Photo Credit: D.C.Atty || Scrawled in 2008, AFTER the crash started

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Comments are always appreciated from readers, if they are polite.  Here’s a recent one from the piece Distrust Forecasts.

You made one statement that I don’t really understand. “Most forecasters only think about income statements. Most of the limits stem from balance sheets proving insufficient, or cash flows inverting, and staying that way for a while.”

What is the danger of balance sheets proving insufficient? Does that mean that the company doesn’t have enough cash to cover their ‘burn rate’?

Not having enough cash to cover the burn rate can be an example of this.  Let me back up a bit, and speak generally before focusing.

Whether economists, quantitative analysts, chartists or guys who pull numbers out of the air, most people do not consider balance sheets when making predictions.  (Counterexample: analysts at the ratings agencies.)  It is much easier to assume a world where there are no limits to borrowing.  Practical example #1 would be home owners and buyers during the last financial crisis, together with the banks, shadow banks, and government sponsored enterprises that financed them.

In economies that have significant private debts, growth is limited, because of higher default probabilities/severity, and less capability of borrowing more should defaults tarry.  Most firms don’t like issuing equity, except as a last resort, so restricted ability to borrow limits growth. High debt among consumers limits growth in another way — they have less borrowing capacity and many feel less comfortable borrowing anyway.

Figuring out when there is “too much debt” is a squishy concept at any level — household, company, government, economy, etc.  It’s not as if you get to a magic number and things go haywire.  People have a hard time dealing with the idea that as leverage rises, so does the probability of default and the severity of default should it happen.  You can get to really high amounts of leverage and things still hold together for a while — there may be extenuating circumstances allowing it to work longer — just as in other cases, a failure in one area triggers a lot more failures as lenders stop lending, and those with inadequate liquidity can refinance and then fail.

Three More Reasons to Distrust Predictions

1) Media Effects — the media does not get the best people on the tube — they get those that are the most entertaining.  This encourages extreme predictions.  The same applies to people who make predictions in books — those that make extreme predictions sell more books.  As an example, consider this post from Ben Carlson on Harry Dent.  Harry Dent hasn’t been right in a long time, but it doesn’t stop him from making more extreme predictions.

For more on why you should ignore the media, you can read this ancient article that I wrote for RealMoney in 2005, and updated in 2013.

2) Momentum Effects — this one is two-sided.  There are momentum effects in the market, so it’s not bogus to shade near term estimates based off of what has happened recently.  There are two problems though — the longer and more severe the rise or fall, the more you should start downplaying momentum, and increasingly think mean-reversion.  Don’t argue for a high returning year when valuations are stretched, and vice-versa for large market falls when valuations are compressed.

The second thing is kind of a media effect when you begin seeing articles like “Everyone Ought to be Rich,” etc.  “Dow 36,000”-type predictions come near the end of bull markets, just as “The Death of Equities’ comes at the end of Bear Markets.  The media always shows up late; retail shows up late; the nuttiest books show up late.  Occasionally it will fell like books and pundits are playing “Can you top this?” near the end of a cycle.

3) Spurious Math — Whether it is the geometry of charts or the statistical optimization of regression, it is easy to argue for trends persisting longer than they should.  We should always try to think beyond the math to the human processes that the math is describing.  What levels of valuation or indebtedness are implied?  Setting new records in either is always possible, but it is not the most likely occurrence.

With that, be skeptical of forecasts.

 

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Here’s the quick summary of what I will say: People and companies need liquidity.  Anything where payments need to be made needs liquidity.  Secondary markets will develop their own liquidity if it is needed.

Recently, I was at an annual meeting of a private company that I own shares in.  Toward the end of the meeting, one fellow who was kind of new to the firm asked what liquidity the shares had and how people valued them.  The board and management of the company wisely said little.  I gave a brief extemporaneous talk that said that most people who owned these shares know they are illiquid, and as such, they hold onto them, and enjoy the distributions.  I digressed a little and explained how one *might* put a value on the shares, but trading values really depended on who was more motivated — the buyer or the seller.

Now, there’s no need for that company to have a liquid market in its stock.  In general, if someone wants to sell, someone will buy — trades are very infrequent, say a handful per year.  But the holders know that, and most plan not to sell the shares, looking to other sources if they need money to spend — liquidity.

And in one sense, the shares generate their own flow of liquidity.  The distributions come quite regularly.  Which would you rather have?  A bucket of golden eggs, or the goose that lays them one at a time?

Now the company itself doesn’t need liquidity.  It generates its liquidity internally through profitable operations that don’t require much in the way of reinvestment in order to maintain its productive capacity.

Now, Buffett used to purchase only companies that were like this, because he wanted to reallocate the excess liquidity that the companies threw off to new investments.  But as time has gone along, he has purchased capital-intensive businesses like BNSF that require continued capital investment.  Quoting from a good post at Alpha Architect referencing Buffett’s recent annual meeting:

Question: …In your 1987 Letter to Shareholders, you commented on the kind of companies Berkshire would like to buy: those that required only small amounts of capital. You said, quote, “Because so little capital is required to run these businesses, they can grow while concurrently making all their earnings available for deployment in new opportunities.” Today the company has changed its strategy. It now invests in companies that need tons of capital expenditures, are over-regulated, and earn lower returns on equity capital. Why did this happen?

