Despite the large and seemingly meaty title, this will be a short piece.  I class these types of investors together because most of them have long investment horizons.  From an asset-liability management standpoint, that would mean they should invest similarly.  That may be have been true for Defined Benefit [DB] pension plans and Endowments, but that has shifted over time, and is increasingly not true.  In some ways, the DB plans are becoming more like life insurers in the way they invest, though not totally so.  So, why do they invest differently?  Two reasons: internal risk management goals, and the desires of insurance regulators to preserve industry solvency.

Let’s start with life insurers.  Regulators don’t want insolvent companies, so they constrain companies into safe assets using risk-based capital charges.  The riskier the investment, the more capital the insurer has to put up against it.  After that, there is cash-flow testing which tends to push life insurers to match assets and liabilities, or at least, not have a large mismatch.  Also, accounting rules may lead insurers to buy assets where the income will show up on their financial statements regularly.

The result of this is that life insurers don’t invest much in risk assets — maybe they invest in stocks, junk bonds, etc. up to the amount of their surplus, but not much more than that.

DB plans don’t have regulators that care about investment risks.  They do have plan sponsors that do care about investment risk, and that level of care has increased over the past 15 years.  Back in the late ’90s it was in vogue for DB plans to allocate more and more to risk assets, just in time for the market to correct.  (Note to retail investors: professionals may deride your abilities, but the abilities of many professionals are questionable also.)

Over that time, the rate used to discount DB plan liabilities became standardized and attached to long high quality bonds.  Together with a desire to minimize plan funding risks, and thus corporate risks for the plan sponsor, that led to more investments in bonds, and less in equities and other risk assets.  Some plans try to cash flow match expected future plan payments out to a horizon.

Finally, endowments have no regulator, and don’t have a plan sponsor that has to make future payments.  They are free to invest as they like, and probably have the highest degree of variation in their assets as a group.  There is some level of constraint from the spending rules employed by the endowments, particularly since 2008-9, when a number of famous endowments came to realize that there was a liability structure behind them when they ran low on liquidity amid the crisis. [Note: long article.]  You might think it would be smart to have the present value of 3-5 years of expenditures on hand in bonds, but that is not always the case.  In some ways, the quick recovery taught some endowment investors the wrong lesson — that they could wait out any crisis.

That’s my quick summary.  If you have thoughts on the matter, you can share them in the comments.

 

Photo Credit: Alcino || What is the sound of negative one hand clapping?

Photo Credit: Alcino || What is the sound of negative one hand clapping?

As with many of my articles, this one starts with a personal story from my insurance business career (skip down four paragraphs to the end of the story if you want):

25 years ago, when it was still uncommon, I wanted to go to an executive course at the Wharton School for actuaries that wanted to better understand investment math and markets.  I went to my boss at AIG (a notably tight-fisted firm on expenses) and asked if the company would pay for me to go… it was an exclusive course, and very expensive compared to any other conference that I would ever go to again in my life.  I tried not to get my hopes up.

Lo, and behold!  AIG went for it!

A month later, I was with a bunch of bright actuaries at the Wharton School.  The first thing I noticed was aside from the compound interest math, and maybe some bond knowledge, the actuaries were rather light on investment knowledge, and I would bet that all of them had passed the Society of Actuaries investment course.  The second thing I noticed were some of the odd investments described in the syllabus: it was probably my first taste of derivative instruments.  At the ripe old age of 29, I was learning a lot, and possibly more than the rest of my classmates, because I had spent a lot of time studying investments already, both on an academic and practical basis.

I had already studied the pricing of stock options in school, so I was familiar with Black-Scholes.  (Trivia note: an actuary developed the same formula for valuing optionally terminable reinsurance treaties six years ahead of Black, Scholes and Merton.  That doesn’t even take into account Bachelier, who derived it 73 years earlier, but no one knew about it, because it was written in French.)  At this point, the professor left, and a grad student came in to teach us about the pricing of bond options.  At the end of his lesson, it was time for the class to have a break.  I went down to make a comment, and it went like this:

Me: You said that we have to adjust for the fact that interest rates can’t go negative.

