Photo Credit: Renegade98 || What was it that Buffett said 'bout swimmin' naked?

Photo Credit: Renegade98 || What was it that Buffett said ’bout swimmin’ naked?

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It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.

— Warren Buffett, credit Old School Value

When I was 29, nearly half a life ago, Donald Trump was a struggling real estate developer.  In 1990, I was still trying to develop my own views of the economy and finance.  But one day heading home from work at AIG, I was listening to the business report on the radio, and I heard the announcer say that Donald Trump had said that he would be “the king of cash.”  My tart comment was, “Yeah, right.”

At that point in time, I knew that a lot of different entities were in need of financing.  Though the stock market had come back from the panic of 1987, many entities had overborrowed to buy commercial real estate.  The major insurance companies of that period were deeply at fault in this as well, largely driven by the need to issue 5-year Guaranteed Investment Contracts [GICs] to rapidly growing stable value funds of defined contribution plans.  Outside of some curmudgeons in commercial mortgage lending departments, few recognized that writing 5-year mortgages with low principal amortization rates against long-lived commercial properties was a recipe for disaster.  This was especially true as lending yield spreads grew tighter and tighter.

(Aside: the real estate area of Provident Mutual avoided most of the troubles, as they sold their building that they built seven years earlier for twice what they paid to a larger competitor.  They also focused their mortgage lending on small, ugly, economically necessary properties, and not large trophy properties.  They were unsung heroes of the company, and their reward was elimination eight years later as a “cost saving move.”  At a later point in time, I talked with the lending group at Stancorp, which had a similar philosophy, and expressed admiration for the commercial mortgage group at Provident Mutual… Stancorp saw the strength in the idea, and still follows it today as the subsidiary of a Japanese firm.  But I digress…)

Many of the insurance companies making the marginal commercial mortgage loans had come to AIG seeking emergency financing.  My boss at AIG got wind of the fact that I was looking elsewhere for work, and subtly regaled me of the tales of woe at many of the insurance companies with these lending issues, including one at which I had recently interviewed.    (That was too coincidental for me not to note, particularly as a colleague in another division asked me how the search was going.  All this from one stray comment to an actuary I met coming back from the interview…)

Back to the main topic: good investing and business rely on the concept of a margin of safety.  There will be problems in any business plan.  Who has enough wherewithal to overcome those challenges?  Plans where everything has to go right in order to succeed will most likely fail.

With Trump back in 1990, the goal was admirable — become liquid in order to purchase properties that were now at bargain prices.  As was said in the Wall Street Journal back in April of 1990, the article started:

In a two-hour interview, Mr. Trump explained that he is raising cash today so he can scoop up bargains in a year or two, after the real estate market shakes out. Such an approach worked for him a decade ago when he bet big that New York City’s economy would rebound, and developed the Trump Tower, Grand Hyatt and other projects.

“What I want to do is go and bargain hunt,” he said. “I want to be king of cash.”

That’s where Trump said it first.  After that he received many questions from reporters and creditors, because his businesses were heavily indebted, and property values were deflated, including the properties that he owned.  Who wouldn’t want to be the “king of cash” then?  But to be in that position would mean having sold something when times were good, then sitting on the cash.  Not only is that not in Trump’s nature, it is not in the nature of most to do that.  During good times, the extra cash that Buffett keeps on hand looks stupid.

Trump did not get out of the mess by raising cash, but by working out a deal with his creditors in bankruptcy.  Give Trump credit, he had convinced most of his creditors that they were better off continuing to finance him rather than foreclose, because the Trump name made the properties more valuable.  Had the creditors called his bluff, Trump would have lost a lot, possibly to the point where we wouldn’t be hearing much about him today.

Trump escaped, but most other debtors don’t get the same treatment Trump did.  The only way to survive in a credit crunch is plan ahead by getting adequate long-term financing (equity and long-term debt), and keep a “war kitty” of cash on the side.

