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The Tip Culture in Amateur Investing

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

2132090594_78f91a417c_o A reader wrote to me and said:

I’m sure a lot of people have already told you but I want to tell you anyway: Your blog is awesome! I came across The Aleph Blog a couple of months ago and I’m very impressed with your content. I particularly like that 4-part article on Using Investment Advice. I am in the financial industry myself and it makes me wish I came up with the kind of ideas that you have on your blog. Awesome stuff!

Keep up the good work,

Many thanks to the reader, and if you want to read that series, it is located here.  But when I considered what he wrote to me, it made me think, “Why do we have to tell people how to think about investment advice?”

Then it hit me: because people are looking for easy tips to execute.  After all, when I wrote the 4-piece series, I had listening to Jim Cramer in mind.  The “tip culture” of inexperienced investors don’t want to learn the ideas behind investing, but just want someone to say, “Buy this.”  There is little if any guarantee that the same pundit will ever update his opinion.

We see this on the web, in magazines, newsletters, newspapers, etc.  On rare occasion, I will print one out, and add it to my “delayed research stack” which means I will look at it in 1-3 months.  I just did my quarterly clean-out a few days ago — anything I add to the stack now will wait until November.INTC

But why read articles like, “Ten Undervalued Large Cap Stocks with Growth Potential,” “Nine Stocks to Buy and Hold Forever,” “Eight Stocks that are Taking Off, Don’t Miss Out,” “Seven Hidden Gens Among Small Caps,” “Six Stocks for Income and Growth,” “Five Energy Stocks that are Poised to Surge,” Four Titanic Stocks that Every Investor Should Own,” “Three Turnaround Stocks with Potential for Large Capital Gains,” “Two Stocks with Breakthrough Technologies,” and “The One Stock that You Should Own for the Next Decade.”

Now, I made those titles up, though the last one was based off a Smart Money article on Intel in late 1999 which came very close to top-ticking  the market.  As you can see, Intel still hasn’t made it back to the tech bubble peak.

As I Googled phrases like, “Ten Best Stocks,” it was fascinating to see the range of pitches employed:

  • Appeals to Buffett (that never gets old)
  • Best stocks for this year
  • Favorite stocks of an author, manager or publication
  • With high dividends
  • With a low price
  • In emerging markets
  • That won’t lose money
  • That our patented investment screener spat out
  • For the rest of your life
  • Etc.

I know that I could get a lot more readers with list articles that tout stocks.  I don’t do it because most of the articles that you read like that are bogus.  [I also don’t want the inevitable scad of complaints that come with the territory.)  So why do such articles draw readers?

People would rather have false certainty than live in the reality that choosing good investments is difficult.  Even very good investors hit rough patches where they do not outperform.  Also, people aren’t comfortable with uncertain horizons for realizing value in investments — article tout holding forever, ten years, one year, but rarely 3-5 years or a market cycle.

The truth is, you can’t tell when a stock will perform, but when it does perform, the results will be lumpy.  The performance of a stock is rarely smooth.  During times when the success or failure of a stock idea is realized, the moves are often violent.

Now remember, those who write such articles are looking for media revenue — such articles are sensational, and pander to the desire for easy money.  But where are the articles telling you to sell ten stocks now?  (Yes, I know there are some, but they are not so common.)  Or, where are follow up pieces indicating how well prior picks have done, and whether one should sell, hold, or buy more now?

My main point is this: good amateur investing is like having a part-time job.  A part-time job, well, takes time.  Weigh that against other priorities in your life — family, friends, church, public service, fun, etc.  You may not want a part-time job, and so you can index your investments, or outsource them to a trusted advisor, who hopefully digs up his own ideas, and does not have a consensus, index-like portfolio (If he does, why not index?)

So, avoid tips if you can.  If you can’t, develop a research discipline, or set them aside like I do, and revisit them when the original reason for buying it is forgotten, and you must evaluate for yourself now.  The investment that you do not understand why you bought it, you will never know when it is the right time to sell it.

