Photo Credit: Ian Sane || Many ways to supplement retirement income...

Photo Credit: Ian Sane || One of many ways to supplement retirement income…

Investing is difficult. That said, it can be harder still. Let people with little to no training to try to do it for themselves. Sadly, many people get caught in the fear/greed cycle, and show up at the wrong time to buy and/or sell. They get there late, and then their emotions trick them into action. A rational investor would say, “Okay, I missed that move. Where are opportunities now, if there are any at all?”

Investing can be made even more difficult.  Investing reaches its most challenging level when one relies on his investing to meet an anticipated and repeated need for cash outflows.

Institutional investors will say that portfolio decisions are almost always easier when there is more cash flowing in than flowing out.  It means that there is one dominant mode of thought: where to invest new money?  Some attention will be given to managing existing assets — pruning away assets with less potential, but the need won’t be as pressing.

What’s tough is trying to meet a cash withdrawal rate that is materially higher than what can safely be achieved over time, and earning enough consistently to do so.  Doing so as an amateur managing a retirement portfolio is a particularly hard version of this problem.  Let me point out some of the areas where it will be hard:

1) The retiree doesn’t know how long he, his spouse, and anyone else relying on him will live.  Averages can be calculated, but particularly with two people, the odds are that at least one will outlive an average life expectancy.  Can they be conservative enough in their withdrawals that they won’t outlive their assets?

It’s tempting to overspend, and the temptation will get greater when bad events happen that break the budget, whether those are healthcare or other needs.  It is incredibly difficult to avoid paying for an immediate pressing need, when the soft cost is harming your future.  There is every incentive to say, “We’ll figure it out later.”  The odds on that being true will be low.

2) One conservative estimate of what the safe withdrawal rate is on a perpetuity is the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note plus around 1%.  That additional 1% can be higher after the market has gone through a bear market, and valuations are cheap, and as low as zero near the end of a bull market.

That said, most people people with discipline want a simple spending rule, and so those that are moderately conservative choose that they can spend 4%/year of their assets.  At present, if interest rates don’t go lower still, that will likely (60-80% likelihood) work.  But if income needs are greater than that, the odds of obtaining those yields over the long haul go down dramatically.

3) How does a retiree deal with bear markets, particularly ones that occur early in retirement?  Can he and will he reduce his expenses to reflect the losses?  On the other side, during bull markets, will he build up a buffer, and not get incautious during seemingly good times?

This is an easy prediction to make, but after the next bear market, look for a scad of “Our retirement is ruined articles.”  Look for there to be hearings in Congress that don’t amount to much — and if they do amount to much, watch them make things worse by creating R Bonds, or some similarly bad idea.

Academic risk models typically used by financial planners typically don’t do path-dependent analyses.  The odds of a ruinous situation is far higher than most models estimate because of the need for withdrawals and the autocorrelated nature of returns – good returns begets good, and bad returns beget bad in the intermediate term.  The odds of at least one large bad streak of returns on risky assets during retirement is high, and few retirees will build up a buffer of slack assets to prepare for that.

4) Retirees should avoid investing in too many income vehicles; the easiest temptation to give into is to stretch for yield — it is the oldest scam in the books.  This applies to dividend paying common stocks, and stock-like investments like REITs, MLPs, BDCs, etc.  They have no guaranteed return of principal.  On the plus side, they may give capital gains if bought at the right time, when they are out of favor, and reducing exposure when everyone is buying them.  Negatively, all junior debt tends to return worse on average than senior debts.  It is the same for equity-like investments used for income investing.

Another easy prediction to make is that junk bonds and non-bond income vehicles will be a large contributor to the shortfall in asset return in the next bear market, because many people are buying them as if they are magic.  The naive buyers think: all they do is provide a higher income, and there is no increased risk of capital loss.

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

Thus, in one sense, there is no benefit much from a general rise in values from the stock or bond markets.  The value of a portfolio may have risen, but at the cost of lower future opportunities.  This is more ironclad in the bond market, where the cash flow streams are fixed.  With stocks and other risky investments, there may be some ways to do better.

Retirees should be aware that the actions taken by one member of a large cohort of retirees will be taken by many of them.  This makes risk control more difficult, because many of the assets and services that one would like to buy get bid up because they are scarce.  Often it may be that those that act earliest will do best, and those arriving last will do worst, but that is common to investing in many circumstances.  As Buffett has said, “What a wise man does in the beginning a fool does in the end.”

6) Retirement investors should avoid taking too much or too little risk. It’s psychologically difficult to buy risk assets when things seem horrible, or sell when everyone else is carefree.  If a person can do that successfully, he is rare.

What is achievable by many is to maintain a constant risk posture.  Don’t panic; don’t get greedy — stick to a moderate asset allocation through the cycles of the markets.

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

Another way retirees can succeed would be investing in growth at a reasonable price – stocks that offer capital growth opportunities at an inexpensive price and a margin of safety.  These companies or assets need to have large opportunities in front of them that they can reinvest their free cash flow into.  This is harder to do than it looks.  More companies look promising and do not perform well than those that do perform well.

Yet another way to enhance returns is value investing: find undervalued companies with a margin of safety that have potential to recover when conditions normalize, or find companies that can convert their resources to a better use that have the willingness to do that.  After the companies do well, reinvest in new possibilities that have better appreciation potential.