Warren Buffett…It’s one of the problems of prosperity. The ideal business is one that takes no capital, but yet grows, and there are a few businesses like that. And we own some…We’d love to find one that we can buy for $10 or $20 or $30 billion that was not capital intensive, and we may, but it’s harder. And that does hurt us, in terms of compounding earnings growth. Because obviously if you have a business that grows, and gives you a lot of money every year…[that] isn’t required in its growth, you get a double-barreled effect from the earnings growth that occurs internally without the use of capital and then you get the capital it produces to go and buy other businesses…[our] increasing capital [base] acts as an anchor on returns in many ways. And one of the ways is that it drives us into, just in terms of availability…into businesses that are much more capital intensive.

Emphasis that of Alpha Architect

Liquidity is meant to support the spending of corporations and people who need services and products to further their existence.  As such, intelligent entities plan for liquidity needs in advance.  A pension plan in decline allocates more to bonds so that the cash flow from the bonds will fund expected net payouts.  Well-run insurance companies and banks match expected cash flows at least for a few years.

Buffer funds are typically low-yielding assets of high quality and short duration — short maturity bonds, CDs, savings and bank deposits, etc.  Ordinary people and corporations need them to manage the economic bumps of life.  Expenses are up, and current income doesn’t exceed them.  Got cash?  It certainly helps to be able to draw on excess assets in a pinch.  Those who run a balance on their credit cards pay handsomely for the convenience.

In a crisis, who needs liquidity most?  Usually, it’s whoever is at the center of the crisis, but usually, those entities are too far gone to be helped.  More often, the helpable needy are the lenders to those at the center of the crisis, and woe betide us if no one will privately lend to them.  In that case, the financial system itself is in crisis, and then people end up lending to whoever is the lender of last resort.  In the last crisis, Treasury bonds rallied as a safe haven.

In that sense, liquidity is a ‘fraidy cat.  Marginal borrowers can’t get it when they need it most.  Liquidity typically flows to quality in a crisis.  Buffett bailed out only the highest quality companies in the last crisis. Not knowing how bad it would be, he was happy to hit singles, rather than risk it on home runs.

Who needs liquidity most now?  Hard to say.  At present in the US, liquidity is plentiful, and almost any person or firm can get a loan or equity finance if they want it.  Companies happily extend their balance sheets, buying back stock, paying dividends, and occasionally investing.  Often when liquidity is flush, the marginal bidder is a speculative entity.  As an example, perhaps some emerging market countries, companies and people would like additional offers of liquidity.

That’s a major difference between bull and bear markets — the quality of those that can easily get unsecured loans.  To me that is the leading reason why we are in the seventh or eighth inning of a bull market now, because almost any entity can get the loans they want at attractive levels.  Why isn’t it the ninth inning?  We’re not at “nuts” levels yet.  We may never get there though, which is why baseball analogies are sometimes lame.  Some event can disrupt the market when it is so high, and suddenly people and firms are no longer so willing to extend credit.

Ending the article here — be aware.  The time to take inventory of your assets and their financing needs is before the markets have an event.  I’ve just completed my review of my portfolio.  I sold two of the 35 companies that I hold and replaced them with more solid entities that still have good prospects.  I will sell two more in the new year for tax reasons.  My bond portfolio is high quality.  My clients and I are ready if liquidity gets worse.

Are you ready?

Photo Credit: darwin Bell || You ain't getting out easily...

Photo Credit: darwin Bell || You ain’t getting out easily…

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How would you like a really good model to make money as a money manager? You would? Great!

What I am going to describe is a competitive business, so you probably won’t grow like mad, but what money you do bring in the door, you will likely keep for some time, and earn significant fees.

This post is inspired by a piece written by Jason Zweig at the Wall Street Journal: The Trendiest Investment on Wall Street…That Nobody Knows About.  The article talks about interval funds.  Interval funds hold illiquid investments that would be difficult to sell at a fair price  quickly.  As such, liquidity is limited to quarterly or annual limits, and investors line up for distributions.  If you are the only one to ask for a distribution, you might get a lot paid out, perhaps even paid out in full.  If everyone asked for a part of the distribution, everyone would get paid their pro-rata share.

But there are other ways to capture assets, and as a result, fees.

  • Various types of business partnerships, including Private REITs, Real Estate Partnerships, etc.
  • Illiquid debts, such as structured notes
  • Variable, Indexed and Fixed Annuities with looong surrender charge periods.
  • Life insurance as an investment
  • Weird kinds of IRAs that you can only set up with a venturesome custodian
  • Odd mutual funds that limit withdrawals because they offer “guarantees” of a sort.
  • And more, but I am talking about those that get sold to or done by retail investors… institutional investors have even more chances to tie up their money for moderate, modest or negative incremental returns.
  • (One more aside, Closed end funds are a great way for managers to get a captive pool of assets, but individual investors at least get the ability to gain liquidity subject to the changing premium/discount versus NAV.)

My main point is short and simple.  Be wary of surrendering liquidity.  If you can’t clearly identify what you are gaining from giving up liquidity, don’t make the investment.  You are likely being hoodwinked.

It’s that simple.

If you can't clearly identify what you are gaining from giving up liquidity, don't make the… Click To Tweet

Photo Credit: Rex Babiera ||Ours is an old house, and its guts reflect that.

Photo Credit: Rex Babiera || Ours is an old house, and its guts reflect that.