During 2002, I had the chance to test this as a bond manager.  With the accounting disasters at mid-year, on July 27th, two of my best brokers called me and said, “The market is offered without bid.  We’ve never seen it this bad.  What do you want to do?”  I kept a supply of liquidity on hand for situations like this, so with the S&P falling, and the VIX over 50, I put out a series of lowball bids for BBB assets that our analysts liked.  By noon, I had used up all of my liquidity, but the market was turning.  On October 9th, the same thing happened, but this time I had a larger war chest, and made more bids, with largely the same result.

That’s tough to do, and my client pushed me on the “extra cash sitting around.”  After all, times are good, there is business to be done, and we could use the additional interest to make the estimates next quarter.

To give another example, we have the visionary businessman Elon Musk facing a cash crunch at Tesla and SolarCity.  Leave aside for a moment his efforts to merge the two firms when stockholders tend to prefer “pure play” firms to conglomerates — it’s interesting to look at how two “growth companies” are facing a challenge raising funds at a time when the stock market is near all time highs.

Both Tesla and Solar City are needy companies when it comes to financing.  They need a lot of capital to grow their operations before the day comes when they are both profitable and cash flow from operations is positive.  But, so did a lot of dot-com companies in 1998-2000, of which a small number exist to this day.  Elon Musk is in a better position in that presently he can dilute issue shares of Tesla to finance matters, as well as buy 80% of the Solar City bond issue.  But it feels weird to have to finance something in less than a public way.

There are other calls on cash in the markets today — many companies are increasing dividends and buying back stock.  Some are using debt to facilitate this.  I look at the major oil companies and they all seem to be levering up, which is unusual given the recent trajectory of crude oil prices.

We are in the fourth phase of the credit cycle now — borrowing is growing, and profits aren’t.  There’s no rule that says we have to go through a bear market in credit before that happens, but that is the ordinary way that excesses get purged.

That is why I am telling you to pull back on risk, and review your portfolio for companies that need financing in the next three years or they will croak.  If they don’t self finance, be wary.  When things are bad only cash flow can validate an asset, not hopes of future growth.

With that, I close this article with a poem that I saw as a graduate student outside the door of the professor for whom I was a teaching assistant when I first came to UC-Davis.  I did not know that is was out on the web until today.  It deserves to be a classic:

Quoth The Banker, “Watch Cash Flow”

Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of accounting lore,
Seeking gimmicks (without scruple) to squeeze through
Some new tax loophole,
Suddenly I heard a knock upon my door,
Only this, and nothing more.

Then I felt a queasy tingling and I heard the cash a-jingling
As a fearsome banker entered whom I’d often seen before.
His face was money-green and in his eyes there could be seen
Dollar-signs that seemed to glitter as he reckoned up the score.
“Cash flow,” the banker said, and nothing more.

I had always thought it fine to show a jet black bottom line.
But the banker sounded a resounding, “No.
Your receivables are high, mounting upward toward the sky;
Write-offs loom.  What matters is cash flow.”
He repeated, “Watch cash flow.”

Then I tried to tell the story of our lovely inventory
Which, though large, is full of most delightful stuff.
But the banker saw its growth, and with a might oath
He waved his arms and shouted, “Stop!  Enough!
Pay the interest, and don’t give me any guff!”

Next I looked for noncash items which could add ad infinitum
To replace the ever-outward flow of cash,
But to keep my statement black I’d held depreciation back,
And my banker said that I’d done something rash.
He quivered, and his teeth began to gnash.

When I asked him for a loan, he responded, with a groan,
That the interest rate would be just prime plus eight,
And to guarantee my purity he’d insist on some security—
All my assets plus the scalp upon my pate.
Only this, a standard rate.

Though my bottom line is black, I am flat upon my back,
My cash flows out and customers pay slow.
The growth of my receivables is almost unbelievable:
The result is certain—unremitting woe!
And I hear the banker utter an ominous low mutter,
“Watch cash flow.”

Herbert S. Bailey, Jr.

Source:  The January 13, 1975, issue of Publishers Weekly, Published by R. R. Bowker, a Xerox company.  Copyright 1975 by the Xerox Corporation.  Credit also to aridni.com.

