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I recently received two sets of questions from readers. Here we go:

David,

I am a one-time financial professional now running a modest “home office” operation in the GHI area.  I have been reading your blog posts for a couple years now, and genuinely appreciate your efforts to bring accessible, thoughtful, and modestly stated insights to a space too often lacking all three characteristics.  If I didn’t enjoy your financial posts so much, I’d request that you bring your approach to the political arena – but that’s a different discussion altogether…

I am writing today with two questions about your work on the elegant market valuation approach you’ve credited to @Jesse_Livermore.   I apologize in advance for any naivety evidenced by my lack of statistical background…

  1. I noticed that you constructed a “homemade” total return index – perhaps to get you data back to the 1950s.  Do you see any issue using SPXTR index (I see data back to 1986)?  The 10yr return r-squared appears to be above .91 vs. investor allocation variable since that date.
  2. The most current Fed/FRED data is from Q32016.  It appears that the Q42016 data will be released early March (including perhaps “re-available” data sets for each of required components http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=qis ).  While I appreciate that the metric is not necessarily intended as a short-term market timing device, I am curious whether you have any interim device(s) you use to estimate data – especially as the latest data approaches 6 months in age & the market has moved significantly?

I appreciate your thoughts & especially your continued posts…

JJJ

These questions are about the Estimating Future Stock Returns posts.  On question 1, I am pulling the data from Shiller’s data.  I don’t have a better data feed, but that should be the S&P 500 data, or pretty near it.  It goes all the way back to the start of the Z.1 series, and I would rather keep things consistent, then try to fuse two similar series.

As for question 2, Making adjustments for time elapsed from the end of the quarter is important, because the estimate is stale by 70-165 days or so.  I treat it like a 10-year zero coupon bond and look at the return since the end of the quarter.  I could be more exact than this, adjusting for the exact period and dividends, but the surprise from the unknown change in investor behavior which is larger than any of the adjustment simplifications.  I take the return since the end of the last reported quarter and divide by ten, and subtract it from my ten year return estimate.  Simple, understandable, and usable, particularly when the adjustment only has to wait for 3 more months to be refreshed.

PS — don’t suggest that I write on politics.  I annoy too many people with my comments on that already. 😉

Now for the next question:

I have a quick question. If an investor told you they wanted a 3% real return (i.e., return after inflation) on their investments, do you consider that conservative? Average? Aggressive? I was looking at some data and it seems on the conservative side.

EEE

Perhaps this should go in the “dirty secrets” bin.  Many analyses get done using real return statistics.  I think those are bogus, because inflation and investment returns are weakly related when it comes to risk assets like stocks and any other investment with business risk, even in the long run.  Cash and high-quality bonds are different.  So are precious metals and commodities as a whole.  Individual commodities that are not precious metals have returns that are weakly related to inflation.  Their returns depend more on their individual pricing cycle than on inflation.

I’m happier projecting inflation and real bond returns, and after that, projecting the nominal returns using my models.  I typically do scenarios rather than simulation models because the simulations are too opaque, and I am skeptical that the historical relationships of the past are all that useful without careful handling.

Let’s answer this question to a first approximation, though.  Start with the 10-year breakeven inflation rate which is around 2.0%.  Add to that a 10-year average life modification of the Barclays’ Aggregate, which I estimate would yield about 3.0%.  Then go the the stock model, which at 9/30/16 projected 6.37%/yr returns.  The market is up 7.4% since then in price terms.  Divide by ten and subtract, and we now project 5.6%/year returns.

So, stocks forecast 3.6% “real” returns, and bonds 1.0%/year returns over the next 10 years.  To earn a 3% real return, you would have to invest 77% in stocks and 23% in 10-year high-quality bonds.  That’s aggressive, but potentially achievable.  The 3% real return is a point estimate — there is a lot of noise around it.  Inflation can change sharply upward, or there could be a market panic near the end of the 10-year period.  You might also need the money in the midst of a drawdown.  There are many ways that a base scenario could go wrong.

You might say that using stocks and bonds only is too simple.  I do that because I don’t trust return most risk and return estimates for more complex models, especially the correlation matrices.  I know of three organizations that I think have good models — T. Rowe Price, Research Affiliates, and GMO.  They look at asset returns like I do — asking what the non-speculative returns would be off of the underlying assets and starting there.  I.e. if you bought and held them w/reinvestment of their cash flows, how much would the return be after ten years?

Earning 3% real returns is possible, and not that absurd, but it is a little on the high side unless you like holding 77% in stocks and 23% in 10-year high-quality bonds, and can bear with the volatility.

That’s all for now.

Composition of Liabilities 1994-2016

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The last time I wrote about this was four years ago.  I have covered this topic off and on for the last 25 years.  As usual, the report got released during a relatively dead time, January 12th, where most people were listening to the preparations for the inauguration.  I’ll give them some credit though — not as much of a dead time as usual; it was in the middle of a work week, AND earlier than usual.  (It would be nice to know when it’s coming, though.)

