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The Art of Extracting Large Commissions From Investors

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

The dirty truth is that some investments in this life are sold, and not bought.  The prime reason for this is that many people are not willing to learn enough to save and invest on their own.  Instead, they rely on others to corral them and say, “You ought to be saving and investing.  Hey, I’ve got just the thing for you!”

That thing could be:

  • Life Insurance
  • Annuities
  • Front-end loaded mutual funds
  • Illiquid securities like Private REITs, LPs, some Structured Notes
  • Etc.

Perhaps the minimal effort necessary to avoid this is to seek out a fee-only financial planner, and ask him to set up a plan for you.  Problem solved, unless…

Unless the amount you have is so small that when look at the size of the financial planner’s fee, you say, “That doesn’t work for me.”

But if you won’t do it yourself, and you can’t find something affordable, then the only one that will help you (in his own way) is a commissioned salesman.

Now, to generate any significant commission off of a financial product, there have to be two factors in place: 1) the product must be long duration, and 2) it must be illiquid.  By illiquid, I mean that either you can’t easily trade it, or there is some surrender charge that gets taken out if the contract is cashed out early.

The long duration of the contract allows the issuer of the contract the ability to take a portion of its gross margins over life of the contract, and pay a large one-time commission to the salesman.  The issuer takes no loss as it pays the commission, because they spread the acquisition cost over the life of the contract.  The issuer can do it because it has set up ways of recovering the acquisition cost in almost all circumstances.

Now in some cases, the statements that the investor will get will explicitly reveal the commission, but that is rare.  Nonetheless, to the extent that it is required, the first statement will reveal how much the contractholder would lose if he tries to cash out early.  (I think this happens most of the time now, but it would not surprise me to find some contract where that does not apply.)

Now the product may or may not be what the person buying it needed, but that’s what he gets for not taking control of his own finances.  I don’t begrudge the salesman his commission, but I do want to encourage readers to put their own best interests first and either:

  • Learn enough so that you can take care of your own finances, or
  • Hire a fee-only planner to build a financial plan for you.

That will immunize you from financial salesmen, unless you eventually become rich enough to use life insurance, trusts, and other instruments to limit your taxation in life and death.

Now, I left out one thing — there are still brokers out there that make their money through lots of smallish commissions by trading a brokerage account of yours aggressively, or try to sell you some of the above products.  Avoid them, and let your fee-only planner set up a portfolio of low cost ETFs for you.  It’s not sexy, but it will do better than aggressive trading.  After all, you don’t make money while you trade; you make it while you wait.

If you don’t have a fee only planner and still want to index — use half SPY and half AGG, and add funds periodically to keep the positions equal sized.  It will never be the best portfolio, but over time it will do better than the average account.

One final note before I go: with insurance, if you want to keep your costs down, keep your products simple — use term insurance for protection, and simple deferred annuities for saving (though I would buy a bond ETF rather than insurance in most cases).  Commissions go up with product complexity, and so do expenses.  Simple products are easy to compare, so that you know that you are getting the best deal.  Unless you are wealthy, and are trying to achieve tax savings via the complexity, opt for simple insurance products that will cover basic needs.  (Also avoid product riders — they are really expensive, even though the additional premiums are low, the likely benefits paid are lower still.)

Peddling the Credit Cycle

Monday, August 25th, 2014

9142514184_9c85b423ae_z Starting again with another letter from a reader, but I will just post his questions in response to this article:

1) How much emphasis do you put on the credit cycle? I guess given your background rather a great deal, although as a fundamentals guy, I imagine you don’t try and make macro calls.

2)  What sources do you look at to make estimates of the credit cycle? Do you look at individual issues, personal models, or are there people like Grant’s you follow?

3) Do you expect the next credit meltdown to come from within the US (as your article suggests is possible) or externally?

4) How do you position yourself to avoid loss / gain from a credit cycle turn? Do you put more emphasis on avoiding loss or looking for profitable speculation (shorts or quality)

1) I put a lot of emphasis on the credit cycle.  I think it is the governing cycle in the overall economic cycle.  When some sector of the economy finds itself under credit stress, it has a large impact on stocks in that sector and related areas.

The problem is magnified when that sector is banks, S&Ls and other lending enterprises.  When that happens, all of the lending-dependent areas of the economy tend to slump, especially those that have had the greatest percentage increase in debt.

There’s a saying among bond managers to avoid the area with the greatest increase in debt.  That would have kept you out of autos in the early 2000s, Telecoms after that, and Banks/Finance heading into the Financial Crisis.  Some suggest that it is telling us to avoid the junior energy names now — those taking on a lot of debt to do fracking… but that’s too small to be a significant crisis.  Question to readers: where do you see debt rising?  I would add the US Government, other governments, and student loans, but where else?

2) I just read.  I look for elements of bad underwriting: loosening credit standards, poor collateral, financial entities focused on growth at all costs.  I try to look at credit spread relationships relative to risks undertaken.  I try to find risks that are under- and over-priced.  If I can’t find any underpriced risks, that tells me that we are in trouble… but it doesn’t tell me when the trouble will hit.

I also try to think through what the Fed is doing, and think what might be harmed in the next tightening cycle.  This is only a guess, but I suspect that emerging markets will get hit again, just not immediately once the FOMC starts tightening.  It may take six months before the pain is felt.  Think of nations that have to float short-term debt to keep things going, particularly if it is dollar-denominated.

I would read Grant’s… I love his writing, but it costs too much for me.  I would rather sit down with my software and try to ferret out what industries are financing with too much debt (putting it on my project list…).

