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The Good ETF, Part 2 (sort of)

Friday, April 18th, 2014

About 4.5 years ago, I wrote a short piece called The Good ETF.  I’ll quote the summary:

Good ETFs are:

  • Small compared to the pool that they fish in
  • Follow broad themes
  • Do not rely on irreplicable assets
  • Storable, they do not require a “roll” or some replication strategy.
  • Not affected by unexpected credit events.
  • Liquid in terms of what they repesent, and liquid it what they hold.

The last one is a good summary.  There are many ETFs that are Closed-end funds in disguise.  An ETF with liquid assets, following a theme that many will want to follow will never disappear, and will have a price that tracks its NAV.

Though I said ETFs, I really meant ETPs, which included Exchange Traded Notes, and other structures.  I remain concerned that people get deluded by the idea that if it trades as a stock, it will behave like a stock, or a spot commodity, or an index.

What triggered this article was reading the following article: How a 56-Year-Old Engineer’s $45,000 Loss Spurred SEC Probe.  Quoting from the beginning of the article:

Jeff Steckbeck didn’t read the prospectus. He didn’t realize the price was inflated. He didn’t even know the security he read about online was something other than an exchange-traded fund.

The 56-year-old civil engineer ultimately lost $45,000 on the wrong end of a volatility bet, or about 80 percent of his investment, after a Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN) note known as TVIX crashed a week after he bought it in March 2012 and never recovered. Now Steckbeck says he wishes he’d been aware of the perils of bank securities known as exchange-traded notes that use derivatives to mimic assets from natural gas to stocks.

“In theory, everybody’s supposed to read everything right to the bottom line and you take all the risks associated with it if you don’t,” he said this month by phone from Lebanon, Pennsylvania. “But in reality, you gotta trust that these people are operating within what they generally say, you know?”

No, you don’t have to trust people blindly.  Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”  Anytime you enter into a contract, you need to know the major features of the contract, or have trusted expert advisers who do know, and assure you that things are fine.

After all, these are financial markets.  In any business deal, you may run into someone who offers you something that sounds attractive until you read the fine print.  You need to read the fine print.  Now, fraud can be alleged to those who actively dissuade people from reading the fine print, but not to those who offer the prospectus where all of the risks are disclosed.  Again, quoting from the article:

Some fail to adequately explain that banks can bet against the very notes they’re selling or suspend new offerings or take other actions that can affect their value, according to the letter.

[snip]

“My experience with ETN prospectuses is that they’re very clear about the fees and the risks and the transparency,” Styrcula said. “Any investor who invests without reading the prospectus does so at his or her own peril, and that’s the way it should be.”

[snip]

The offering documents for the VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX (VIX) Short Term ETN, the TVIX, says on the first page that the security is intended for “sophisticated investors.” The note “is likely to be close to zero after 20 years and we do not intend or expect any investor to hold the ETNs from inception to maturity,” according to the prospectus.

While Steckbeck said a supervisor at Clermont Wealth Strategies advised him against investing in TVIX in February 2012, he bought 4,000 shares the next month from his self-managed brokerage account. The adviser, whom Steckbeck declined to name, didn’t say that the price had become unmoored from the index it was supposed to track.

David Campbell, president of Clermont Wealth Strategies, declined to comment.

Steckbeck, who found the TVIX on the Yahoo Finance website, doesn’t have time to comb through dozens of pages every time he makes an investment, he said.

“Engineers — we’re not dumb,” said Steckbeck, who founded his own consulting company in 1990. “We’re good with math, good with numbers. We read and understand stuff fairly quickly, but we also have our jobs to perform. We can’t sit there and read prospectuses all day.”

If you are investing, you need to read prospectuses.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  I’m sorry, Mr. Steckbeck, you’re not dumb, but you are foolish.  Being bright with math and science is not enough for investing if you can’t be bothered to read the legal documents for the complex contract/security that you bought.  I read every prospectus for every security that I buy if it is unusual.  I read prospectuses and 10-Ks for many simple securities like stocks — the managements must “spill the beans” in the “risk factors” because if they don’t, and something bad happens that they didn’t talk about, they will be sued.