I have two main messages to go with my two graphs.  The first message is one I have been saying before — beware some of the estimates that you hear, should you hear them at all.  No one wants to talk about this, but what few that do will look at a few headline numbers and leave it there.  Really you have to look at it for years, and look at the footnotes and other explanatory sections in the back when things seemingly change for no good reason.  Also, you have to add all the bits up.  No one will do that for you.  Even with that, you are relying on the assumptions that the government uses, and they are not biased toward making the estimates sound larger.  They tend to make them smaller.

Thus you will see two things that adjust the headline figures.  In 2004, when Medicare part D was created, the Financial Report of the US Government began mentioning the Infinite Horizon Increment.  Now, that liability always existed, but the actuaries began calculating how solvent is the system as a whole if it were permanent, as opposed to lasting 75 years.

The second is the Alternative Medicare Scenario.  When the PPACA (Obamacare) was created in 2010, there was considerable chicanery in the cost estimates.  The biggest part was that they assumed Medicare Part A (HI) would cost a lot less because they would reduce the amount that they would reimburse.  They legislated away costs by assuming them away, and then each year Congress would restore the funding so that there wouldn’t be a firestorm when doctors stopped taking Medicare.  But they left it in for budget and forecast purposes, and showed what the projections would be like if these cuts never took place in what they called the Alternative Medicare Scenario.

So, did the cuts to Medicare part A take place? No.

As you can see they have gone up almost every year since 2010. The liability should not have gone down. If you think the Alternative Medicare Scenario is conservative enough, the liability has remained relatively constant since 2010, not diminished dramatically.

How is the load relative to GDP?  It keeps growing, but since 2010 at a less frantic clip.  The adjusted ratio below includes the Alternative Medicare Scenario.

Final Notes

Remember that we have had a recovery since 2009.  The statistics never assume that we will have another recession, much less a full fledged crisis like 2008-9.  Without adjustment, the Medicare part A trust fund will run out in 2028.  There is no provision for what the reimbursements will be made if the trust fund runs dry.  Social Security’s trust fund will run out a few years after that, and instead of getting 12 checks a year, people will only get 9 of that same amount.  If there is a significant recession, those statistics will move forward by an unknown number of years.  Without congressional action, because there will be a recession, I would expect that both will run out somewhere in the middle of the 2020s, and then the real political fun will begin.

The tendency has been over time to turn these from entitlements to old age welfare schemes.  FDR always wanted them to be self funded entitlements with everybody getting roughly the same treatment by formula, because he wanted the program to have widespread legitimacy across all classes, and no sense of stigma for being a poor old person on the dole.

Given the strategies that exist around qualifying for Medicaid, those days are gone, so I would expect that benefits will be limited for those better off, inflation adjustments eliminated, taxes raised to some degree, eligibility ages quickly raised a few more years, with elimination of strategies that allow people to get more out of the system by being clever.  (As an example, expect the favorable late retirement factors to get reduced, and the early retirement factors to go down even more.)

Does this sound fun?  Of course not, but remember that cultures are larger than economies, which are larger than governments.  The cultural need for supporting poor elderly people will lead funding to continue, unless it makes the government, and the culture as a whole fail in the process, and that would never happen, right?

Photo Credit: Tony Hisgett || Only 20 years more and I can retire with a full pension!

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Aside from the bankruptcy of a plan sponsor, the benefits of someone being paid their pension can’t be cut.  Right?

Well, mostly true.  With governments in trouble, benefits have been cut, as in Rhode Island, Detroit, and a variety of other places with badly managed finances.  Usually that’s a big political fight.  Concessions come partly as a result that you could end up with less if you fight it, and don’t take the deal.

With corporations, the protection of the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation [PBGC] has kept pensions safe up to a limit — as of 2016, up to roughly $60K/year for those retiring at age 65 (less for younger retirees) from single-employer plans, and $12,870/year at most for those in multiemployer plans.  (For some complexities, read more here.  Also note that the PBGC itself is underfunded and faces antiselection problems as well.)

Multiemployer plans are an inherently weak structure, because insolvent employers can’t contribute to fund plan deficits, and typically, multiemployer plans arise from collective bargaining arrangements, so that the firms employing the laborers are all in the same industry.  Insolvency in industries, particularly where there is collective bargaining pushing up costs and limiting work process flexibility, tends to be correlated across firms.  My poster child for that was the steel industry in 2002, where 20+ firms went insolvent.  Employer insolvencies in an underfunded multiemployer plan affect all participants, including those working for solvent firms.  (Note that solvent employers have to pay their pro-rata share of underfunding in order to exit a multiemployer plan, as I noted for UPS in this article.)