3) At present, I think that an emerging markets crisis is closer than a US-centered crisis.  Maybe the EU, Japan, or China will have a crisis first… the debt levels have certainly been increasing in each of those places.  I think the US is the “least dirty shirt,” but I don’t hold that view strongly, and am willing to be challenged on that.

That last piece on the US was written about the point of the start of the last “bitty panic,” as I called it.  For a full-fledged crisis in US corporates, we need the current high issuance of  corporates to mature for 2-3 years, such that the cash is gone, but the debts remain, which will be hard amid high profit margins.  Unless profit margins fall, a crisis in US corporates will be remote.

4) My goal is not to make money off of the bear phase of the credit cycle, but to lose less.  I do this because this is very hard to time, and I am not good with Tactical Asset Allocation or shorting.  There are a lot of people that wait a long time for the cycle to turn, and lose quite a bit in the process.

Thus, I tend to shift to higher quality companies that can easily survive the credit cycle.  I also avoid industries that have recently taken on a lot of debt.  I also raise cash to a small degree — on stock portfolios, no more than 20%.  On bond portfolios, stay short- to intermediate-term, and high to medium high quality.

In short, that’s how I view the situation, and what I would do.  I am always open to suggestions, particularly in a confusing environment like this.  If you’re not puzzled about the current environment, you’re not thinking hard enough. ;)

Till next time.

The Victors Write the History Books, Even in Finance

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

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“It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that ain’t so.”

(Attributed to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Satchel Paige, Charles Farrar Browne, Josh Billings, and a number of others)

A lot of what passes for investment knowledge is history-dependent, and may not serve us well in the future.  Further, a certain amount of it is misinterpreted, or, those writing about it, even really bright people, don’t understand the hidden assumptions that they are making.  I’m going to clarify this by commenting on three graphs that I have seen recently — two that I think deceive, and one that I think is accurate.  Let’s start with one of the two, which come from this article at AAII, interviewing Jeremy Siegel:

9298-figure-1

 

Leaving aside the difficulties with the data from 1802-1871, there is an implicit assumption of buying and holding that undergirds these statistics.  Though the lines look really smooth now in hindsight, for those investing at the time they were often scared to death in bear markets, selling out at the worst possible time, and in bull markets, getting greedy at the worst possible time.

Now one might say to me, “But David, forget what happened to individuals.  As a group, people must made returns like this, because every buyer has a seller — even if some panicked or got greedy, someone had to take the other side of the trade and benefit.”  True enough, though I am suggesting that average people can’t live with that much volatility.  Even if you cut 1929-32 in half by being 50/50 Stocks/Treasury Notes, how many people could live with a 40% downdraft without selling out?

But there is another problem: when does cash enter and exit the stock market?  Hint: it doesn’t happen via secondary trading.

Cash Enters the Stock Market

  • An Initial Public Offering [IPO], secondary IPO, or rights offering leads people to give money to a corporation in exchange for new shares.
  • Employees forgo pay to receive company stock.
  • Shares get issued to suppliers in lieu of cash (common with scammy promoted stocks)
  • Warrants get exercised, and new shares are issued for the price of cash plus warrants.

Cash Exits the Stock Market

  • Cash dividends get paid, and not reinvested in new shares
  • Stock gets bought back for cash
  • Companies get bought out either entirely or partially for cash.

I’m sure there are other ways that cash enters and exits the stock market, but you get the idea.  It means that cash is exchanged with the company for shares, and vice versa, not the trading that goes on every day.  Now, here’s the critical question: when do these things happen?  Is it random?

Well, no.  Like any other thing in investing, n one is out to do you a favor.  New stock tends to be offered at a time when valuations are high, and companies tend to be taken private when valuations are low.  Thus back in the tech bubble, 1998-2000, a lot of cash got soaked up into companies with dubious valuations and business models.  With a few exceptions, most lost over 90%+.  Now consider October 2002.  How many companies IPO’ed then?  Very few, but I remember one, Safety Insurance, that came public at the worst possible moment because it had no other choice.  Why else would the IPO price be below liquidation value?  Great opportunity for those who had liquidity at a bad time.

The upshot is that because stock is issued at times that do not favor new investors, and stock is retired at times that do not favor existing investors, the dollar-weighted returns for stocks in the above graph are overestimated by 1-2%/year.  Stocks still beat bonds, but not by as much as one would think.

But here’s a counterexample, taken from Alhambra Investment Partners’ blog:

LR-140815-Fig-1

Note that buybacks don’t follow that pattern.  Corporate managements often exist to justify themselves, and so a great number of them do not behave like value investors when they buy back stock.  Part of this is that capital seems cheap during the boom phase of the market, and so they lever the company up, issuing debt to buy back stock at high prices.  It increases earnings in the short-run, but when the bear market comes, the debt hangs  around, and intensifies the fall in the stock price.

This is why I favor companies that shut off their buybacks at a certain valuation level.  If they have to dispose of excess cash to avoid takeovers, pay out special dividends… leave the reinvestment issues to shareholders.  If they buy back stock at levels that are too high, it does not increase the intrinsic value of the firm, though it might keep the price higher for a little while.

Here’s the other graph  from this article at AAII, interviewing Jeremy Siegel:

9298-figure-2

 

What this graph is trying to say is that if you just buy and hold on long enough, results get really, really certain, and investing a lot in stocks reduces your risks, it does not raise your risks.

I’m here to tell you that is an amplification of the past, and maybe not even the best amplification of the past.  This is where the victors write the history books.  Your nation is blessed if:

  • You haven’t had war on your home soil.
  • There are no plagues or famines
  • Socialism is kept in check; expropriation is not a risk (note the many countries grabbing pension assets today)
  • Hyperinflation is avoided (we can handle the ordinary inflation)

Any of those, if bad enough, can really dent a portfolio.  We can have fancy statistics, and draw smooth curves, but that only says that the future will be like the past, only more so. ;)  I try to avoid the idea that mankind will avoid the worst outcomes out of self-interest.  There have been enough cases in history where that has not proven true, and envy and revenge dominate over shared prosperity.