8 ) Many say that the first rule of markets is to avoid losses.  Here are some methods to remember:

  • Always seek a margin of safety.  Look for valuable assets well in excess of debts, governed by the rule of law, and purchased at a bargain price.
  • For assets that have fallen in price, don’t try to time the bottom — buy the asset when it rises above its 200-day moving average. This can limit risk, potentially buying when the worst is truly past.
  • Conservative investors avoid the areas where the hot money is buying and own assets being acquired by patient investors.

9) As assets shrink, what should be liquidated?  Asset allocation is more difficult than it is described in the textbooks, or in the syllabuses for the CFA Institute or for CFPs.  It is a blend of two things — when does the investor need the money, and what asset classes offer decent risk adjusted returns looking forward?  The best strategy is forward-looking, and liquidates what has the lowest risk-adjusted future return.  What is easy is selling assets off from everything proportionally, taking account of tax issues where needed.

Here’s another strategy that’s gotten a little attention lately: stocks are longer assets than bonds, so use bonds to pay for your spending in the early years of your retirement, and initially don’t sell the stocks.  Once the bonds run out, then start selling stocks if the dividend income isn’t enough to live on.

This idea is weak.  If a person followed this in 1997 with a 10-year horizon, their stocks would be worth less in 2008-9, even if they rocket back out to 2014.

Remember again:

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

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

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

Deciding what to sell is an exercise in asset-liability management.  Keep the assets that offer the best return over the period that they are there to fund future expenses.

10) Will Social Security take a hit out around 2026?  One interpretation of the law says that once the trust fund gets down to one year’s worth of payments, future payments may get reduced to the level sustainable by expected future contributions, which is 73% of expected levels.  Expect a political firestorm if this becomes a live issue, say for the 2024 Presidential election.  There will be a bloc of voters to oppose leaving benefits unchanged by increasing Social Security taxes.

Even if benefits last at projected levels longer than 2026, the risk remains that there will be some compromise in the future that might reduce benefits because taxes will not be raised.  This is not as secure as a government bond.

11) Be wary of inflation, but don’t overdo it.  The retirement of so many people may be deflationary — after all, look at Japan and Europe so far.  Economies also work better when there is net growth in the number of workers.  It will be tempting for policymakers to shrink what liabilities they can shrink through inflation, but there will also be a bloc of voters to oppose that.

Also consider other risks, and how assets may fare.  Retirees should analyze what exposure they have to:

  • Deflation and a credit crisis
  • Expropriation
  • Regulatory change
  • Trade wars
  • Changes in taxes
  • Asset illiquidity
  • Reductions in reimbursement from government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, etc.
  • And more…

12) Retirees need a defender of two against slick guys who will try to cheat them when they are older.  Those who have assets are a prime target for scams.  Most of these come dressed in suits: brokers and other investment salesmen with plausible ways to make assets stretch further.  But there are other scams as well — retirees should run everything significant past a smart younger person who is skeptical, and knows how to say no when it is necessary.


Some will think this is unduly dour, but this is realistic.  There are not enough resources to give all of the Baby Boomers a lush retirement, without unduly harming younger age cohorts, and this is true over most of the developed world, not just the US.

Even with skilled advisers helping, retirees need to be ready for the hard choices that will come up. They should think through them earlier rather than later, and take some actions that will lower future risks.

The basic idea of retirement investing is how to convert present excess income into a robust income stream in retirement.  Managing a pile of assets for income to live off of is a challenge, and one that most people are not geared up for, because poor planning and emotional decisions lead to subpar results.

Retirees should aim for the best future investment opportunities with a margin of safety, and let the retirement income take care of itself.  After all, they can’t rely on the markets or the policymakers to make income opportunities easy.

financial tales

This financial book is different from the 250+ other financial books that I have reviewed, and the hundreds of others I have read.  It tells real life stories that the author has personally experienced, and the financial ramifications that happened as a result.  Each of the 60+ stories illustrates a significant topic in financial planning for individuals and families.  Some end happy, some end sad.  There are examples from each of the possible outcomes that can result from people interacting with financial advice (in my rough large to small probability order):

  • Followed bad advice, or ignored good advice, and lost.
  • Followed good advice, and won.
  • A mixed outcome from mixed behavior
  • Followed bad advice, or ignored good advice, and won anyway.
  • Followed good advice, and lost anyway.

The thing is, there is a “luck” component to finance.  People don’t know the future behavior of markets, and may accidentally get it right or wrong.  With good advice, the odds can be tipped in their favor, at least to the point where they aren’t as badly hurt when markets get volatile.

The stories in the book mostly stem from the author’s experience as a financial advisor/planner in Maryland.  The stories are 3-6 pages long, and can be read one at a time with little loss of flow.  The stories don’t depend on each other.  It is a book you can pick up and put down, and the value will be the same as for the person who reads it straight through.

In general, I thought the author advocated good advice for his clients, family and friends.  Most people could benefit from reading this book.  It’s pretty basic, and maybe, _maybe_, one of your friends who isn’t so good with financial matters could benefit from it as a gift if you don’t need it yourself.  The reason I say this is that some people will learn reading about the failures of others rather than being advised by well-meaning family, friends, and professionals.  They may admit to themselves that they have been wrong when they be unwilling to do it with others.