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A question from a reader on my recent post Me Too!:

I recently ran across Ed Thorp’s “Beat the Market.” I find reasonable his idea that you can take on risks that (almost / essentially) cancel each other out. Find assets that are negatively correlated to buy one long and the other short (he did it with stock warrants in the 60’s but when I started looking into that, well, I’m late to that party, so nevermind).

I’m uncomfortable with shorting anyway, so what about going long in everything and rebalancing when the assets get out of whack? Aren’t a lot of the price movements of various assets (cash, bonds, stocks, real estate, precious metals) the result of money flowing towards or away from that asset? If people are, on net, selling their stocks, to what type of asset are they sending the proceeds? I can’t predict where people will stash their money next, but if I own a little of everything, I’m both hedged against prolonged depression of one asset class and aware of what’s gotten “expensive” and what’s “cheap” now.

Along these same “indexing” lines, what do you think of using ALL the sector ETFs (Vanguard has 11) to index each sector and then rebalance among them as they change in value? How would that application of your portfolio rule 7 differ than when applied to individual stocks? Also, do you think it would be subject to the same / similar danger as everyone else “indexing” as you wrote about above?

My, but there is a lot here.  Let me try to unpack this.

Paragraph 1: All of the easy arbitrages are gone or occupied to the level where the risks are fairly priced.  Specialists ply those trades now, and for the most part, they earn returns roughly equal to short-term risky debt.  They tend to get hurt during financial crises, because at those points in time, fundamental relationships get disturbed because of illiquidity and defaults amid demands for liquidity and safety.

Paragraph 2: First, rebalancing is almost always a good idea, but it presumes the asset classes/subclasses in question is high quality enough that it will mean-revert, and that your time horizon is long enough to benefit from the mean reversion when it happens.  Also, it presumes that you aren’t headed for an utter disaster like pre-WWII Germany with hyperinflation.  Or confiscation of assets in a variety of ways, etc.

Then again, in really horrible times, no strategy works well, so that is not a criticism of rebalancing — just that it is useful most but not all of the time.

Aren’t a lot of the price movements of various assets [snip] the result of money flowing towards or away from that asset?

Back to the basics.  Money does not flow into or out of assets.  When a stock trade happens, shares flow from one account to another, and money flows the opposite direction, with the brokers raking off a tiny amount of cash in the process.  Prices of assets change based on the relative desire of buyers and sellers to buy or sell shares near the existing prior price level.  In a nutshell, that is how secondary markets work.

Then, there is the primary market for assets, which is when they were originally sold to the public.  In this case, corporations offer stocks, bonds, etc. to individuals and institutions in what are called initial public offerings [IPOs].  The securities flow from the companies to the accounts of the buyers, and the money flows from the accounts of the buyers to the companies.  The selling prices of the assets are typically set by syndicates of investment bankers, who rake off a decent-sized chunk of the money going to the companies.  In this case, yes, the amount of money that people are willing to pay for the assets will dictate the initial price, unless the deal is received so poorly that it does not take place.  After that, secondary trading starts.  (Note: this covers 95%+ of all of the ways that assets get to public markets; there are other ways, but I don’t have time for that now.  The same is true for how securities get extinguished, as in the next paragraph.)

The same thing happens in reverse when companies are bought in entire, either fully and partially for cash, and in the process, cease to be publicly traded.  The primary and secondary markets complement each other.  Corporations and syndicates take pricing cues from the levels securities trade at in the secondary markets in order to price new securities, and buy out existing securities.  Value investors often look at primary markets to estimate what the assets of whole companies are worth, and apply those judgments to where they buy and sell in the secondary markets.

Trying to guess where market players will raise their bids for assets in secondary trading is difficult.  There are a few hints:

  • Valuation: are asset cheap or rich relative to where normalized valuation levels would be for this class of assets?
  • Changes in net supply of assets: i.e., the primary markets.  Streaks in M&A tend to persist.
  • Price momentum: in the short-run (3-12 months), things that rise continue to rise, and vice versa for assets with falling prices.
  • Mean-reversion: in the intermediate term (3-5 years), things that currently rise will fall, and vice-versa.  This effect is weaker than the momentum effect.
  • Changes in operating performance: if you have insight into companies or industries such that you see earnings trends ahead of others, you will have insights into the likely future performance of prices.

All of these effects vary in intensity and reliability, both against each other, and over time.  If you own a little of everything, many of these effects become like that of the market, but noisier.

Paragraph 3: If you want to apply rule 7 to a portfolio of sectors, you can do it, but I would probably decrease the trading band from 20% to 10%.  Ditto for a portfolio of country index ETFs, but size your trading band relative to volatility, and limit your assets to developed and the largest emerging market countries.  With a portfolio of 35 stocks, the 20% band has me trade about 4-5 times a month.  With 11 sectors your band should be sized to trade 1-2 times a month.  20 countries, around 3x/month.  If it is a taxable account set the taxation method to be sell highest tax cost lots first.

Remember that portfolio rule 7 is meant to be used over longer periods of time — 3 years minimum.  There are other rules out there that adjust for volatility and momentum effect that have done better in the past, but those two effects are being more heavily traded on now relative to the past, which may invalidate the analogy from history to the future.