Either learn to evaluate investments on your own, or index your investments, or find a good investment advisor.  But don’t think that you will do well off of tips.

A Few Investment Notes

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Just a few notes for this evening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Regarding credit scores, three articles:

From the WSJ article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid Illiquidity

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

There are several reasons to avoid illiquidity in investing, and some reasons to embrace it.   Let me go through both:

Embrace Illiquidity

  • You are offered a lot of extra yield for taking on a bond that you can’t easily sell, and where you are convinced that the creditor is impeccable, and there are no sneaky options that you have implicitly sold embedded in the bond to take value away from you.
  • An unusual opportunity arises to invest in a private company that looks a lot better than equivalent public companies and is trading at a bargain valuation with a sound management team.
  • You want income that will last for your lifetime, and so you take some of the money you would otherwise allocate to bonds, and buy a life annuity, giving you some protection against longevity.  (Warning: inflation and credit risks.)
  • In the past, you bought a Variable Annuity with some good-looking guarantees.  The company approaches you to buy out your annuity at a 10-20% premium, or a 20-30% premium if you roll the money into a new variable annuity with guarantees that don’t seem to offer much.  Either way, turn the insurance company down, and hold onto the existing variable annuity.
  • In all of these situations, you have to treat the money as money lost to present uses.  If there is any significant probability that you might need the money over the term of the asset, don’t buy the illiquid asset.

Avoid Illiquidity

  • Often the premium yield on an illiquid bond is too low, or the provisions take value away with some level of probability that is easy to underestimate.  Wall Street does this with structured notes.
  • Why am I the lucky one?  If you are invited to invest in a private company, be skeptical.  Do extra due diligence, because unless you bring something more than money to the table (skills, contacts), the odds increase that they are after you for your money.
  • Often the illiquid asset is more risky than one would suppose.   I am reminded of the times I was approached to buy illiquid assets as the lead researcher for a broker-dealer that I served.
  • Then again, those that owned that broker-dealer put all their assets on the line, and ended up losing it all.  They weren’t young guys with a lot of time to bounce back from the loss.  They saw the opportunity of a lifetime, and rolled the bones.  They lost.
  • We tend to underestimate how much we might need liquidity in the future.  In the mid-2000s people encumbered their future liquidity by buying houses at inflated prices, and using a lot of debt.  When everything has to go right, the odds rise that everything will not go right.
  • And yet, there are two more more reason to avoid illiquidity — commissions, and inability to know what is going on.

Commissions

Illiquid assets offer the purveyor of the assets the ability to pay a significant commission to their salesmen in order to move the product.   And by “illiquid” here, I include all financial instruments that carry a surrender charge.  Do you want to know how much the agent made selling you an insurance product?  On single-premium products, it is usually very close to the difference between the premium you paid, and the cash surrender value the next day.

Financial companies build their margins into their products, and shave off a portion of them to pay salesmen.  This not only applies to insurance products, but also mutual funds with loads, private REITs, etc.  There are many brokers masquerading as financial advisers, who do not have to act strictly in the best interests of the client.  The ability to receive a commission makes them less than neutral in advising, because they can make a lot of money selling commissioned products.  In general, it is good to avoid buying from commissioned salesmen.  Rather, do the research, and if you need such a product, try to buy it directly.

Not Knowing What Is Going On

There are some that try to turn a bug into a feature — in this case, some argue that the illiquid asset has no volatility, while its liquid equivalents are more volatile.  Private REITs are an example here: the asset gets reported at the same price period after period, giving an illusion of stability.  Public REITs bounce around, but they can be tapped for liquidity easily… brokerage commissions are low.  Some private REITs take losses and they come as a negative surprise as you find  large part of your capital missing, and your income reduced.