I recommend this book for readers who need motivation and knowledge to guide themselves in their financial dealings, including how to find a good advisor, and how to avoid bad advisors.


The book lacks generality because of its focus on telling stories.  It would have been a much better book if it had one final chapter or appendix where the author would take all of the lessons, and weave them into a coherent whole.  If nothing else, such a chapter would be an excellent review of the lessons of the book, and could even footnote back to the stories in the book for where people could read more on a given point.

I know this is a bias of mine regarding books with a lot of unrelated stories, but I think it is incumbent on the one telling the stories to flesh out the common themes, because many will miss those themes otherwise.  In all writing, specifics support generalities, and generalities support specifics.  They are always stronger together.

An Aside

I benefited from the book in one unusual way: it gave me a lot of article ideas, which you will be reading about at Aleph Blog in the near term.  I’ve never gotten so many from a single book — that is a strength of reading the ideas in story form.  It can catch your imagination.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

You don’t need this book if you are an expert or professional in finance.  You could benefit from this book if you want to improve what you do financially, improve your dealings with your financial advisor, or get a good financial advisor.  if you want to buy it, you can buy it here: Financial Tales.

Full disclosure: The author sent a free copy to me directly.  Though we must live somewhat near to one another, and we both hold CFA charters, I do not know him.

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: TexasEagle || A: Do you see any prey? B: No, I don't. Do *you* see any prey?

Photo Credit: TexasEagle || A: Do you see any prey? B: No, I don’t. Do *you* see any prey?

I was surprised to find that I wrote another piece with the same title — 8.5 years ago, before the housing bubble crashed.  It was a short piece (with dead links).  Here it is:

I had a cc post over at RealMoney called Too Many Vultures, Too Little Carrion . The idea was that there’s too much money ready to rescue dud assets at present. Yesterday, Cramer had his own blog entry suggesting that the absorption of subprime assets at relatively high prices implied that the depositary financial sector is a sound place to invest. I disagree. In the early phases of any secular change, there are market players who snap up distressed assets, and later they find out that they could have gotten a better bargain had they waited.

The good sale prices for subprime portfolios is not a sign of strength, but a sign that there is a lot of vulture capital looking for deals. The true problems will surface when the vulture capital gets burned through or scared away.

That last paragraph is the “money shot.”  When there is too much vulture capital waiting to invest in distressed securities, marginal business concepts don’t get destroyed, clearing the way for a reduction in capacity, and healthy firms pick up the pieces.  At such a time, you have to wait until the distressed players get hosed, or get smart.

Today’s topic is the debt and equity of companies producing energy, or providing services to them, all of which get hurt by a lower oil price.  In the recent past, you have had marginal energy companies able to get financing amid decreasing opportunities for decent profits.  Thus the article at the Wall Street Journal talking about hedge funds losing money on recently placed bets on energy.

Aiding the financing of marginal companies can pay off if the companies will be profitable within a reasonable window of time, or, if you are trying to buy assets cheap for a reorganization.  But if there is too much capacity, and thus low prices for products, the profits after financing may never emerge, and the value of the assets may sag.

Let me talk about another group of oil companies on the global scene.  They are relatively high cost players with large-ish balance sheets that are presently pushing to recover market share.  Yes, I am talking about OPEC countries.  Not the national oil companies of those countries, but the countries themselves.

Think of the countries as the companies, because the companies themselves fund the government of these countries.  Consider this quotation from the Bloomberg article to which I linked, regarding one of the stronger OPEC countries, Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia, the main architect of OPEC’s new strategy, will have a budget deficit of 20 percent of gross domestic product this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates. While the kingdom has been able to tap foreign currency reserves and curb spending to cope with the slump, financial assets may run out within five years if the government maintains current policies and prices stay low, the IMF said Wednesday.

Less wealthy OPEC members have even fewer options. The threat of political unrest is mounting in the “Fragile Five” of Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela, according to RBC Capital Markets LLC.

Think of the budget deficits that the OPEC countries have to fund in the same way you think about the debt service of a US E&P company.  The deposits of oil being produced may be low cost in and of themselves, but any profits go to cover debt service of the greater enterprise, and whatever is not covered, more will be borrowed, should the markets allow it.

What’s the longest that this game could be played?  Never say never, but I would be shocked if this could continue  to 2020.  That said, there are a lot of OPEC countries that won’t make it that far, and a lot of E&P and services businesses that won’t make it that far either.  Now, the countries could face severe political turbulence, but eventually, they will have to reduce what they borrow and spend.  That doesn’t mean the oil stops flowing, though a new government could decide to cut spending further, and save the patrimony (crude oil) for a better day.

The free market oil producers are another matter… they can go under, and production would likely stop.  The question is what side of the solvency line you end up on when enough production capacity is eliminated.  If you are still solvent, you will reap some reward for your fiscal rectitude as prices rise again, and the Saudis breathe a sigh of relief, congratulating themselves for winning a very expensive game of “chicken,” or, a Pyrrhic economic war.

As such, be careful playing in heavily indebted companies that benefit from higher energy prices.  That they are limping along should be no comfort, because those that they presently rely on for financing will eventually have to give up, much as those snatching up bargains in subprime had to give up when the financial crisis hit.