In general I am not a fan of a “liberal arts” education.  I am a fan of math and science.  But truly, I want both.  We homeschool, and our eight kids are “all arounds.”  They aren’t all smart, but they tend to be equal with verbal and quantitative reasoning.  Truly bright people are good with both math and language.  Final quotation from the article:

“The whole point of making these things exchange-traded was to make them accessible to retail investors,” said Colbrin Wright, assistant professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who has written academic articles on the indicative values of ETNs. “The majority of ETNs are overpriced, and about a third of them are statistically significant in their overpricing.”

So, I contacted Colby Wright, and we had a short e-mail exchange, where he pointed me to the paper that he co-wrote.  Interesting paper, and it makes me want to do more research to see how great ETN prices can be versus their net asset values [NAVs].  That said, end of the paper errs when it concludes:

We assert that the frequent and persistent negative WDFDs [DM: NAV premiums] that appear to be driven by uninformed return chasing investors would not exist to the conspicuous degree that we observe if ETNs offered a more investor-driven and fluid system for share creation. We believe the system for share creation is ineffective in mitigating the asymmetric mispricing investigated in our study. Hence, we recommend that ETN issuers reformulate the share creation system related to their securities. Specifically, we recommend the ETN share creation process be structured to mirror that of ETFs. At a minimum, the share creation process should be initiated by investors, rather than by the ETN issuers themselves, as we believe profit-motivated investors will be more diligent and responsive in creating ETN shares when severe mispricing arises.

Here’s the problem: ETNs are debt, not equity.  To have the same share creation system means that the debtor must be willing to take on what could be an unlimited amount of debt.  In most cases, that doesn’t work.

So I come back to where I started.  Be skeptical of complexity in exchange traded products.  Avoid complexity.  Complexity works in favor of the one offering the deal, not the one accepting the deal.  I have only bought one structured note in my life, and that was one that I was allowed to structure.  As Buffett once said (something like this), “My terms, your price.”

To close, here are four valuable articles on this topic:

So avoid complexity in investing.  Do due diligence in all investing, and more when the investments are complex.  I am astounded at how much money has been lost in exchange traded investments that are designed to lose money over the long term.  You might be able to avoid it, but someone has to hold every “asset,” so losses will come to those who hold investments long term that were designed to last for a day.

I’m Not in This for Love

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Much as I appreciate those who like what I write at this blog, I don’t write to be loved.  I don’t write to be hated, either.  I am sensitive to what people think of me, but not to the degree that it changes what I write.

I may have nonconsensus views on:

  • The Federal Reserve
  • Gold
  • Social Security & Medicare (and their cousins around the globe)
  • The current Bull Market in Stocks and Corporate Bonds
  • Long Treasuries
  • and more…..

But I write what I write to disclose the truth.  I am an active equity manager, but I encourage people to use passive investing via index funds, unless they can find a manager who can reliably obtain outperformance.

I don’t blog for economic advantage.  If I wanted to do that, I could channel a wide variety of ideas on investing that are popular, but I know are marginal at best in terms of effectiveness.

Some friends of mine have told me, “Why don’t you write about companies that you own, or companies that look attractive to you?”

I’ve been burned by doing that.  For every ten that you get right, you get the same response from every one you get wrong.  As with most of the web, the complainers dominate.  That’s why I don’t trot out many individual stock ideas.  It’s not that I don’t have them, but I only share them as a group, not as a single idea, most of the time.

Summary

I’m here to tell the truth, even if it cuts against my own short-term economic interests.  Most of the time, I adjust my portfolio so that it is ready for everything, but sometimes I delay, because I know that changes in the market usually happen slowly.

I do not write to be popular.  I write to change the consensus, unlikely as that will be.  Finance is a perverse area of life where fear and greed take over.  And with academics, they have these lame models that are fit for Vulcans (maybe) but not humans (and certainly not Ferengi).