I’ve already made the comment on how many can’t bear with short-run volatility.  There is another factor: when you look at the above graph, it represents the average valuation level, yield curve shape, etc.  If you are applying this model to today, where credit spreads are low, cash earns nothing, the yield curve is wide, equity valuations are medium-high, you would have to adjust the expected returns to reflect what the likely outcomes are, and the graph would not look as favorable.  Volatility looks low today, but realized volatility is likely to be higher, and will not likely follow a normal distribution.

Closing

My main point here is to beware of history sneaking in and telling you that stocks are magic.  Don’t get me wrong, they are very good, but:

  • they rely on a healthy nation standing behind them
  • their past results are overstated on a dollar-weighted basis, and
  • their past results come from a prosperous time which may not repeat to the same degree in the future
  • you may not have the internal fortitude to buy and hold during hard times.

 

On Research Sources and Trading Rules

Friday, August 15th, 2014

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On a letter from a reader:

In your Industry Ranks August 2014 post you mentioned that you use Value Line analytic tools.

If it is not a secret, what other third-party research and analysis do you use, especially for company analysis (MorningStar, Zacks…)?

Do you rely/subscribed on Interactive Brokers “IBIS Research Essentials?” If yes, do you find it valuable?

In addition, if you do not mind, you said that you make adjustments to your portfolio once in a quarter. Does it mean that you do not look at market quotes during the day at all and, hence, you are not subscribed to IB real-time data (NYSE, Nasdaq, US Bond quotes?)

I would greatly appreciate your answers.

Thank you very much!

I don’t like to spend money on aids for research.  I can only think of two things that I pay for and actively use:

I do pay for quotes at Interactive Brokers, but because I don’t trade much, I don’t pay for the expensive packages.  I have not subscribed to Interactive Brokers “IBIS Research Essentials.”

But many of the best things in life are free.  My local library offers free Morningstar and Value Line online… I don’t have to leave my home to use it, an it is open all the time.  If I go two blocks to my library, there is a wealth of business data and books that I can draw upon.

That said, the Web offers a lot of free resources, and I make use of:

  • Yahoo Finance, which I think I have been using since 1996 — pretty close to its inception.  There is no better place on the web to get business news tagged for each corporation.  It has gotten better since removing some feeds that have questionable value.  There’s a great range of information to be had in a wide number of areas.
  • FRED, which just keeps getting better… more data series, more ways to use them… and I have been using them since it was a “bulletin board” (remember those?) back in 1991 or so.
  • Bloomberg.com is excellent in the general and business news areas.
  • Beyond that, Reuters, Marketwatch, the New York Times, and the Financial Times (especially FT Alphaville) have excellent business news coverage.  With the last two, NYT & FT, you have to decide if you want to pay for it, and I don’t pay for them.
  • When I do my stock research, I generally go to the SEC website and read the documents.  Then I go to Yahoo Finance and the company’s own website for color.
  • For bonds, bond funds and ETFs, I go to the provider websites, Morningstar, and the Wall Street Journal’s Market Data section.  I can visit FINRA Trace if I need to see how individual bonds have been trading.
  • Finally there is a lot of wisdom in many bloggers out there, and I strongly recommend you get to know them.  Some of the best are expertly curated each day at Abnormal Returns by Tadas Viskanta.

Now as to your question as to whether I look at prices of assets in my portfolio: in general, I check them 3-5 times a day, usually at a point where I will be switching tasks.  I sort my stocks two ways at that time:

  1. By absolute percentage change descending — all of the largest movers are at the top of the screen, and I can look for patterns and trends, which may make me check Yahoo Finance for news.  But that doesn’t make me trade, unless it ends up revealing something that I think will get a lot better or worse, and the market hasn’t figured that out yet.  (That doesn’t happen often.)
  2. By size of positions — if a position has gotten too large, I trim some back.  If it has gotten too small, I stop and research why the price has fallen.  If I am convinced that the stock offers significant returns, and low downside risk, I add a little to the position.  (See Portfolio Rule Seven for more details.)  In a rare number of cases, about once every two years, I will “double weight” the position that has fallen.  So far, all of those have worked over the last 14 years.  But if I realize that the company is unlikely to return anything comparable to the other stocks in my portfolio, I sell it.

Portfolio Rule Seven trades maybe amount to 3-12 small trades per quarter.  More trades come when the market is trending, fewer when it is choppy.  Portfolio Rule Eight is where I do the big trades once per quarter, comparing each stock in my portfolio against a group of potential replacements.  I usually sell 2-4 companies, and then buy a similar number of replacements.  That has my portfolio turn over at a 30%/year rate.  More details available in the article Portfolio Rule Eight.

In general, it is wise for both amateur and pro investors to trade by rule.  Take as much emotion out of the process as possible, and avoid greed and panic.  It is genuinely rare that decisions have to be made quickly, so take your time, do your analysis, and try to find assets with good long-term prospects.

The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part II

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

This is the continuation of The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part I.  If you haven’t read part I, you will need to read it.  Before I start, there is one more thing I want to add regarding 1994-5: the FOMC used signals from the bond markets to give themselves estimates of expected inflation.  Because of that, the FOMC overdid policy, because the dominant seller of Treasuries was not focusing on the economy, but on hedging mortgage bonds.  Had the FOMC paid more attention to what the real economy was doing, they would not have tightened so much or so fast.  Financial markets are only weakly representative of what the real economy is doing; there’s too much noise.