What I Prefer

In general, I favor liquid investments unless there is a compelling reason to go illiquid.  I have two private equity investments, both of which are doing very well, but most of my net worth is tied up in my equity investing, which has done well.  I like the ability to make changes as time goes along; there is value to being able to look forward, and adjust.

No one knows the future, but having some slack capital available to invest, like Buffett with his “elephant gun,” allows for intelligent investing when liquidity is scarce, and yet you have some.  Many wealthy people run a liquidity “barbell.”  They have a concentrated interest in one company, and balance that out by holding very safe cash equivalents.

So, in closing, avoid illiquidity, unless you don’t need the money, and the reward is very, very high for making that fixed commitment.

The Value That Investment Advisers Deliver

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

I got cold-called this last week while I was away on business.  I googled the phone number, and found that it came from Melitello Capital.  I went through their site, and read most of their articles.

It’s an interesting firm, though I have no interest in working with them.  The article I would like to comment on tonight is “HOW DOES AN RIA JUSTIFY ITS 1% FEE?

I will explain why a 1% fee can be justified.  Now, I am an old school RIA [Registered Investment Adviser].  I only manage assets.  I don’t allocate across asset classes.  I don’t manage taxes in entire (though I help).  I don’t structure the means to escape estate taxes. I don’t set up insurance schemes to minimize taxes; I could do it, but it would be boring.  I could make a lot more money than I do, but I make enough, and I really like the challenge of outperforming the market.

RIAs offer value to clients in a large number of ways:

  1. Reducing income taxes
  2. Holding the hands of clients during the manic and panic periods of the market.  Discourage them from taking more risk when the market is hot, and encourage them to take more risk, or at least, don’t leave when the market is panicking.
  3. Hedging risks, whether it is a collar on a large single stock position, or a macro hedge.
  4. Aiding in covering insurance needs.
  5. Setting up financial plans.
  6. Structuring estates, such that everything goes where the client wants, and estate taxes are minimized.
  7. Asset allocation, including regular rebalancing.
  8. And more… free advice on other issues, entertainment, bragging rights, etc.
  9. Putting everything together in one neat package.
  10. Oh, and in a few cases, alpha.  (that’s my game)

Now, is that worth 1% on assets?  Point 2 alone is worth more than 1%, so yes.  Those who have read me for years know that people get greedy and panic.  If you can avoid that, you are doing well, very well.

Look, it’s easy to trash talk your competition.  Some registered investment advisers are worth their ~1% fee, and some not.  It depends on the package of services that they deliver — alpha, taxes, insurance, legal help, asset allocation (tsst… be wary of the efficient frontier.  It does not exist.).

In general, if the investment advisers themselves do not give in to panic and greed, they are worth a 1%/year fee.  So seek out advisers that do not give in to market pressure.

Note: this is unpopular, because that means hanging onto advisers that underperform during hot markets.  In the long run you will do better following advice like this– after all, they dissed Buffett in 1999, and my Mom told me I was a fuddy-duddy.  (Note: when a parent tells you that you are behind the times, it stings.  It does not mean that you are wrong.)

I am not telling you to invest with me; that is not what my blog is about.  I am saying that there is value in separate accounts with RIAs.  And, be choosy.  Lower fees are better, subject to the same levels of competence.

Book Review: Effortless Savings

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

91-dHFmqgGL._SL1500_ This is a great book.  I encourage  you to buy it.  Though it talks of “effortless savings,” sorry, you’re going to have to work to get those savings.  Often the work won’t be much, but you have to focus your life to save, and that takes effort.

What area do I have the most expertise in?  Insurance.  When I read the book, I looked at the insurance area closely, and said to myself, “a very good chapter, except he excluded warranties.”

Then as I read on, he handled warranties later, in discussions on electronics, where warranties are presently hot.

This is one of those books, that as you read it, you should make a list.  Prioritize the areas where you are overspending, and take action one-by-one, to reduce your spending in a wise way.  If you did this over a whole year, you might be able to do this in such a way that you don’t notice any significant changes to your life.