Grad student: Of course.

Me: But interest rates could go negative.

GS: That’s ridiculous!  Why would you ever lend money and accept back less than you gave them, and lose the time value of money?!

Me: Almost of the time, you wouldn’t.  But imagine a scenario where the demand for loanable funds leaves interest rates near zero, but the times are insecure and violent, leaving you uncertain that if you stored your cash privately, you would run too large of a risk of having it stolen.  You need your cash in the future for a given project.  In this case, you would pay the bank to store your money.

GS: That’s an absurd scenario!  That could never happen!

Me: It’s unlikely, I admit, but I wouldn’t say that you can never have negative interest rates.

GS: I will say it again: You can NEVER have negative interest rates.

Me: Thanks, I guess.

Well, so much for the distant past.  Here is why I am writing this: yesterday, a friend of mine wrote me the following note:

Good evening.  I trust you had a blessed Lord’s Day in the new building. 

Talking bonds today with my Econ class.  Here’s our question. Other than playing a currency angle why would anyone buy European debt with a negative yield?  The Swiss and at least one other county sold 10 year notes with a negative yield.  Can you explain that?  No interest and less principle [sic] at the end.

Now, I didn’t quite get it perfectly right with the grad student at Wharton, but most of it comes down to:

  • Low demand for loanable funds, with low measured inflation, and
  • Security and illiquidity of the funds invested

The first one everyone gets — inflation is low, and few want to borrow, so interest rates are very low.  But that doesn’t explain how it can go negative.

Things are different for middle class individuals and large financial institutions.  Someone in the middle class facing negative interest rates from a checking or savings account could say: “Forget it.  I’m taking most of my money out of the bank, and storing it at home.”  Leaving aside the inconvenience of currency transaction reports if the amount is over $10,000, and worries over theft, he could take his money home and store it.  Note that he does have to run a risk of theft, though, so bringing the money home is not costless.

The bank has the same problem, but far larger.  If you don’t invest the money, where would you store it?  Could you even get enough currency delivered to do it?  if you had a vault large enough to store it, could you trust the guards?  Why make yourself a target?  If you don’t have a vault large enough to store it, you’re in the same set of problems that exist for those that warehouse precious metals, but with a far more liquid commodity.

Thus in a weak economic environment like this, with low inflation, banks and other financial institutions that want certainty of payment in the future are willing to pay interest to get their money back later.

Part of the problem here is that the fiat currencies of the world exist only to be units of account, and not stores of value.  Thus in this unusual environment, they behave like any other commodity, where the prices for futures are often higher than the current spot price, which is known as backwardation.  (Corrected from initial posting — i.e. it costs more to receive a given cash flow in the future than today, thus backwardation, not contango.)  The rates can’t get too negative, though, or some institutions will bite the bullet and store as much cash as they can, just as other commodities get stored.

To use another analogy, a while ago, some market observers couldn’t get why anyone would accept a negative yield on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities [TIPS].  They did so because they had few other choices for transferring money to the future while still having inflation protection.  Some people argued that they were locking in a loss.  My comment at the time was, “They’re trying to avoid a larger loss.”

Thus the difficulty of managing cash outside of the bond/loan markets in a depressed economy leads to negative interest rates.  The financial institutions may lose money in the process, but they are losing less money than if they tried to store and protect the money, if that could even be done.

Photo Credit: Mark Stevens

Photo Credit: Mark Stevens

There’s one thing that is a misunderstanding about retirement investing. It’s not something that is out-and-out wrong. It’s just not totally right.

Many think the objective is to acquire a huge pile of assets.

Really, that’s half of the battle.

The true battle is this: taking a stream of savings, derived from a stream of income, and turning it into a robust stream of income in retirement.

That takes three elements to achieve: saving, compounding, and distribution.

What’s that, you say?  That’s no great insight?

Okay, let me go a little deeper then.

Saving is the first skirmish.  Few people develop a habit of saving when they are relatively young.  Try to make it as automatic as possible.  Aim for at least 10% of income, and more if you are doing well, particularly if your income is not stable.