December 2015January 2016Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in October suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December suggests that labor market conditions improved further even as economic growth slowed late last year.Shades up labor conditions.  Shades down economic growth.
Household spending and business fixed investment have been increasing at solid rates in recent months, and the housing sector has improved further; however, net exports have been soft.Household spending and business fixed investment have been increasing at moderate rates in recent months, and the housing sector has improved further; however, net exports have been soft and inventory investment slowed.Shades household spending down.
A range of recent labor market indicators, including ongoing job gains and declining unemployment, shows further improvement and confirms that underutilization of labor resources has diminished appreciably since early this year. A range of recent labor market indicators, including strong job gains, points to some additional decline in underutilization of labor resources.Shades labor employment up.
Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.No change.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; some survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have edged down.Market-based measures of inflation compensation declined further; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Shades current and forward inflation down.  TIPS are showing lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 1.53%, down 0.18% from September.
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 currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will continue to expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.Shifts language to reflect moving from easing to tightening.
Overall, taking into account domestic and international developments, the Committee sees the risks to the outlook for both economic activity and the labor market as balanced. Sentence dropped.
Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.Inflation is expected to remain low in the near term, in part because of the further declines in energy prices, but to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.CPI is at +0.7% now, yoy.

Shades inflation down in the short run due to energy prices.

The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.The Committee is closely monitoring global economic and financial developments and is assessing their implications for the labor market and inflation, and for the balance of risks to the outlook.Says that they watch every economic indicator only for their likely impact on labor employment and inflation.
The Committee judges that there has been considerable improvement in labor market conditions this year, and it is reasonably confident that inflation will rise, over the medium term, to its 2 percent objective. Dropped sentence.
Given the economic outlook, and recognizing the time it takes for policy actions to affect future economic outcomes, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/4 to 1/2 percent.Given the economic outlook, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent.No real change.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative after this increase, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.No real change.  They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.
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. 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.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. 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.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; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.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.Changing of the guard of regional Fed Presidents, making them ever so slightly more hawkish, and having no effect on policy.

Comments

  • Policy stalls, as their view of the economy catches up with reality.
  • The changes for the FOMC is that labor indicators are stronger, and GDP weaker.
  • Equities fall and bonds rise. Commodity prices rise and the dollar falls.  Maybe some expected a bigger move.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain’t moving rates up much, absent much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.

Photo Credit: andrew wertz || Half a house is better than none...

Photo Credit: andrew wertz || Half a house is better than none…

I am usually not into financial complexity, but I ran into a service today called Point that could be useful for some people if they need credit and:

 

  • you have a well maintained property in a neighborhood that has appreciation potential
  • you have a strong credit history
  • you have household income that covers your debt obligations (and some)
  • you have built up some equity in your home. After Point funding, you should still own at least 20% of the equity in your home
  • you live in one of the areas where Point is currently available
  • we reach agreement with you on a fair value for your property
  • you will sell the home within the term of your Point Homeowner Agreement or you will be in a position to repay Point at the end of the term

This is taken from Point’s website

The basic idea is that you sell a fraction of the equity/ownership of your home to Point.  You will still have to maintain it and service all of the debt on the home, but beyond that, you can live in your home rent-free.  When you sell the property, Point gets its share of the sales price.  According to the Bloomberg article:

With Point, credit scores can be less than 620, but homeowners must have at least 25 percent to 30 percent equity in their houses. Point adjusts the cost of its investment based on the owner and the property, taking a larger percentage of price appreciation from riskier customers. Should the homeowner not pay Point, the firm has the right to sell the home to recoup its investment and take its portion of the gains.

Those who decide not to sell their homes have to pay the company back at the end of the 10-year period, similar to a loan, with an annual effective interest rate that’s capped at about 15 percent, comparable to rates on some credit cards or unsecured consumer debt. Annual percentage rates at LendingClub range from 5.32 percent to almost 30 percent on three-year personal loans.

Point is investing in properties it expects to appreciate in value, initially focusing on California, with plans to fund homeowners in other states next year, according to a company marketing document.