Using portfolio rule 7 overweights smaller companies, industries, sectors, or countries vs larger ones.  It will not be as index-like, but it is still a diversified strategy, so it will still be somewhat like an indexed portfolio.

Finally, even if we get to the point where active management outperforms indexing regularly, remember that indexing is still likely to be a decent strategy — the low cost advantage is significant.

That’s all for now, and as always, comments and questions are welcome.

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I have sometimes said that it is common for many people to imitate the behavior of others, rather than think for themselves.  There are several reasons for that:

  • It”s simple.
  • It’s fast.
  • And so long as you don’t run into a resource constraint it works well.

People generally have a decent idea who their smartest friends are, and who seems to give good advice on simple issues.  If your neighbor says that the new Chinese food place is excellent, and you know he knows his food, there is a very good chance that when you go there that you will get excellent Chinese food as well.

You might even tell your friends about it; after all, you want to look bright as well, and its neighborly to share good information.  That works quite well until the day that Yogi Berra’s dictum kicks in:

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

The information indeed was free, but space inside the restaurant was not, even if patrons weren’t paying to get in.  And even if they have carryout, the line could go around the block… a hardship for many even if you are getting the famous Ocean Broccoli Beef.  (Warning: Hot in every way.)

Readers of my blog know that the same thing happens in markets.  Imitation was a large part of the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble.  When a less knowledgeable friend is making what is seemingly free money, it is very difficult for many people to resist the temptation to imitate, because if it works for him, it ought to work better for the more knowledgeable.

As such, prices can get overbid, and the overshoot above the intrinsic value of the assets can be considerable.  It all ends when the cost of capital to finance the asset is considerably higher than the cash flow that the asset throws off.  And as with all bubbles, the end is pretty ugly and rapid.

But what if you had a really big and liquid strategy, one that threw off decent cash flow.  Could that ever be a bubble?  The odds are low but the answer is yes.  It is possible for any strategy to distort relative prices such that the assets inside a strategy get significantly above intrinsic value — to the point where they discount negative future returns over a 5-10 year horizon.  (As an aside, negative interest rates are by definition a bubble, and the instruments traded there are in big liquid markets.  The severity of that bubble collapsing is likely to be limited, though, unless there is some sort of payments crisis.  The relative amount of overvaluation is small, and has to be small.)

Indexing as Imitation

Today, indexing is a form of imitation in two ways.  The first way is not new — it is a way of saying “I want the average result, and very low fees.”  It’s a powerful idea and generally a good idea.  If used for long-term investment, and not short-term speculation, it allows capital to compound over long periods of time, and keeps people from making subpar investment decisions through panic and greed.

Then there is the second way of imitation: indexing because it is now the received wisdom — all your friends are doing it.  This is a momentum effect, and at some point even indexing through a large index like the S&P 500 or Wilshire 5000 could become overdone.  The effects could vary, though.

  • You could see more larger private corporations go public because the advantage of cheap capital overwhelms the informational and other advantages of remaining private.
  • You could see corporations reverse financial engineering, and issue more cheap stock to retire expensive debt.  On the other hand, it would be more likely that credit spreads would tighten significantly, leaving debt and equity balanced.
  • You would see pressure on corporations with odd capital structures like multiple share classes to simplify, so that all of the equity would trade at high multiples.
  • Corporations could dilute their stock to pay for resources — labor, land, intellectual capital and physical capital.  Or, buy up competitors.  If you think that is farfetched, I remember the late ’90s where it was cool for executives to say, “Let the stock market pay your employees.”
  • People could borrow against their homes to buy more stock, or just margin up.

If you see what I am doing — I’m trying to show what a distorted price for publicly traded stocks in an big index could do — and I haven’t even suggested the obvious — that an unsustainable price will correct eventually, and maybe, in a dramatic way.

I’m not saying that indexing is a bubble presently.  I’m only saying it could be one day.  Like the imitation illustrations given above, when a lot of people want to do the same thing without bringing additional information to the process, shortages develop, and in some cases prices rise as a result.

One final note: active management would get more punch at some point, because informationless index investing would lead to some degree of mispricing that active managers would take advantage of.  At the rate money is currently exiting active management and going into indexing, that could be five years from now (just a guess).

As with all things in investing, the proof will be seen only in hindsight, so take this with a saltshaker of salt.  As for me, I will continue to pick stocks.  It has worked well for me.

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Before I write my piece, I want to say a word about the virtue of voting for third party candidates for President.  Personally, I would like to see an option where we can vote for None of the Above, on all races.  That would allow us to break the duopolistic power of the Democrats and Republicans without having to have a viable third party.  The ability to reject all of the candidates so that a new election would have to be held with new candidates would be powerful, and would make both parties more sensitive to all of the voters, not just minorities on the left and right.

Still, I’m voting for a third party candidate mostly as a protest.  I consider the protest to be an investment, because it has no value for the current election, but may have value for future elections if it teaches the two main parties that they no longer have a stranglehold on the electorate.  The cost of doing so in this election for President is minuscule, because both candidates are dishonest egotists.

Character matters; if a person is not honest you will not get what you thought you were voting for.  In this election, more than most, people are projecting onto Hillary and Donald what they want to see.  Trump is not a man of the people, and neither is Clinton.  They are both elitist snobs; they are members of rival cliques that dominate their respective parts of the main country club that the privileged enjoy.

There is no loss in not voting for them.  If you want to send a message, vote for someone other than Clinton or Trump.