Now in 2014, Congress passed a law called the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014.  That allowed the PBGC, together with the Departments of Treasury and Labor, to negotiate benefit cuts to the pension plans in order to avoid the plans going insolvent — at which point, all pensioners would be limited to the PBGC limits for their payments.  Workers in the plan — active, vested, and retired, would have to vote on any deal.  Majority of those voting wins, so to speak.

The first plan to successfully go through this procedure and cut benefits to participants happened a few weeks ago, in the Iron Workers Local 17 Pension fund.  Average benefits were cut 20%, with some cut as much as 60%, and some not cut at all.  The plan was funded to a 24% level, and there are only 632 active employed workers to cover the benefits of 2,042 participants.  The fund would likely run out of money in 2024.  Note that only 900+ voted on the cuts, with the cuts passing at roughly 2-1.

There are at least four other multiemployer plans with similar applications to cut benefit payments.  Prior to this four other multiemployer plans had such applications denied — there were a variety of reasons for the denials: the cuts were done in an inequitable way in some cases, return assumptions were unreasonably high, etc.

My original source for this piece is note by David Gonzales of Moody’s.  They rate these actions as credit positive because it potentially ends the process where an underfunded multiemployer plan would encourage an employer to default because it can’t afford the liability.  Somewhat perverse in a way, because the pain has to go somewhere on an underfunded plan — it’s all a question of who gets tapped.  Note that it also protects the PBGC Multiemployer Trust, which itself is likely to run out of money by 2025.  After that, those relying on the PBGC for multiemployer pension payments get zero, unless something changes.

For those wanting 30 pages of informative data on scope of the matter, here is a useful piece from the Congressional Research Service.

Final Note

You might think this is an extreme situation, and yes, it is extreme.  It’s not so extreme that there aren’t other underfunded plans as bad off as this multiemployer plan.  I would encourage everyone who has a defined benefit plan to take a close look at their funded status.  I don’t care about what your state constitution says on protecting your pension benefits.  If the cash gets close to running out, “the powers that be” will find a way around that.  After all, what happened with the Iron Workers Local 17 Pension Fund was illegal prior to 2014.  Now it is 2017, and benefits were cut.

Because of underfunding, there will be more cuts.  Depend on that happening for the worst funds, and at least run through the risk analysis of what you would do if your pension benefit were cut by 20% for a municipal plan, or to the PBGC limit for a corporate plan.  Why?  Because it could happen.

Photo Credit: eflon || Ask to visit the Medieval dining hall!  Really!

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December 2016February 2017Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in November indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace since mid-year.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has continued to expand at a moderate pace.No real change.
Job gains have been solid in recent months and the unemployment rate has declined.Job gains remained solid and the unemployment rate stayed near its recent low.No real change.
Household spending has been rising moderately but business fixed investment has remained soft.Household spending has continued to rise moderately while business fixed investment has remained soft.No real change.
 Measures of consumer and business sentiment have improved of late.New sentence.
Inflation has increased since earlier this year but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation increased in recent quarters but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective.Shades their view of inflation up.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation have moved up considerably but still are low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.What would be a high number, pray tell?  TIPS are showing higher inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.15%, up 0.07%  from December.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy. But don’t blame the Fed, blame Congress.
The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further. Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further, and inflation will rise to 2 percent over the medium term.Drops references to falling energy prices stopping, and wage pressures. Strengthens language on inflation, which is a slam dunk, given that it is there already on better inflation measures than the PCE deflator.

CPI is at +2.1% NOW, yoy.

Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.No change.
In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/2 to 3/4 percent.No change. Builds in the idea that they are reacting at least partially to expected future conditions in inflation and labor.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.No change. They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.  Think of monetary policy as a drug for which a tolerance gets built up.

What would a non-accommodative monetary policy be, anyway?

In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.No change.
The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.  Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of treasury, agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Esther L. George; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Patrick Harker; Robert S. Kaplan; Neel Kashkari; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Full agreement; new people.

 

Comments

  • The FOMC holds, but deludes itself that it is still accommodative.
  • The economy is growing well now, and in general, those who want to work can find work.
  • Maybe policy should be tighter. The key question to me is whether lower leverage at the banks was a reason for ultra-loose policy.
  • The change of the FOMC’s view is that inflation is higher. Equities are stable and bonds fall a little. Commodity prices rise and the dollar weakens.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.

The global economy is growing, inflation is rising globally, the dollar is rising, and the 30-year Treasury has not moved all that much relative to all of that.  My guess is that the FOMC could get the Fed funds rate up to 2% if they want to invert the yield curve.  A rising dollar will slow the economy and inflation somewhat.

Aside from that, I am looking for what might blow up.  Maybe some country borrowing too much in dollars?  Tightening cycles almost always end with a bang.

Data from the CIA Factbook

Data from the CIA Factbook

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I write about this every now and then, because human fertility is falling faster then most demographers expect. Using the CIA Factbook for data, the present total fertility rate for the world is 2.407 births per woman that survives childbearing. That is down from 2.425 in 2014, 2.467 in 2012, and 2.489 in 2010.  At this rate, the world will be at replacement rate (2.1), somewhere between 2035 and 2040. That’s a lot earlier than most expect, and it makes me suggest that global population will top out somewhat below 9 Billion in 2050, lower and earlier than most expect.