We need new models that reflect the fear-greed cycle, and make valuation a significant input in risk assessments.

I’m not in this for love; I only want to change the way that we view investment decisions.

To Live off of, and Die from, the Equity Premium and Alpha

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

I’m working on my taxes.  I’m not in a good mood.  Okay, writing that made me chuckle, because I am usually in a good mood.

Let me divide my working life into four segments:

  • 1986-1998: Actuary — reasonably well paid, and significantly underpaid compared to the value I delivered.
  • 1998-2007 — Investment risk manager, Mortgage bond manager, Corporate bond manager, and Senior Analyst at a long/short hedge fund.  Paid well for my efforts, and the  rewards to clients were far more than what I was paid.
  • 2007-2010 — Almost no pay, as I deal with home issues, provide research to a small minority broker-dealer, and try to gain institutional asset management clients.  Living off of assets from earlier days.
  • 2010-2014 — Living off of asset income as I slowly build a retail and small institutional client base for my value investing.

The last two periods are the most interesting in a way, because I was drawing more income from investments than I was from any other source.  Even during my time at the hedge fund, I made more money from my own investing every year than I was paid, and I was paid well.  That said the mid-2000s were a hot time, particularly if you made the right calls on a growing global economy.

My net worth today is roughly where it was at the peak of the markets in 2007, despite my low wage income.  I have been bailed out by the returns of the equity market and my alpha.

This is not a comfortable place to be, because general equity returns are not predictable, and alpha, though I have had it for years, is not predictable either.  That said, my client base has been growing, and in another year or so, my practice should support my family even if the markets don’t do well.

=-=-=-=-=-=–==-=-=–=-==-=–=-==–=-=-=-=-==-=–=-==-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Though I just told a story about me, the real story isn’t about me.  Think of all of the people who are trying to manage their lump sum in retirement.  They are relying on strong equity markets; they are hoping for alpha.  They are not ready for setbacks.

Unless you are seriously wealthy, when you are not receiving reliable income from a wage-like source, you can feel like you are in a weak position. I have felt that on occasion, but in general  I have not worried.

I write this because equity outperformance over bonds will likely be limited over the next ten years.  I peg equities at about a 5%/year average nominal return, with a diversified portfolio of bonds at around 2-3%/year.  Also the ability to add alpha is limited, because alpha is zero in total, and are you smart enough to find the managers that can do it?

In desperate times desperate men do desperate things.  Low interest rates are leading many to speculate more than they ordinarily would.  Equity allocations go higher.  Allocations to “alternatives” go higher.  People start using nonguaranteed income vehicles as if they had the structural protections of bonds.

As I always say, be careful.  Those trying to manage a lump sum for income in retirement are playing a dangerous game where if you try to draw more than 3.5%/year with regularity will prove challenging, because that is playing at the boundary of what the assets can deliver, and leaves little room for an adverse scenario.  Be careful.

Best of the Aleph Blog, Part 24

Friday, April 4th, 2014

These articles appeared between November 2012 and January 2013:

On Time Horizons

Investment advice without a time horizon is not investment advice.

This Election Will Solve Nothing

So far that is true of the 2012 elections.

NOTA Bene

We need to add “None of the Above” as an electoral choice in all elections.

Eliminating the Rating Agencies, Part 2

Eliminating the Rating Agencies, Part 3

Where I propose a great idea, and then realize that I am wrong.

The Rules, Part XXXV

Stability only comes to markets in a self-reinforcing mode, from buy and hold (and sell and sit on cash) investors who act at the turning points.

The Rules, Part XXXVI

It almost never makes sense to play for the last 5% of something; it costs too much. Getting 90-95% is relatively easy; grasping for the last 5-10% usually results in losing some of the 90-95%.

Charlie Brown the Retail Investor

Where Lucy represents Wall Street, the football is returns, and Charlie Brown is the Retail Investor. Aaauuuggh!

