sure you will be happy getting executed on your limit order, even if the market blows far past that.

Graspy regulators and politicians see incidents like this as an opportunity for more regulations.   That’s not needed.  It wasn’t needed in October 1987, nor in May 2009.  It is not needed now.

Losses from errors are a great teacher.  I’ve suffered my own losses on misplaced market orders and learned from them.  Instability in markets is a good thing, even if a lot of price movement is just due to “noise traders.”

As for the Treasury market — the yield on the securities will always serve as an aid to mean-reversion, and if there is no fundamental change, it will happen quickly.  There was no liquidity problem on October 15th.  There was a problem of a few players mistrading a fast market with no significant news.  By its nature, for a brief amount of time, that will look illiquid.  But it is proper for those conditions, and gave way to a normal market, with normal liquidity rapidly.

That’s market resilience in the face of some foolish market players.  That the foolish players took losses was a good thing.  Fundamentals always take over, and businesslike investors profit then.  What could be better?

One final aside: other articles in this irregular series can be found here.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence.  I’ve been a bond manager, with a large, complex (and illiquid) portfolio, and I have been a selector of managers.  Thus the current squabble between Jeffrey Gundlach and Morningstar isn’t too surprising to me, and genuinely, I could side with either one.

Let me take Gundlach’s side first.  If you are a bond manager, you have to be fairly bright.  You need to understand the understand the compound interest math, and also how to interpret complex securities that come in far more flavors than common stocks.  This is particularly true today when many top managers are throwing a lot of derivative instruments into their portfolios, whether to earn returns, or shed risks.  Aspects of the lending markets that used to be the sole province of the banks and other lenders are now available for bond managers to buy in a securitized form.  Go ahead, take a look at any of the annual reports from Pimco or DoubleLine and get a sense of the complexity involved in running these funds.  It’s pretty astounding.

So when the fund analyst comes along, whether for a buy-side firm, an institutional fund analyst, or retail fund analyst who does more than just a little number crunching, you realize that the fund analyst likely knows less about what you do than one of your junior analysts.

One of the issues that Morningstar had  was with DoubleLine’s holdings of nonagency residential mortgage-backed securities [NRMBS].  These securities lost a lot of value 2007-2009 during the financial crisis.  Let me describe what it was like in a chronological list:

  1. 2003 and prior: NRMBS is a small part of the overall mortgage bond market, with relatively few players willing to take credit risk instead of buying mortgage bonds guaranteed by Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie.  Much of the paper is in the hands of specialists and some life insurance companies.
  2. 2004-2006 as more subprime lending goes on amid a boom in housing prices, credit quality standards fall and life insurance buyers slowly stop purchasing the securities.  A new yield-hungry group of buyers take their place, with not much focus on what could go wrong.
  3. Parallel to this, a market in credit derivatives grows up around the NRMBS market with more notional exposure than the underlying market.  Two sets of players: yield hogs that need to squeeze more income out of their portfolios, and hedge funds seeing the opportunity for a big score when the housing bubble pops.  At last, a way to short housing!
  4. 2007: Pre-crisis, the market for NRMBS starts to sag, but nothing much happens.  A few originators get into trouble, and a bit of risk differentiation comes into a previously complacent market.
  5. 2008-2009: the crisis hits, and it is a melee.  Defaults spike, credit metrics deteriorate, and housing prices fall.  Many parties sell their bonds merely to get rid of the taint in their portfolios.  The credit derivatives exacerbate a bad situation.  Prices on many NRMBS fall way below rational levels, because there are few traditional buyers willing to hold them.  The regulators of financial companies and rating agencies are watching mortgage default risk carefully, so most regulated financial companies can’t hold the securities without a lot of fuss.
  6. 2010+ Nontraditional buyers like flexible hedge funds develop expertise and buy the NRMBS, as do some flexible bond managers who have the expertise in staff skilled in analyzing the creditworthiness of bunches of securitized mortgages.

Now, after a disaster in a section of the bond market, the recovery follows a pattern like triage.  Bonds get sorted into three buckets: those likely to yield a positive return on current prices, those likely to yield a negative return on current prices, and those where you can’t tell.  As time goes along, the last two buckets shrink.  Market players revise prices down for the second bucket, and securities in the third bucket typically join one of the other two buckets.