Have a look at the Total Fertility Rate by group in the graph above. The largest nations for each cell are listed below the graph. Note Asian nations to the left, and African nations to the right.

Africa is so small, that the high birth rates have little global impact. Also, AIDS consumes their population, as do wars, malnutrition, etc.

The Arab world is also slowing in population growth. When Saudi Arabia at replacement rate (2.11), you can tell that the women are gaining the upper hand there, which is notable given the polygamy is permitted.

In the Developed world, who leads in fertility? Israel at 2.66. Next is France at 2.07 (Arabs), New Zealand at 2.03, Iceland at 2.01, Ireland at 1.98 (up considerably), UK at 1.89, Sweden at 1.88, and the US at 1.87, which is below replacement. The US still grows from immigration, as does France.

Most of the above is a quick update of my prior pieces, which have some additional crunchy insights.  When I look at the new data, I wonder if developed nations might not finally be waking up to the birth dearth.  Take a look at this graph:

Now, the bottom left is a little crammed.  What if I expand it?

I did the second graph in order to make the point that nations with fertility below 1.76 in 2010 tended to increase their fertility, while those above 1.76 tended to decrease it.  Not that you should trust any statistical analysis, but if you could, this is statistically significant at a level well above 99%.  (Note: this is an ordinary least squares regression.  Every “nation” is weighted equally.  If I get asked nicely, I could do a weighted least squares regression which gives heavy weight to China, India and the US, and less weight to Somalia, the West Bank, and Tonga.  I don’t think the result would change much.)

I’m chuckling a little bit as I write this, because this is an interesting result, and one that I never thought I would be writing when I started this project.  Interesting, huh?  My guess is that there is a limit to how much you can get people to reduce family sizes before they begin to question the idea.  Older parents may say, “What was that all about?” but children are usually fun and cute when they are little if they are reasonably disciplined.

One final note: I’ve been running into a lot of demographic articles of late, but this was the one that got me to write this: The World’s Most Populous Country Is Turning Gray.  The barbaric “One Child Policy” of China is having its impact; demography is often destiny.  That said, over the last six years China’s total fertility rate has moved from 1.54 to 1.60.

As it says in the article:

Births in 2016 reached 17.86 million, the most since 2000, rising by 1.91 million from 2015, the National Health and Family Planning Commission said this month. That still falls short of the official projection. Last June, the ministry estimated there would be an increase of 4 million new births every year until 2020. China will continue to implement the two-child policy to promote a balanced population, the plan said.

Fertility doesn’t turn on a dime.  When women conclude that the rewards of society (money, power, approval of peers) go to those with fewer children, that’s a tough cultural idea to overcome.  I would conclude that it will take a lot longer than a single five-year plan to turn around birthrates in China… if they can be turned around at all.  All across Asia, marriages happen at lesser rates, happen later, and produce fewer children.  China is one of the more notable examples.

PS — Picky note: the two-child policy in China is only available to a husband and wife where at least one is an “only child.”  It won’t create a balanced population near replacement rate, as everyone else must have only one child (with exceptions).

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I was driving to a meeting of the Baltimore CFA Society, and listening to Bloomberg Radio, which was carrying President-Elect Trump’s Press Conference. I didn’t think too much about what I heard until Sheri Dillon talk about what was being done to eliminate conflicts of interest. Here is an excerpt:

Some have asked questions. Why not divest? Why not just sell everything? Form of blind trust. And I’d like to turn to addressing some of those questions now.

Selling, first and foremost, would not eliminate possibilities of conflicts of interest. In fact, it would exacerbate them. The Trump brand is key to the value of the Trump Organization’s assets. If President-elect Trump sold his brand, he would be entitled to royalties for the use of it, and this would result in the trust retaining an interest in the brand without the ability to assure that it does not exploit the office of the presidency.

[snip]

Some people have suggested that the Trump — that President-elect Trump could bundle the assets and turn the Trump Organization into a public company. Anyone who has ever gone through this extraordinarily cumbersome and complicated process knows that it is a non-starter. It is not realistic and it would be inappropriate for the Trump Organization.

It went on from there, but I choked on the last paragraph that I quoted above. (Credit: New York Times, not all accounts carried the remarks of Ms. Dillon, a prominent attorney with the firm Morgan Lewis who structured the agreements for Trump)  As I said before:

An IPO of the Trump Organization was realistic.  I’m not saying it could have been done by the inauguration, but certainly by the end of 2017, and likely a lot earlier.  I’ve seen insurance companies go through IPO processes that took a matter of months, a few because they had to sell the company to raise liquidity quickly for some reason.