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Of Milk Cows and Moats

It’s become fashionable to talk about moats in investing as an analogy for sustainable competitive advantages.  Buffett popularized it, and many use it in investment analysis today.  Morningstar has made a lot out of it.

I’d like to talk about the concept from a broader societal angle.  This may look like a divergence from talk on investing, but it does have a significant influence on some investing.

I live in the great state of Maryland.  A while ago, I wrote an award-winning piece on publicly traded companies in Maryland.  My main conclusion was that many corporations are in Maryland because the founder lived here.  Other corporations were in Maryland because of the talent available to manage healthcare firms, defense firms, hotels, and REITs.  Only the last one, REITs, had any significant advantage imparted by the state itself — Maryland was the first state with a statute allowing for REITs.

Why do corporations leave Maryland?  Well, when a merger takes place, the acquirer usually figures out that the company would likely be better off reducing its presence in Maryland, and increasing its presence elsewhere.  Costs, taxes and regulation will be lower.  The countervailing advantage of an educated workforce is usually not enough to keep jobs here, unless that is the main input to what the firm does, such as biotechnology — hard to beat the advantage of having Johns Hopkins, NIH, and the University of Maryland nearby.

All of this suggests a model of businesses and people entering and leaving an area that is akin to the moats we describe in business.  Most businesses know that it will be expensive to move.

  • They will lose people, or, it will be costly to move them
  • There will be an interruption to operations in some ways.
  • The educational quality of people might not be as great in the new area.
  • Some taxes and regulations could be higher.

Thus to induce a move, another municipality might offer incentives of tax abatement, a low interest loan, etc.  The attracting municipality is making a business decision — what do they give up in taxes (and have to spend on services) versus what they gain in other taxes, etc.  The attracting municipality also assumes that there will be some stickiness when the incentives run out.  If you need an analogy, it is not that much different than what it takes to attract and retain a major league sports franchise.

What municipalities lose businesses and people?  Those that treat them like milk cows.  Take a look at the states, counties and cities that have lost vitality, and will find that is one of the two factors in play, the other being a concentrated industry mix in where the dominant industry is in decline.

The more a municipality tries to milk its businesses and people, the more the businesses begin to hit their flinch point, and look for greener pastures.  With the loss of businesses and people, they may try to raise taxes to compensate, leading to a self-reinforcing cycle that eventually leads to insolvency.

A municipality can fight back by offering its own incentives to retain companies and people.  This can lead to a version of the prisoners’ dilemma, or a “race to the bottom” as corporations play off municipalities against each other in order to get the best deal possible.  There is an analogy to war here, because the mobile enemy has significant advantages.  There is an analogy to antitrust as well, because municipal governments are allowed to collude against corporations, and it would be to their advantage to do so, if they could agree.

In a game like this, the healthiest municipalities have the strongest bargaining position — they can offer the best deals.  There is a tendency for the strong to get stronger and the weak weaker.  Past prudence has its rewards.  Present prudence is costly, both economically and politically, is difficult to achieve, and future people will benefit who will not remember you politically.

One more note: Maryland has another problem, which affects some of my friends in the industry who have Maryland-centric.investment management practices.  (My firm is national.  More of my clients are outside of Maryland than inside.)  When wealthy people in Maryland retire, their probability of leaving Maryland goes up, as the “moat” of their Maryland job disappears.  Again states can adjust their tax policies to try to retain people in their states.  On the other hand, some attempt to tax former residents who earned their pensions in their states, and things like that.

This is just another example of how municipalities have limits to the amount they can tax before the tax base erodes.

(Dare we mention how the internet is still costing states some of their sales taxes?  Nah, too well known.)

Upshot

When considering businesses that rely on a given locality, ask how the health of the locality affects the business.  It’s worth considering.  For those who invest in municipal bonds, it is a critical factor.  Particularly as the Baby Boomers age, weak municipalities will come under pressure.  Stick with strong municipalities, and services that would be impossible to do without.

Finally, think about your own life.  Is it possible:

  • that your firm could move and leave you behind?
  • that your taxes could rise significantly because businesses and people are leaving?
  • that your taxes could rise significantly because state employee benefit plans are deeply underfunded?
  • that your municipal job could be put in danger because of prior weak economic decisions on the part of the municipality?
  • that real estate prices could fall if the exodus of people from your area accelerates?
  • Etc.

Then consider what your own “plan B” might be, and remember, earlier actions to leave are better actions if you are correct.  The options are always lousy once an economic bust arrives.

Wiped Out

Before I start this evening, thanks to Dividend Growth Investor for telling me about this book.

This is an obscure little book published in 1966.  The title is direct, simple, and descriptive.  A more flowery title could have been, “Losing Money in the Stock Market as an Art Form.”  Why?  Because he made every mistake possible in an era that favored stock investment, and managed to lose a nice-sized lump sum that could have been a real support to his family.  Instead, he tried to recoup it by anonymously publishing  this short book which goes from tragedy to tragedy with just enough successes to keep him hooked.

Whom God Would Destroy

There is a saying, “”Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”  My modification of it is, “Whom God would destroy, he first makes proud.”  In this book, the author knows little about investing, but wishing to make more money in the midst of a boom, he entrusts a sizable nest egg for a young middle-class family to a broker, and lo and behold, the broker makes money in a rising market with a series of short-term investments, with very few losses.