And for those watching the price of crude oil, this is yet another reason why Brent crude should remain near $50/bbl, for a few years.  It is the uneasy equilibrium where producers are both entering the market and giving up.  The Saudis don’t want it much lower — there are limits to the pain that they want to take, as well as impose on the rest of OPEC.

I have my list of concerns for the economy and the markets:

  1. Unexpected Global Macroeconomic Surprises, including more from China
  2. Student Loans, Agricultural Loans, Auto Loans — too much
  3. Exchange Traded Products — the tail is wagging the dog in some places, and ETPs are very liquid, but at a cost of reducing liquidity to the rest of the market
  4. Low risk margins — valuations for equity and debt are high-ish
  5. Demographics — mostly negative as populations across the globe age
  6. Wages in the “developed world” are getting pushed to the levels of the “developing world,” largely due to the influence of information technology.  Also, technology is temporarily displacing people from current careers.

But now I have one more:

7)  Nonfinancial corporations, once the best part of the debt markets, are beginning to get overlevered.

This is worth watching.  It seems like there isn’t that much advantage to corporate borrowing now — the arbitrage of borrowing to buy back stock seems thin, as does borrowing to buy up competitors.  That doesn’t mean it is not being done — people imitate the recent past as a useful shortcut to avoid thinking.  Momentum carries markets beyond equilibrium as a result.

If the Federal Reserve stimulates by duping getting economic actors to accelerate current growth by taking on more debt, it has worked here.  Now where is leverage low?  Across the board, debt levels aren’t far from where they were in 2008:

As such, I’m not sure where we go from here, but I would suggest the following:

  • Start lightening up on bonds and stocks that would concern you if it were difficult to get financing.  How well would they do if they had to self-finance for three years?
  • With so much debt, monetary policy should remain ineffective.  Don’t expect them to move soon or aggressively.
  • Fiscal policy will remain riven by disagreements, and hamstrung by rising entitlement spending.
  • Long Treasuries don’t look bad with inflation so low.
  • Leave a little liquidity on the side in case of a negative surprise.  When everyone else has high debt levels, it is time to reduce leverage.

Better safe than sorry.  This isn’t saying that the equity markets can’t go higher from here, that corporate issuance can’t grow, or that corporate spreads can’t tighten.  This is saying that in 2004-2006, a lot of the troubles that were going to come were already baked into the cake.  Consider your current positions carefully, and develop your plan for your future portfolio defense.

100 to 1 in the Stock Market

100 to 1 in the Stock Market


How can a book be largely true, but not be a good book?  By offering people a way to make a lot of money that is hard to do, but portraying it as easy.  It can be done, and a tiny number succeed at it, but most of the rest lose money or don’t make much in the process.  This is such a book.

Let me illustrate my point with an example.  Toward the end of every real estate bull market, books come out on how easy it is to make money flipping homes.  The books must sell to some degree or the publishers wouldn’t publish them.  Few actually succeed at it because:

  • It’s a lot of work
  • It’s competitive
  • It only works well when you have a bunch of people who are uneducated about the value of their homes and are willing to sell them to you cheap, and/or offer you cheap financing while you reposition it.
  • Transaction costs are significant, and improvements don’t always pay back what you put in.

You could make a lot of money at it, but it is unlikely.  Now with this book, “100 to 1 in the Stock Market,” the value proposition is a little different:

  • Find one company that will experience stunning compound growth over 20-30+ years.
  • Invest heavily in it, and don’t diversify into a lot of other stocks, because that will dilute your returns.
  • Hold onto it, and don’t sell any ever, ever, ever!  (Forget Lord Rothschild, who said the secret to his wealth was that he always sold too soon.)
  • Learn to mention the company name idly in passing, and happily live off of the dividends, should there be any. 😉

Here are the problems.  First, identifying the stock will be tough.  Less than 1% of all stocks do that.  Are you feeling lucky?  How lucky?  That lucky?  Wow.

Second, most people will pick a dog of a stock, and lose a lot of money.  If you aren’t aware, more than half of all stocks lose money if held for a long time.  Most of the rest perform meh.  Even if you pick a stock you think has a lot of growth potential, there is often a lot of competition.  Will this be the one to survive?  Will some new technology obsolete this?  Will financing be adequate to let the plan get to fruition without a lot of dilution of value to stockholders.

Third, most people can’t buy and hold a single stock, even if it is doing really well.  Most succumb to the temptation to take profits, especially when the company hits a rough patch, and all companies hit rough patches, non excepted.

Fourth, when you do tell friends about how smart you are, they will try to dissuade you from your position.  So will the financial media, even me sometimes.  As Cramer says, “the bear case always sounds more intelligent.”  Beyond that, never underestimate envy. :(

But suppose even after reading this, you still want to be a home run hitter, and will settle for nothing less.  Is this the book for you?  Yes.  it will tell you what sorts of stocks appreciate by 100 times or more, even if finding them will still be rough.

This book was written in 1972, so it did not have the benefit of Charlie Munger’s insights into the “Lollapalooza” effect.  What does it take for a stock to compound so much?