In an IPO, Trump, all of Trump’s children and anyone else with an equity interest would have gotten their proportionate share of the new public company.  Trump could have provided a lot of shares for the IPO, and instructed the trustee for his assets to sell it off the remainder over the next year or so.

While difficult, this would not have been impossible or imprudent.  Trump might lose some value in the process, but hey, that should be part of the cost for a very wealthy man who becomes President of the US.  There would be the countervailing advantage that all capital gains are eliminated, and who knows, that might settle his existing negotiations with the IRS.

Ending the counterfactual, though conflict of interest rules don’t apply to the President, Trump had an opportunity to eliminate all conflicts of interest, and did not take it.

PS — Many major hotels are in the “name licensing” business — I also don’t buy the argument that Trump could not sell off the organization in entire, with no future payments for the rights of using the name.  A bright businessman could create a new brand easily.  It’s been done before.

Credit: Bloomberg || Graph of Penn Treaty’s stock price 2002-2009

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I wrote about this last in October 2009 in a piece lovingly entitled: At Last, Death! (speaking of the holding company, not the insurance subsidiaries).  I’m going to quote the whole piece here, because it says most of the things that I wanted to say when I heard the most recent news about Penn Treaty, where the underlying insurance subsidiaries are finally getting liquidated.  It will be the largest health insurer insolvency ever, and second largest overall behind Executive Life.

Alas, but all good things in the human sphere come to an end.  Penn Treaty is the biggest insurer failure since 2004.  Now, don’t cry too much.  The state guaranty funds will pick up the slack.  The banks are jealous of an industry that has so few insolvencies.  Conservative state regulation works better than federal regulation.

Or does it?  In this case, no.  The state insurance regulator allowed a reinsurance treaty to give reserve credit where no risk was passed.  The GAAP auditor flagged the treaty and did not allow credit on a GAAP basis, because no risk was passed.  No risk passed? No additional surplus; instead it is a loan.  I do not get how the state regulators in Pennsylvania could have done this.  Yes, they want companies to survive, but it is better to take losses early, than let them develop and fester.

A prior employer asked me about this company as a long idea, because it was trading at a significant discount to book.  I told him, “Gun to the head: I would short this.  Long-term care is not an underwritable contingency.  Those insured have more knowledge over their situation than the insurance company does.”  He did nothing.  He could not see shorting a company that was less than 50% of book value.

It was not as if I did not have some trust in the management team.  I knew the CEO and the Chief Actuary from my days at Provident Mutual.  Working against that was when I called each of them, they did not return my calls.  That made me more skeptical.  It is one thing not to return the call of a buyside analyst, but another thing not to return the call of one who was once a friend.

Aside from Penn Treaty, the only other company that I can think of as being at risk in the long term care arena is Genworth.  Be wary there.  What is worse is that they also underwrite mortgage insurance.  I can’t think of a worse combo: long term care and mortgage insurance.

The troubles at Penn Treaty are indicative of the future for those who fund long term care.  Be wary, because the troubles of the graying of the Baby Boomers will overwhelm those that try to provide long term care.  That includes government institutions.

Note that Genworth is down 60% since I wrote that, against a market that has less than tripled.  If their acquirer doesn’t follow through, it too may go the way of Penn Treaty.  (Give GE credit for kicking that “bad boy” out.  They bring good things to “life.” 😉 )

Okay, enough snark.  My main point this evening is that Pennsylvania should have had Penn Treaty stop writing new business by 2004 or so.  As I wrote to a reporter at Crain’s back in 2008:

On your recent article on Penn Treaty, one little known aspect of their treaty with Imagine Re is that it doesn’t pass risk.  Their GAAP auditors objected, but the State of Pennsylvania went along, which is the opposite of how it ordinarily works.
 
Now Imagine Re takes advantage of the situation and doesn’t pay, knowing that Penn Treaty is in a weak position and can’t fight back, partially because of the accounting shenanigans.
 
It is my opinion that Penn Treaty has been effectively insolvent for the past four years.  I don’t have any economic interest here, but I had to investigate it as an equity analyst one year ago.  Things are playing out as I predicted then.  What I don’t get is why Pennsylvania hasn’t taken them into conservation.

Another matter was that Imagine Re was an Irish reinsurer, and they have weak reserving rules.  That also should have been a “red flag” to Pennsylvania.  The deal with Imagine Re was struck in late 2005, leading to upgrades from AM Best that were reversed by mid-2006.

It was as if the state of Pennsylvania did not want to take the company over for some political reason.  Lesser companies have been taken over over far less.  Pennsylvania itself had worked out Fidelity Mutual a number of years earlier, so it’s not as if they had never done it before.

Had they acted sooner, the losses would never have been as large.  I remember looking through the claim tables in the statutory books for Penn Treaty because the GAAP statements weren’t filed, and concluding that the firm was insolvent back in 2005 or so.  Insurance regulators are supposed to be more conservative than equity analysts, because they don’t want companies to go broke, harming customers, and bringing stress to the industry through the guaranty funds.

