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I like long bonds.  I am not saying that I like them as an investment.  I like them because they tell me about the economy.

Though I argued to the Obama Administration that they should issue Fifties, Centuries and Perpetuals, the Thirty-year bond remains the longest bond issued.  I think its yield tells us a lot about the economy.

How fast is nominal growth?  Look at the Thirty; it is highly correlated with that.

What should the Fed use for its monetary policy?  Look at the Thirty, and don’t let the Five-year note get a higher yield than it.  Also, don’t let the spread of the Two-year versus the Thirty get higher than 1.5%.  When things are bad, stimulus is fine, but it is better to wait at a high spread than goose the spread higher. Excesses in loose policy tend to beget excesses in tight policy.  Better to avoid the extremes, and genuinely mute the boom-bust cycle, rather than trying to prove that you are a genius/maestro when you are not.  Extreme monetary policy does not get rewarded.  Don’t let the yield curve get too steep; don’t invert.

Finally, the Thirty is a proxy for the cost of capital.  It’s long enough that it is a leap of faith that you will be paid back.  Better still for the cost of capital is the Moody’s Baa average, which tracks the bold bet of lending to low investment grade corporations for 20-30 years.

That said, the Thirty with its cousin, the long Treasury Inflation Protected Security [TIPS] gives you an idea of how long term inflation expectations and real rates are doing.  The thing that kills stocks is higher long term real interest rates, not inflation expectations.  The main reason for this is that when inflation rises, usually earnings do also, at least at cyclical companies.  But there is no reason why earnings should rise when real rates rise.

This is why I pay more attention to the Thirty rather than the more commonly followed Ten.  I know that more debt gets issued at a maturity of ten years.  Granted.  But the Thirty tells me more about the economy as a whole, and about its corporations.  That’s why I carefully watch the Thirty.

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Listening to the Fed Chair’s press conference, there was one thing where I disagreed with what Powell was saying.  He said a few times that they only made one decision at the FOMC meeting, that of raising the Fed Funds rate and the reverse repo rate by 0.25%.  They made another decision as well. The decided to raise the rate of quantitative tightening [QT] by increasing the rate of Treasury, MBS and agency bonds rolloff by $10B/month starting in April. They did that by increasing the rate of reduction of MBS and agency bonds from $8B to $12B/month, and Treasuries from $12B to $18B/month. The total rate of QT goes from $20B to $30B/month.  This may raise rates on the longer end, because the Fed will no longer buy so much debt.

There was also a little concern over people overinterpreting the opinions of the Fed Governors, especially over the “dot plot,” which shows their opinions over real GDP growth, the unemployment rate, PCE inflation, and the Fed funds rate.  My point of view is simple.  If you don’t want people to misinterpret something, you need to defend it or remove it.

Personally, I think the FOMC invites trouble by doing the forecasts.  First, the Fed isn’t that good at forecasting — both the staff economists and the Fed Governors themselves.  Truly, few are good at it — people tend to either follow trends, or call for turns too soon.  Rare is the person that can pick the turning point.

Let me give you the charts for their predictions, starting with GDP:

The Fed Governors have raised their GDP estimates; they raised the estimates the most for 2018, then 2019, then 2020, but they did not raise them for the longer run.  I seems that they think that the existing stimulus, fiscal and monetary, will wear off, and then growth will return to 1.8%/year.  Note that even they don’t think that GDP will exceed 3%/year, and generally the Fed Governors are paid to be optimists.  Wonder if Trump notices this?

Then there is the unemployment rate.  This graph is the least controversial.  The short take is that unemployment rate estimates by the Fed governors keep coming down, bottoming in 2019, and rising after that.

Then there is PCE Inflation.  Estimates by the Fed Governors are rising, and in 2019 and 2020 they exceed 2%.  In the long run the view of the Fed Governors is that they can achieve 2% PCE inflation.  Flying in the face of that is that they haven’t been able to do that for the duration of this experiment, so should we believe in their power to do so?

Finally, there is the Fed Funds forecast of the Fed Governors — the only variable they can actually control. Estimates rose a touch for 2018, more for 2019, more for 2020, and FELL for the long run. Are they thinking of overshooting on Fed Funds to reduce future inflation?