All that said, in 1991 the Fed also overshot policy on the other side in order to let bank balance sheets heal, so let it not be said that the Fed only responds to signals in the real economy.  (No one should wonder who went through the financial crisis that the Fed has an expansive view of its mandate in practice.)

October 2001

2001 changed America.  September 11th led to a greater loosening of credit by the FOMC in order to counteract spreading unease in the credit markets.  Credit spreads were widening quickly as many lenders were unwilling to take risk at a time where times were so unsettled.  The group that I led took more risk, and the story is told here.  The stock market had been falling most of 2001 when 9/11 came.  When the markets reopened, it fell hard, and rallied into early 2002, before falling harder amid all of the scandals and weak economy, finally bottoming in October 2002.

The rapid move down in the Fed funds rate was not accompanied by a move down in long bond yields, creating a very steep curve.  There were conversations among analysts that the banks were healthy, though many industrial firms, like automobiles were not.  Perhaps the Fed was trying to use housing to pull the economy out of the ditch.  Industries that were already over-levered could not absorb more credit from the Fed.  Unemployment was rising, and inflation was falling.

There was no bad result to this time of loosening — another surprise would lurk until mid-2004, when finally the loosening would go away.  By that time, the stock market would be much higher, about as high as it was in October 2001, and credit spreads tighter.

July 2004

At the end of June 2004, the FOMC did its first hike of what would be 17 1/4% rises in the Fed funds rate which would be monotony interspersed with hyper-interpretation of FOMC statement language adjustments, mixed with the wonder of a little kid in the back seat, saying, “Daddy, when will we get there?”  The FOMC had good reason to act.  Inflation was rising, unemployment was falling, and they had just left the policy rate down at 1% for 12 straight months.  In the midst of that in June-August 2003, there was a another small panic in the mortgage bond market, but this time, the FOMC stuck to its guns and did not raise rates, as they did for something larger in 1994.

With the rise in the Fed funds rate to 1 1/4%, the rate was as high as it was when the recession bottomed in November 2002.  That’s quite a long period of low rates.  During that period, the stock market rallied vigorously, credit spreads tightened, and housing prices rallied.  Long bonds stayed largely flat across the whole period, but still volatile.

There were several surprises in store for the FOMC and investors as  the tightening cycle went on:

  1. The stock market continued to rally.
  2. So did housing.
  3. So did long bonds, at least for a time.
  4. Every now and then there were little panics, like the credit convexity panic in May 2005, from a funky long-short CDO bet.
  5. Credit complexity multiplied.  All manner of arbitrage schemes flourished.  Novel structures for making money off of credit, like CPDOs emerge.  (The wisdom of finance bloggers as skeptics grows.)
  6. By the end, the yield curve invests the hard way, with long bonds falling a touch through the cycle.
  7. Private leverage continued to build, and aggressively, particularly in financials.
  8. Lending standards deteriorated.

We know how this one ended, but at the end of the tightening cycle, it seemed like another success.  Only a few nut jobs were dissatisfied, thinking that the banks and homeowners were over-levered.  In hindsight, FOMC policy should have moved faster and stopped at a lower level, maybe then we would have had less leverage to work through.

June 2010

15 months after the bottom of the crisis, the stock market has rallied dramatically, with a recent small fall, but housing continues to fall in value.  There’s more leverage behind houses, so when the prices do finally fall, it gains momentum as people throw in the towel, knowing they have lost it all, and in some cases, more.  For the past year, long bond yields have gone up and down, making a round-trip, but a lot higher than during late 2008.  Credit spreads are still high, but not as high as during late 2008.

Inflation is low and volatile, unemployment is off the peak of a few months earlier, but is still high.  Real GDP is growing at a decent clip, but fitfully, and it is still not up to pre-crisis levels.  Aside from the PPACA [Obamacare], congress hasn’t done much of anything, and the Fed tries to fill the void by expanding its balance sheet through QE1, which ended in June 2010. Things feel pretty punk altogether.

The FOMC can’t cut the Fed funds rate anymore, so it relies on language in its FOMC Statement to tell economic actors that Fed funds will be “exceptionally low” for an “extended period.”  Four months from then, the QE2 would sail, making the balance sheet of the Fed bigger, but probably doing little good for the economy.

The results of this period aren’t fully known yet because we still living in the same essential macro environment, with a few exceptions, which I will take up in the final section.

August 2014

Inflation remains low, but may finally be rising.  Unemployment has fallen, much of it due to discouraged workers, but there is much underemployment.  Housing has finally gotten traction in the last two years, but there are many cross-currents.  The financial crisis eliminated move-up buyers by destroying their equity.  Stocks have continued on a tear, and corporate credit spreads are very tight, tighter than any of the other periods where the yield curve was shaped as it is now.  The long bond has had a few scares, but has confounded market participants by hanging around in a range of 2.5%- 4.0% over the last two years.

There are rumblings from the FOMC that the Fed funds rate may rise sometime in 2015, after 72+ months hanging out at 0%.  QE may end in a few more months, leaving the balance sheet of the Fed at 5 times its pre-crisis size.  Change may be upon us.

This yield curve shape tends to happen over my survey period at a time when change is about to happen (4 of 7 times — 1971, 1977, 1993 and 2004), and one where the FOMC will raise rates aggressively (3 of 7 times — 1977, 1993 and 2004) after fed funds have been left too low for too long.  2 out of 7 times, this yield curve shape appears near the end of a loosening cycle (1991 and 2001).  1 out of 7 times it appears before a deep recession, as in 1971. 1 out of 7 times it appears in the midst of an uncertain recovery — 2010. 3 out 7 times, inflation will rise significantly, such as in 1971, 1977 and 2004.