The legal troubles post-2009 probably had a small effect on the eventual outcome — raising premiums might have lowered the eventual shortfall of $2.6 billion a little.  But raising premiums would make some healthy folks surrender, and those on benefit are not affected.  It would likely not have much impact.  Maybe some expenses could have been saved if the companies had been liquidated in 2009, 2012, or 2015 — still, that would not have been much either.

Some policyholders get soaked as well, as most state guaranty funds limit covered payments to $300,000.  About 10% of all current Penn Treaty policyholders will lose some benefits as a result.

Regulatory Policy Recommendations

Often regulators only care that premiums not be too high for the insurance, but this is a case where the company clearly undercharged, particularly on the pre-2003 policies.  For contingencies that are long-lived, where payments could be made for a long time, regulators need to spend time looking at premium adequacy.  This is especially important where the company is a monoline and in a line of business that is difficult to underwrite, like long-term care.

The regulators also need to review early claim experience in those situations (unusual business in a monoline), and even look at claim files to get some idea as to whether a company is likely to go insolvent if practices continue.  A review like that might have shut off Penn Treaty’s ability to write business early, maybe prior to 2002.  Qualitative indicators of underpricing show up in the types of claims that arrive early, and the regulators might have been able to reduce the size of this failure.

But wave goodbye to Penn Treaty, not that it will be missed except by policyholders that don’t get full payment.

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November 2016December 2016Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in September indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and growth of economic activity has picked up from the modest pace seen in the first half of this year.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in November indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace since mid-year.FOMC shades GDP up.
Although the unemployment rate is little changed in recent months, job gains have been solid.Job gains have been solid in recent months and the unemployment rate has declined.Shades up their view on labor.
Household spending has been rising moderately but business fixed investment has remained soft.Household spending has been rising moderately but business fixed investment has remained soft.No change.
Inflation has increased somewhat since earlier this year but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation has increased since earlier this year but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Shades their view of inflation up.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation have moved up but remain low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Market-based measures of inflation compensation have moved up considerably but still are low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.No change.  TIPS are showing higher inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.08%, up 0.24%  from November.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further.The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further.No change.
Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.No change. CPI is at +1.6% now, yoy.
Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.No change.
Against this backdrop, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent.In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.Builds in the idea that they are reacting at least partially to expected future conditions in inflation and labor.
The Committee judges that the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has continued to strengthen but decided, for the time being, to wait for some further evidence of continued progress toward its objectives. Sentence dropped.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.Shades down their view of how accommodative monetary policy is.

They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.  Think of monetary policy as a drug for which a tolerance gets built up.

In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.No change.
The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.  Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Esther L. George; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Full agreement
Voting against the action were: Esther L. George and Loretta J. Mester, each of whom preferred at this meeting to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.Prior dissenters are now happy, but was a 0.25% increase enough?  Or, as Steve Hanke has said, has monetary policy had to be loose to fight lower bank leverage?

Comments

  • The FOMC tightens 1/4%, but deludes itself that it is still accommodative.
  • The economy is growing well now, and in general, those who want to work can find work.
  • Maybe policy should be tighter. The key question to me is whether lower leverage at the banks was a reason for ultra-loose policy.
  • The change of the FOMC’s view is that inflation is higher. Equities and bonds fall. Commodity prices fall and the dollar strengthens.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.

Photo Credit: ajehals || Pensions are promises. Sadly, promises are often broken. Choose your promiser with care…

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If you want a full view of what I am writing about today, look at this article from The Post and Courier, “South Carolina’s looming pension crisis.”  I want to give you some perspective on this, so that you can understand better what went wrong, and what is likely to go wrong in the future.

Before I start, remember that the rich get richer, and the poor poorer even among states.  Unlike what many will tell you though, it is not any conspiracy.  It happens for very natural reasons that are endemic in human behavior.  The so-called experts in this story are not truly experts, but sourcerer’s apprentices who know a few tricks, but don’t truly understand pensions and investing.  And from what little I can tell from here, they still haven’t learned.  I would fire them all, and replace all of the boards in question, and turn the politicians who are responsible out of office.  Let the people of South Carolina figure out what they must do here — I’m a foreigner to them, but they might want to hear my opinion.

Let’s start here with:

Central Error 1: Chasing the Markets

Credit: The Courier and Post

Much as inexperienced individuals did, the South Carolina Retirement System Investment Commission [SCRSIC] chased the markets in an effort to earn returns when they seemed easy to get in hindsight.  As the article said:

It used to be different, before the high-octane investment strategies began. South Carolina’s pension plans were considered 99 percent funded in 1999, and on track to pay all promised benefits for decades to come.

That was the year the pension funds started investing in stocks, in hopes of pulling in even more income. A change to the state constitution and action by the General Assembly allowed those investments. In the previous five years, U.S. stock prices had nearly tripled.