Repayment with appreciation occurs at the earlier of the end of a 10-year term, sale of the property, or the will of the owner to buy out Point’s stake at the appraised value.

So, what could go wrong?

Personally, I like the idea of selling an equity interest because it delevers the owner.  The owner does not have to make any additional payments.  He forfeits some appreciation of the property, and faces either a need for liquidity or a sale of the property 10 years out.  (The 10-year limit is probably due to a need to repay Point’s own property investors.)

Possible issues: you might not like the price to buy out Point should you ever get the resources to do so.  You may not want to sell the property 10 years out if you realize that you can’t raise the liquidity to buy out Point.  If you do sell your home, you will incur costs, and may have a hard time buying a similar home in the market that you are in with the proceeds.

But on the whole, I like the idea, and think that it could become an alternative to reverse mortgages in some markets where properties are appreciating.  An alternative to that odious product would be welcome.

Full disclosure: I don’t have any financial dealings with Point.  I just think it is an interesting idea.

 

Photo Credit: Baynham Goredema || When things are crowded, how much freedom to move do you have?

Photo Credit: Baynham Goredema || When things are crowded, how much freedom to move do you have?

Stock diversification is overrated.

Alternatives are more overrated.

High quality bonds are underrated.

This post was triggered by a guy from the UK who sent me an infographic on reducing risk that I thought was mediocre at best.  First, I don’t like infographics or video.  I want to learn things quickly.  Give me well-written text to read.  A picture is worth maybe fifty words, not a thousand, when it comes to business writing, perhaps excluding some well-designed graphs.

Here’s the problem.  Do you want to reduce the volatility of your asset portfolio?  I have the solution for you.  Buy bonds and hold some cash.

And some say to me, “Wait, I want my money to work hard.  Can’t you find investments that offer a higher return that diversify my portfolio of stocks and other risky assets?”  In a word the answer is “no,” though some will tell you otherwise.

Now once upon a time, in ancient times, prior to the Nixon Era, no one hedged, and no one looked for alternative investments.  Those buying stocks stuck to well-financed “blue chip” companies.

Some clever people realized that they could take risk in other areas, and so they broadened their stock exposure to include:

  • Growth stocks
  • Midcap stocks (value & growth)
  • Small cap stocks (value & growth)
  • REITs and other income passthrough vehicles (BDCs, Royalty Trusts, MLPs, etc.)
  • Developed International stocks (of all kinds)
  • Emerging Market stocks
  • Frontier Market stocks
  • And more…

And initially, it worked.  There was significant diversification until… the new asset subclasses were crowded with institutional money seeking the same things as the original diversifiers.

Now, was there no diversification left?  Not much.  The diversification from investor behavior is largely gone (the liability side of correlation).  Different sectors of the global economy don’t move in perfect lockstep, so natively the return drivers of the assets are 60-90% correlated (the asset side of correlation, think of how the cost of capital moves in a correlated way across companies).  Yes, there are a few nooks and crannies that are neglected, like Russia and Brazil, industries that are deeply out of favor like gold, oil E&P, coal, mining, etc., but you have to hold your nose and take reputational risk to buy them.  How many institutional investors want to take a 25% chance of losing a lot of clients by failing unconventionally?

Why do I hear crickets?  Hmm…

Well, the game wasn’t up yet, and those that pursued diversification pursued alternatives, and they bought:

  • Timberland
  • Real Estate
  • Private Equity
  • Collateralized debt obligations of many flavors
  • Junk bonds
  • Distressed Debt
  • Merger Arbitrage
  • Convertible Arbitrage
  • Other types of arbitrage
  • Commodities
  • Off-the-beaten track bonds and derivatives, both long and short
  • And more… one that stunned me during the last bubble was leverage nonprime commercial paper.

Well guess what?  Much the same thing happened here as happened with non-“blue chip” stocks.  Initially, it worked.  There was significant diversification until… the new asset subclasses were crowded with institutional money seeking the same things as the original diversifiers.