Quibbles

None.

Summary

This is a great book and you should buy it here: Effortless Savings: A Step-by-Step Guidebook to Saving Money Without Sacrifice.

Full disclosure: The author asked me if I would like a copy and I said yes.

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.

Post 2500: What is the Aleph Blog About?

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Every hundred or so posts, I take a step back, and try to think about broader issues about blogging about finance.  Tonight, I want to explain to new readers what the Aleph Blog is about.

There have been many new followers added to my blog recently,  through e-mail, RSS, and natively.  This is because of this great article at Marketwatch, which builds off of this great article at Michael Kitces’ blog.

I am humbled to be included among Barry Ritholtz, Josh Brown, and Cullen Roche, and am genuinely surprised to be at number 4 among RIAs in social media influence.  Soli Deo Gloria.

What Does the Aleph Blog Care About?

I’m writing this primarily for new readers, because I’ve written a lot, and over a lot of areas.  I write about a broader range of topics than almost all finance bloggers do because:

  • I’m both a quantitative analyst and a qualitative analyst.
  • I’m an economist that is skeptical about the current received wisdom.
  • I like reading books, so I write a lot of book reviews.
  • I’m also a skeptic regarding Modern Portfolio Theory, and would like to see it discarded from the CFA and SOA syllabuses.
  • I believe in value investing, in both the quantitative and qualitative varieties.
  • I believe that risk control is a core concept for making money — you make more money by not losing it.
  • I believe that good government policy focuses on ethics, not results.  The bailouts were not fair to average Americans.  What would have been fair would have been to let the bank/financial holding companies fail, while protecting the interests of depositors.  The taxpayers would have been spared, and there would have been no systematic crisis had that been done.
  • I care about people not getting cheated.  That includes penny stocks, structured notes, private REITs, and many other financial innovations.  No one on Wall Street wants to do you a favor, so do your own research and buy what you want to own, not what someone wants to sell you.
  • Again, I don’t want to see people cheated, so I write about  insurance.  As a former actuary, and insurance buy-side analyst, I know a lot about insurance.  I don’t know this for sure, but I think this is the blog that writes the most about insurance on the web for free.  I write as one that invests in insurance stocks, and generally, I buy the stocks because I like the management teams.  Ethical, hard working insurance management teams do the best.
  • Oddly, this is regarded to be a good accounting blog, because as a user of accounting statements, I write about accounting issues.
  • I am a skeptic on monetary and fiscal policy, and believe both of them tend to sacrifice the future to benefit the present.  Our grandchildren will hate us.   That brings up another issue: I write about the effects of demographics on the markets.  In a world where populations are shrinking in developed nations, and will be shrinking globally by 2040, there are significant economic impacts.  Economies don’t do well when workers are shrinking in proportion to those who are not working.  (Note: include stay-at-home moms and dads in those who work.  They are valuable.)
  • I care about the bond market.  There aren’t that many good bond market blogs.  I won’t write about it every day, but I will write about i when it is important.
  • I care about pensions.  Most of the financial media knows things are screwed up there, but they do not grasp how bad the eventual outcome will likely be.  This is scary stuff — choose the state you live in with care.

Now, if you want my most basic advice, visit my personal finance category.

If you want my view of what my best articles have been, visit my best articles category.

If you want to read about my “rules,” read the rules category.

Maybe you want to read some of my most popular series:

My blog is not for everyone.  I write about what I feel most strongly about each evening.  Since I have a wide array of interests, that makes for uneven reading, because not everyone cares about all the things that I do.  If that makes my readership smaller, so be it.  My blog expresses my point of view; it is not meant to be the largest website on finance.  I want to be special, even if that means small, expressing my point  of view to those who will listen.

I thank all of my readers for reading me.  I appreciate all of you, and thank you for taking the time to read me.