  • It needs a sustainable competitive advantage.  The company has to have something critical that would be almost impossible for another firm to replicate or obsolete.
  • It needs a very competent management team that is honest, and shareholder oriented, not self-oriented.
  • They have to have a balance sheet capable of funding growth, and avoiding crashing in downturns, while rarely issuing additional shares.
  • It has to earn a high return on capital deployed.
  • It has to be able to reinvest earnings such that they earn a high return in the business over a long period of time.
  • That means the opportunity has to be big, and can spread like wildfire.
  • Finally, it implies that not a lot of cash flow needs to be used to maintain the investments that the company makes, leaving more money to invest in new assets.

You would need most if not all of these in order to compound capital 100 times.  That’s hard.  Very hard.

Now if you want a lighter version of this, a reasonable alternative, look at some of the books that Peter Lynch wrote, where he looked to compound investments 10 times or more.  Ten-baggers, he called them.  Same principles apply, but he did it in the context of a diversified portfolio.  That is still very tough to do, but something that mere mortals could try, and even if you don’t succeed, you won’t lose a ton in the process.


Already given.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

You can buy this book to enjoy the good writing, and learn about past investments that did incredibly well.  You can buy it to try to hit a home run against a major league pitcher, and you only get one trip to the plate.  (Good luck, you will need it.)

But otherwise don’t buy the book, it is not realistic for the average person to apply in investing.  if you still want to buy it, you can buy it here: 100 to 1 in the Stock Market.

Full disclosure: I bought it with my own money.  May all my losses be so small.

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: Tony Webster || Bridges can collapse -- so can leverage...

Photo Credit: Tony Webster || Bridges can collapse — so can leverage…

This is the last article in this series… for now.  The advantages of the modern era… I went back through my taxes over the last eleven years through a series of PDF files and pulled out all of the remaining companies where I lost more than half of the value of what I invested, 2004-2014.  Here’s the list:

  1. Avon Products [AVP]
  2. Avnet [AVT]
  3. Charlotte Russe [Formerly CHIC — Bought out by Advent International]
  4. Cimarex Energy [XEC]
  5. Devon Energy [DVN]
  6. Deerfield Triarc [formerly DFR, now merged with Commercial Industrial Finance Corp]
  7. Jones Apparel Group [formerly JNY — Bought out by Sycamore Partners]
  8. Valero Enery [VLO]
  9. Vishay Intertechnology [VSH]
  10. YRC Worldwide [YRCW]

The Collapse of Leverage

Take a look of the last nine of those companies.  My losses all happened during the financial crisis.  Here I was, writing for, starting this blog, focused on risk control, and talking often about rising financial leverage and overvalued housing.  Well, goes to show you that I needed to take more of my own medicine.  Doctor David, heal yourself?

Sigh.  My portfolios typically hold 30-40 stocks.  You think you’ve screened out every weak balance sheet or too much operating leverage, but a few slip through… I mean, over the last 15 years running this strategy, I’ve owned over 200 stocks.

The really bad collapses happen when there is too much debt and operations fall apart — Deerfield Triarc was the worst of the bunch.  Too much debt and assets with poor quality and/or repayment terms that could be adjusted in a negative way.  YRC Worldwide — collapsing freight rates into a slowing economy with too much debt.  (An investment is not safe if it has already fallen 80%.)

Energy prices fell at the same time as the economy slowed, and as debt came under pressure — thus the problems with Cimarex, Devon, and to a lesser extent Valero.  Apparel concepts are fickle for women.  Charlotte Russe and Jones Apparel executed badly in a bad stock market environment.  That leaves Avnet and Vishay — too much debt, and falling business prospect along with the rest of the tech sector.  Double trouble.

Really messed up badly on each one of them, not realizing that a weak market environment reveals weaknesses in companies that would go unnoticed in good or moderate times.  As such, if you are worried about a crushing market environment in the future, you will need to stress-test to a much higher degree than looking at financial leverage only.  Look for companies where the pricing of the product or service can reprice down — commodity prices, things that people really don’t need in the short run, intermediate goods where purchases can be delayed for a while, and anyplace where high fixed investment needs strong volumes to keep costs per unit low.

One final note — Avon calling!  Ding-dong.  This was a 2015 issue.  Really felt that management would see the writing on the wall, and change its overall strategy.  What seemed to have stopped falling had only caught its breath for the next dive.  Again, an investment is not safe if it has already fallen 80%.

There is something to remembering rule number 1 — Don’t Lose Money.  And rule 2 reminds us — Don’t forget rule number 1.  That said, I have some things to say on the positive side of all of this.

The Bright Side

A) I did have a diversified portfolio — I still do, and I had companies that did not do badly as well as the minority of big losers.  I also had a decent amount of cash, no debt, and other investments that were not doing so badly.

B) I used the tax losses to allow a greater degree of flexibility in investing.  I don’t pay too much attention to tax consequences, but all concerns over taking gains went away until 2011.

C) I reinvested in better companies, and made the losses back in reasonably short order, once again getting to pay some taxes in the process by 2011.  Important to note: losses did not make me give up.  I came back with vigor.

D) I learned valuable lessons in the process, which you now get to absorb for free.  We call it market tuition, but it is a lot cheaper to learn from the mistakes of others.

Thus in closing — don’t give up.  There will be losses.  You will make mistakes, and you might kick yourself.  Kick yourself a little, but only a little — it drives the lessons home, and then get up and try again, doing better.


