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.

Photo Credit: Falcon® Photography

Photo Credit: Falcon® Photography  || In this story, TSB stands for “The Storage Bank”

This piece is another one of my experiments, please bear with me.

“Measure Twice, Cut Once” — A very intelligent woman (I suspect) whose name never got recorded the first time it was uttered

“Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years.” — Warren Buffett

Imagine for a moment:

  • The public secondary markets didn’t exist
  • Investment pooling vehicles were all private, and no one published NAV estimates
  • Stocks and bonds existed, but they were only formally offered through the companies themselves, and all private secondary trading was subject to a right of first refusal on the part of the issuing corporation.  This includes short-term debts like commercial paper.
  • Banks and life insurance companies still offer products to retail savers/investors, but nonforfeiture laws didn’t exist, and CD penalty clauses were very ugly.  In other words, because of no public secondary markets, the price of liquidity was very high, with a strong incentive to hold financial instruments to their maturity date.
  • Accounting rules are only partially standardized.
  • Deposit insurance still exists.
  • So does limited liability.

In this thankfully fictitious world, what would investing be like?

The main factor would be that liquidity would be dear.  Because the “out” doors for liquidity are thin or closed for a long time, money would go into any investment only after great study.  The 4 Cs of credit would be present with a vengeance — character, capacity, capital and conditions — and character would be chief among them as J. P. Morgan famously said.

This would be true even if one were investing in the stock of a firm, rather than the debt.  Investing in such a world, even with limited liability, is tantamount to an economic marriage back in a time where divorce was mostly for cause, and not easy to get.

You’d have to be very certain of what you were doing.  Perhaps you would diversify, but one would quickly realize how difficult it can be to keep up with a bunch of private firms — we take for granted how information flows today, but with private firms, you are subject to the board and management.  What do they choose to share with outside passive minority investors?

Excursus: It is said that it is easy to teach a child to say “please,” because it is the equivalent of “gimme.”  It is harder to teach them “thank you,” until they realize that it means, “I’d like an option on the next deal.”

Why would private firms choose to be open with outside private minority investors?  They want a continuing flow of capital, and with no secondary markets, that can be difficult.  Granted, there are always hucksters that say with P. T. Barnum, who is alleged to have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  Those characters exist regardless of market structure, but in a healthy culture, they are a small minority in the markets.

The same would apply to the debt markets.  The fourth C, Conditions, would also impact matters.  If you can’t get out easily/cheaply, then you will limit the term of the borrowing at which you are willing to lend, unless there are features allowing for participation in the upside, such as stock conversion rights.

You might also find that insolvency becomes a very personal matter, as prior capital providers who know the business better than others, are invited to “prepackaged reorganizations” when the business is illiquid or insolvent.  The bankruptcy code might still exist, but gaining enough data on a firm in trouble would probably prove difficult. The board and management, unless legally compelled, might not find it in their interests to be open.  Control is a valuable option, one that is only surrendered when the situation is virtually hopeless.

That said, a man very good at estimating character and business value could make some amazing profits, because “in the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.”  And, the opposite would be true for many, as they get taken advantage of by less scrupulous management teams.

Back to the Present

“…[R]isk control is best done on the front end.  On the back end, solutions are expensive, if they are available at all.”  — Me, in this article, and a bunch of others.

The purpose of what I just wrote is to get you to think about an illiquid world as a limiting concept.  All of the problems of our world are there, usually in a form that is less severe than we experience because of the benefit of liquid secondary markets and vehicles for diversification.

If valuable for no other reason, market panics make liquidity disappear, and it is useful to think about what you will do in an absence of liquidity before the time of trouble happens.  The same is true of corporations needing liquidity.  Buffett said something to the effect of, “Get financing before you need it; it may not be available later.”

It’s also useful to consider more carefully the financial commitments that you make, so that you don’t make so many blunders.  (True for me, too.)  The ability to trade out of investments is useful but limited, because we don’t always recognize when we are wrong, and mechanical trading rules can lead us to the “death by one thousand cuts.”

