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Volatility Can Be Risk, At Rare Times

Friday, September 19th, 2014
Photo Credit: Matt Cavanagh

Photo Credit: Matt Cavanagh

There is a saying in the markets that volatility is not risk. In general this is true, and helps to explain why measures like beta and standard deviation of returns do not measure risk, and are not priced by the market. After all, risk is the probability of losing money, and the severity thereof.

It’s not all that different from the way that insurance underwriters think of risk, or any rational businessman for that matter. But just to keep things interesting, I’d like to give you one place where volatility is risk.

When overall economic conditions are serene, many people draw the conclusion that it will stay that way for a long time. That’s a mistake, but that’s human nature. As a result, those concluding that economic conditions will remain serene for a long time decide to take advantage of the situation and borrow money.

When volatility is low, typically credit spreads are low. Why not take advantage of cheap capital? Well, I would simply argue that interest rates are for a time, and if you don’t overdo it, paying interest can be managed. But what happens if you have to refinance the principal of the loan at an inopportune time?

When volatility and interest spreads are low for you, they are low for a lot of other people also. Debt builds up not just for you, but for society as a whole. This can have the impact of pushing up prices of the assets purchased using debt. In some cases, the rising asset prices can attract momentum buyers who also borrow money in order to own the rising assets.

This game can continue until the economic yield of the assets is less than the yield on the debt used to finance the assets. Asset bubbles reach their breaking point when people have to feed cash to the asset beyond the ordinary financing cost in order to hold onto it.

In a situation like this, volatility becomes risk. Too many people have entered into too many fixed commitments and paid too much for a group of assets. This is one reason why debt crises seem to appear out of the blue. The group of assets with too much debt looks like they are in good shape if one views it through the rearview mirror. The loan-to-value ratios on recent loans based on current asset values look healthy.

But with little volatility in some subsegment of the overly levered assets, all of a sudden a small group of the assets gets their solvency called into question. Because of the increasing level of cash flows necessary to service the debt relative to the economic yield on the assets, it doesn’t take much fluctuation to make the most marginal borrowers question whether they can hold onto the assets.

Using an example from the recent financial crisis, you might recall how many economists, Fed governors, etc. commented on how subprime lending was a trivial part of the market, was well-contained, and did not need to be worried about. Indeed, if subprime mortgages were the only weak financing in the market, it would’ve been self-contained. But many people borrowed too much chasing inflated values of residential housing.  As asset values fell, more and more people lost willingness to pay for the depreciating assets.

We’ve had other situations like this in our markets. Here are some examples:

  • Commercial mortgage loans went through a similar set of issues in the late 80s.
  • Lending to lesser developed countries went through similar set of issues in the early 80s.
  • The collateralized debt obligation markets seem to have their little panics every now and then. (late 90s, early 2000s, mid 2000s, late 2000s)
  • During the dot-com bubble, too much trade finance was extended to marginal companies that were burning cash rapidly.
  • The roaring 20s were that way in part due to increased debt finance for corporations and individuals.

At the peak some say, “Nobody rings a bell.” This is true. But think of the market peak as being like the place where the avalanche happened 10 minutes before it happened. What set off the avalanche? Was it the little kid at the bottom of the valley who decided to yodel? Maybe, but the result was disproportionate to the final cause. The far more amazing thing was the development of the snow into the configuration that could allow for the avalanche.

This is the way things are in a heavily indebted financial system. At its end, it is unstable, and at its initial unwinding the proximate cause of trouble seems incapable of doing much harm. But to give you another analogy ask yourself this: what is more amazing, the kid who knocks over the first domino, or the team of people spending all day lining up the huge field of dominoes? It is the latter, and so it is amazing to watch large groups of people engaging in synchronized speculation not realizing that they are heading for a significant disaster.

As for today, I don’t see the same debt buildup has we had growing from 2003 to 2007. The exceptions maybe student loans, parts of the energy sector, parts of the financial sector, and governments. That doesn’t mean that there is a debt crisis forming, but it does mean we should keep our eyes open.

The Art of Extracting Large Commissions From Investors

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

The dirty truth is that some investments in this life are sold, and not bought.  The prime reason for this is that many people are not willing to learn enough to save and invest on their own.  Instead, they rely on others to corral them and say, “You ought to be saving and investing.  Hey, I’ve got just the thing for you!”

That thing could be:

  • Life Insurance
  • Annuities
  • Front-end loaded mutual funds
  • Illiquid securities like Private REITs, LPs, some Structured Notes
  • Etc.

Perhaps the minimal effort necessary to avoid this is to seek out a fee-only financial planner, and ask him to set up a plan for you.  Problem solved, unless…

Unless the amount you have is so small that when look at the size of the financial planner’s fee, you say, “That doesn’t work for me.”

But if you won’t do it yourself, and you can’t find something affordable, then the only one that will help you (in his own way) is a commissioned salesman.

Now, to generate any significant commission off of a financial product, there have to be two factors in place: 1) the product must be long duration, and 2) it must be illiquid.  By illiquid, I mean that either you can’t easily trade it, or there is some surrender charge that gets taken out if the contract is cashed out early.

The long duration of the contract allows the issuer of the contract the ability to take a portion of its gross margins over life of the contract, and pay a large one-time commission to the salesman.  The issuer takes no loss as it pays the commission, because they spread the acquisition cost over the life of the contract.  The issuer can do it because it has set up ways of recovering the acquisition cost in almost all circumstances.

Now in some cases, the statements that the investor will get will explicitly reveal the commission, but that is rare.  Nonetheless, to the extent that it is required, the first statement will reveal how much the contractholder would lose if he tries to cash out early.  (I think this happens most of the time now, but it would not surprise me to find some contract where that does not apply.)