My tentative conclusion is this… the fed funds rate has been too low for too long, and we will see a rapid rise in rates, unless the weak economy chokes it off because it can’t tolerate any significant rate increases.  One final note before I close: when the tightening starts, watch the long end of the yield curve.  I did this 2004-7, and it helped me understand what would happen better than most observers.  If the yield of the long bond moves down, or even stays even, the FOMC probably won’t persist in raising rates much, as the economy is too weak.  If the long bond runs higher, it might be a doozy of a tightening cycle.

And , for those that speculate, look for places that can’t tolerate or would  love higher short rates.  Same for moves in the long bond either way, or wider credit spreads — they can’t get that much tighter.

This is an unusual environment, and as I like to say, “Unusual typically begets unusual, it does not beget normal.”  What I don’t know is how unusual and where.  Those getting those answers right will do better than most.  But if you can’t figure it out, don’t take much risk.

The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part I

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Simulated Constant Maturity Treasury Yields 8-1-14_24541_image001

 

Source: FRED

Above is the chart, and here is the data for tonight’s piece:

DateT1T3T5T7T10T20T30AAABAASpdNote
3/1/713.694.505.005.425.705.946.01*7.218.461.25High
4/1/775.446.316.797.117.377.677.738.049.071.03Med
12/1/914.385.396.196.697.097.667.708.319.260.95Med
8/1/933.444.365.035.355.686.276.326.857.600.75Med
10/1/012.333.143.914.314.575.345.327.037.910.88Med
7/1/042.103.053.694.114.505.245.235.826.620.80Med
6/1/100.321.172.002.663.203.954.134.886.231.35High
8/1/140.130.941.672.162.523.033.294.184.750.57Low

Source: FRED   |||     * = Simulated data value  |||  Note: T1 means the yield on a one-year Treasury Note, T30, 30-year Treasury Bond, etc.

Above you see the seven yield curves most like the current yield curve, since 1953.  The table also shows yields for Aaa and Baa bonds (25-30 years in length), and the spread between them.

Tonight’s exercise is to describe the historical environments for these time periods, throw in some color from other markets, describe what happened afterward, and see if there might be any lessons for us today.  Let’s go!

March 1971

Fed funds hits a local low point as the FOMC loosens policy under Burns to boost the economy, to fight rising unemployment, so that Richard Nixon could be reassured re-election.  The S&P 500 was near an all-time high.  Corporate yield spreads  were high; maybe the corporate bond market was skeptical.

1971 was a tough year, with the Vietnam War being unpopular. Inflation was rising, Nixon severed the final link that the US Dollar had to Gold, an Imposed wage and price controls.  There were two moon landings in 1971 — the US Government was in some ways trying to do too much with too little.

Monetary policy remained loose for most of 1972, tightening late in the years, with the result coming in 1973-4: a severe recession accompanied by high inflation, and a severe bear market.  I remember the economic news of that era, even though I was a teenager watching Louis Rukeyser on Friday nights with my Mom.

April 1977

Once again, Fed funds is very near its local low point for that cycle, and inflation is rising.  After the 1975-6 recovery, the stock market is muddling along.  The post-election period is the only period of time in the Carter presidency where the economy feels decent.  The corporate bond market is getting close to finishing its spread narrowing after the 1973-4 recession.

The “energy crisis” and the Cold War were in full swing in April 1977.  Economically, there was no malaise at the time, but in 3 short years, the Fed funds rate would rise from 4.73% to 17.61% in April 1980, as Paul Volcker slammed on the brakes in an effort to contain rising inflation.  A lotta things weren’t secured and flew through the metaphorical windshield, including the bond market, real GDP, unemployment, and Carter’s re-election chances.  Oddly, the stock market did not fall but muddled, with a lot of short-term volatility.

December 1991

This yield curve is the second most like today’s yield curve.  It comes very near the end of the loosening that the FOMC was doing in order to rescue the banks from all of the bad commercial real estate lending they had done in the late 1980s.  A wide yield curve would give surviving banks the ability to make profits and heal themselves (sound familiar?).  Supposedly at the beginning of that process in late 1990, Alan Greenspan said something to the effect of “We’re going to give the banks a lay-up!”  Thus Fed funds went from 7.3% to 4.4% in the 12 months prior to December 1991, before settling out at 3% 12 months later.  Inflation and unemployment were relatively flat.

1991 was a triumphant year in the US, with the Soviet Union falling, Gulf War I ending in a victory (though with an uncertain future), 30-year bond yields hitting new lows, and the stock market hitting new all time highs.  Corporate bonds were doing well also, with tightening spreads.

What would the future bring?  The next section will tell you.

August 1993

This yield curve is the most like today’s yield curve.  Fed funds are in the 13th month out of 19 where they have been held there amid a strengthening economy.  The housing market is doing well, and mortgage refinancing has been high for the last three years, creating a situation where those investing in mortgages securities have a limited set of coupon rates that they can buy if they want to put money to work in size.

An aside before I go on — 1989 through 1993 was the era of clever mortgage bond managers, as CMOs sliced and diced bundles of mortgage payments so that managers could make exotic bets on moves in interest and prepayment rates.  Prior to 1994, it seemed the more risk you took, the better returns were.  The models that most used were crude, but they thought they had sophisticated models.  The 1990s were an era where prepayment occurred at lower and lower thresholds of interest rate savings.

As short rates stayed low, long bonds rallied for two reasons: mortgage bond managers would hedge their portfolios by buying Treasuries as prepayments occurred.  They did that to try to maintain a constant degree of interest rate sensitivity to overall moves in interest rates.  Second, when you hold down short rates long enough, and you give the impression that they will stay there (extended period language was used — though no FOMC Statements were made prior to 1994), bond managers start to speculate by buying longer securities in an effort to clip extra income.  (This is the era that this story (number 2 in this article) took place in, which is part of how the era affected me.)