Typically, though, lightning doesn’t strike twice.  You don’t get another crisis event that causes that class of securities to become disordered again, at least, not for a while.  We’re always fighting the last war, so if credit deterioration is happening, it is in a new place.

And thus the problem in talking to the fund analyst.  The securities were highly risky at one point, so aren’t they risky now?  You would like to say, “No such thing as a bad asset, only a bad price,” but the answer might sound too facile.

Only a few managers devoted the time and effort to analyzing these securities after the crisis.  As such, the story doesn’t travel so well.  Gundlach already has a lot of money to manage, and more money is flowing in, so he doesn’t have to care whether Morningstar truly understands what DoubleLine does or not.  He can be happy with a slower pace of asset growth, and the lack of accolades which might otherwise go to him…

But, one of the signs of being truly an expert is being able to explain it to lesser mortals.  It’s like this story of the famous physicist Richard Feynman:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

Like it or not, the Morningstar folks have a job to do, and they will do it whether DoubleLine cooperates or not.  As in other situations in the business world, you have a choice.  You could task smart subordinates to spend adequate time teaching the Morningstar analyst your thought processes, or, live with the results of someone who fundamentally does not understand what you do.  (This applies to bosses as well.)

In the end, this may not matter to DoubleLine.  They have enough assets to manage, and then some.  But in the end, this could matter to Morningstar.  It says a lot if you can’t analyze one of the best funds out there.  That would mean you really don’t understand well the fixed income business as it is presently configured.  As such, I would say that it is incumbent on Morningstar to take the initiative, apologize to DoubleLine, and try to re-establish good communications.  If they don’t, the loss is Morningstar’s, and that of their subscribers.

My last post has many implications. I want to make them clear in this post.

  1. When you analyze a manager, look at the repeatability of his processes.  It’s possible that you could get “the Big Short” right once, and never have another good investment idea in your life.  Same for investors who are the clever ones who picked the most recent top or bottom… they are probably one-trick ponies.
  2. When a manager does well and begins to pick up a lot of new client assets, watch for the period where the growth slows to almost zero.  It is quite possible that some of the great performance during the high growth period stemmed from asset prices rising due to the purchases of the manager himself.  It might be a good time to exit, or, for shorts to consider the assets with the highest percentage of market cap owned as targets for shorting.
  3. Often when countries open up to foreign investment, valuations are relatively low.  The initial flood of money in often pushes up valuations, leads to momentum buyers, and a still greater flow of money.  Eventually an adjustment comes, and shakes out the undisciplined investors.  But, when you look at the return series analyze potential future investment, ignore the early years — they aren’t representative of the future.
  4. Before an academic paper showing a way to invest that would been clever to use in the past gets published, the excess returns are typically described as coming from valuation, momentum, manager skill, etc.  After the paper is published, money starts getting applied to the idea, and the strategy will do well initially.  Again, too much money can get applied to a limited factor (or other) anomaly, because no one knows how far it can get pushed before the market rebels.  Be careful when you apply the research — if you are late, you could get to hold the bag of overvalued companies.  Aside for that, don’t assume that performance from the academic paper’s era or the 2-3 years after that will persist.  Those are almost always the best years for a factor (or other) anomaly strategy.
  5. During a credit boom, almost every new type of fixed income security, dodgy or not, will look like genius by the early purchasers.  During a credit bust, it is rare for a new security type to fare well.
  6. Anytime you take a large position in an obscure security, it must jump through extra hoops to assure a margin of safety.  Don’t assume that merely because you are off the beaten path that you are a clever contrarian, smarter than most.
  7. Always think about the carrying capacity of a strategy when you look at an academic paper.  It might be clever, but it might not be able to handle a lot of money.  Examples would include trying to do exactly what Ben Graham did in the early days today, and things like Piotroski’s methods, because typically only a few small and obscure stocks survive the screen.
  8. Also look at how an academic paper models trading and liquidity, if they give it any real thought at all.  Many papers embed the idea that liquidity is free, and large trades can happen where prices closed previously.
  9. Hedge funds and other manager databases should reflect that some managers have closed their funds, and put them in a separate category, because new money can’t be applied to those funds.  I.e., there should be “new money allowed” indexes.
  10. Max Heine, who started the Mutual Series funds (now part of Franklin), was a genius when he thought of the strategy 20% distressed investing, 20% arbitrage/event-driven investing and 60% value investing.  It produced great returns 9 years out of 10.  but once distressed investing and event-driven because heavily done, the idea lost its punch.  Michael Price was clever enough to sell the firm to Franklin before that was realized, and thus capitalizing the past track record that would not do as well in the future.
  11. The same applies to a lot of clever managers.  They have a very good sense of when their edge is getting dulled by too much competition, and where the future will not be as good as the past.  If they have the opportunity to sell, they will disproportionately do so then.
  12. Corporate management teams are like rock bands.  Most of them never have a hit song.  (For managements, a period where a strategy improves profitability far more than most would have expected.)  The next-most are one-hit wonders.  Few have multiple hits, and rare are those that create a culture of hits.  Applying this to management teams — the problem is if they get multiple bright ideas, or a culture of success, it is often too late to invest, because the valuation multiple adjusts to reflect it.  Thus, advantages accrue to those who can spot clever managements before the rest of the market.  More often this happens in dull industries, because no one would think to look there.
  13. It probably doesn’t make sense to run from hot investment idea to hot investment idea as a result of all of this.  You will end up getting there once the period of genius is over, and valuations have adjusted.  It might be better to buy the burned out stuff and see if a positive surprise might come.  (Watch margin of safety…)
  14. Macroeconomics and the effect that it has on investment returns is overanalyzed, though many get the effects wrong anyway.  Also, when central bankers and politicians take cues from the prices of risky assets, the feedback loop confuses matters considerably.  if you must pay attention to macro in investing, always ask, “Is it priced in or not?  How much of it is priced in?”
  15. Most asset allocation work that relies on past returns is easy to do and bogus.  Good asset allocation is forward-looking and ignores past returns.
  16. Finally, remember that some ideas seem right by accident — they aren’t actually right.  Many academic papers don’t get published.  Many different methods of investing get tried.  Many managements try new business ideas.  Those that succeed get air time, whether it was due to intelligence or luck.  Use your business sense to analyze which it might be, or, if it is a combination.