Beyond that, realize that character does matter.  A lot.  The government tries as hard as it can, but it is far better at punishing fraud after the fact than it is catching fraud before the fact.  It will always be that way because the law is tilted in favor of the one in control; it has to be, or property rights are meaningless.  But consider those that try to warn about financial disasters — they do not get listened to until it is too late.  Madoff, Enron, housing bubble, various short sellers alleging improprieties, etc., etc.  Very few listen to them, because seeming success talks far louder than an outsider.

My counsel is the same as always, just look at the risk control quote above.  But to make it stark, ask yourself this, a la Buffett, “Would you still buy this if you couldn’t sell it for ten years?”  Then measure twice, thrice, ten times if needed, and cut once.

Picture Credit: Arturo de Albornoz || "Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you." -- Y'Shua Ha'Mushiach

Picture Credit: Arturo de Albornoz || “Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.” — Y’shua Ha’Mushiach

This is an extension of a recent piece Decline Free Food.  Things have gotten worse with the mail situation at the Merkel house as I get older.  It’s not enough that AARP keeps sending us offers join.  (I keep a pile of AARP cards next to my work area to snip up if I am feeling blue. 😉 )  Now that I have turned 55, I am getting a flood of invitations from bloodsuckers financial services marketers asking me to come to their free information session.

The three recent ones were:

  • A conference asking “DO YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO RETIRE RICH?”  The answer is real estate speculation.  Ah, if it were only that easy.  Yes, I know that a tiny amount of flipping has been profitable of late.  The only thing more profitable than flipping and speculating is getting others to pay for your advice and services so that they can go out and lose money speculating and flipping.  As I said to the guy pitching at a “Rich Dad” seminar, “If there’s that much money lying around in mispriced properties, why not go start a REIT and vacuum up all that money yourself?”  His answer, “What’s a REIT?”   I said, “If you don’t know that, you don’t know real estate.”
  • The pitch: “In a moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing.  The worst thing you can do is nothing. — Theodore Roosevelt”  A little more classy, but wrong.  Often the right thing to do is nothing, particularly if you don’t know the right answer… better to wait, study and learn.  Don’t be biased toward action, particularly in investing.  Only a salesman wants you biased toward action, and that is for his good, not yours.  In this case, the course offered doesn’t look so bad, and the price is cheap — but they don’t care about the cost of the course aside from the fact that it psychologically commits you to the course, and that you will more likely come, and be more likely to purchase further services from them.  The biggest thing you would learn from the course is that you don’t know much… so buy their services.
  • The next one advertises a dinner.  This one tries to scare you into coming — there’s a crisis around the corner. Boo!  But we can keep your retirement safe.  Inflation is coming.  Boo!  But we will get you an income that keeps up with inflation.  Then, to aid credibility, it mentions that their firm has been mentioned in a variety of local newspapers that no one pays for that cumulatively have less reach than this blog.

When I recently went and spoke to the Baltimore chapter of the American Association of Individual Investors, I told them, “I’m not going to market anything to you,” and I didn’t.  I response to a question, I did show them a page from my blog.  Yes, the one that lists all my worst mistakes.  And, I took a fairly extensive Q&A where if I didn’t know an answer, or there wasn’t a good answer, I said so.

My credibility is worth more to me than a little business.  Beyond that, I never want a client to think that I goaded him into working with me, or, that I went overboard to retain him if he wants to leave.  After all, I say to them, “It’s Their Money.”

As I often say:

“Don’t buy what someone else wants to sell you.  Buy what you have researched that you want to buy.”

I would say if someone sends you a slick ad on financial services, ignore them.  Always.  Do your own research.  The best firms don’t advertise, because they don’t have to.  Talk to intelligent friends, and see what they do.  Ask investment managers if they died and their firm went out of business, who would they want their spouse to use?