Monetary policy works with long and variable lags, as it is commonly said.  That is why I said, “Just Don’t Invert the Yield Curve.”  Powell was asked about inverting the yield curve at his press conference, and he hemmed and hawed over it, saying the evidence isn’t clear.  I will tell you now that if the Fed Funds rate follows that path, the Fed will blow something up, and then start to loosen again.  If they stop and wait when 10-year Treasury Note yields exceed 2-year yields by 0.25%, they might be able to do something amazing, where monetary policy hits the balancing point.  Then, just move Fed funds to keep the yield curve slope near that 0.25% slope.

There would be enough slope to allow prudent lending to go on, but not enough to go nuts.  Much better than the present policy that amplifies the booms and busts.  The banks would hate it initially, and regulators would have to watch for imprudent lending, because there would be no more easy money to be made.  Eventually the economy and banks would adjust to it, and monetary policy would become boring, but predictably good.

Photo Credit: Brookings Institution

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Jerome Powell is not an economist, and as such, has the potential to try to remake the way the Fed does monetary policy.  Rather than hold onto outmoded ideas ideas like the Phillips Curve, which may have made sense when the US was a more insular economy, there are better ways to think of monetary policy from a structural standpoint of how financial firms work.

(Note: the Phillips Curve relies on a very simple assumption that goods and services price inflation stems from wage inflation, and that wage inflation occurs when domestic unemployment is low.  In a global economy, those relationships are broken when labor can be easily added from sources outside of the US.)

Financial firms tend to grow rapidly when the yield curve is steeply sloped.  Borrowing short and lending long is profitable, at least in the short-run.  This provides a lot of credit to the economy, which in the short-run, encourages growth, as businesses borrow to build supply, and consumers borrow, which temporarily boosts demand.

Financial firms tend to shrink when the yield curve is flattish and certainly when negatively sloped.  Borrowing short and lending long is unprofitable, at least in the short-run.  This reduces credit to the economy, which in the short-run discourages growth, as businesses don’t borrow to build supply, and consumers borrow less, which temporarily reduces demand.

If there are misfinanced (too much short-term borrowing) or over-indebted areas of the economy, there can be considerable economic failure with a flat or inverted yield curve.  As I have said before, when the FOMC tightens without thinking about the financial economy, they keep tightening until something blows up, and then they loosen too much, starting the next cycle of over-borrowing.  I said this at RealMoney in 2006:

One more note: I believe gradualism is almost required in Fed tightening cycles in the present environment — a lot more lending, financing, and derivatives trading gears off of short rates like three-month LIBOR, which correlates tightly with fed funds. To move the rate rapidly invites dislocating the markets, which the FOMC has shown itself capable of in the past. For example:

  • 2000 — Nasdaq
  • 1997-98 — Asia/Russia/LTCM, though that was a small move for the Fed
  • 1994 — Mortgages/Mexico
  • 1989 — Banks/Commercial Real Estate
  • 1987 — Stock Market
  • 1984 — Continental Illinois
  • Early ’80s — LDC debt crisis

So it moves in baby steps, wondering if the next straw will break some camel’s back where lending has been going on terms that were too favorable. The odds of this 1/4% move creating such a nonlinear change is small, but not zero.

But on the bright side, the odds of a 50 basis point tightening at any point in the next year are even smaller. The markets can’t afford it.

Position: None

 

I also commented that housing was likely to be the next blowup in a number of posts from that era.  Sadly, they are mostly lost because of a change in the way theStreet.com managed its file system.

As such, it behooves the Fed to avoid overly flattening the yield curve.  In late 2005, I wrote at RealMoney.com that the Fed should stop at 4%, and let the excess of the economy work themselves out.  By mid -2006, they raised the Fed Funds rate to 5.25%, flattening to invert the yield curve, which collapsed the leverage in the economy in a disorderly way.

It would have been better to stop at 4%, and watch for a while.  Housing prices had peaked, and I wrote about that at RealMoney.com as well.  The Fed could have been more gradual at that point.  There really wasn’t that much inflation, and the economy was not that strong.  Bernanke may have felt that he needed to prove that he wasn’t a dove on inflation.  Who knows?  The error was unforced, and stemmed from prior bad practices.

In this case, the Fed does have an alternative to crashing the economy again.  I would encourage the FOMC to not raise rates over 2.5%.  When they get to 2.5%, they should start selling the longest bonds in their portfolio (note: I would encourage them to end balance sheet disclosure before they do this, after all, the Fed suffers from too much communication not too little.  The Fed was better managed under Volcker and Martin.)