On Hucksters

Why to be careful when promised results seem too good, and they get delayed, or worse.

Bombing Baby BDC Bonds

Avoid bonds with few protective covenants, unless the borrower is very strong.

On Math Education

Why current efforts to change Math Education will fail.  Pedagogy peaked in the ’50s, and has been declining since then.

On Human Fertility, Part 2

On the continuing decline in human fertility across the globe.

If you Want to be Well-off in Life

Simple advice on how to be better off.  Warning: it requires discipline.

Young People Should Favor Low Discount Rates

If we had assumed lower discount rates in the past, we wouldn’t have the problems we do now.  (And maybe DB pensions would have died sooner.)

Problems in Life Insurance

On why we should be concerned about life insurance accounting.

Investing In P&C Insurers

On why analyzing P&C insurers boils down to analyzing management teams.

Selling Options Cheaply (Did You Know?)

Naive bond investors often take on risks that they did not anticipate.

Book Review: The Snowball, Part One

Book Review: The Snowball, Part Two

Book Review: The Snowball, Part Three

Book Review: The Snowball, Part Four

Book Review: The Snowball, Epilogue

My review of the most comprehensive book on the life of Warren Buffett.

On Watchlists

How I met one of the Superinvestors of Graham-and -Doddsville, and how I generate investment ideas.

Why do Value Investors Like to Index?

How I admitted to not having  a correct perspective on value indexing.

Evaluating Regulated Financials

Why regulated financials are different from other stocks, and how to analyze them.

Locking in a Smaller Loss

Why people are willing to lock in a loss against inflation, because of bad monetary policy.

Why I Sold the Long End

Great timing.

The Evaluation of Common Stocks

Value investing is still powerful, but the competition is a lot tougher.

The Order of Battle in Financial Planning for Ordinary Folks

The basics of personal finance

Sorting Through the News

How to use my free news screener to cut through the news flow, and eliminate noise.

On Financial Blogging

So why do we spend the time at this?

Matching Assets and Liabilities Personally

How to manage investments to fit your own need for cash in the future.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

How short-sighted, incompetent managers destroy value.

Expensive High Yield – II

No such thing as a bad trade , only an early trade… high yield prices moved higher from here.

2012 Financial Report of the US Government

Chronicling the financial promises made by the Federal Government

On Insurance Investing, Part 1

On Insurance Investing, Part 2

On Insurance Investing, Part 3

The first three parts of my 7-part series on how to understand this complex group of sub-industries.

How to Become Super-Rich?

Even Buffett didn’t get super-rich by only investing his own money.  He had to invest the money of others as well.  The super-rich form corporations and grow them; they build institutions bigger than themselves.

The Product that Never saw the Light of Day

On the Variable Annuity product that would simply be a tax scam.  Later I would learn that product exists now, just not in the form I proposed 8 years earlier when it didn’t exist.

Book Review: “The Up Side of Down”

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Failure. We’ve all experienced it. Can we benefit from it?  The answer is maybe, depending on the costs of failure.

If the costs of failure are high, e.g., repaying debts for the rest of life, people will avoid taking risks.  As a result, society will stagnate, because few take risks.

But if the costs of failure are low, people will take more chances, start more businesses, try experiments that might prove something bold.  That is one great thing about America; the penalties for failure are low.  Some have said we are the land of unlimited second chances.  After resigning from the presidency, Richard Nixon became an influential voice on foreign policy.

Megan McArdle uses her own life and many other societal problems to illustrate how a proper use of failure  can benefit individuals and society as a whole.  Failure is how we learn.  As some have said, “The wise learn from the failures of others, normal people learn from their own failures, but the stupid don’t learn.”

I enjoyed this book a great deal, but I want to point out a few of the chapters that particularly struck me.

In Chapter 8, she described the various ways that ideologues described the causes of the financial crisis.  The Left and the Right chose their own monologues to explain the economic failure that occurred.  The truth was far more banal, as average people bought into a housing mania, with financial institutions more than willing to facilitate it, levered as they were.  When the bull market ended, many people found themselves with too much debt relative to the value of their houses.