At the time, nothing felt too unusual.  The economy was growing, inflation was tame, unemployment was flat.  But six months later came the comeuppance in the bond market, which had some knock-on effects to the economy, but primarily was just a bond market issue.   The FOMC hiked the Fed funds rate in February 1994 by one quarter percent, together with a novel statement issued by Chairman Greenspan.  The bond market was caught by surprise, and as rates rose, prepayments fell.  To maintain a neutral market posture, mortgage bond managers sold long Treasury and mortgage bonds, forcing long rates still higher.  In the midst of this the FOMC began raising the fed funds rate higher and higher as they feared economic growth would lead to inflation, with rising long rates a possible sign of higher expected inflation.  The FOMC raises Fed fund by 1/2%.

In April, thinking they see continued rises in inflation expectation, they do an inter-meeting surprise 1/4% raise of Fed funds, followed by another 1/2% in May.  It is at this pint that Vice Chairman McDonough tentatively realizes [page 27] that the mortgage market has now tightly coupled the response of the long end of the bond market to the short end the bond market, and thus, Fed policy.  This was never mentioned again in the FOMC Transcripts, though it was the dominant factor moving the bond markets.  The Fed was so focused on the real economy, that they did not realize their actions were mostly affecting the financial economy.

FOMC policy continued: Nothing in July, 1/2% rise in August, nothing in September, 3/4% rise in November, nothing in December, and 1/2% rise in February 1995, ending the tightening. In late December 1994 and January of 1995, the US Treasury and the Fed participated in a rescue of the Mexican peso, which was mostly caused by bad Mexican economic policy, but higher rates in the US diminished demand for the cetes, short-term US Dollar-denominated Mexican government notes.

The stock market muddled during this period, and the real economy kept growing, inflation in check, and unemployment unaffected.  Corporate spreads tightened; I remember that it was difficult to get good yields for my Guaranteed Investment Contract [GIC] business back then.

But the bond markets left their own impacts: many seemingly clever mortgage bond managers blew up, as did the finances of Orange County, whose Treasurer was a mortgage bond speculator.  Certain interest rate derivatives blew up, such as the ones at Procter & Gamble.  Several life insurers lost a bundle in the floating rate GIC market; the company I served was not one of them.  We even made extra money that year.

The main point of August 1993 is this: holding short rates low for an extended period builds up imbalances in some part of the financial sector — in this case, it was residential mortgages.  There are costs to providing too much liquidity, but the FOMC is not an institution with foresight, and I don’t think they learn, either.

This has already gotten too long, so I will close up here, and do part II tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.

A Few Investment Notes

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Just a few notes for this evening:

1) I’ve been a bull on the long end of the Treasury curve for a while.  It’s been a winning bet, and the drumbeat of “interest rates have nowhere to go but up” continues.  Here’s an argument from Jeffrey Gundlach on why long rates should remain low, and maybe go lower:

Gundlach, however, was one of the very few people who believed rates would stay low, especially with the Federal Reserve committed to keeping rates low with its loose monetary policy.

It’s important to note that U.S. Treasuries don’t have the lowest yields in the world. French and German government bonds have yields that are about 100 basis points lower than those of Treasuries. In other words, those European bonds actually make U.S. bonds look cheap, meaning that yields have room to go lower.

This will trend toward lower rates will eventually have to end, but neither GDP growth, inflation, or business lending justifies it at present.

2) From Josh Brown, he notes that correlations went up considerably with all risk assets in the last bitty panic.  Worth a read.  My two cents on the matter comes from my recent article, On the Recent Anxiety in High Yield Bonds, where I noted how much yieldy stocks got hit — much more than expected.  I suspect that some asset allocators with short-dated or small stop-loss trading rules began selling into the bitty panic, but that is just a guess.

3) That would help to explain the loss of liquidity in the bond market during the bitty panic.  This article from Tracy Alloway at the FT explores that topic.  One commenter asked:

Isn’t it a bit odd to say lots of people sold quickly *and* that there isn’t enough liquidity? 

Liquidity means a number of things.  In this situation, spreads widened enough that parties that wanted to sell had to give up price to do so, allowing the brokers more room to sell them to skittish buyers willing to commit funds.  Sellers were able to get trades done at unfavorable levels, but they were determined to get the trades done, and so they were done, and a lot of them.  Buyers probably had some spread target that they could easily achieve during the bitty panic, and so were willing to take on the bonds.  Having a balance sheet with slack is a great thing when others need liquidity now.

One other thing to note from the article is that it mentioned that retail investors now own 37% of credit, versus 29% in 2007, according to RBS. Also that investment funds has been able to buy all of the new corporate debt sold since 2008.

There’s more good stuff in the article including how “matrix pricing” may have influenced the selloff.  When spreads were so tight, it may not have taken a very large initial sale to make the estimated prices of other bonds trade down, particularly if the sales were of lower-rated, less-traded bonds.  Again, worth a read.

4) Regarding credit scores, three articles:

From the WSJ article:

Fair Isaac Corp. said Thursday that it will stop including in its FICO credit-score calculations any record of a consumer failing to pay a bill if the bill has been paid or settled with a collection agency. The San Jose, Calif., company also will give less weight to unpaid medical bills that are with a collection agency.