This would test the resilience of the economic expansion, and if the economy keeps growing as long bonds rise in yield, then match the rises in long yields with rises in the Fed Funds rate.  This is a neo-Wicksellian method of managing monetary policy that could match the ideas of Jerome Powell, who was more skeptical than most Fed Governors about about Quantitative Easing [QE].

The eventual goal is to manage monetary policy aiming for a yield curve that has a low positive slope, allowing the banks to make a little money, but not a lot.  The economy would expand moderately, and not be as prone to booms and busts.

My summary advice for the FOMC would be this: before you flatten/invert the yield curve, start selling all of the long MBS and Treasury bonds with average maturities longer than 10 years.  That will slow down the economy more effectively than flattening the yield curve, and it is not as likely to lead to a crisis.

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I have no illusions — the odds of the FOMC doing this is remote.  But given past failures, isn’t a new idea worthy of consideration?

PS — there is another factor here.  What happens to the financing costs of the profligate US government?

The future return keeps getting lower, as the market goes higher

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Jeff Bezos has a saying, “Your margin is my opportunity.”  He has found ways to eat the businesses of others by providing the same goods and services at a lower cost.  Now, that makes Amazon more productive and others less productive.  The same is true of other internet-related businesses like Google, Netflix, etc.

And, there is a slight net benefit to the economy from the creative destruction.  Old capital gets recycled.  Malls that are no longer so useful serve lower-margin businesses for locals, become homes to mega-churches, other area-intensive human gatherings, or get destroyed, and the valuable land so near many people gets put to alternative uses that are better than the mall, but not as profitable as the mall prior to the internet.

Laborers get released to other work as well.  They may get paid less than they did previously, but the system as a whole is more productive, profits rise, even as wages don’t rise so much.  A decent part of that goes to the pensions of oldsters — after all, who owns most of the stock?  Indirectly, pension plans and accounts own most of it.  As I have sometimes joked, when there are layoffs because institutional investors representing pension plans  are forcing companies to merge, or become more efficient in other ways, it is that the parents are laying off their children, because there are cheaper helpers that do just as well, and the added profits will aid their deservedly lush retirement, with little inheritance for their children.

It is a joke, though seriously intended.  Why I am mentioning it now, is that a hidden assumption of my S&P 500 estimation model is that the return on assets in the economy as a whole is assumed to be constant.  Some will say, “That can’t be true.  Look at all of the new productive businesses that have been created! The return on assets must be increasing.”  For every bit of improvement in the new businesses, some of the old businesses are destroyed.  There is some net gain, but the amount of gain is not that large in aggregate, and these changes have been happening for a long time.  Technological progress creates and destroys.

As such, I don’t think we are in a “New Era.”  Or maybe we are always in a “New Era.”  Either way, the assumption of a constant return on assets over time doesn’t strike me as wrong, though it might seem that way for a decade or two, low or high.

As it is today, the S&P 500 is priced to deliver returns of 3.24%/year not adjusted for inflation over the next ten years.  At 12/31/2017, that figure was 3.48%, as in the graph above.

We are at the 95th percentile of valuations.  Can we go higher?  Yes.  Is it likely?  Yes, but it is not likely to stick.  Someday the S&P 500 will go below 2000.  I don’t know when, but it will.  There are enough imbalances in the world — too many liabilities relative to productivity, that crises will come.  Debt creates its own crises, because people rely on those payments in the short-run, unlike stocks.

There are many saying that “there is no alternative” to owning stocks in this environment — the TINA argument.  I think that they are wrong.  What if I told you that the best you can hope for from stocks over the next 10 years is 4.07%/year, not adjusted for inflation?  Does 1.24%/year over the 10-year Treasury note really give you compensation for the additional risk?  I think not, therefore bonds, low as they may be, are an alternative.

The top line there is a 4.07%/year return, not adjusted for inflation

If you are happy holding onto stocks, knowing that the best scenario from past history would be slightly over 3400 on the S&P 500 in 2028, then why not buy a bond index fund like AGG or LQD that could virtually guarantee something near that outcome?

Is there risk of deflation?  Yes there is.  Indebted economies are very susceptible to deflation risk, because wealthy people with political influence will always prefer an economy that muddles, to higher taxes on them, inflation, or worst of all an internal default.