Now, was there no diversification left?  Some, but less.  Not everyone was willing to do all of these.  The diversification from investor behavior was reduced (the liability side of correlation).  These don’t move in perfect lockstep, so natively the return drivers of the risky components of the assets are 60-90% correlated over the long run (the asset side of correlation, think of how the cost of capital moves in a correlated way across companies).  Yes, there are some that are neglected, but you have to hold your nose and take reputational risk to buy them, or sell them short.  Many of those blew up last time.  How many institutional investors want to take a 25% chance of losing a lot of clients by failing unconventionally?

Why do I hear crickets again?  Hmm…

That’s why I don’t think there is a lot to do anymore in diversifying risky assets beyond a certain point.  Spread your exposures, and do it intelligently, such that the eggs are in baskets are different as they can be, without neglecting the effort to buy attractive assets.

But beyond that, hold dry powder.  Think of cash, which doesn’t earn much or lose much.  Think of some longer high quality bonds that do well when things are bad, like long treasuries.

Remember, the reward for taking business risk in general varies over time.  Rewards are relatively thin now, valuations are somewhere in the 9th decile (80-90%).  This isn’t a call to go nuts and sell all of your risky asset positions.  That requires more knowledge than I will ever have.  But it does mean having some dry powder.  The amount is up to you as you evaluate your time horizon and your opportunities.  Choose wisely.  As for me, about 20-30% of my total assets are safe, but I have been a risk-taker most of my life.  Again, choose wisely.

PS — if the low volatility anomaly weren’t overfished, along with other aspects of factor investing (Smart Beta!) those might also offer some diversification.  You will have to wait for those ideas to be forgotten.  Wait to see a few fund closures, and a severe reduction in AUM for the leaders…

Photo Credit: Jason Wesley Upton || Of course this isn't China...

Photo Credit: Jason Wesley Upton || Of course this isn’t China…

I know this is redacted, but it is advice to a reader in a really remote area of the world.  You might find it interesting.

I am currently with the XXX team in XXX.  We are taking about trying to budget the [project] with the inflation of the past months being 50%. And September being 91%. I think XXX would appreciate your thoughts on the likely economic and inflation situation. They are trying to decide whether to move to working on dollars. And how to budget if they stay in the [local currency].

Dear [Friend],

One question that may not matter so much… is the inflation rate 50-91%/year, or 50-91%/month?  The reason I ask this is if that is the rate per month, then you should try to do as much business as you can in dollars, and/or treat the local currency like a hot potato… don’t hold onto it long – it is not a store of value.  It is normal in such a situation for another currency to become the practical currency when inflation gets that high… even if it is illegal.

If the rate is 50-91%/year, that’s not great to work with, but prices are still moving slow enough for you to have some degree of a planning horizon in the local currency.  Still, any big transactions should be done in dollars, unless you are certain that you are getting a favorable rate in the local currency.

As for budgeting, it could be useful to do the budget in both currencies.  This will help to raise the natural question of what happens if you don’t have the right currency.  Here’s what I mean: ask what currencies you would naturally use to transact to accomplish your goals – look at both revenues and expenses.  If you find your expenses are mainly in dollars or euros, but revenues are in the local currency, you will need to do one of two things.  Either a) try to charge in hard currency terms, or raise revenue rates regularly, or b) build in a significant pad in local currency terms for the things you would typically buy in a hard currency.

Feel free to send me a spreadsheet on this.  As an aside, you can tell XXX that I have little trust that the situation will improve rapidly.  The government is too corrupt, its budget way out of balance, and any revenue from oil is down.  It would take a hero willing to end the corruption, and then survive ending it, in order for the inflation to stop.

In closing, the following paragraph is illustrative, and not strictly relevant:

I realize that you all aren’t investing in the country, but if you were, I would give the following advice: invest in land.  In a nation where there are no securities market, and the government is the cause of the inflation, land is the only thing that retains value.  AIG used to do this all the time in countries, particularly when they couldn’t remit their earnings there back to the US.  As they say in Argentina, “The wealthy preserve their wealth by owning land.”  So long as land is not expropriated, it protects wealth against governments who steal via inflation.  Gold is similar, but where you are, something that light and valuable could easily be stolen.