Prior to that time, the pension funds were largely invested in bonds and cash, which actually yielded something back then.  If the pension funds were invested in bonds that were long, the returns might not have been so bad versus stocks.  But in the late ’90s the market went up aggressively, and the money looked easy, and it was easy, partly due to loose monetary policy, and a mania in technology and internet stocks.

Here’s the real problem.  It’s okay to invest in only bonds. It’s okay to invest in bonds and stocks in a fixed proportion.  It’s okay even to invest only in stocks.  Whatever you do, keep the same policy over the long haul, and don’t adjust it.  Also, the more nonguaranteed your investments become (anything but high quality bonds), the larger your provision against bear markets must become.

And, when you start a new policy, do what is not greedy.  1999-2000 was the right time to buy long bonds and sell stocks, and I did that for a small trust that I managed at the time.  It looked dumb on current performance, but if you look at investing as a business asking what level of surplus cash flows the underlying investments will throw off, it was an easy choice, because bonds were offering a much higher future yield than stocks.  But the natural tendency is to chase returns, because most people don’t think, they imitate.  And that was true for the SCRSIC, bigtime.

Central Error 2: Bad Data

The above quote said that “South Carolina’s pension plans were considered 99 percent funded in 1999.”  That was during an era when government accounting standards were weak.  The standards are still weak, but they are stronger than they were.  South Carolina was NOT 99% funded in 1999 — I don’t know what the right answer would have been, but it would have been considerably lower, like 80% or so.

Central Error 3: Unintelligent Diversification into “Alternatives”

In 2009, I had the fun of writing a small report for CALPERS.  One of my main points was that they allocated money to alternative investments too late.  With all new classes of investments the best deals get done early, and as more money flows into the new class returns surge because the flood of buyers drives prices up.  Pricing is relatively undifferentiated, because experience is early, and there have been few failures.  After significant failures happen, differentiation occurs, and players realize that there are sponsors with genuine skill, and “also rans.”  Those with genuine skill also limit the amount of money they manage, because they know that good-returning ideas are hard to come by.

The second aspect of this foolishness comes from the consultants who use historical statistics and put them into brain-dead mean-variance models which spit out an asset allocation.  Good asset allocation work comes from analyzing what economic return the underlying business activities will throw off, and adjusting for risk qualitatively.  Then allocate funds assuming they will never be able to trade something once bought.  Maybe you will be able to trade, but never assume there will be future liquidity.

The article kvetches about the expenses, which are bad, but the strategy is worse.  The returns from all of the non-standard investments were poor, and so was their timing — why invest in something not geared much to stock returns when the market is at low valuations?  This is the same as the timing problem in point one.

Alternatives might make sense at market peaks, or providing liquidity in distressed situations, but for the most part they are as saturated now as public market investments, but with more expenses and less liquidity.

Central Error 4: Caring about 7.5% rather than doing your best

Part of the justification for buying the alternatives rather than stocks and bonds is that you have more of a chance of beating the target return of the plan, which in this case was 7.5%/yr.  Far better to go for the best risk-adjusted return, and tell the State of South Carolina to pony up to meet the promises that their forbears made.  That brings us to:

Central Error 5: Foolish politicians who would not allocate more money to pensions, and who gave pension increases rather than wage hikes

The biggest error belongs to the politicians and bureaucrats who voted for and negotiated higher pension promises instead of higher wages.  The cowards wanted to hand over an economic benefit without raising taxes, because the rise in pension benefits does not have any immediate cash outlay if one can bend the will of the actuary to assume that there will be even higher investment earnings in the future to make up the additional benefits.

[Which brings me to a related pet peeve.  The original framers of the pension accounting rules assumed that everyone would be angels, and so they left a lot of flexibility in the accounting rules to encourage the creation of defined benefit plans, expecting that men of good will would go out of their way to fund them fully and soon.

The last 30 years have taught us that plan sponsors are nothing like angels, playing for their own advantage, with the IRS doing its bit to keep corporate plans from being fully funded so that taxes will be higher.  It would have been far better to not let defined benefit plans assume any rate of return greater than the rate on Treasuries that would mimic their liability profile, and require immediate relatively quick funding of deficits.  Then if plans outperform Treasuries, they can reduce their contributions by that much.]

Error 5 is likely the biggest error, and will lead to most of the tax increases of the future in many states and municipalities.

Central Error 6: Insufficient Investment Expertise

Those in charge of making the investment decisions proved themselves to be as bad as amateurs, and worse.  As one of my brighter friends at RealMoney, Howard Simons, used to say (something like), “On Wall Street, to those that are expert, we give them super-advanced tools that they can use to destroy themselves.”   The trustees of SCRSIC received those tools and allowed themselves to be swayed by those who said these magic strategies will work, possibly without doing any analysis to challenge the strategies that would enrich many third parties.  Always distrust those receiving commissions.