That is why I am saying don’t assume that the market will go a lot higher.  Indeed, we could hit levels over 4000 on the S&P if we go as nuts as we did in 1999-2000.  But the supposedly impotent Fed of that era raised short-term rates enough to crater the market.  They are in the process of doing that now.  If they follow their “dot plot” to mid-2019 the yield curve will invert.  Something will blow up, the market will retreat, and the next loosening cycle will start, complete with more QE.

Thus I am here to tell you, there is an alternative to stocks.  At present, a broad market index portfolio of bonds will likely outperform the stock market over the next ten years, and with lower risk.  Are you ready to make the switch, or at least, raise your percentage of safe assets?

Photo Credit: jessica wilson {jek in the box}

David:

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

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

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

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

Please let me know your thoughts.

Regards

JJJ

Dear JJJ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

David

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I thought this old post from RealMoney.com was lost, never to be found again.  This was the important post made on November 22, 2006 that forecast some of the troubles in the subprime residential mortgage backed securities market.  I favored the idea that there there would be a crash in residential housing prices, and the best way to play it would be to pick up the pieces after the crash, because of the difficulties of being able to be right on the timing of shorting could be problematic.  In that trade, too early would mean wrong if you had to lose out the trade because of margin issues.

With that, here is the article:

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I have tried to make the following topic simple, but what I am about to say is complex, because it deals with the derivative markets. It is doubly or triply complex, because this situation has many layers to unravel. I write about this for two reasons. First, since residential housing is a large part of the US economy, understanding what is going on beneath the surface of housing finance can be valuable. Second, anytime financial markets are highly levered, there is a higher probability that there could be a dislocation. When dislocations happen, it is unwise for investors to try to average down or up. Rather, the best strategy is to wait for the trend to overshoot, and take a contrary position.

 

There are a lot of players trotting out the bear case for residential housing and mortgages. I’m one of them, but I don’t want overstate my case, having commented a few weeks ago on derivatives in the home equity loan asset-backed securities market. This arcane-sounding market is no small potatoes; it actually comprises several billions of dollars’ worth of bets by aggressive hedge funds — the same type of big bettors who blew up so memorably earlier this year, Amaranth and Motherrock.

 

A shift of just 10% up or down in residential housing prices might touch off just such another cataclysm, so it’s worth understanding just how this “arcane-sounding” market works.

 

I said I might expand on that post, but the need for comment and explanation of this market just got more pressing: To my surprise, one of my Googlebots dragged in a Reuters article and a blog post on the topic. I’ve seen other writeups on this as well, notably in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer (a fine publication) and The Wall Street Journal.

How a Securitization Works (Basically)

 

It’s difficult to short residential housing directly, so a market has grown up around the asset-backed securities market, in which bulls and bears can make bets on the performance of home equity loans. How do they do this?

 

First, mortgage originators originate home equity loans, Alt-A loans and subprime loans. They bring these loans to Wall Street, where the originator sells the loans to an investment bank, which dumps the loans into a trust. The investment bank then sells participation interests (“certificates”) in the trust.

 

There are different classes of certificates that have varying degrees of credit risk. The riskier classes receive higher interest rates. Typically the originator holds the juniormost class, the equity, and funds an overcollateralization account to give some security to the next most junior class.

 

Principal payments get allocated to the seniormost class. Once a class gets its full share of principal paid (or cancelled), it receives no more payments. Interest gets allocated in order of seniority. If, after paying interest to all classes, there is excess interest, that excess gets allocated to the overcollateralization account, until the account is full — that is, has reached a value equal to the value of the second most junior class of trust certificates — and then the excess goes to the equity class. If there’s not enough interest to pay all classes, they get paid in order of seniority.

 

If there are loan losses from nonpayment of the mortgages or home equity loans, the losses get funded by the overcollateralization account. If the overcollateralization account gets exhausted, losses reduce the principal balances of the juniormost certificates — those usually held by the originator — until they get exhausted, and then the next most junior gets the losses. There’s a little more to it than this (the prospectuses are often a half-inch thick on thin paper), but this is basically how a securitization works.

 

From Hedging to Speculation

 

The top class of certificates gets rated AAA, and typically the lowest class before the equity gets rated BBB-, though sometimes junk-rated certificates get issued. Most of the speculation occurs in securities rated BBB+ to BBB-.

 

The second phase of this trade involves credit default swaps (CDS). A credit default swap is an agreement where one party agrees to make a payment to another party when a default takes place, in exchange for regular compensation until the agreement terminates or a default happens. This began with corporate bonds and loans, but now has expanded to mortgage- and asset-backed securities.