There’s more that could be said here.  Just be cautious with new investment strategies, whatever form they may take.  Make sure that you maintain a margin of safety; you will likely need it.

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

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

Yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello David,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the next comment:

Hi David,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That brings me to my main point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a difficult book to review.  Let me tell you what it is not, and then let me tell you what it is more easily as a result.

1) The book does not give you detailed biographies of the people that it features.  Indeed, the writing on each person is less than the amount that Ken Fisher wrote in his book, 100 Minds That Made the Market.  If you are looking for detailed biographical sketches, you will be disappointed.

2) The book does not give detailed and comparable reviews of the portfolio performance of those that it features.  There’s no way from what is written to tell really how good many of the investors are.  I mean, I would want to see dollar-weighted rates of return, and perhaps, measures of dollar alpha.  The truly best managers have expansive strategies that can perform well managing a large amount of money.

3) The book admits that the managers selected may not be the greatest, but are some of the “greats.”  Okay, fair enough, but I would argue that a few of the managers don’t deserve to be featured even as that if you review their dollar-weighted performance.  A few of them showed that they did not pay adequate attention to margin of safety in the recent financial crisis, and lost a lot of money for people at the time that they should have been the most careful.

4) If you wanted to understand the strategies of the managers, this is not the book for you.  They are not described, except in the broadest terms.

5) There is no integration of any common themes of what makes an investment manager great.  You don’t get a necklace; you just get a jar of pretty, non-comparable beads that don’t have any holes in them.

What do you get in this book?  You get beautiful black and white photos of 33 managers, and vignettes of each of them written by six authors.  The author writes two-thirds of the vignettes.

Do I recommend this book?  Yes, if you understand what it is good for.  It is a well-done coffee table book on thick glossy paper, with truly beautiful photographs. It is well-suited for people waiting in a reception area, who want to read something light and short about several notable investment managers.

But if you are looking for anything involved in my five points above, you will not be satisfied by this book.

One final note on the side — I would have somehow reworked the layout of Bill Miller’s photograph.  Splitting his face down the middle of the gutter does not represent him to be the handsome guy that he is.

If you would like to buy it, you can buy it here: The Great Minds of Investing.

Full disclosure: I received a copy from the author.  He was most helpful.

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