Don’t forget to fund a “buffer fund” of 3-6 months of expenses to be used for only the following:

  • Emergencies
  • Gaining discounts for advance payment (if you know you have future income to replenish it)

The savings and the “buffer fund” provide the ability to enter into the second phase, compounding.  The buffer fund allows the savings to not be invaded for current use so they can be invested and compound their value into a greater amount.

Now, compounding is trickier than it may seem.  Assets must be selected that will grow their value including dividend payments over a reasonable time horizon, corresponding to a market cycle or so (4-8 years).  Growth in value should be in excess of that from expanding stock market multiples or falling interest rates, because you want to compound in the future, and low interest rates and high stock market multiples imply that future compounding opportunities are lower.

Thus, in one sense, you don’t benefit much from a general rise in values from the stock or bond markets.  The value of your portfolio may have risen, but at the cost of lower future opportunities.  This is more ironclad in the bond market, where the cash flow streams are fixed.  With stocks and other risky investments, there may be some ways to do better.

1) With asset allocation, overweight out-of-favor asset classes that offer above average cashflow yields.  Estimates on these can be found at GMO or Research Affiliates.  Rebalance into new asset classes when they become cheap.

2) Growth at a reasonable price investing: invest in stocks that offer capital growth opportunities at a inexpensive price and a margin of safety.  These companies or assets need to have large opportunities in front of them that they can reinvest their free cash flow into.  This is harder to do than it looks.  More companies look promising and do not perform well than those that do perform well.

3) Value investing: Find undervalued companies with a margin of safety that have potential to recover when conditions normalize, or find companies that can convert their resources to a better use that have the willingness to do that.  As your companies do well, reinvest in new possibilities that have better appreciation potential.

4) Distressed investing: in some ways, this can be market timing, but be willing to take risk when things are at their worst.  That can mean investing during a credit crisis, or investing in countries where conditions are somewhat ugly at present.  This applies to risky debt as well as stocks and hybrid instruments.  The best returns come out of investing near the bottom of a panic.  Do your homework carefully here.

5) Avoid losses.  Remember:

  • Margin of safety.  Valuable asset well in excess of debts, rule of law, and a bargain price.
  • In dealing with distress, don’t try to time the bottom — maybe use a 200-day moving average rule to limit risk and invest when the worst is truly past.
  • Avoid the areas where the hot money is buying and own assets being acquired by patient investors.

Adjust your portfolio infrequently to harvest things that have achieved their potential and reinvest in promising new opportunities.

That brings me to the final skirmish, distribution.

Remember when I said:

You don’t benefit much from a general rise in values from the stock or bond markets.  The value of your portfolio may have risen, but at the cost of lower future opportunities.

That goes double in the distribution phase. The objective is to convert assets into a stream of income.  If interest rates are low, as they are now, safe income will be low.  The same applies to stocks (and things like them) trading at high multiples regardless of what dividends they pay.

Don’t look at current income.  Look instead at the underlying economics of the business, and how it grows value.  It is far better to have a growing income stream than a high income stream with low growth potential.

Also consider the risks you may face, and how your assets may fare.  How are you exposed to risk from:

  • Inflation
  • Deflation and a credit crisis
  • Expropriation
  • Regulatory change
  • Trade wars
  • Etc.

And, as you need, liquidate some of the assets that offer the least future potential for your use.  In retirement, your buffer might need to be bigger because the lack of wage income takes away a hedge against unexpected expenses.

Conclusion

There are other issues, like taxes, illiquidity, and so forth to consider, but this is the basic idea on how to convert present excess income into a robust income stream in retirement.  Managing a pile of assets for income to live off of is a challenge, and one that most people are not geared up for, because poor planning and emotional decisions lead to subpar results.

Be wise and aim for the best future opportunities with a margin of safety, and let the retirement income take care of itself.  After all, you can’t rely on the markets or the policymakers to make income opportunities easy.  Choose wisely.

 

Here’s the second half of my most recent interview with Erin Ade at RT Boom/Bust. [First half located here.] We discussed:

  • Stock buybacks, particularly the buyback that GM is doing
  • Valuations of the stock market and bonds
  • Effect of the strong dollar on corporate earnings in the US
  • Effect of lower crude oil prices on capital spending
  • Investing in Europe, good or bad?