As one final comment, I need to say this.  I note people unfollowing my blog at certain times, and I say to myself, “Oh, I haven’t been writing about his pet issue for a while.”  Lo, and behold, after these people leave, I start writing about it again.  That is not intentional, but it is very similar to how the market works.   People buy and sell investments at the wrong times.

To all my readers, thank you for reading me.  I value all of you, and though I can’t answer all e-mails, I read all e-mails.

In summary: the Aleph Blog is about ethics and competence.  I want to do what is right, and do what gives the best investment performance, in that order.

 

Sorted Weekly Tweets

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

Market Impact 

  • Giving Yourself an Investing Makeover http://t.co/u1MmwlWiKP @jasonzweigwsj describes Guy Spier & his efforts 2b a more rational investor $$ May 24, 2014
  • The Bearish Signs Junk Buyers Reject in Stoking ’14 Rally http://t.co/xsYEJeKTnU BBs beat CCCs amid a falling Russell 2000 index $$ #odd May 23, 2014
  • Penny Stocks Like Latteno Foods Rally, Fueling Big-Dollar Dreams http://t.co/IiqCWeAyOW Fascinating 2c this amid a pullback in small caps $$ May 23, 2014
  • Buffett Too Rich for Buffett Is Sign Bargains Are Gone http://t.co/cbjQ0MDmSR I’m still finding some cheap stocks but they r unusual $$ $SPY May 23, 2014
  • For Sale: 20% Stake in Hedge Fund. Terms: Complicated. http://t.co/kDoik1H4LT “You don’t want to be wearing someone else’s underwear.” $$ May 23, 2014
  • Boomers Cash In as Bull Market Aids Exodus From Workforce http://t.co/uKRIfO4qMQ Asset illusions delude Boomers who think they r rich $$ May 23, 2014
  • Wall Street Finds New Subprime With 125% Business Loans http://t.co/USvBIvP5Vj The businesses would get better rates on Prosper $$ #dumb May 23, 2014
  • Debt Rises in Leveraged Buyouts Despite Warnings http://t.co/6T8TIpdxWc Debt makes financial systems less flexible; depend on fixed pmts $$ May 21, 2014
  • Chasing Yield, Investors Plow Into Junk Bonds http://t.co/lWFufDu7Hy Yields have never been lower 4 CCC-rated debts $$ May 21, 2014

 

Rest of the World

  • What China Property Crash? Economists See Growth Bump http://t.co/kcXGitJH1l Economists c new empty buildings & mark up GDP $$ $FXI #FTL May 23, 2014
  • Putin’s Singapore Dream Costs Crimea Banks and Burgers http://t.co/OmmtpYDB7G Singapore is not so much created by laws but by ppl culture $$ May 23, 2014
  • Russia, China Sign $400B Gas Deal After Decade of Talks http://t.co/4k8PSE5NrM The infrastructure must b created 2 make this work; not ez $$ May 23, 2014
  • Brazil World Cup Win Risks Stock Drop in Boon to Rousseff http://t.co/dPb8GVbtSZ Brazil wins, Rousseff win odds rise, stocks will fall $$ May 23, 2014
  • BlackRock Has Cut Portugal Bond Holdings Over Past Couple of Weeks http://t.co/U3CuYpUu81 Some Emerging-Market Debt > Euro-Zone Bonds $$ May 23, 2014
  • Norway Loses Reputation as Stable Investment as Firms Recoil http://t.co/fqQkiM2H3k Tax 2 highly & businesses run away $$ May 21, 2014
  • It’s a Good Time to Globalize Your Stock Portfolio http://t.co/8pqTAwFbqj Many foreign companies r trade cheaper than US stocks $$ $SPY $EFA May 21, 2014
  • UK House Prices Rise to Record High in April http://t.co/vo6gYZNlAQ B sure 2add wealthy foreigners buying in London as investment/hedge $$ May 19, 2014
  • Bank of England’s Mark Carney Highlights Housing Market’s Threat to UK Economy http://t.co/5XOwH0cIsJ 100% of all UK mtges r short-dated $$ May 19, 2014
  • Good Time To Be A Farmer In China? http://t.co/04V9YEmSQm China aggressively pushing crop insurance, & larger scale agriculture $$ $FXI $SPY May 19, 2014