 

Unlike shorting stocks, where the amount of shorting is generally limited by the float of the common stock, there can be more credit default swaps than bonds and loans. What began as a market to allow for hedging has become a market to encourage speculation.

 

With CDS on corporate debt, it took eight years for the notional size (amount to pay if everyone defaulted) of the CDS market to become 4 times the size of the corporate bond market. With CDS on home equity asset-backed securities, it took less than 18 months to get to the same point.

 

The payment received for insuring the risk is loosely related to the credit spread on the debt that is protected. Given that the CDS can serve as a hedge for the debt, one might think that the two should be equal. There are a couple reasons that isn’t so.

 

First, when a default happens, the bond that is the cheapest to deliver gets delivered. That option helps to make CDS trade cheap relative to credit spreads. But a bigger factor is who wants to do the CDS trading more. Is it those who want to receive payment in a default, or those who want to pay when a default occurs?

How It Impacts Housing

 

With CDS on asset-backed securities, the party writing protection makes a payment when losses get allocated to the tranche in question. Most protection gets written on tranches rated BBB+ to BBB-.

 

This is where shorting residential housing comes into the picture. There is more interest in shorting the residential housing market through buying protection on BBB-rated home equity asset-backed securities than there are players wanting to take on that risk at the spreads offered in the asset-backed market at present. So, those who want to short the market through CDS asset-backed securities have to pay more to do the trade than those in the cash asset-backed securities market receive as a lending spread.

 

One final layer of complexity is that there are standardized indices (ABX) for home equity loan asset-backed securities. CDS exists not only for the individual asset-backed securities deals, but also on the ABX indices as well. Those not wanting to do the credit work on a specific deal can act on a general opinion by buying or selling protection on an ABX index as a whole. The indices go down in quality from AAA to BBB-, and aggregate similar tranches of the individual deals. Those buying protection receive pro-rata payments when losses get allocated to the tranches in their index.

 

So, who’s playing this game? On the side of falling housing prices and rising default rates are predominantly multi-strategy and mortgage debt hedge funds. They are paying the other side of the trade around 2.5% per year for each dollar of home equity asset-backed securities protection bought. (Deals typically last four years or so.) The market players receiving the 2.5% per year payment are typically hedge and other investment funds running collateralized debt obligations. They keep the equity piece, which further levers up their returns. They are fairly yield-hungry, so from what I’ve heard, they’re none too picky about the risks that they take down.

 

Who wins and who loses? This is tricky, but if residential real estate prices fall by more than 10%, the buyers of asset-backed securities protection will probably win. If less, the sellers of protection probably win. This may be a bit of a sideshow in our overly leveraged financial markets, but the bets being placed here exceed ten billion dollars of total exposure. Aggressive investors are on both sides of this trade. Only one set of them will end up happy.

 

But how can you win here? I believe the safest way for retail investors to make money here is to play the reaction, should a panic occur. If housing prices drop severely, and home equity loan defaults occur, and you hear of hedge fund failures resulting, don’t act immediately. Wait. Watch for momentum to bottom out, or at least slow, and then buy the equities of financially strong homebuilders and mortgage lenders, those that will certainly survive the downturn.

If housing prices rise in the short run (unlikely in my opinion), and you hear about the liquidations of bearish hedge funds, then the best way to make money is to wait. Wait and let the homebuilders and mortgage finance companies run up, and then when momentum fails, short a basket of the stocks with weak balance sheets.

Why play the bounce, rather than try to bet on the success of either side? The wait could be quite long before either side loses? Do you have enough wherewithal to stay in the trade? Most players don’t; that’s why I think that waiting for one side or the other to prevail is the right course. Because both sides are levered up, there will be an overshoot. Just be there when the momentum fails, and play the opposite side. Personally, I’ll be ready with a list of homebuilders and mortgage lenders with strong balance sheets. Though prospects are not bright today, the best will prosper once the crisis is past.

Another quarter goes by, the market rises further, and the the 10-year forward return falls again.  Here are the last eight values: 6.10%, 6.74%, 6.30%, 6.01%, 5.02%, 4.79%, and 4.30%, 3.99%.  At the end of September 2017, the figure would have been 4.49%, but the rally since the end of the quarter shaves future returns down to 3.99%.

At the end of June the figure was 4.58%.  Subtract 29 basis points for the total return, and add back 12 basis points for mean reversion, and that would leave us at 4.41%.  The result for September month-end was 4.49%, so the re-estimation of the model added 8 basis points to 10-year forward returns.