Rather than be grateful, the author got greedy.  Spurred by success, he became somewhat compulsive, and began reading everything he could on investing.  To brokers, he became “the impossible client,” (my words, not those of the book) because now he could never be satisfied.  Instead of being happy with a long-run impossible goal of 15%/year (double your money every five years), he wanted to double his money every 2-3 years. (26-41%/year)

As such, he moved his money from the broker that later he admitted he should have been satisfied with, and sought out brokers that would try to hit home runs.  The baseball analogy is useful here, because home run hitters tend to strike out a lot.  The analogy breaks down here: a home run hitter can be useful to a team even if he has a .250 average and strikes out three times for every home run.  Baseball is mostly a game of team compounding, where usually a number of batters have to do well in order to score.  Investment is a game of individual compounding, where strikeouts matter a great deal, because losses of capital are very difficult to make up.  Three 25% losses followed by a 100% gain is a 15% loss.

In the process of trying to win big, he ended up losing more and more.  He concentrated his holdings.  He bought speculative stocks, and not “blue chips.”  He borrowed money to buy more stock (used margin).  He bought “story stocks” that did not possess a margin of safety, which would maybe deliver high gains  if the story unfolded as illustrated.  He did not do homework, but listened to “hot tips” and invested off them.  He let his judgment be clouded by his slight relationships with corporate insiders at the end.  HE TRIED TO MAKE BIG MONEY QUICKLY, AND CUT EVERY CORNER TO DO SO.  His expectations were desperately unrealistic, and as a result, he lost it all.

As he lost more and more, he fell into the psychological trap of wanting to get back what he lost, and being willing to lose it all in order to do so.  I.e., if he lost so much already, it was worth losing what was left if there was a chance to prove he wasn’t a fool from his “investing.”  As such, he lost it all… but there are three good things to say about the author:

  1. He had the humility to write the book, baring it all, and he writes well.
  2. He didn’t leave himself in debt at the end, but that was good providence for him, because if he had waited one more day, the margin clerk would have sold him out at a decided loss, and he would have owed the brokerage money.
  3. In the end, he knew why he had gone wrong, and he tells his readers that they need to: a) invest in quality companies, b) diversify, and c) limit speculation to no more than 20% of the portfolio.

His advice could have been better, but at least he got the aforementioned ideas right.  Margin of safety is the key.  Doing significant due diligence if you are going to buy individual stocks is required.

Quibbles

This book will not teach you what to do; it teaches what not to do.  It is best as a type of macabre financial entertainment.

Also, though you can still buy used copies of the book, if enough of you try to buy the used books out there, the price will rise pretty quickly.  If you can, borrow it from interlibrary loan.  It is an interesting historical curiosity of a book, and a cautionary tale for those who are tempted to greed.  As the author closes the book:

“Cupidity is seldom circumspect.”

And thus, much as the greedy need to hear this advice, it is unlikely they will listen.  Greed is compulsive.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

A good book, subject to the above limitations.  It is best for entertainment, because it will teach you what not to do, rather than what to do.

Borrow it through interlibrary loan.  If you feel you have to buy it, you can buy it here: WIPED OUT. How I Lost a Fortune in the Stock Market While the Averages Were Making New Highs.

Full disclosure: I bought it with my own money for three bucks.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, including books, I get a small commission. This is my main source of blog revenue. I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip. Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book. Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website. Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites. Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

Photo Credit: GotCredit

Photo Credit: GotCredit

This is another piece in the irregular Simple Stuff series, which is an attempt to make complex topics simple.  Today’s topic is:

What is risk?

Here is my simple definition of risk:

Risk is the probability that an entity will not meet its goals, and the degree of pain it will go through depending on how much it missed the goals.

There are several good things about this definition:

  • Note that the word “money” is not mentioned.  As such, it can cover a wide number of situations.
  • It is individual.  The same size of a miss of a goal for one person may cause him to go broke, while another just has to miss a vacation.  The same event may happen for two people — it may be a miss for one, and not for the other one.
  • It catches both aspects of risk — likelihood of a bad event, and degree of harm from how badly the goal was missed.
  • It takes into account the possibility that there are many goals that must be met.
  • It covers both composite entities like corporations, families, nations and cultures, as well as individuals.
  • It doesn’t make life easy for academic economists who want to have a uniform definition of risk so that they can publish economics and finance papers that are bogus.  Erudite, but bogus.
  • It doesn’t specify that there has to be a single time horizon, or any time horizon.
  • It doesn’t specify a method for analysis.  That should vary by the situation being analyzed.

But this is a blog on finance and investing risk, so now I will focus on that large class of situations.

What is Financial Risk?

Here are some things that financial risk can be:

  • You don’t get to retire when you want to, or, your retirement is not as nice as you might like
  • One or more of your children can’t go to college, or, can’t go to the college that the would like to attend
  • You can’t buy the home/auto/etc. of your choice.
  • A financial security plan, like a defined benefit plan, or Social Security has to cut back benefit payments.
  • The firm you work for goes broke, or gets competed into an also-ran.
  • You lose your job, can’t find another job as good, and you default on important regular bills as a result.  The same applies to people who run their own business.
  • Levered financial businesses, like banks and shadow banks, make too many loans to marginal borrowers, and find at some point that their borrowers can’t pay them back, and at the same time, no one wants to lend to them.  This can be harmful not just to the banks and shadow banks, but to the economy as a whole.