Don’t respond to retirement, investment management and financial planning ads.  Develop your own proposal, and put it out for bid.  Let multiple providers tell you what they will do for you.  Have smart friends help you review the submissions. Then choose the best one.

Keep the hucksters and charlatans at bay.  Ignore them.

Photo Credit: Tori Barratt Crane || "When is the next pension check coming, dear?"

Photo Credit: Tori Barratt Crane || “When is the next pension check coming, dear?”

I’ve seen a small group of pension articles in the recent past, none happy:

  1. Europe Faces Pension Predicament
  2. More Companies Freezing Corporate Pension Plans
  3. The Tragedy Of California’s Public Pensions
  4. Retirement Is Looking Even Worse for Americans

A defined benefit pension is a stream of payments that continues until the beneficiaries die, mainly.  It is funded from the assets set aside by the sponsor, and the earnings that flow from them, as well as additional contributions, should the assets not be enough.  With municipal pensions that means taxes.

Pension benefits are like debt, and sometimes more so.  What I mean is this — pension benefits earned can’t be reduced, except in bankruptcy.  Many states give municipal pension payments preferential treatment, so troubled municipalities can’t compromise pension payments easily, even in bankruptcy, if allowed.  (The main point of the third article is that underfunded pension plans in California will lead to taxes rising further, or, some sort of compromise, with a huge political fight either way.)

In principle, if defined benefit pensions had been funded properly, there wouldn’t be a lot of furor over them.  From inception, funding rules were not conservative enough, particularly in what plans could assume they would earn off investments.

Thus the second article is no surprise.  From my start in investment writing over 20 years ago, I predicted that more corporate pensions would get frozen, terminated, and replaced with defined contribution plans.  Plans assumed too much in the way of investment earnings. Sponsors contributed too little, encouraged by the IRS, that wanted more tax revenue, and thus limited the amount sponsors could contribute.

Things could always be worse, though… many nations in Europe will undergo a lot of strain trying to pay all of the benefits that were promised.  Here’s a quotation from the first article:

“Western European governments are close to bankruptcy because of the pension time bomb,” said Roy Stockell, head of asset management at Ernst & Young. “We have so many baby boomers moving into retirement [with] the expectation that the government will provide.”

Even the U.S., with a Social Security trust fund of $2.8 trillion, faces criticism for promising more than it can afford. That is because the fund—which is mostly in the form of IOUs from the Treasury—is projected to fall short of the sums needed to cover all benefits in a dozen years or so, and run out in 2035. Europe’s situation is much worse.

When taxes are already high, and because of demographics, the ratio of workers to pensioners is falling, it gets difficult to figure out what many European governments will do.  It will be a political fight.  Think Greece — but more widespread.

And from the article, one thing that all should expect is that older people will work to supplement their economic needs — the homey example was the lady raising berries to sell, and rabbits for her personal consumption.

The fourth article had a lot of pension factoids:

  • New York is the worst state to retire in, by one survey.  (But no state is that well off.)  Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, and Virginia are supposedly the five best states for retirement.
  • The odds for a woman of being in poverty after age 65 are high.  Part of that is that women live longer.  Also, the private pensions of most women are smaller.  Another part is that joint pensions for the often higher-earning husband drop in amount paid after he dies.  Two *do* live more cheaply than one, so that *is* a loss.
  • Most people think they won’t have as comfortable a retirement as their parents. (Probably true.)

Altogether, many are worried about retirement.  That is a rational fear.  I have older friends who have thought ahead, and retrained for lower-impact occupations.  If you don’t have assets, you will probably end up working.  Best to think about that sooner, rather than later.  After all, many Americans get to age 65 with less than $100,000 saved.  In this low interest rate environment, getting less than $4,000/year from your savings won’t do much to pad old age, but maybe working in a nice place could.

This isn’t the advice that many want to hear, but for 75% of Americans reaching 65, it is realistic.  Be grateful if you get to retire.  Be more grateful if you don’t get bored.