I think there is less here than meets the eye.  This only affects those borrowing from lenders using the particular FICO scores that were modified.  Not all lenders use that particular score, and many use FICO data disaggregated to create their own score, or ask FICO to give them a custom score that they use.  Again, from the WSJ article:

Fair Isaac releases new scoring models every few years, and it is up to lenders to choose which ones to use. The new score will likely be adopted by credit-card and auto lenders first, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com and a former Fair Isaac manager.

Mortgages are likely to lag, since the FICO scores used by most mortgage lenders are two versions old.

The impact of the changes on borrowers is likely to be significant. Accounts that are sent to collections, including credit-card debts and utility bills, can stay on borrowers’ credit reports for as long as seven years, even when their balance drops to zero, and can lower their scores by up to 100 points, said Mr. Ulzheimer.

The lower weight given to unpaid medical debt could increase some affected borrowers’ FICO scores by 25 points, said Mr. Sprauve.

But lowering the FICO score by itself doesn’t do anything.  Some lenders don’t adjust their hurdles to reflect the scores, if they think the score is a better measure of credit for their time-horizon, and they want more loan volume.  Others adjust their hurdles up, because they want only a certain volume of loans to be made, and they want better quality loans at existing pricing.

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View asks a different question as to whether it is good to extend more credit to marginal borrowers?  Didn’t things go wrong doing that before?  Her conclusion:

That in itself [DM: pushing for more loans to marginal borrowers as a matter of policy] is an interesting development. Ten years ago, politicians were pressing hard for banks to extend the precious boon of homeownership to every man, woman and shell corporation in America. Five years ago, when people were pushing for something like the CFPB, the focus of the public debate had dramatically shifted toward protecting people from credit. Oh, there were complaints about the cost of subprime loans, but ultimately, on most of those loans, the problem wasn’t the interest rate but the principal: Too many people had taken out loans that they could not realistically afford to pay, especially if anything at all went wrong in their lives, from a job loss to a divorce to an unexpected illness. And so you heard a lot of complaints about predatory lenders who gave people more credit than they could handle.

Credit has tightened considerably since then, and now, it appears, we’re unhappy with that. We want cheaper, easier credit for everyone, and particularly for the kind of financially struggling people who have seen their credit scores pummeled over the last decade. And so we see the CFPB pressing FICO to go easier on people with satisfied collections.

That’s not to say that the CFPB is wrong; I don’t know what the ideal amount of credit is in a society, or whether we are undershooting the mark. What I do think is that the U.S. political system — and, for that matter, the U.S. financial system — seems to have a pretty heavy bias toward credit expansion. Which explains a lot about the last 10 years.

Personally, I look at this, and I think we don’t learn.  Credit pulls demand into the present, which is fine if it doesn’t push losses and heartache into the future.  We are better off with a slower, less indebted economy for a time, and in the end, the economy as a whole will be better off, with people saving to buy in the future, rather than running the risk of defaults, and a very punk economy while we work through the financial losses.

On the Recent Anxiety in High Yield Bonds

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Quoting the beginning of a recent article at Bloomberg.com:

As junk bonds plunge in value, many investors are wondering why.

There’s no obvious explanation for the 1.5 percent decline in U.S. high-yield securities in the past month, or the $9.9 billion of cash pulled from mutual funds that buy the debt. The most likely reason is that investors are increasingly uncomfortable hanging onto bonds that are expensive by historical measures.

Chalk this one up to a collective bout of angst that looks quite different from the 3.2 percent drop in speculative-grade bonds in May and June of last year. That rout was triggered by the prospect of less Federal Reserve stimulus and, while a withdrawal of easy-money policies still weighs on investors’ minds, that’s not the full story now.

On June 24th, the junk bond markets were fairly tightly bid, and volume in the main high yield ETFs [JNK & HYG] were moderate.  By August 1st, that bid had seemingly disappeared, but volume in the main high-yield ETFs were high.  Many running for the exits.  Things have calmed down since then, at least it seems that way.  Have a look at this set of credit yield curves:

Credit Yield Curves_22463_image001

Source: FRED

Credit quality goes down as you go from left to right on my chart.  The lower rated the bonds, the more they fell, which was the opposite of slower moving but long-lasting bull phase.  Let’s look at what the losses/gains were like in percentage terms:

Date5-yr TsyAAAAAABBBBBBCCCJNK ($/sh)HYG ($/sh)SPY ($/sh)DVY ($/sh)
6/24/141.702.572.442.673.444.205.097.9141.8095.24194.7076.51
8/1/141.672.542.452.703.504.896.059.1640.2192.04192.5073.67
8/6/141.662.522.442.683.504.835.979.1140.5492.64192.0772.79
Divs0.860.39
Return to 8/10.30%0.39%0.21%0.16%0.12%-2.32%-3.31%-4.18%-1.75%-2.95%-1.13%-3.71%
Return to 8/60.36%0.50%0.29%0.27%0.17%-2.03%-2.92%-3.87%-0.96%-2.32%-1.35%-4.86%

The return calculations are approximations.  These are indicative, not exact.  The losses on high yield debt haven’t been horribly large over this period — around 3% give or take, and the ETFs surprisingly did a little better.  No panic in investment grade bonds, and the losses of the stock market have been minor over that time, leaving aside the fact that the market rallied for a few more weeks after high yield began to slide.

But here’s an odd bit — take a look at the last column in my table.  That last column is the iShares Select Dividend ETF [DVY], a very popular place for getting alternative yield.  It yields about 3.1% now — a little less than you can get on BBB bonds, but  maybe the dividend will grow.  (It usually does.)

When you have many different parties going into the markets seeking income, not caring where they get it from, and a shock hits one part of the market, the effect flows to other areas  If all of a sudden yields on junk bonds look cheaper, the yield trade-offs of buying junk and selling dividend paying common stocks looks attractive.