Full disclosure: long VLO — made those losses back and then some.


I’m still working through the SEC’s proposal on Mutual Fund Liquidity, which I mentioned at the end of this article:

Q: <snip> Are you going to write anything regarding the SEC’s proposal on open end mutual funds and ETFs regarding liquidity?

A: <snip> …my main question to myself is whether I have enough time to do it justice.  There’s their white paper on liquidity and mutual funds.  The proposed rule is a monster at 415 pages, and I may have better things to do.   If I do anything with it, you’ll see it here first.

These are just notes on the proposal so far.  Here goes:

1) It’s a solution in search of a problem.

After the financial crisis, regulators got one message strongly — focus on liquidity.  Good point with respect to banks and other depositary financials, useless with respect to everything else.  Insurers and asset managers pose no systemic risk, unless like AIG they have a derivatives counterparty.  Even money market funds weren’t that big of a problem — halt withdrawals for a short amount of time, and hand out losses to withdrawing unitholders.

The problem the SEC is trying to deal with seems to be that in a crisis, mutual fund holders who do not sell lose value from those who are selling because the Net Asset Value at the end of the day does not go low enough.  In the short run, mutual fund managers tend to sell liquid assets when redemptions are spiking; the prices of illiquid assets don’t move as much as they should, and so the NAV is artificially high post-redemptions, until the prices of illiquid assets adjust.

The proposal allows for “swing pricing.”  From the SEC release:

The Commission will consider proposed amendments to Investment Company Act rule 22c-1 that would permit, but not require, open-end funds (except money market funds or ETFs) to use “swing pricing.” 

Swing pricing is the process of reflecting in a fund’s NAV the costs associated with shareholders’ trading activity in order to pass those costs on to the purchasing and redeeming shareholders.  It is designed to protect existing shareholders from dilution associated with shareholder purchases and redemptions and would be another tool to help funds manage liquidity risks.  Pooled investment vehicles in certain foreign jurisdictions currently use forms of swing pricing.

A fund that chooses to use swing pricing would reflect in its NAV a specified amount, the swing factor, once the level of net purchases into or net redemptions from the fund exceeds a specified percentage of the fund’s NAV known as the swing threshold.  The proposed amendments include factors that funds would be required to consider to determine the swing threshold and swing factor, and to annually review the swing threshold.  The fund’s board, including the independent directors, would be required to approve the fund’s swing pricing policies and procedures.

But there are simpler ways to do this.  In the wake of the mutual fund timing scandal, mutual funds were allowed to estimate the NAV to reflect the underlying value of assets that don’t adjust rapidly.  This just needs to be followed more aggressively in a crisis, and peg the NAV lower than they otherwise would, for the sake of those that hold on.

Perhaps better still would be provisions where exit loads are paid back to the funds, not the fund companies.  Those are frequently used for funds where the underlying assets are less liquid.  Those would more than compensate for any losses.

2) This disproportionately affects fixed income funds.  One size does not fit all here.  Fixed income funds already use matrix pricing extensively — the NAV is always an estimate because not only do the grand majority of fixed income instruments not trade each day, most of them do not have anyone publicly posting a bid or ask.

In order to get a decent yield, you have to accept some amount of lesser liquidity.  Do you want to force bond managers to start buying instruments that are nominally more liquid, but carry more risk of loss?  Dividend-paying common stocks are more liquid than bonds, but it is far easier to lose money in stocks than in bonds.

Liquidity risk in bonds is important, but it is not the only risk that managers face.  it should not be made a high priority relative to credit or interest rate risks.

3) One could argue that every order affects market pricing — nothing is truly liquid.  The calculations behind the analyses will be fraught with unprovable assumptions, and merely replace a known risk with an unknown risk.

4) Liquidity is not as constant as you might imagine.  Raising your bid to buy, or lowering your ask to sell are normal activities.  Particularly with illiquid stocks and bonds, volume only picks up when someone arrives wanting to buy or sell, and then the rest of the holders and potential holders react to what he wants to do.  It is very easy to underestimate the amount of potential liquidity in a given asset.  As with any asset, it comes at a cost.

I spent a lot of time trading illiquid bonds.  If I liked the creditworthiness, during times of market stress, I would buy bonds that others wanted to get rid of.  What surprised me was how easy it was to source the bonds and sell the bonds if you weren’t in a hurry.  Just be diffident, say you want to pick up or pose one or two million of par value in the right context, say it to the right broker who knows the bond, and you can begin the negotiation.  I actually found it to be a lot of fun, and it made good money for my insurance client.

5) It affects good things about mutual funds.  Really, this regulation should have to go through a benefit-cost analysis to show that it does more good than harm.  Illiquid assets, properly chosen, can add significant value.  As Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal said:

The bad news is that the new regulations might well make most fund managers even more chicken-hearted than they already are — and a rare few into bigger risk-takers than ever.

You want to kill off active managers, or make them even more index-like?  This proposal will help do that.

6) Do you want funds to limit their size to comply with the rules, while the fund firm rolls out “clone” fund 2, 3, 4, 5, etc?


You will never fully get rid of pricing issues with mutual funds, but the problems are largely self-correcting, and they are not systemic.  It would be better if the SEC just withdrew these proposed rules.  My guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits, and by a wide margin.