Chapter 9 was the one from which I learned the most, as it described a probation method used in Hawaii, that I would describe as the judicial equivalent of spanking.  When one on probation violates a term of probation, he gets sent to a rather grim prison for a short period of time.  Like spanking, it is short, and sharp.  Those on probation get tested randomly and regularly.  Most quickly get the idea that they need to change their lives.  The recidivism rate on this program is low.  Small failures get punished.  Resistance to the system means permanent jail.  No failures means freedom.

But what I really appreciated in the book was the willingness of the author to expose her own life failures — jobs, caring for her mother’s health, bad relationships, etc.  She learned from her mistakes, and ended up with a husband who loves her, a good job, and a home in DC, where there is not much debt on the property.  Well done.

My own life has had its share of failures, and they have all taught me something.  The question to you, reader, is what have you learned from your failures?  Memorialize failures, so that you can avoid them and their cousins in the future.  In that sense you can fail well.

There is not a bad chapter in this book.  I recommend it highly, and you will learn a lot.  I learned a lot.

Quibbles

None.

Who would benefit from this book: Anyone could benefit from this great book.  If you want to, you can buy it here: The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.

Full disclosure: The PR people offered me a book, and I accepted it.  I am glad that I did.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, 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.

 

An Expensive Kind of Insurance

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Strategy One: “Consistent Losses, with Occasional Big Gains when the Market is Stressed”

Strategy Two: “Consistent Gains, with Total Wipe-out Risk When Market is Highly Stressed”

How do these two strategies sound to you?  Not too appealing?  I would agree with that.  The second of those strategies was featured in an article at Bloomberg.com recently — Inverse VIX Fund Gets Record Cash on Calm Market Bet.  And though the initial graph confused me, because it was the graph for the exchange traded note VXX, which benefits when the VIX spikes, the article was mostly about the inverse VIX exchange traded note XIV.

Why would someone pursue the second strategy?  Most of the time, it makes money, and since January 2011 we haven’t a horrendous market event like the one from August 2008 through February 2009, it makes money.

I would encourage you to look at the decline in the second half of 2011, where it fell 75% when the VIX briefly burped up to around 50.  But given the amazing comeback as volatility abated, the lesson that some investors drew was this: “Volatility Spike? Time to buy XIV!”  And that explains the article linked above.

You might remember a recent book review of mine — Rule Based Investing.  In that review, I made the point that those that sell insurance on financial contracts tend to win, but it is a volatile game with the possibility of total loss.  To give another example from the recent financial crisis: most of the financial and mortgage insurers in existence prior to 2007 are gone.  Let me put it simply: though financial risks can be insured, the risks are so volatile that they should not be insured.  You are just one colossal failure away from death, and that colossal failure will tend to come when everyone is certain that it can’t come.

But what of the first strategy?  How has it done?

Wow!  Look at the returns over the last few weeks!  Rather, look at a strategy that consistently loses money because it rolls futures contracts for the VIX where the futures curve is upward-sloping almost all the time, leading to buy high, sell low.

Does it pay off in a crisis?  Yes.  Can you use it tactically?  Yes.  Can you hold it and make money?  No.

Back to the second strategy.  People are putting money into XIV because they “know” that implied volatility always mean-reverts, and so they will make easy money after a volatility spike.  But what if they arrive too early, and volatility spikes far higher than expected?  Worse yet, what if Credit Suisse goes belly-up in the volatility?  After all, it is an exchange-traded note where owners of XIV are lending money to Credit Suisse.

Back to Basics

Do I play in these markets?  No.

Do I understand them?  Mostly, but I can’t claim to be the best at this.

What if I try both strategies at the same time?  You will lose.  You are short fees and trading frictions.

What if I short both strategies at the same time?  Uncertain. It comes down to whether you can hold the shorts over the long term without getting “bought in” or panic when one side of the trade runs the wrong way.