Energy

  • Without Keystone XL http://t.co/qpDcgET7J3 Economic & public health costs of forgoing a new oil pipeline $$ {Sound of oil train derailing} May 24, 2014
  • Secrecy of Oil-by-Train Shipments Causes Concern Across the US http://t.co/knapJHOx1k Butane, propane & ethane should be removed b4 shpng $$ May 23, 2014
  • Oil Nations Put Out Welcome Mat for Western Companies http://t.co/cvarvyMDCt If u make the cost of drilling2high, fewer bbls get produced $$ May 19, 2014

 

US Politics & Policy

  • How Timothy Geithner failed his stress test http://t.co/qSu9V6oZvX When @rortybomb & I agree on something, that is notable $$ #housingbubble May 23, 2014
  • Meet Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC Swing Vote http://t.co/VtIzieSnqI Marches to her own drummer, willing to cut deals 4 the greater good $$ May 23, 2014
  • How to Turn Homes Back Into Piggy Banks http://t.co/fB9PTlBwxZ Housing Personal Savings Acct & Equity Principal Tax Credit; elim mtge ded $$ May 23, 2014
  • NJ Gov. Christie under fire for cutting pension payments to state workers http://t.co/rGwAKla3aT Definite mistake; cashflows compound $$ May 23, 2014
  • BlackRock’s Fink Says Housing Structure More Unsound Now http://t.co/xeMYQmjYGG GSEs took too much default risk pre-crisis, returning $$ May 21, 2014
  • GOP’s Business Wing Sends Tea Party a Chilling Message http://t.co/W5QCHBrJrW Business fights small government GOP candidates $$ May 19, 2014
  • Why Republicans Should Take Rick Santorum Seriously http://t.co/wN7tUmnhbV Represents the middle class populist part of the GOP $$ May 19, 2014
  • California’s Drinking Problem http://t.co/GZnmdInHGY California does not have enough water for Ag, Industry, People, w/o right incentives $$ May 19, 2014

 

US Monetary Policy

  • New Faces Behind Fed Dots Seen Roiling Markets as Forecasts Move http://t.co/M2AcqPEQTX Y publish estimates if u don’t want us 2read them $$ May 23, 2014
  • Bubble States Underemployment Rates Haunt Yellen http://t.co/fRzLYozafe Monetary policy is impotent w/debt defation; Fed on wrong track $$ May 23, 2014
  • New Faces Behind Fed Dots Seen Roiling Markets as Forecasts Move http://t.co/M2AcqPEQTX Y publish estimates if u don’t want us 2read them $$ May 23, 2014
  • Yellen Adds Disadvantaged to Full-Employment Definition http://t.co/10PSrxYI9c Alas, monetary policy is weak when dealing e/employment $$ May 21, 2014
  • Fed’s Rate-Change System Up for Revamp http://t.co/srqZoDDMhK The Fed is lost. The Fed is lost. The Fed is lost. The Fed is lost… $$ $TLT May 19, 2014

 

Companies & Industries

  • Google Developing Tablet With Advanced Vision Capabilities http://t.co/ABO9NObY1h Will b interesting 2c what new apps get developed $$ $GOOG May 23, 2014
  • Planting Corn at Warp Speed Using High-Tech Tools http://t.co/tDF9EaJoy6 Astounding application of technology transforms planting seed $$ May 23, 2014
  • Golf Market Stuck in Bunker as Thousands Leave the Sport http://t.co/ju7aFEx2lp Costs 2 much $$ takes up 2 much time, but growing in Asia May 23, 2014
  • Family Dining Offers Barometer of Middle Income http://t.co/5IzzOFfS3j Ugly valuations means stocks will fall if sales don’t rise 4%/yr+ $$ May 23, 2014
  • Silicon Valley’s Laundry-App Race http://t.co/GyvIWxd5ux Long article on the efforts to turn laundry into a scalable attractive business $$ May 23, 2014