Some books are better in concept than they are in execution.  Ironically, that is true of “The Art of Execution.”

The core idea of the book is that most great investors get more stocks wrong than they get right, but they make money because they let their winners run, and either cut their losses short or reinvest in their losers at much lower prices than their initial purchase price.  From that, the author gets the idea that the buy and sell disciplines of the investors are the main key to their success.

I know this is a book review, and book reviews are not supposed to be about me.  I include the next two paragraphs to explain why I think the author is wrong, at least in the eyes of most investment managers that I know.

From my practical experience as an investment manager, I can tell you that your strategy for buying and selling is a part of the investment process, but it is not the main one.  Like the author, I also have hired managers to run a billion-plus dollars of money for a series of multiple manager funds.  I did it for the pension division of mutual life insurer that no longer exists back in the 1990s.  It was an interesting time in my career, and I never got the opportunity again.  In the process, I interviewed a large number of the top long-only money managers in the US.  Idea generation was the core concept for almost all of the managers.  Many talked about their buy disciplines at length, but not as a concept separate from the hardest part of being a manager — finding the right assets to buy.

Sell disciplines received far less emphasis, and for most managers, were kind of an afterthought.  If you have good ideas, selling assets is an easy thing — if your ideas aren’t good, it’s hard.  But then you wouldn’t be getting a lot of assets to manage, so it wouldn’t matter much.

Much of the analysis of the author stems from the way he had managers run money for him — he asked them to invest on in their ten best ideas.  That’s a concentrated portfolio indeed, and makes sense if you are almost certain in your analysis of the stocks that you invest in.  As such, the book spends a lot of time on how the managers traded single ideas as separate from the management of the portfolio as a whole.  As such, a number of examples that he brought out as bad management by one set of managers sound really bad, until you realize one thing: they were all part of a broader portfolio.  As managers, they might not have made significant adjustments to a losing position because they were occupied with other more consequential positions that were doing better.  After all, losses on a stock are capped at 100%, while gains are theoretically infinite.  As a stock falls in price, if you don’t add to the position, the risk to the portfolio as a whole gets less and less.

Thus, as you read through the book, you get a collection of anecdotes to illustrate good and bad position and money management.  Any one of these might sound bright or dumb, but they don’t mean a lot if the rest of the portfolio is doing something different.

This is a short book.  The pages are small, and white space is liberally interspersed.  If this had been a regular-sized book, with white space reduced, it might have taken up 80-90 pages.  There’s not a lot here, and given the anecdotal nature of what was written, it is not much more than the author’s opinions.  (There are three pages citing an academic paper, but they exist as an afterthought in a chapter on one class of investors. It has the unsurprising result that positions that managers weight heavily do better than those with lower weights.)   As such, I don’t recommend the book, and I can’t think of a subset of people that could benefit from it, aside from managers that want to be employed by this guy, in order to butter him up.


The end of the book mentions liquidity as a positive factor in asset selection, but most research on the topic gives a premium return to illiquid stocks.  Also, if the manager has concentrated positions in the stocks that he owns, his positions will prove to be less liquid than less concentrated positions in stocks with similar tradable float.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book


Don’t buy this book.  To reinforce this point, I am not leaving a link to the book at Amazon, which I ordinarily do.

Full disclosure: I received a copy from a PR flack.

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.


I am generally not a fan of formulaic books on investing, and this is particularly true of books that take unusual approaches to investing. This book is an exception because it does nothing unusual, and follows what all good quantitative investors know have worked in the past.  The past is not a guarantee of the future, but if the theories derived from past data make sense from what we know about human nature, that’s about as good as we can get.

The book begins with a critique of the abilities of financial advisors — their fees, asset allocation, and security selection.  It then shows how models of financial markets outperform most financial advisors.

Then, to live up to its title , the book gives simple versions of models that can be applied by individuals that would have outperformed the markets in the past.  You can beat the markets, lower risk, and “Do It Yourself [DIY].”  It provides models for asset allocation, stock selection, and risk control, simple enough that a motivated person with math skills equal to the first half of Algebra 1 could apply them in a moderate amount of time per month.  It also provides a simpler version of the full model that omits the security selection for stocks.

The book closes by offering three reasons why people won’t follow the book and do it themselves: fear of failure, inertia, and not wanting to give up an advisor who is a friend.  It also offers three risks for the DIY investor — overconfidence, the desire to be a hero (seems to overlap with overconfidence), and that the theories may be insufficient for future market behavior.

This is where I have the greatest disagreement with the book.  I interact with a lot of people.  Most of them have no interest in learning the slightest bit about investing.  Some have some inclination to learn about investing, but even the simple models of the book would make their heads spin, or they just wouldn’t want to take the time to do it.  Some of it is similar to seeing a Youtube video on draining and refilling your automatic transmission fluid.  You might watch it, and say “I think I get it,” but the costs of making a mistake are sufficiently severe that you might not want to do it without an expert by your side.  Most will take it to the repair garage and pay up.

I put a knife to my own throat as I write this, as I am an investment advisor, but there is more specialized knowledge in the hands of an auto mechanic than in an investment advisor, and the risk of loss is lower to manage your own money than to fix your own brakes.  That said, enough people after reading the book will say to themselves, “This is just one author, and I barely understand the performance tables in the book — if right, am I capable of doing this?  Or, could it be wrong?  I can’t verify it myself.”