Let’s use retirement as an example of how to analyze financial risk.  I have a series of articles that I have written on the topic based on the idea of the personal required investment earnings rate [PRIER].  PRIER is not a unique concept of mine, but is attempt to apply the ideas of professionals trying to manage the assets and liabilities of an endowment, defined benefit plan, or life insurance company to the needs of an individual or a family.

The main idea is to try to calculate the rate of return you will need over time to meet your eventual goals.  From my prior “PRIER” article, which was written back in January 2008, prior to the financial crisis:

To the extent that one can estimate what one can reasonably save (hard, but worth doing), and what the needs of the future will cost, and when they will come due (harder, but worth doing), one can estimate personal contribution and required investment earnings rates.  Set up a spreadsheet with current assets and the likely savings as positive figures, and the future needs as negative figures, with the likely dates next to them.  Then use the XIRR function in Excel to estimate the personal required investment earnings rate [PRIER].

I’m treating financial planning in the same way that a Defined Benefit pension plan analyzes its risks.  There’s a reason for this, and I’ll get to that later.  Just as we know that a high assumed investment earnings rate at a defined benefit pension plan is a red flag, it is the same to an individual with a high PRIER.

Now, suppose at the end of the exercise one finds that the PRIER is greater than the yield on 10-year BBB bonds by more than 3%.  (Today that would be higher than 9%.)  That means you are not likely to make your goals.   You can either:

  • Save more, or,
  • Reduce future expectations,whether that comes from doing the same things cheaper, or deferring when you do them.

Those are hard choices, but most people don’t make those choices because they never sit down and run the numbers.  Now, I left out a common choice that is more commonly chosen: invest more aggressively.  This is more commonly done because it is “free.”  In order to get more return, one must take more risk, so take more risk and you will get more return, right?  Right?!

Sadly, no.  Go back to Defined Benefit programs for a moment.  Think of the last eight years, where the average DB plan has been chasing a 8-9%/yr required yield.  What have they earned?  On a 60/40 equity/debt mandate, using the S&P 500 and the Lehman Aggregate as proxies, the return would be 3.5%/year, with the lion’s share coming from the less risky investment grade bonds.  The overshoot of the ’90s has been replaced by the undershoot of the 2000s.  Now, missing your funding target for eight years at 5%/yr or so is serious stuff, and this is a problem being faced by DB pension plans and individuals today.

The article goes on, and there are several others that flesh out the ideas further:

Simple Summary

Though there are complexities in trying to manage financial risk, the main ideas for dealing with financial risk are these:

  1. Spend time estimating your future needs and what resources you can put toward them.
  2. Be conservative in what you think you assets can earn.
  3. Be flexible in your goals if you find that you cannot reasonably achieve your dreams.
  4. Consider what can go wrong, get proper insurance where needed, and be judicious on taking on large fixed commitments to spend money in the future.

PS — Two final notes:

On the topic of “what can go wrong in personal finance, I did a series on that here.

Investment risk is sometimes confused with volatility.  Here’s a discussion of when that makes sense, and when it doesn”t.

I’m thinking of starting a limited series called “dirty secrets” of finance and investing.  If anyone wants to toss me some ideas you can contact me here.  I know that since starting this blog, I have used the phrase “dirty secret” at least ten times.

Tonight’s dirty secret is a simple one, and it derives mostly from investor behavior.  You don’t always get more return on average if you take more risk.  The amount of added return declines with each unit of additional risk, and eventually turns negative at high levels of risk.  The graph above is a vague approximate representation of how this process works.

Why is this so?  Two related reasons:

  1. People are not very good at estimating the probability of success for ventures, and it gets worse as the probability of success gets lower.  People overpay for chancy lottery ticket-like investments, because they would like to strike it rich.  This malady affect men more than women, on average.
  2. People get to investment ideas late.  They buy closer to tops than bottoms, and they sell closer to bottoms than tops.  As a result, the more volatile the investment, the more money they lose in their buying and selling.  This malady also affects men more than women, on average.

Put another way, this is choosing your investments based on your circle of competence, such that your probability of choosing a good investment goes up, and second, having the fortitude to hold a good investment through good and bad times.  From my series on dollar-weighted returns you know that the more volatile the investment is, the more average people lose in their buying and selling of the investment, versus being a buy-and-hold investor.

Since stocks are a long duration investment, don’t buy them unless you are going to hold them long enough for your thesis to work out.  Things don’t always go right in the short run, even with good ideas.  (And occasionally, things go right in the short run with bad ideas.)

For more on this topic, you can look at my creative piece, Volatility Analogy.  It explains the intuition behind how volatility affects the results that investors receive as they get greedy, panic, and hold on for dear life.

In closing, the dirty secret is this: size your risk level to what you can live with without getting greedy or panicking.  You will do better than other investors who get tempted to make rash moves, and act on that temptation.  On average, the world belongs to moderate risk-takers.

Photo Credit: Kathryn

Photo Credit: Kathryn || Truly, I sympathize.  I try to be strong for others when internally I am broken.