Seven minutes roar by when you are on video, and though taped, there is only one shot, so you have to get it right.  On the whole, I felt the questions were good, and I was able to give reasonable answers.  One nice thing about Erin, she doesn’t interrupt you, and she allows for a few rabbit trails.

Photo Credit: Tulane Public Relations || James Carville wants to be "reincarnated" as the bond market, to scare everyone -- boo!

Photo Credit: Tulane Public Relations || James Carville wants to be “reincarnated” as the bond market, to scare everyone — boo!

I was reading this article at Reuters, and musing at how ludicrous it is for the Fed to think that it can control the reaction of the bond market to tightening Fed policy, should it ever happen.  The Fed has never been able to control the bond market, except on the short end, and only with the highest quality paper.

The long end is controlled by the economy as a whole, and its rate of growth, while lower quality bonds and loans also respond more to where the credit cycle is.  The Fed has never been able to tame the credit cycle — the boom and the bust.  If anything, they make the booms and busts worse.

Now they think that their new policy tools will enable them to control the bond market.  The new tools are nothing astounding, and still mostly affect short and high quality debts.

One thing is certain — when the Fed starts tightening, some levered parties will blow up.  Even the mention of the taper caused shock waves in the emerging bond markets.  And when something big blows up, the Fed will stop tightening.  It always happens, and they always do.

So please give up the idea that the Fed can do what it wants.  It looks like it can in the short-run, but in the long run markets do what they want, and the Fed has to respond, rather than lead.

I was on RT Boom/Bust yesterday with Erin Ade, and got to talk about:

  • Apple
  • The “Tech Bubble”
  • The “Bond Bubble”
  • Different sectors of the stock market, and their prospects.

This was the first half of the interview.  If they run the second half, I will post it.  Note my modest confusion on the tech bubble as I forget the second thing and try to recall it, while vamping for time.  I don’t often glitch under pressure, but this was a bad time to have a foggy memory (on something that I wrote myself).  Sigh. :(

Full disclosure: positions in sectors mentioned, but no positions in any specific securities mentioned

Crawling to the first tightening move

Crawling to the first tightening move

There was a lot of hoopla yesterday over the FOMC removing the word “patient” from its statement.  But when you read the sentence that replaced the sentence containing the word patient, you shouldn’t think that much has changed:

Consistent with its previous statement, the Committee judges that an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remains unlikely at the April FOMC meeting. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term. This change in the forward guidance does not indicate that the Committee has decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range.

There are two contingencies here, which are both subject to considerable latitude in interpretation:

  • Seeing further improvement in the labor market
  • Being reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term

I have long argued that the FOMC doesn’t have a strong theory for what they are doing, and have designed their language in speaking to the markets to maximize their flexibility.  It has not been the obfuscation of the overly confident Greenspan era, but the endless blather that comes from trying to be “transparent” and drown the market in communications, because they never quite understand us properly.

Now, for the first time in a while, the FOMC statement shrank, and for that, I thank the FOMC.  It should shrink further, and it would be better if the FOMC said nothing, and went back to pre-Greenspan practices, and let the actions of the Open Markets Desk at the New York Fed do the talking.  Deeds, not words.

Now, data isn’t the same as deeds, and they aren’t always as clear as words, but the FOMC gave us a release of the forecasts of its members yesterday.  The graphs in this piece reflect the central tendency of their estimates, giving proper weight to the dominant views, as well as less weight to the views from the outliers.

Start with the graph at the top of this article.  The average of all of the views suggests tightening in September.  Now, with 15 favoring a move in 2015, a move will likely happen this year.  If you look back through their data releases, a preponderance of opinion has pointed to 2015 since September of 2012, with never fewer than 12 members pointing to a move in 2015 since then.

But what of the shift in opinions regarding the level of the Fed Funds rate over time?  What happened to that with the removal of the “patient” language?

My but they got more dovish...