The book isn’t wrong.  If you are willing to put in the time to follow the instructions of the authors, I think you will do better than most.  My sense is that the grand majority people are not willing to do that.  They don’t have the time or inclination.



The book could have been clearer on the ROBUST method for risk control.  It took me a bit of effort to figure out that the two submodels share half of the weight, so that when submodels A & B flash green — 100% weight, one green and one red — 50% weight, both red — 0% weight.

Also, the book is enhanced by the security selection model for stocks, but how many people would have the assets to assemble and maintain a portfolio with sufficient diversification?  The book might have been cleaner and simpler to leave that out.  The last models of the book don’t use it anyway.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

I liked this book, and I recommend it for those who are willing to put in the time to implement its ideas.  This is not a book for beginners, and you have to be comfortable with the small amount of math and the tables of financial statistics, unless you are willing to trust them blindly.  (Or trust me when I say that they are likely accurate.)

But with the caveats listed above, it is a good book for people who are motivated to do better with their investments.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: DIY Financial Advisor.

Full disclosure: I received a copy from one of the authors, a guy for whom I have respect.

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.

Photo Credit: Mike Beauregard || Frozen solid, right?

Photo Credit: Mike Beauregard || Frozen solid, right?

The talk regarding an illiquid public corporate bond market goes on, and if you’ve read me over the past year on this topic, you know that I don’t think it is a serious issue.  One of the reasons why it is not a big issue is that the public bond market is designed to be low liquidity.

It starts with how bonds are originally issued.  New bonds and new stocks are issued in similar ways, but with a few differences:

  • IPOs of stocks have a higher retail component.  Bonds, aside from muni bonds, are typically almost entirely institutional
  • IPOs are typically priced cheap, but with bonds the cheapness is smaller and more frequent.
  • Bond IPOs usually happen with companies that have issued other bonds before
  • Bond IPOs happen more frequently, except in a bear market
  • Bond IPOs typically happen more rapidly, minutes to a few days, except in a bear market

IPOs on Wall Street get allocated if they are oversubscribed.  When they are oversubscribed, the deal is typically good, and everyone wants more, so they put in huge orders.  The dealer desks on Wall Street solves this problem by allocating proportionate to the size that they have come to understand the managers in question typically buy and sell at, with some adjustment for account profitability.

Those that flip cheap bonds for a quick profit typically get penalized, and their allocations get reduced.  Those that buy bonds in the open market when the deal breaks and becomes “free to trade” can become eligible for larger allocations.  The dealer desks work in this way because they want the buyers to be long-term holders, and not seekers of easy profits from flipping.  That doesn’t mean you can never trade a bond you have bought — just not in the first month, subject to a few exceptions like a small allocation, your credit analyst rejected it, etc.  (Oh, and if one of those exceptions exists, the primary dealers want to do the secondary trade.  If the exceptions don’t exist, they don’t want to know about it.)

If flippers ever get big, despite the efforts of the dealer desks, they will price a deal very tight, and let the flippers take a big loss, with no one wanting to buy the excess bonds unless they are much, much cheaper.

The main effect of this is that once a deal is allocated, it is typically “well-placed,” with few secondary trades after the IPO.  This is even more pronounced with mortgage bonds, which aside from the AAA tranches, have very small tranche sizes, making them very illiquid.

In this environment, where yields have fallen over the past few years, it is difficult for financial companies that have bought bonds to replace the income if they sell the bond.  Thus, few bonds will be sold unless they are in the hands of buyers that don’t have a formal balance sheet, or, when credit quality is deteriorating badly.

Add in one more factor, and you can see why the market is so illiquid — the buy side of the market is more concentrated than in prior years, with big buyers like PIMCO, Blackrock, Metlife, Prudential, etc. being a larger portion of the market.  Concentrated markets with few holders tend to be less liquid.

All Good/Bad Things Must Come to an End

Some of these factors can be reversed, and others can be mitigated.

  • There’s no reason why the buy side has to stay concentrated.  Big institutions eventually break up because diseconomies of scale kick in.  Management teams typically do worse as companies get more complex.
  • Eventually interest rates will rise.  Once bonds are in a nearly neutral to negative capital gains positions, parties with balance sheets will trade bonds again.
  • Even mutual funds that own a lot of yieldy bonds can have a strategy for dealing with the illiquidity.  Yieldy bonds have excess yield relative to bonds of similar duration and credit quality, and are often less liquid because there is something odd about them that makes some portion of the market skeptical, which reduces liquidity.  A mutual fund holding a lot of less liquid bonds, can deal with illiquidity by selling opportunistically, selling more liquid bonds in the short-run, while discreetly inquiring on a few less liquid issues to see where real bids might be.  Remember, the amount of underperformance is likely to be limited, if any, so a run on a mutual fund is not likely, but in the unlikely case of a run, this can mitigate the effects.  Personally, I would not be concerned, so long as you keep your pricing marks conservative if cash outflows become a rule in the short-run.

In closing, don’t worry about illiquidity in the bond markets.  If there is a need for liquidity, the problem will solve itself as sellers lose a little bit in order to gain cash to make payments.  It’s that simple.