Anyway, I missed you at XXX, and hope and pray that you are doing well.  If you or anyone else on the team has questions on this, just let me know.  I’ll make time for you.

In Christ,

David

A while ago I wrote two pieces called “Easy In, Hard Out.”  The main idea was to illustrate the difficulties that the Federal Reserve will face in removing policy accommodation.   In the past, the greater the easing cycle, the harder the tightening cycle.  I don’t think this time will be any different.

In the last two pieces, I showed three graphs to illustrate how the Fed’s balance sheet has changed.  I’m going to show them again now, updated to 11/11/2015.  Here’s the graph showing the liabilities of the Federal Reserve — i.e. what the Fed eventually has to pay back, occasionally with interest:

I’ve added a new category since last time — reverse repurchase agreements (“reverse repos”) because it has gotten big.  In that category, you have money market funds (etc.) lending to the Fed to pick up a pittance in interest.

As you might note — as the balance sheet has grown, all categories of liabilities have grown.  The pristine balance sheet composed mostly of currency is no more — it is only around 30% of the liabilities now.  The biggest increase in reserve balances at the Fed — banks lending to the Fed to receive a pittance in interest, because they have nothing better to do for now.

I’ve considered doing an experiment, and I might do it over the next few weeks.  I went to my copy of AAII Stock Investor, and pulled out the contact data for 336 banks with market capitalizations of over $100 million.  I was thinking of calling 10 of them at random, and asking the following questions:

  • What has the Fed’s ZIRP policy done to your business?
  • Do you have a lot of money on deposit at the Federal Reserve?
  • When the Fed raises the short-term interest rate, what do you plan on doing?
  • Then, the same questions asking them about their competitors.
  • Finally, who has the most to lose in this situation?

It could be revealing, or it could be a zonk.

One more interesting note: reverse repos and my “all other” category have become increasingly volatile of late.

Here’s my next graph, with the asset class composition of the Fed’s balance sheet:

The Fed has gone from a pristine balance sheet of 95% Treasuries to one of 60/40 Treasuries and Mortgage-backed securities [MBS].  MBS are considerably less liquid than Treasuries, particularly when you are the largest holder of them by a wide margin — I’ve heard that it is 25% of the market.  The moment that it would become public knowledge that you were a seller, the market would re-rate down in price considerably, until holders became compensated for the risk of more MBS supply.

Finally, here is the maturity graph for the assets owned by the Fed:

The pristine balance sheet of 2008 was very short in its interest rate sensitivity for its assets — maybe 3 years average at most.  Now maybe the average maturity is 12?  I think it is longer…

Does anybody remember when I wrote a series of very unpopular pieces back in 2008 defending mark-to-market accounting?  Those made me very unpopular inside Finacorp, the now-defunct firm I worked for back then.

I see three hands raised.  My, how time flies.  For the three of you, do you remember what the toxic balance sheet combination is?  The one lady is raising her hand.  The lady has it right — Illiquid assets and liquid liabilities!

In a minor way, that is the Fed now.  Their liabilities will reprice little as they raise rates, while the market value of their assets will fall harder if the yield curve moves in a parallel shift.  No guarantee of a parallel shift, though — and I think the long end may not budge, as in 2004-7.  Either way though, the income of the Fed will decline rapidly, and any adjustment to their balance sheet will prove difficult to achieve.

What’s that, you say?  The Fed doesn’t mark its assets to market?  You got it.  But cash flows don’t change as a result of accounting.

Now, there is one bit of complexity here that was rumored at the Cato Conference — supposedly the Fed doesn’t use a prepayment model with its MBS.  If anyone has better info on that, let me know.  If true, the average life figures which are mostly in the 10-30 years bucket are highly suspect.

As a result of the no-mark-to-market accounting, the Fed won’t show deterioration of its balance sheet in any conventional way.  But you could see seigniorage — the excess interest paid to the US Treasury go negative, and the dividend to its owner banks suspended/delayed for a time if rates rose enough.  Asking the banks to buy more stock in the Federal Reserve would also be a possibility if things got bad enough — i.e., where the future cash flows from the assets could never pay all of the liabilities.  (Yes, they could print money together with the Treasury, but that has issues of its own.  Everything the Fed has done with credit so far has been sterile.  No helicopter drop of money yet.)