Recently, someone pinged me to speak to CFA Institute, Baltimore, where he wanted to talk about “not all correlations of risky assets go to one in a crisis” and pointed to volatility investing as the way to improve asset allocation.  Sigh.  I’m inclined to say that “you can’t teach a Sneech.”

I favor simplicity in investing, and think that many exchange traded products will harm investors on average because the investors do not understand the underlying economics of what they own, while Wall Street uses them as a cheap way to hedge their risk exposures.

There may be some value to speculators in using “investments” like strategy one for a few days at a time.  But holding for any long time is poison.  Worse, if you are accidentally right, and the world comes to an end — this is an exchange-traded note, and the bank you lent to will be broke.  That will also kill strategy two.

So, my advice to you is this: avoid either side of this trade.  Stick with simple investments that do not invest in futures or options.  Complexity is the enemy of the average investor.  I can understand these investments and they don’t work for me.  You should avoid them too.

PS — before I close, let me mention:

Good article in both places.

Equality, and its After-Effects

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

There are many in the US troubled over a number of problems:

  • Why are wages not rising faster, particularly on the low end?
  • Why isn’t the middle class doing better?

I may get a lot of flak over this post, similar to my post Rethinking Comparable Worth, but I think it is better that people understand what is happening, even if they don’t like it.

The world as a whole is getting better, bit-by-bit.  But that includes some places that prosper dramatically, while others sag.

Free trade is a good thing, and I think that free trade agreements should be sought globally.  It helps grow the global economy.  Those benefits are not evenly distributed.  Those whose wages are low relative to others who do the same thing are going to benefit disproportionately.  Those whose wages are high relative to others who do the same thing are going to lose disproportionately.

Here’s the simple way to put it.  If you do the same thing as a guy in China, or any other place, why should you earn something different than him?  What is happening to the lower classes in the US is pressure from the global economy.  There are a lot of people who find the work previously done by those in the US desirable, and at lower prices.  The forces making the world as a whole better off are making the low-skill portions of the US labor force conform to the pay that they get in the rest of the world.

I realize that this is not pleasant, and I spend time helping friends of mine who are affected by this.  But the global move to capitalism has had positive and negative effects on the US — positive for capital, negative for labor.

Some will be offended at this, but you might ask, why should we prevent companies in the US from contracting with foreign workers to do work more cheaply than in the US?  Is there a moral basis to do this?  I don’t think so, as people should be free to have legitimate contracts with those they wish to deal with. (Excluding things in wartime, that is different.)

People outside the US need to be able to improve their well-being.  Same for those in the US.  But what that means is that those wanting to improve their well-being must put a lot of effort forth:

  • Be zealous to improve your skills
  • Market yourself to many companies
  • Start your own company

I know it is tough to do this.  I was unemployed for a short period in 2003, and I put 40+ hours per week into seeking employment.  Seeking a job is a job, you are a one-man firm seeking to sell one unique product one time.  It is tough to do this, but it is the only way to do it.

What you have to understand is that the world is far more competitive than is was before the Cold War ended.  Fifty years from now, the world will be far more equal, and poverty will be far lower than it is today.  (That is, assuming there are no significant wars.)

What I say to my readers is be intelligent,  and seek productive niches in the economy that have some lasting potential.  That’s not true of most of the economy.

Younger people have to get the idea that they need to focus on how their careers will support them economically.

More generally, almost everyone needs to think on a long-term basis.  If you are going to college, aim for things that have the the possibility of giving you a good life over the long haul.  Don’t seek your bliss.  It is rare that your bliss will reward you in the long run.  Don’t seek what makes you happy.  Seek what makes others happy.  That is the true understanding of the golden rule — sacrifice yourself for the good of others, and you will be happy.

That is the secret to economic success — seek what makes others happy, not just yourself.  If you follow this, you will do well enough.  Capitalism exists to make the most people happy.  Other systems exist to control for those who are privileged.

My summary is this: seek the good of others, and look at where demand may growing, and you will do well.