My but they got more dovish…

Look at the reduction in the expected end of year Fed Funds rate — down 0.35% in 2015 (to 0.77%), 0.51% in 2016, 0.32% in 2017, and 0.12% in the long run.  That last number is significant, because of the change in composition of those giving opinions, and it indicates a more generally dovish group.

But the downward moves in values indicate fewer tightening moves for 2015 — at present the estimate would be 2-3 quarter-percent moves. (And five more eaches in 2016 and 2017, for those who dream that savers might get some compensation, and that the government’s budget works at higher levels of interest rates)

A big reason for the shift is the move in views on PCE inflation:

Still behind the deflationary curve...

Still behind the deflationary curve…

That’s a 0.59% move down in PCE inflation estimates for 2015. Odds are, it will be lower than that. The FOMC as forecasters always chase trends, and rarely get ahead of them. They also believe in the power of monetary policy to produce inflation, and more perversely, growth. As it is, their actions have produced little of either.

It does explain why their estimates for 2016 and beyond are so high. Would any of the members dare to break from the lockstep, and concede that monetary policy does not have significant power to affect the economy for good?

Here is the real GDP graph:

Down, down, down...

Down, down, down…

Note the continued move down in estimates for all future periods. Interesting to see the pessimistic shift.

Finally, the unemployment rate graph:

Discouraged workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but...

Discouraged workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but…

There are many jobs to be had, if people will search for them, and if they think the wages are worth taking, versus alternatives of leisure, working in unreported labor markets, etc…

Conclusion

Looking at the data, the FOMC certainly isn’t hawkish at present. That is consistent with the change in language in the statement, which left timing for any future hikes in the Fed Funds rate vague, and subject to interpretation. This explains the fall in the US Dollar, and the rise in the prices of stocks, long bonds, and commodities. The markets viewed it all as continued monetary lenience, and given the composition of voting members on the FOMC, that should come as no surprise at all.

Until something breaks, expect the FOMC to continue to err on the side of monetary lenience… it’s the only thing they know.

Photo Credit: Eddy Van 3000

Photo Credit: Eddy Van 3000

This piece is an experiment.  A few readers have asked me to do explanations of simple things in the markets, and this piece is an attempt to do so.  Comments are appreciated.  This comes from a letter from a friend of mine:

I hope I don’t bother you with my questions.  I thought I understood bid/ask but now I’m not sure.

For example FCAU has a spread of 2 cents.  That I understand – 15.48 (bid) – that’s the offer to buy and 15.50 (ask) – that’s the offer to sell.

Here’s where I’m confused.  How is it possible that those numbers could more than $1 apart? EGAS 9.95 and 11.13.  I don’t understand.  Is the volume just so low?  And last price is 10.10 which is neither the ask nor bid price.  Can you please explain?

You have the basic idea of the bid and ask right.  There is almost always a spread between the bid and the ask.  There can be occasional exceptions where a special order is placed, such as an “all or none” order, where the other side of the trade would not want to transact the full amount, even though the bid and ask price are the same.  The prices might match, but the conditions/quantities don’t match.

You ask why bid/ask spreads can be wide.  I assume that when you say wide, you mean in percentage terms.  Here the main reason: many of the shares are held by investors with a long time horizon, who have little inclination to trade.  Here is a secondary reason: the value of the investment is more uncertain than many alternative investments.  I believe these reasons sum up why bid/ask spreads are wide or narrow.  Let me describe each one.

1) Few shares or bonds are available to trade

Many stocks have a group of dominant investors that own the stock for the longish haul.  The fewer the shares/bonds that are available to trade, the more uncertainty exists in where the assets should trade, because of the illiquidity.

Because few shares are available to trade, price moves can be violent, because it only takes a small order to move the price.  Woe betide the person who foolishly places a large market order, looking to buy or sell at the best price possible.  I did that once on a microcap stock (the stock of a very small company), and ended up doubling the price of the stock as my order was fully filled, only to see the price fall right back to where it was.  Painful lesson!

As a result, those that make markets, or  buy and sell stocks tend to be more cautious in setting prices to buy and sell illiquid securities because of the difficulty of trading, and the problem of moving the market away from you with a large order.