Entire societies and nations have been wiped out in the past.  Sometimes this has been in spite of the best efforts of leading citizens to avoid it, and sometimes it has been because of their efforts.  In human terms, this is as bad as it gets on Earth.  In virtually all of these cases, the optimal strategy was to run, and hope that wherever you ended up would be kind to foreigners.  Also, most common methods of preserving value don’t work in the worst situations… flight capital stashed early in the place of refuge and gold might work, if you can get there.

There.  That’s the worst survivable scenario I can think of.  What does it take to get there?

  • Total government and market breakdown, or
  • A lost war on your home soil, with the victors considerably less kind than the USA and its allies

The odds of these are very low in most of the developed world.  In the developing world, most of the wealthy have “flight capital” stashed away in the USA or someplace equally reliable.

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Most nations, societies and economies are more durable than most people would expect.  There is a cynical reason for this: the wealthy and the powerful have a distinct interest in not letting things break.  As Solomon observed a little less than 3000 years ago:

If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent perversion of justice and righteousness in a province, do not marvel at the matter; for high official watches over high official, and higher officials are over them. Moreover the profit of the land is for all; even the king is served from the field. — Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 [NKJV]

In general, I think there is no value in preparing for the “total disaster” scenario if you live in the developed world.  No one wants to poison their own prosperity, and so the rich and powerful hold back from being too rapacious.

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If you don’t have a copy, it would be a good idea to get a copy of Triumph of the Optimists.  [TOTO]  As I commented in my review of TOTO:

TOTO points out a number of things that should bias investors toward risk-bearing in the equity markets:

  1. Over the period 1900-2000, equities beat bonds, which beat cash in returns. (Note: time weighted returns. If the study had been done with dollar-weighted returns, the order would be the same, but the differences would not be so big.)

  2. This was true regardless of what presently developed nation you looked at. (Note: survivor bias… what of all the developing markets that looked bigger in 1900, like Russia and India, that amounted to little?)

  3. Relative importance of industries shifts, but the aggregate market tended to do well regardless. (Note: some industries are manias when they are new)

  4. Returns were higher globally in the last quarter of the 20th century.

  5. Downdrafts can be severe. Consider the US 1929-1932, UK 1973-74, Germany 1945-48, or Japan 1944-47. Amazing what losing a war on your home soil can do, or, even a severe recession.

  6. Real cash returns tend to be positive but small.

  7. Long bonds returned more than short bonds, but with a lot more risk. High grade corporate bonds returned more on average, but again, with some severe downdrafts.

  8. Purchasing power parity seems to work for currencies in the long run. (Note: estimates of forward interest rates work in the short run, but they are noisy.)

  9. International diversification may give risk reduction. During times of global stress, such as wartime, it may not diversify much. Global markets are more correlated now than before, reducing diversification benefits.

  10. Small caps may or may not outperform large caps on average.

  11. Value tends to beat growth over the long run.

  12. Higher dividends tend to beat lower dividends.

  13. Forward-looking equity risk premia are lower than most estimates stemming from historical results. (Note: I agree, and the low returns of the 2000s so far in the US are a partial demonstration of that. My estimates are a little lower, even…)

  14. Stocks will beat bonds over the long run, but in the short run, having some bonds makes sense.

  15. Returns in the latter part of the 20th century were artificially high.

Capitalist republics/democracies tend to be very resilient.  This should make us willing to be long term bullish.

Now, many people look at their societies and shake their heads, wondering if things won’t keep getting worse.  This typically falls into three non-exclusive buckets:

  • The rich are getting richer, and the middle class is getting destroyed  (toss in comments about robotics, immigrants, unfair trade, education problems with children, etc.  Most such comments are bogus.)
  • The dependency class is getting larger and larger versus the productive elements of society.  (Add in comments related to demographics… those comments are not bogus, but there is a deal that could be driven here.  A painful deal…)
  • Looking at moral decay, and wondering at it.

You can add to the list.  I don’t discount that there are challenges/troubles.  Even modestly healthy society can deal with these without falling apart.

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If you give into fears like these, you can become prey to a variety of investment “experts” who counsel radical strategies that will only succeed with very low probability.  Examples:

  • Strategies that neglect investing in risk assets at all, or pursue shorting them.  (Even with hedge funds you have to be careful, we passed the limits to arbitrage back in the late ’90s, and since then aggregate returns have been poor.  A few niche hedge funds make sense, but they limit their size.)
  • Gold, odd commodities — trend following CTAs can sometimes make sense as a diversifier, but finding one with skill is tough.
  • Anything that smacks of being part of a “secret club.”  There are no secrets in investing.  THERE ARE NO SECRETS IN INVESTING!!!  If you think that con men in investing is not a problem, read On Avoiding Con Men.  I spend lots of time trying to take apart investment pitches that are bogus, and yet I feel that I am barely scraping the surface.

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Things are rarely as bad as they seem.  Be willing to be a modest bull most of the time.  I’m not saying don’t be cautious — of course be cautious!  Just don’t let that keep you from taking some risk.  Size your risks to your time horizon for needing cash back, and your ability to sleep at night.  The biggest risk may not be taking no risk, but that might be the most common risk economically for those who have some assets.

To close, here is a personal comment that might help: I am natively a pessimist, and would easily give into disaster scenarios.  I had to train myself to realize that even in the worst situations there was some reason for optimism.  That served me well as I invested spare assets at the bottoms in 2002-3 and 2008-9.  The sun will rise tomorrow, Lord helping us… so diversify and take moderate risks most of time.