 

Personal Finance

 

  • Dueling Strategies for 401(k)s, IRAs and Your Other Retirement Funds http://t.co/DGzSDVhDZ6 Do what maxes long-term purchasing power $$ $SPY May 23, 2014
  • 40 Financial Things You Should Know by 40 http://t.co/8qqFlp1TUB 2013 article, but I thought it covered the personal financial basics $$ May 19, 2014

 

Other

  • New Study: Is No Degree Better Than A Liberal Arts Degree? http://t.co/MOYUZTngoD Depends. It helps in getting some jobs, but not all $$ May 21, 2014
  • BBC News – ‘Biggest dinosaur ever’ discovered http://t.co/Yg2qTuS27T Interesting b/c it probably was once much warmer in Patagonia $$ May 19, 2014
  • Haverford Speaker Bowen Criticizes Students Over Protests http://t.co/QXkWoAh0iE Former Princeton President calls them “immature.” Bingo! $$ May 19, 2014

 

Wrong

  • Overrated: Russia, China sign deal to bypass USD http://t.co/YNgu6bwK7H What matters is where u invest the proceeds from goods exported $$ May 23, 2014
  • Wrong: Investing: The herd isn’t always dumb http://t.co/dt0xuXKNCJ Then explain y dollar-weighted returns underperform buy & hold $$ #panic May 23, 2014
  • Wrong: Cutting Off Emergency Unemployment Benefits Hasn’t Pushed People Back to Work http://t.co/3GwlHcvq70 We run unsustainable deficits $$ May 23, 2014
  • Wrong: Ikea Economics Lure Central Bankers Seeking New Tools http://t.co/peVUXrPpKs Don’t try negative interest rates; will b a disaster $$ May 23, 2014
  • Wrong: The Retirement Apocalypse That Isn’t Coming http://t.co/ILYSCOzKTm I might buy this if we weren’t running large deficits $$ $TLT $SPY May 21, 2014

 

Retweets, Replies & Comments

  • ‘ @DGenchev I am analyzing the investors as a group, thus what % of the mkt cap is relevant. I go to EDGAR and copy XML files into Excel May 24, 2014
  • If I were doing your project, I would not have chosen any of your “governance experts.” I would have chosen a group…http://t.co/XWlYm8HaVD May 22, 2014

 

Asset Value Illusion

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Are some Baby Boomers retiring because the current value of their assets is high?  This article from Bloomberg gives an ambivalent answer to the question.  Personally, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can answer a related question: In the current market environment, where interest rates are low and stock valuations are high, should Baby Boomers accelerate their retirements?

The answer is no.  Here’s why: in retirement, you aren’t earning income from wages.  You need income to be able to pay for expenses.  If interest rates are low and stock valuations are high, you won’t be able to create much income relative to your assets.

It’s like owning a long bond that you intend to buy and hold for the income.  Do you care that interest rates have fallen, and the value of your bond is above where you bought it?  No.  It doesn’t give you any more income.  If you sold it, where would you reinvest to get more income at equivalent risk?

Let me digress: rather than looking at asset values, look at anticipated cash flow streams.  Have you grown you anticipated cash flow stream?  In a bull market, many look like geniuses, but if it is only due to a rise in valuations, it means that the cash flow streams are unchanged.

I realize this is a harder way to look at the markets, but for those that have managed the interest rate risk at life insurers, this is the way the best do it.  Have you created a higher income rate over the funding horizon?  That is true improvement of the economic position.