I’ve had that problem as well, both with small cap stocks, and institutionally trading illiquid bonds.  You can’t go in boldly, demanding more liquidity than the market typically offers.  If you are buying, you will scare the sellers, and the ask will rise.  If you are selling, you will scare the buyers, and the bid will fall.  There is a logical reason for this: why would someone come into a market like a madman trying to fit 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag?  Perhaps they know something that everyone else does not.  And thus the market runs away, whether they really do know something or not.

In some ways, my rookie errors with small cap stocks helped me become a very good illiquid bond trader.  For most bonds, there is no bid or ask.  Some bonds trade once a week, month, or year… indicative levels are given, maybe, but you navigate in a fog, and so you begin sounding out the likely market to get some concept of where a trade might be done.  Then negotiation starts… and you can read about more this in my “Education of a Corporate Bond Manager” series… I know most here want to read about stocks, so…

2) Uncertainty of the value of an asset

Imagine a stock that may go into default, or it may not.  Or, think of a promoted penny stock, because most of them are in danger of default or a dilutive stock offering.  Someone looking to buy or sell has little to guide them from a fundamental standpoint — it is only a betting game, with volatile prices in the short run.  Market makers, if any, and buyers and sellers will be cautious, because they have little idea of what may be coming around the corner, whether it is a big news event, or a crazy trader driving the stock price a lot higher or lower.

For ordinary stocks, large enough, with legitimate earnings and somewhat predictable prospects, the size of the bid-ask spread reflects the short-run volatility of price.  In general, lower volatility stocks have low bid-ask spreads.  Even with market makers, they set their bid-ask spreads to a level that facilitates trade, but not so tight that if the stock gets moving, they start taking significant losses.  And, as I experienced as a bond trader, if news hits in the middle of a trade, the trade is dead.  You will have to negotiate afresh when the news is digested.

As for the “Last Price”

The last price reflects the last trade, and in this era where so much trading occurs off of the exchanges, the bid and ask that you may see may not reflect the true state of the market.  Even if it does reflect the true state of the market, there are some order types that are flexible with respect to price (discretionary orders) or quantity (reserve orders).  Trades should not occur outside of the bid-ask spread, but many trades happen without a market order hitting the posted bid or lifting the posted ask.

And though this is supposed to be simple, the simple truth is that much trading is far more complex today than when I started in this business.  I disguise my trades to avoid alarming buyers or sellers, and most institutional investors do the same, breaking big trades into many small ones, and hiding the true size of what they are doing.

Thus, I encourage all to be careful in trading.  Until you know how much capacity for trading a given asset has, start small, and adjust.

All for now, until the next time when I do more “simple stuff” at Aleph Blog.

Media Credit: Bloomberg

Media Credit: Bloomberg

I get fascinated at how we never learn. Well, “never” is a little too strong because the following article from Bloomberg, Meet the 80-Year-Old Whiz Kid Reinventing the Corporate Bond had its share of skeptics, each of which had it right.

The basic idea is this: issue a corporate bond and then package it with a credit default swap [CDS] for the same corporate bond, with the swap cleared through a clearinghouse, which should have a AAA claims-paying ability.  Voila! You have created a AAA corporate bond.

Or have you?  Remember that bond X guaranteed by Y has many similarities to bond Y guaranteed by X, because both have to fail for there to be a default.  I used to help manage portfolios that had many different types of AAA bonds in them.  Some were natively AAA as governments, quasi-governments (really, Government Sponsored Enterprises) like Fannie and Freddie, or corporations.  Some were created by insurance guarantees from MBIA, Ambac, FGIC, or FSA.  Others were created via subordination, where the AAA portion took the losses only if they were greater than a highly stressed level.  Lesser lenders absorbed lesser losses in exchange for the ability to get a much greater yield if there was no default.

There is a lot of demand for AAA bonds if they have a high enough yield spread over Treasuries.  The amount of spread varies based on the structure, but greater complexity and greater credit risk tend to raise the spread needed.  Here are some simple examples: At one time, you could buy GE parent corporate bonds rated AAA, or GE Capital corporate bonds with an identical rating, but no guarantee from GE parent.  The GE Capital bonds always traded with more yield, even though the rating was identical.  AIG had a AAA credit rating, but its bonds frequently traded cheap to other AAA bonds because of the opacity of the financials of the firm (and among some bond managers, a growing sense that AIG had too much debt).