Central Error 7: Intergenerational Equity of Employee Contributions

The last problem is that the wrong people will bear the brunt of the problems created.  Those that received the benefit of services from those expecting pensions will not be the prime taxpayers to pay those pensions.  Rather, it will be their children paying for the sins of the parents who voted foolish people into office who voted for the good of current taxpayers, and against the good of future taxpayers.  Thank you, Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, you really sank things for Generation X, the Millennials, and those who will follow.

Conclusion

Could this have been done worse?  Well, there is Illinois and Kentucky.  Puerto Rico also.  Many cities are in similar straits — Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, and more.

Take note of the situation in your state and city, and if the problem is big enough, you might consider moving sooner rather than later.  Those that move soonest will do best selling at higher real estate prices, and not suffer the soaring taxes and likely diminution of city services.  Don’t kid yourself by thinking that everyone will stay there, that there will be a bailout, etc.  Maybe clever ways will be found to default on pensions (often constitutionally guaranteed, but politicians don’t always honor Constitutions) and municipal obligations.

Forewarned is forearmed.  South Carolina is a harbinger of future problems, in their case made worse by opportunists who sold the idea of high-yielding investments to trustees that proved to be a bunch of rubes.  But the high returns were only needed because of the overly high promises made to state employees, and the unwillingness to levy taxes sufficient to fund them.

Seven central errors committed by the South Carolina Retirement System and politicians Click To Tweet

Photo Credit: elycefeliz

Photo Credit: elycefeliz || Duck, it’s a financial crisis! 😉

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Should a credit analyst care about financial leverage?  Of course, the amount and types of financial claims against a firm are material to the ability of a firm to avoid defaulting on its debts.  What about operating leverage?  Should the credit analyst care?  Of course, if a firm has high fixed costs and low variable costs (high operating leverage), its financial position is less stable than that of a company that has low fixed costs and high variable costs.  Changes in demand don’t affect a firm as much if they have low operating leverage.

That might be fine for industrials and utilities, but what about financials?  Aren’t financials different?  Yes, financials are different as far as operating leverage goes because for financial companies, operating leverage is the degree of credit risk that financials take on in their assets. Different types of lending have different propensities for loss, both in terms of likelihood and severity, which are usually correlated.

A simple example would be two groups of corporate bonds —  one can argue over new classes of bond ratings, but on average, lower rated corporate bonds default more frequently than higher rated bonds, and when they default, the losses are typically greater on the lower rated bonds.

As such the amount of operating risk, that is, unlevered credit risk, is material to the riskiness of financial companies.

Credit analysis gets done on financial companies by many parties: the rating agencies, private credit analysts, and implicitly by financial regulators.  They all do the same sorts of analyses using similar underlying theory, though the details vary.

Regulators typically codify their analyses through what they call risk-based capital.  Given all of the risks a financial institution takes — credit, asset-liability mismatch, and other liability risks, how much capital does a financial institution need in order to stay solvent?  Along with this usually also comes cash flow testing to make sure that the financial companies can withstand runs on their capital structure.

When done in a rigorous way, this lowers the probability and severity of financial failures, including the remote possibility that taxpayers could be tagged in a crisis to cover losses.  In the life insurance industry, actuaries have worked together with regulators to put together a fair system that is hard to game, and as such, few life and P&C insurance companies went under during the financial crisis.  (Note: AIG went under due to its derivative subsidiary and that they messed with securities lending agreements.  The only failures in life and P&C insurance were small.)

Banks have risk-based capital standards, but they are less well-designed than those of the US insurance industry, and for the big banks they are more flexible than those for insurers.  If I were regulating banks, I would get a small army of actuaries to study bank solvency, and craft regulations together with a single banking regulator that covers all depositary financials (or, state regulators like in insurance which would be better) using methods similar to those for the insurance industry.  Then every five years or so, adjust the regulations because as they get used, problems appear.  After a while, the methods would work well.  Oh, I left one thing out — all banks would have a valuation actuary reporting to the board and the regulators who would do the cash flow testing and the risk-based capital calculations.  Their positions would be funded with a very small portion of money that currently goes to the FDIC.

This would be a very good system for avoiding excessive financial risk.  Dreaming aside, I write this this evening because there are other dreamers proposing a radically simple system for regulating banks which would allow them to write business with no constraint at all with respect to credit risk.  All banks would face a simple 10% leverage ratio regardless of how risky their loan books are.  This would in the short run constrain the big banks because they would need to raise capital levels, though after that happened, they would probably write riskier loans to get their return on equity back to where it was.

My main point here is that you don’t want to incent banks to write a lot of risky loans.  It would be better for banks to put aside the right amount of capital versus varying classes of risk, and size the amount of capital such that it is not prohibitive to the banking system.

As such, a simple leverage ratio will not cut it.  Thinking people and their politicians should reject the current proposal being put out by the Republicans and instead embrace a more successful regulatory system manned by intelligent and reasonably risk-averse actuaries.