Hoping that you will do well,

David

Book Review: The Safe Investor

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Safe-Investor-nest-egg-jacket-5

This is a special book.  It’s special because it explains investment concept in simple language, and tries to give average people an ability to understand how the markets work.

The author shares from his life experiences, where not everything turned out right.  With bonds in the 1970s, what was ordinarily a safe investment turned into “Certificates of Confiscation,” as inflation and interest rates rose.

The author is careful to point out the difference between fake diversification and true diversification.  False diversification has a large number of positions that are related, like owning many tech stocks from 1998-2003, or many financial and housing stocks 2005-2009.

True diversification means there is not some hidden factor that can affect your whole portfolio.  The author argues that we need a broad array of investments in the portfolio to diversify results, reducing volatility, so that the investment program can continue  until the target is reached.

Th author also argues  that investors need to dig into the guts of what they are investing in.  Who is the custodian?  Are my assets safe from commingling with the assets of others?  (Think of MF Global or Madoff.)  Is there any factor that could cause a substantial fraction of my assets to be significantly impaired?  As an example, what if you live to an old age?  Will you outlive your assets?  For most Baby Boomers, that is a significant risk that is under-appreciated.

The author, who managed two significant asset management firms in his career, encourages readers to do detailed checks on any active managers they hire (like me).  Analyze their methods, their incentives, their character, and more.  Passive investing does away with many of those questions, but still you have to set up an asset allocation.

As for active managers, they often buy and sell to make it look like they are doing something for clients, when frequently less activity would be in the best interests of clients.  Active management often works better at lower turnover rates.

Investment performance analysis has its own pathologies.  There is the need to buy an outperforming fund.  Why buy a fund that has done poorly?  An investor could ask two questions: 1) is the manager just benefiting from the current cycle, or are his picks good aside from that? 2) Has the manager gotten so large in that strategy that there is no place to place money to achieve an above average return.

The author also notes a strategy that many rich employ: hold safe assets and risky assets, but not the stuff in-between.  Few have made their wealth on the stuff in-between.  Preferred stock has made no one rich, nor investment-grade corporate bonds.  Junk bonds when carefully chosen may be an exception.

Now, that said, I think the author is too optimistic on emerging markets.  As in the current mini-crisis, many of them have immature financial systems, and are mis-financed.  Long assets are being financed by short loans.  This can goose growth in the short-run, but not in the long run.  I think that emerging markets have a place in portfolios, but smaller than the author implies.

Three Pockets

The author posits three pockets for assets — a large one for savings (don’t lose this), a medium one for investing (moderate risk), and a small one for trading (high risk).  He is trying to channel male actions in a good way.  You want to gamble?  Gamble with a small amount of money.  Keep the main body of your assets in ordinary hands that you do not touch.  Set it, and mostly, forget it.

This is an interesting way to try to get people to take limited risks, and have most of the portfolio be safe or have limited risks.

Passive vs Active

The author does not take a stark position on this, but points people toward passive funds if active fees are too high, and track records do not validate good investment choices.  That is how I feel about my own investing.  If I can’t outperform, I don’t want you investing with me.  The book’s position is only invest with active investors that have an edge.  That is more common with smaller cap stocks, international investing and junk bonds.

When to Adjust Portfolios to Reduce Risk from Aging

This book has risk positions lasting longer than most books, and generally, I think that is right, unless markets have gone to such high levels that intelligent investors should lighten up.  I think we are in one of those moments now.  Walk, don’t run, to reduce risk assets, and don’t go all the way, just lighten up.  I rarely make big moves, and the book would not advocate tactical big moves either.

I thought the book’s chapters on choosing advisors were well-written.  It gives you adequate ways to check out financial advisors like me, and those much larger than me.

Summary

The summaries at the end of each chapter are very useful.  I can endorse almost everything in the book.  Just be more careful about emerging markets than the book is, they have a lot of risk embedded at present.

Quibbles

None, aside from what what previously mentioned.