Of course, if interest rates rose that much, the US Treasury’s future deficits would balloon, and there would be a lot of political pressure to keep interest rates low if possible.  Remember, central banks are political creatures, much as their independence is advertised.

Conclusion?

Ugh.  The conclusions of my last two pieces were nuanced.  This one is not.  My main point is this: even with the great powers that a central bank has, the next tightening cycle has ample reason for large negative surprises, leading to a premature end of the tightening cycle, and more muddling thereafter, or possibly, some scenario that the Treasury and Fed can’t control.

Be ready, and take some risk off the table.

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.

Quibbles

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.

 

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?

Summary

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.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar || Do you control the elephant, or does the elephant control you?

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar || Do you control the elephant, or does the elephant control you?

I’m currently reading a book about the life of Jesse Livermore.  Part of the book describes how Livermore made a fortune shorting stocks just before the panic of 1907 hit.  He had one key insight: the loans of lesser brokers were being funded by the large brokers, and the large brokers were losing confidence in the creditworthiness of the lesser brokers, and banks were now funding the borrowings by the lesser brokers.

What Livermore didn’t know was that the same set of affairs existed with the banks toward trust companies and smaller banks.  Most financial players were playing with tight balance sheets that did not have a lot of incremental borrowing power, even considering the lax lending standards of the day, and the high level of the stock market.  Remember, in those days, margin loans required only 10% initial equity, not the 50% required today.  A modest move down in the stock market could create a self-reinforcing panic.

All the same, he was in the right place at the right time, and repeated the performance in 1929 (I’m not that far in the book yet).  In both cases you had a mix of:

  • High leverage
  • Short lending terms with long-term assets (stocks) as collateral.
  • Chains of lending where party A lends to party B who lends to party C who lends to party D, etc., with each one trying to make some profit off the deal.
  • Inflated asset values on the stock collateral.
  • Inadequate loan underwriting standards at many trusts and banks
  • Inadequate solvency standards for regulated financials.
  • A culture of greed ruled the day.

Now, this is not much different than what happened to Japan in the late 1980s, the US in the mid-2000s, and China today.  The assets vary, and so does the degree and nature of the lending chains, but the overleverage, inflated assets, etc. were similar.

In all of these cases, you had some institutions that were leaders in the nuttiness that went belly-up, or had significant problems in advance of the crisis, but they were dismissed as one-time events, or mere liquidity and not solvency problems — not something that was indicative of the system as a whole.

Those were the warnings — from the recent financial crisis we had Bear Stearns, the failures in short-term lending (SIVs, auction rate preferreds, ABCP, etc.), Bank of America, Citigroup, credit problems at subprime lenders, etc.

I’m not suggesting a credit crisis now, but it is useful to keep a list of areas where caution is being thrown to the wind — I can think of a few areas: student loans, agricultural loans, energy loans, lending to certain weak governments with large liabilities and no independent monetary policy… there may be more — can you think of any?  Leave a comment.

Subprime lending is returning also, though not in housing yet…

Parting Thoughts

I’ve been toying with the idea that maybe there would be a way to create a crisis model off of the financial sector and its clients, working off of a “how much slack capital exists across the system” basis.  Since risky borrowers vary over time, and some lenders are more prudent than others, the model would have to reflect the different links, and dodgy borrowers in each era.  There would be some art to this.  A raw leverage ratio, or fixed charges ratio in the financial sector wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it probably wouldn’t be enough.  The constraint that bind varies over time as well — regulators, rating agencies, general prudence, etc…)

In a highly leveraged situation with chains of lending, confidence becomes crucial.  Indeed, at the time, you will hear the improvident squeal that they “don’t have a solvency crisis, but just a liquidity crisis! We just need to restore confidence!”  The truth is that they put themselves in an unstable situation where a small change in cash flows and collateral values will be the difference between life and death.  Confidence only deserves to exist among balance sheets that are conservative.