So how would one get a decent yield spread under this setup?  The CDS will have to require less spread to insure than the spread over Treasuries priced into the corporate bond.

How will that happen? Where does the willingness to accept the credit risk at a lower spread come from?  Note that the article doesn’t answer that question.  I will take a stab at an answer.  You could get a number of hedge funds trying to make money off of leveraging CDS for income, the excess demand forcing the CDS spread below that implied by the corporate bond.  Or, you could get a bid from synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligations [CDOs] demanding a lot of CDS for income.  I can’t think of too many other ways this could happen.

In either case, the CDS clearinghouse is dealing with weak counterparties in an event of default.  Portfolio margining should be capable of dealing with small negative scenarios like isolated defaults.  Where problems arise is when a lot of default and near defaults happen at once.  The article tells us what happens then:

ICE requires sellers of swaps to backstop their contracts with various margin accounts. If the seller fails to pay off, then ICE can tap a “waterfall” of margin funds to make the investor whole. In the event of a market crash, it can call on clearing members such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs to pool their resources and fulfill swap contracts.

There’s still a danger that the banks themselves may be unable to muster cash in a crisis. But this shared responsibility marks a sea change from the bad old days when investors gambled their counterparties would make good on their contracts.

That shared responsibility is cold comfort.  Investment banks tend to be thinly capitalized, and even more so past the peak of a credit boom, when events like this happen.  Hello again, too big to fail.  Clearinghouses are not magic — they can fail also, and when they do, the negative effects will be huge.

Two more quotes from the article by those that “get it,” to reinforce my points:

The bond is a simple instrument with a debtor and creditor that’s proven its utility for centuries. The eBond inserts a third party into the transaction — the seller of the swap embedded in the security who now bears its credit risk.

Such machinations may be designed with good intentions, but they just further convolute the marketplace, says Turbeville, a former investment banker at Goldman Sachs.

“Why are we doing this? Is our society better off as a result of this innovation?” he asks. “You can’t destroy risk; you just move it around. I would argue that we have to reduce complexity and face the fact that it’s actually good for institutions to experience risks.”

and

“The way we make money for our clients is by assessing risk and generating risk-adjusted returns, and if you have a security that hedges that risk premium away, then why is it compelling? I would just buy Treasuries,” says Bonnie Baha, the head of global developed credit at DoubleLine Capital, a Los Angeles firm that manages about $56 billion in fixed-income assets. “This product sounds like a great idea in theory, but in practice it may be a solution in search of a problem.”

And, of course, fusing a security as straightforward as a bond with the notorious credit-default swap does ring a lot of alarms, says Phil Angelides, former chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to conduct a postmortem on the causes of the subprime mortgage disaster. In September 2008, American International Group Inc. didn’t have the money to back the swaps it had sold guaranteeing billions of dollars’ worth of mortgage-backed securities. To prevent AIG’s failure from cascading through the global financial system, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury Department executed a $182 billion bailout of the insurer.

“When you look at this corporate eBond, it’s strikingly similar to what was done with mortgages,” says Angelides, a Democrat who was California state treasurer from 1999 to 2007. “Credit-default swaps were embedded in mortgage-backed securities with the idea that they’d be made safe. But the risk wasn’t insured; it was just shifted somewhere else.”

The article rambles at times, touching on unrelated issues like index funds, capital structure arbitrage, and alternative liquidity structures for bonds.  On its main point the article leave behind more questions than answers, and the two big ones are:

  • Should a sufficient number of these bonds get issued, what will happen in a very large credit crisis?
  • How will these bonds get issued?  When spreads are tight, no one will want to do these because of the cost of complexity.  When spreads are wide, who will have the capital to offer protection on CDS in exchange for income?

I’m not a fan of financial complexity.  Usually something goes wrong that the originators never imagined.  I may not have thought of what will go wrong here, but I’ve given you several avenues where this idea may go, so that you can avoid losing.