Now there are few permanent rules for yield relationships — even in corporate debt on its own.  We can calculate average spread differences, sure, but there is a LOT of variation around those means (which may even bear no resemblance to future means).  If it is that difficult asking what the right spread tradeoffs are with bonds different qualities, then how would we ever come up with the right tradoffs for common stocks, preferred stocks, REITs, MLPs, bonds of varying qualities, etc?

The best we can do is something like GMO does, and go to each asset class and try to estimate the free cash flow yield of each asset class over the next full market cycle (5-10 years) given the current prices being paid.  The higher the price paid, the lower future returns will be, and vice-versa.  Assume that valuations will normalize over the forecast horizon, and don’t just look at valuations using earnings.  Try book, free cash flow and sales as well.  Results will vary.

So remember, The Investments Matter More than their Form.  Also remember, Ignore Yield.  Focus on what is building value for you in every investment.  I like to own stocks where earnings quality is high, valuations are low, and free cash flow gets put to good use.  Do I always get that?  No.  But if I get it right enough of the time, then returns will be good enough.

Back to the beginning, though.  Is this move in the junk bond market a hiccup, or the start of something big?  I’m open to other opinions, but for it to be something big, you have to have a lot of things that look misfinanced.  Where are there economic entities with short-term debt financing long term assets that look overvalued?  Where have debts grown the most?  I can’t identify a class like that unless we try student loans, or government debts.  Corporate debt has grown, but doesn’t seem unreasonable now.

So, with high yield, I lean toward the hiccup.  But even at current yields, it is not cheap.  Speculators may play; I will stay away.

Ignore Yield

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Yield is not an inherent feature of an asset.  Why?

  • Dividends can be cut.
  • Bonds can default.
  • Taxable income can fall for REITs, BDCs, and MLPs, thus lowering their distributions.
  • Bonds sometimes have funny features where they can be called away from you, and you get to reinvest in a lower yield environment.
  • With structured notes, your income or principal can be considerably reduced when bad events happen that you thought were unlikely, but really aren’t so unlikely.

Rather, focus on the things that drive the increase in value of an asset.  You can create your own “dividends” by selling off pieces of investments that you own.  Commissions are small if you have the right broker.

Why do I write this, this evening?  I keep running into writers and investment advisors that say, “You need a certain yield?  I can get you that yield!”

Yes, and I can get you that yield too, but I would hate doing it because it would expose you to risks that I would not like to take with my own money.  People forget all of the dividend cuts in the ’70s.  They forget how many times REITs have failed as a group over the past 50 years.  They forget how much money was lost on Limited Partnerships in the ’80s while trying to cheat the taxman.

Even Jonathan Clements, a writer who I would recommend to everyone, is somewhat duped by the need for yield.  Getting yield from stocks is an uncertain proposition.  Focusing on the highest quality stocks, and it is less uncertain, but still uncertain.

One thing is a constant with stocks and dividends — it is better to focus on stocks with low dividends that are growing rapidly, than on stocks with high dividends that grow slowly.  The reason for this is that good management teams pay out a conservative amount of free cash flow as dividends, and reinvest most of the free cash flow to grow the company.

It is also not certain that bond yields will rise.  The US economy is not strong, and there is no great demand for business loans at banks.

At a time like this, charlatans arrive telling you how high yields can be achieved in a low yield environment.  Investment banks offer structured notes with high yields.  Don’t believe them.  Instead focus on the investments that might preserve or increase value best.

Now for the controversial bit: time to increase allocations to cash and gold (or commodities).  You might think, “Wait, are you you saying in a low yield environment, I ought to drop my yield further?” Yes.  I am also saying that when yields are too low, the opportunity costs of holding gold or cash are also low, and maybe that will help to preserve value if things go wrong.

I manage stocks and bonds for total return.  I don’t look at yield as an important guide to future total return in an environment like this.  I try to  view all investments through a “What could go wrong?” lens, rather than a “How much cash will this investment send to me next year?” lens.

Here’s a way to think about it.  Pretend that all investments don’t make distributions.  What investments would you want to own?  Which grow value the best?  That is your first pass in how you should think about investments.  The second refines it by adjusting for tax rules, because some types of income are tax-favored.  That said, put value generation first, and tax consequences second.

 

On Management Fees

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Yet another letter from a reader:

Hi David -

Thank you for your commitment to sharing your wisdom, ideas, and experience.  I aspire to one day enjoy the success and happiness that you have in your life and career as an investor.

My question may be a bit more tactical than others that you have profiled: In our current world of 2% & 20% fee structures and where in past eras Buffett promoted a 25% performance fee above a 6% threshold (with the objective of aligning partners’ wealth creation incentives), why do investment managers choose to promote % of AUM only fee structures?  I believe you also promote a similar fee only structure? 

I’m curious about your insights on the rationale for fee only versus performance only structures.  Does your philosophy have anything to with your faith or past experience working at a hedge fund? 

Many thanks and much continued success to you!!

Personally, I like the flat 1% of assets fee (0.3% for bonds), because it does not make me swing for the fences.  I don’t take extra risks or chances with client assets because of a performance fee.  The main goal of investing is to avoid losing money.  That is what I aim to do over a full market cycle, and I have been successful at it over the last 20+ years.

I respect those who do performance only, like Buffett’s formula, but my value proposition is that those who invest alongside me get what I get, less the small fee.  If I underperform in the future, I will be dejected, and it will hurt me far more, than any money I receive in fees.  I aim to do as well as Buffett, but charge less.  I am not driven by profits, but by service to clients.

Another way to say it is to hire guys who will do this business even if they weren’t paid.  That is the way I feel about investing.

I am out to do well, and not to give my clients a bad deal.

Disclaimer


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


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


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

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