Don’t merely look at the current value of your assets.  That is an illusion of the true value in terms of income.  Think of it this way.  Say that you have surpassed your prior peak assets of 2007 recently in 2014.  Now look at the income you could have purchased in 2007 (use the long bond as a proxy — 5%), versus what you could buy today — 3.4%.  The ability to generate income is reduced by 30%+.

You might argue that the long bond is the wrong proxy — too long, too safe.  I would argue that the safety is necessary.  If you want to take more risks in fixed income, go ahead, but that is an option.  As for length, the length is close to what is needed, but if you used 20-year bonds, the argument would not change.

Final Notes

You might think you have a lot of money, but how much income can it generate?  Are you protected against inflation? Deflation? Credit risk?  Don’t assume because the asset balance is high that you are necessarily better off, because you might not be able to earn as much income off your assets.

Playing for Pennies, Risking Dollars

Friday, May 16th, 2014

I try to avoid investments where the upside is limited, but the downside is unlimited.  That’s the way I feel about junk bonds now.  Have junk yields been lower before?  No, we have eclipsed the time in 2013 when the junk market was in a yield frenzy, until Bernanke uttered the word “taper.”

There are a lot of desperate retirees seeking income, assuming it is free, and not merely a return of capital.  There are a lot of desperate people seeking certainty in investing and do not realize that dividends are a handmaiden of value, and not value itself.

There are a lot of desperate pension plans looking to make up for lost time, and hoping against hope, buying dividend paying and growth stocks, high-yield bonds, alternatives like hedge funds, private equity, etc., at the wrong time.

Those are the things you should buy when stocks are cheap and people are scared to death.  You sell them when people are confident, and valuations are high.

Valuations are high; not nosebleed high as in 2000, but high as in comparable to the peak in 2007.  Could things go higher?  Yes, but you are playing for pennies and risking dollars in the process.  Those with a value and quality discipline will likely fare better in the process, but markets are messy, and what actually happens will be a surprise.

Thus I would encourage you to consider the credit quality of your stocks and bonds.  What kind of shock could they withstand?  When yields are low, like they are now, the system is less resilient to credit crises.  Be aware, and be on your guard.

 

Look to the Liabilities to Understand the Assets

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

There’s a puzzle of sorts in asset allocation, and it falls under the rubric of uncorrelated returns.  When a new asset class arrives, and it is small and few invest in it — lo, it is uncorrelated!

But then the word spreads, and more investors begin investing in the alternative asset class.  This has two effects:

  1. It drives up the price of the alternative assets, temporarily boosting performance, and
  2. It makes the asset class returns more sensitive to the actions of large institutional investors, such that the correlations rise with stocks and other risk assets.

How an asset is funded matters a great deal as to future price performance.  I often talk about strong hands and weak hands in investing, but I can make it simple:

  • Strong Hands — Well capitalized, little debt, and what debt there is, is long-dated.  Such people can buy assets and ride out storms, not worrying about mark-to-market losses.
  • Weak Hands — Poorly capitalized, much debt, and what debt there is is short-dated.  A storm will capsize them, making them forced sellers of the assets they acquired with debt.

Buffett understands this.  His insurance companies have relatively low underwriting leverage, but they benefit from high allocations to stocks.  He can own stocks because there is a core amount of liabilities that will fund the stocks that he owns.

Think of housing for a moment.  Asset prices were highest when the ability to use short-term low-cost financing was abundant.   Eventually, there was no demand for housing when prices would lock in losses for buyers who would rent the property out.

If an asset is owned by entities that have weak financing, there is a real risk of loss if the financing can’t be maintained.  You become subject to the credit cycle, which governs much of investing.  Invest when credit spreads are wide; don’t invest when they are narrow.

I know that advice is vague, but that’s a part of the game.  You have to adjust the riskiness of your portfolio to overall conditions, and resist trends, if you want to make money over the long run.

How people and other entities fund the assets that they own has an effect on the future price performance, because it affects how they might buy or sell.

 

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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