Who would benefit from this book: Most amateur investors could benefit from this great book.  If you want to, you can buy it here: The Safe Investor: How to Make Your Money Grow in a Volatile Global Economy.

Full disclosure: The PR people offered me a book, and I accepted it.  I am glad that I did.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, 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.

 

What Life Insurance to Buy?

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

Another letter from one of my readers:

Hello :)

I am reaching out to you because you are among the “Got To Guys” in your industry

I am doing an “expert” and “common man” round up on my blog and I think a lot of people including me will benefit from your expert advice

 I will publish a detailed post in about 10 days and will obviously mention your blog along with a link back to your website. I will also be adding a custom infographic related to the topic of discussion and reach out to journalists when I am ready with my post.

I just need few minutes of your time to answer TWO questions mentioned below:

 If you can tell me:

“If you had to buy life insurance at current age, which policy would you buy? and which company will be your choice?”

I appreciate your time and it will be a favor if you reply back.

There are only two reasons to buy life insurance. You can:

  • Protect your loved ones after your death.
  • You can scam the taxman.

If you are young, the first reason predominates.  In order to do that, long-dated term insurance will do the trick.  Insure yourself for 20-30 years, and over that time, build your assets so that at the end of the life insurance policy, your heirs will not need the insurance.  And neither will you, should you survive.  That is what has happened to me.  I have no life insurance — instead, I have assets.  Should I die, my family will survive without my wife having to go to work, intelligent lady that she is.

(She doesn’t have a financial bone in her body, she is a princess, as her father was well-off.  She has lived with me long enough to absorb my prejudices, and grasp that there are no easy pickings in markets, so avoid those with get rich quick ideas.)

If you are old and wealthy, the second impulse is important.  How do you send money to heirs, away from the taxman?  Life insurance in the US is outside of the estate.  A large insurance policy can take assets that would be taxable to an estate, and move them outside of the estate.

As an aside: estate taxes are stupid.  The intelligent wealthy don’t pay them, or pay little of them.  The wealthy have a phalanx of helpers who they hire to reduce their estate (and other) taxes.  It would be far better to tax everyone as traders, and capture income taxes when they are really earned.

As to your second question: what insurance company to buy from?  If your policy is small, it doesn’t matter.  If your company fails, the state guaranty association will pick up the remainder.  If your policy is large, buy from the highest quality companies, you don’t want to deal with the guaranty associations after a default.

Tough for Buffett to Lose this One

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

I have no idea what premium Buffett is receiving for insuring against one or more people having a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket, but it is unlikely that he will lose on this underwriting bet.  Those seeking insurance on unlikely events think the events are more likely than they actually are.  That said, for Quicken Loans, they don’t want to bet the company, and they do want publicity, so contracting with Buffett is worth their while.

Imagine for a moment that the average person submitting a bracket had a 78.6% chance of getting each game right, and the maximum 10 million people sent in their brackets.  What is the likely number of correct brackets?  One.

But does the average person get more than three out of four games right?  I don’t think so.  Are there some people that are better than others so that they get games right 90% of the time?  Well, if they are 1,163 out of the ten million, on average, one of them will have a perfect bracket.

Here’s a further problem.  Every tournament has significant upsets.  Someone who has a good understanding of how good the teams are will know how to pick the most likely team to win.  It is tough to pick the upsets, and tougher to pick all of the upsets.  There is no good model for upsets, or they wouldn’t be upsets.

=-=-=-=-=-=–=-=-

As an aside, the prize is $500 million as a lump or $25 million for 40 years.  The breakeven yield rate on that is 4.21%.  Buffett knows he can beat 4.21%.

This contest is like the lottery.  If I had one piece of advice for lottery winners it would be to take the payments over time.  The discount rates on most lotteries are far higher than 4.21%, and really, taking them over time gives you a chance to learn how to manage more money then you know what to do with.  Taking the payments over time gives you the freedom to learn from mistakes.  We all make mistakes, but when we get all the money at once, we make more.

 

Disclaimer


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


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


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

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