Photo Credit: Thibaut Chéron Photographies

Photo Credit: Thibaut Chéron Photographies

I wish I could tell you that it was easy for me to stop making macroeconomic forecasts, once I set out to become a value investor.  It’s difficult to get rid of convictions, especially if they are simple ones, such as which way will interest rates go?

In the early-to-mid ’90s, many were convinced that interest rates had no way to go but up.  A few mortgage REITs designed themselves around that idea.  Fortunately, I arrived at the party late, after their investments that implicitly required interest rates to rise soon, fell dramatically in price.  I bought a basket of them for less than book value, excluding the value of taxes that could be sheltered in a reverse merger.

For some time, the stocks continued to fall, though not rapidly.  I became familiar with what it was like to go through coercive rights offerings from cash-hungry companies in trouble.  Bankruptcy was not impossible… and I burned a lot of mental bandwidth on these.  The rights offerings weren’t really good things in themselves, but they led me to buy in at a good time.  Fortunately I had slack capital to deploy.  That may have taught me the wrong lesson on averaging down, as we will see later.  As it was, I ended up making money on these, though less than the market, and with a lot of Sturm und Drang.

That leads me to my main topic of the era: Caldor.  Caldor was a discount retailer that was active in the Northeast, but nationally was a poor third to Walmart and KMart.  It came up with the bright idea of expanding the number of stores it had in the mid-90s without raising capital.  It even turned down an opportunity to float junk bonds.  I remember noting that the leverage seemed high.

What I didn’t recognize that the cost of avoiding issuing equity or longer-term debt was greater reliance on short-term debt from factors — short-term lenders that had a priority claim on inventory.  It would eventually prove to be a fatal error, and one that an asset-liability manager should have known well — never finance a long term asset with short-term debt.  It seems like a cost savings, but it raises the likelihood of insolvency significantly.

Still, it seemed very cheap, and one of my favorite value investors, Michael Price, owned a little less than 10% of the common stock.  So I bought some, and averaged down three times before the bankruptcy, and one time afterwards, until I learned Michael Price was selling his stake, and when he did so, he did it without any thought of what it would do to the stock price.

Now for two counterfactuals: Caldor could have perhaps merged with Bradlee’s, closed their worst stores, refinanced their debt, issued equity, and tried to be a northeast regional retail player.  It didn’t do that.

The investor relations guy could have given a more understanding answer when he was asked whether Caldor was having any difficulties with credit lines from their factors.  Instead, he was rude and dismissive to the questioning analyst.  What was the result?  The factors blinked and pulled their lines, and Caldor went into bankruptcy.

What were my lessons from this episode?

  • Don’t average down more than once, and only do so limitedly, without a significant analysis.  This is where my portfolio rule seven came from.
  • Don’t engage in hero worship, and have initial distrust for single large investors until they prove to be fair to all outside passive minority investors.
  • Avoid overly indebted companies.  Avoid asset liability mismatches.  Portfolio rule three would have helped me here.
  • Analyze whether management has a decent strategy, particularly when they are up against stronger competition.  The broader understanding of portfolio rule six would have steered me clear.
  • Impose a diversification limit.  Even though I concentrate positions and industries in my investing, I still have limits.  That’s another part of rule seven, which limits me from getting too certain.

The result was my largest loss, and I would not lose more on any single investment again until 2008 — I’ll get to that one later.  It was my largest loss as a fraction of my net worth ever — after taxes, it was about 4%.  As a fraction of my liquid net worth at the time, more like 10%.  Ouch.

So, what did I do to memorialize this?  Big losses should always be memorialized.  I taught my (then small) kids to say “Caldor” to me when I talked too much about investing.  They thought it was kind of fun, and I would thank them for it, while grimacing.

But that helped.  Remember, value investing is first about safety, and second about cheapness.  Cheapness rarely makes something safe enough on its own, so analyze balance sheets, strategy, use of cash flow, etc.  This is not to say that I did not make any more errors, but this one reduced the size and frequency.

That said, there will be more “fun” chapters to share in this series, because we always learn more from errors than successes.