That’s all for now.  Again, if you can think of other areas where debt has grown too quickly, or lending standards are poor, please e-mail me, or leave a message in the comments. Thanks.

Too often in debates regarding the recent financial crisis, the event was regarded as a surprise that no one could have anticipated, conveniently forgetting those who pointed out sloppy banking, lending and borrowing practices in advance of the crisis.  There is a need for a well-developed model of how a financial crisis works, so that the wrong cures are not applied to the financial system.

All that said, any correct cure will bring about a predictable response from the banks and other lending institutions.  They will argue that borrower choice is reduced, and that the flow of credit and liquidity to the financial system is also reduced.  That is not a big problem in the boom phase of the financial cycle, because those same measures help to avoid a loss of liquidity and credit availability in the bust phase of the cycle.  Too much liquidity and credit is what fuels eventual financial crises.

To get to a place where we could have a decent model of the state of overall financial credit, we would have to have models that work like this:

  1. The models would have to have both a cash flow and a balance sheet component to them — it’s not enough to look at present measures of creditworthiness only, particularly if loans do not fully amortize debts at the current interest rate.  Regulatory solvency tests should not automatically assume that borrowers will always be able to refinance.
  2. The models should try to go loan-by-loan, and forecast the ability of each loan to service debts.  Where updated financial data is available on borrowers, that should be included.
  3. The models should try to forecast the fair market prices of assets/collateral, off of estimated future lending conditions, so that at the end of the loan, estimates can be made as to whether loans would be refinanced, extended, or default.
  4. As asset prices rise, there has to be a feedback effect into lowered ability to finance new loans, unless purchasing power is increasing as much or more than asset prices.  It should be assumed that if loans are made at lower underwriting standards than a given threshold, there will be increasing levels of default.
  5. A close eye would have to look for situations where if the property were rented out, it would not earn enough to pay for normalized interest, taxes and maintenance.  When asset prices are that high, the system is out of whack, and invites future defaults.  The margin of implied rents over normalized interest, taxes and maintenance would be the key measure, and the regulators would have to have a function that attributes future losses off of the margin of that calculation.
  6. The cash flows from the loans/mortgages would have to feed through the securitization vehicles, if any, and then to the regulated financial institutions, after which, how they would fund their future liabilities would have to be estimated.
  7. The models would have to include the repo markets, because when the prices of collateral get too high, runs on the repo market can happen.  The same applies to portfolio margining agreements for derivatives, futures, and other types of wholesale lending.
  8. There should be scenarios for ordinary recessions.  There should also be some way of increasing the Ds at that time: death, disability, divorce, disaster, dis-employment, etc.  They mysteriously tend to increase in bad economic times.

What a monster.  I’ve worked with stripped-down versions of this that analyze the Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities [CMBS] market, but the demands of a model like this would be considerable, and probably impossible.  Getting the data, scrubbing it, running the cash flows, calculating the asset price functions, implied margin on borrowing, etc., would be pretty tough for angels to do, much less mere men.

Thus if I were watching over the banks, I would probably rely on analyzing:

  • what areas of credit have grown the quickest.
  • where have collateral prices risen the fastest.
  • where are underwriting standards declining.
  • what assets are being financed that do not fully amortize, including all repo markets, margin agreements, etc.

The one semi-practical thing i would strip out of this model would be for regulators to score loans using a model like point 5 suggests.  Even that would be tough, but even getting that approximately right could highlight lending institutions that are taking undue chances with underwriting.

On a slightly different note, I would be skeptical of models that don’t try to at least mimic the approach of a cash flow based model with some adjustments for market-like pricing of collateral and loans.  The degree of financing long assets with short liabilities is the key aspect of how financial crises develop.  If models don’t reflect that, they aren’t realistic, and somehow, I expect that non-realistic models of lending risk will eventually be the rule, because it helps financial institutions make loans in the short run.  After all, it is virtually impossible to fight loosening financial standards piece-by-piece, because the changes seem immaterial, and everyone favors a boom in the short-run.  So it goes.