Let me explain the adjustment calculations.  In-between quarterly readings, price movements shave future returns the same as a ten-year zero coupon bond.  Thus, a +2.9% move in the total return shaves roughly 29 basis points off future returns. (Dividing by 10 is close enough for government work, but I use a geometric calculation.)

The mean-reversion calculation is a little more complex.  I use a 10-year horizon because that is the horizon the fits the data best.  It is also the one I used before I tested it.  Accidents happen.  Though I haven’t talked about it before, this model could be used to provide shorter-run estimates of the market as well — but the error bounds around the shorter estimates would be big enough to make the model useless. It is enough to remember that when a market is at high valuations that corrections can’t be predicted as to time of occurrence, but when the retreat happens, it will be calamitous, and not orderly.

Beyond 10-years, though, the model has no opinion.  It is as if it says, past mean returns will occur.  So, if we have an expectation of a 4.58% returns, we have one 4.58%/yr quarter drop of at the end of the quarter, and a 9.5% quarter added on at the end of the 10-year period. That changes the quarterly average return up by 4.92%/40, or 12.3 basis points.  That is the mean reversion effect.

Going Forward

Thus, expected inflation-unadjusted returns on the S&P 500 are roughly 3.99% over the next ten years.  That’s not a lot of compensation for risk versus investment-grade bonds.  We are at the 94th percentile of valuations.

Now could we go higher?  Sure, the momentum is with us, and the volatility trade reinforces the rise for now.  Bitcoin is an example that shows that there is too much excess cash sloshing around to push up the prices of assets generally, and especially those with no intrinsic value, like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Beyond that, there are not a lot of glaring factors pushing speculation, leaving aside futile government efforts to stimulate an already over-leveraged economy.  It’s not as if consumer or producer behavior is perfectly clean, but the US Government is the most profligate actor of all.

And so I say, keep the rally hats on.  I will be looking to hedge around an S&P 500 level of 2900 at present.  I will be watching the FOMC, as they may try to invert the yield curve again, and crash things.  They never learn… far better to stop and wait than make things happen too fast.  But they are omnipotent fools.  Maybe Powell will show some non-economist intelligence and wait once the yield curve gets to a small positive slope.

Who can tell?   Well, let’s see how this grand experiment goes as Baby Boomers arrive at the stock market too late to save for retirement, but just in time to put in the top of the equity market.  Though I am waiting until S&P 2900 to hedge, I am still carrying 19% cash in my equity portfolios, so I am bearish here except in the short-run.

PS — think of it this way: it should not have gone this high, therefore it could go higher still…

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Last week, there was an article in Barron’s describing how many mutual fund families take advantage of a provision in the law allowing them to have funds lend to one another.  Quoting from the article:

Under normal circumstances the Securities and Exchange Commission bars funds from making “affiliated transactions,” but there’s a loophole in the Investment Company Act of 1940 for funds to apply for an exemption to make such “interfund loans.” Until recently, few fund families applied for this exemption. None had before 1990. From 2006 to 2016, the SEC approved just 18 interfund lending applications. But since January 2016, the agency has approved 26. Most major fund families—BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity, Allianz—now can make such loans. Stiffer regulations of banks, which are now less willing to offer funds credit lines, partly explain the application surge.

I’m here tonight to suggest making a virtue out of necessity, because one day this practice will be banned after another crisis if something goes afoul.  Let the mutual fund companies that do this set up a special “crisis lending fund,” and put in place the following provisions:

  • The various funds that can borrow from the crisis lending fund must pay a commitment fee for the capital that could be lent.  Make it similar to what a bank provides on a revolving credit line.
  • When funds are not lent, it is invested in Treasury securities, or something of very high quality, in a five-year ladder.
  • When funds are lent, they receive a rate similar to rates current on single-B junk bonds.
  • The lending to other funds is secured, such that if the loans are collateralized by less than 200%, the loans must be paid down.  I.e., if the fund has $200 million of net asset value, there can be at most $100 million of loans, from all parties lending to the fund.

This would be an attractive, somewhat countercyclical asset for people to invest in.  Who wouldn’t want a fund that made additional money during a crisis, and was safe the rest of the time as well?

Just a stray thought.  As with many of my ideas, this would help create a stable private-sector solution where the government might otherwise intrude.

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