Now the product may or may not be what the person buying it needed, but that’s what he gets for not taking control of his own finances.  I don’t begrudge the salesman his commission, but I do want to encourage readers to put their own best interests first and either:

  • Learn enough so that you can take care of your own finances, or
  • Hire a fee-only planner to build a financial plan for you.

That will immunize you from financial salesmen, unless you eventually become rich enough to use life insurance, trusts, and other instruments to limit your taxation in life and death.

Now, I left out one thing — there are still brokers out there that make their money through lots of smallish commissions by trading a brokerage account of yours aggressively, or try to sell you some of the above products.  Avoid them, and let your fee-only planner set up a portfolio of low cost ETFs for you.  It’s not sexy, but it will do better than aggressive trading.  After all, you don’t make money while you trade; you make it while you wait.

If you don’t have a fee only planner and still want to index — use half SPY and half AGG, and add funds periodically to keep the positions equal sized.  It will never be the best portfolio, but over time it will do better than the average account.

One final note before I go: with insurance, if you want to keep your costs down, keep your products simple — use term insurance for protection, and simple deferred annuities for saving (though I would buy a bond ETF rather than insurance in most cases).  Commissions go up with product complexity, and so do expenses.  Simple products are easy to compare, so that you know that you are getting the best deal.  Unless you are wealthy, and are trying to achieve tax savings via the complexity, opt for simple insurance products that will cover basic needs.  (Also avoid product riders — they are really expensive, even though the additional premiums are low, the likely benefits paid are lower still.)

The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part II

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

This is the continuation of The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part I.  If you haven’t read part I, you will need to read it.  Before I start, there is one more thing I want to add regarding 1994-5: the FOMC used signals from the bond markets to give themselves estimates of expected inflation.  Because of that, the FOMC overdid policy, because the dominant seller of Treasuries was not focusing on the economy, but on hedging mortgage bonds.  Had the FOMC paid more attention to what the real economy was doing, they would not have tightened so much or so fast.  Financial markets are only weakly representative of what the real economy is doing; there’s too much noise.

All that said, in 1991 the Fed also overshot policy on the other side in order to let bank balance sheets heal, so let it not be said that the Fed only responds to signals in the real economy.  (No one should wonder who went through the financial crisis that the Fed has an expansive view of its mandate in practice.)

October 2001

2001 changed America.  September 11th led to a greater loosening of credit by the FOMC in order to counteract spreading unease in the credit markets.  Credit spreads were widening quickly as many lenders were unwilling to take risk at a time where times were so unsettled.  The group that I led took more risk, and the story is told here.  The stock market had been falling most of 2001 when 9/11 came.  When the markets reopened, it fell hard, and rallied into early 2002, before falling harder amid all of the scandals and weak economy, finally bottoming in October 2002.

The rapid move down in the Fed funds rate was not accompanied by a move down in long bond yields, creating a very steep curve.  There were conversations among analysts that the banks were healthy, though many industrial firms, like automobiles were not.  Perhaps the Fed was trying to use housing to pull the economy out of the ditch.  Industries that were already over-levered could not absorb more credit from the Fed.  Unemployment was rising, and inflation was falling.

There was no bad result to this time of loosening — another surprise would lurk until mid-2004, when finally the loosening would go away.  By that time, the stock market would be much higher, about as high as it was in October 2001, and credit spreads tighter.

July 2004

At the end of June 2004, the FOMC did its first hike of what would be 17 1/4% rises in the Fed funds rate which would be monotony interspersed with hyper-interpretation of FOMC statement language adjustments, mixed with the wonder of a little kid in the back seat, saying, “Daddy, when will we get there?”  The FOMC had good reason to act.  Inflation was rising, unemployment was falling, and they had just left the policy rate down at 1% for 12 straight months.  In the midst of that in June-August 2003, there was a another small panic in the mortgage bond market, but this time, the FOMC stuck to its guns and did not raise rates, as they did for something larger in 1994.

With the rise in the Fed funds rate to 1 1/4%, the rate was as high as it was when the recession bottomed in November 2002.  That’s quite a long period of low rates.  During that period, the stock market rallied vigorously, credit spreads tightened, and housing prices rallied.  Long bonds stayed largely flat across the whole period, but still volatile.

There were several surprises in store for the FOMC and investors as  the tightening cycle went on:

  1. The stock market continued to rally.
  2. So did housing.
  3. So did long bonds, at least for a time.
  4. Every now and then there were little panics, like the credit convexity panic in May 2005, from a funky long-short CDO bet.
  5. Credit complexity multiplied.  All manner of arbitrage schemes flourished.  Novel structures for making money off of credit, like CPDOs emerge.  (The wisdom of finance bloggers as skeptics grows.)
  6. By the end, the yield curve invests the hard way, with long bonds falling a touch through the cycle.
  7. Private leverage continued to build, and aggressively, particularly in financials.
  8. Lending standards deteriorated.

We know how this one ended, but at the end of the tightening cycle, it seemed like another success.  Only a few nut jobs were dissatisfied, thinking that the banks and homeowners were over-levered.  In hindsight, FOMC policy should have moved faster and stopped at a lower level, maybe then we would have had less leverage to work through.

June 2010

15 months after the bottom of the crisis, the stock market has rallied dramatically, with a recent small fall, but housing continues to fall in value.  There’s more leverage behind houses, so when the prices do finally fall, it gains momentum as people throw in the towel, knowing they have lost it all, and in some cases, more.  For the past year, long bond yields have gone up and down, making a round-trip, but a lot higher than during late 2008.  Credit spreads are still high, but not as high as during late 2008.

Inflation is low and volatile, unemployment is off the peak of a few months earlier, but is still high.  Real GDP is growing at a decent clip, but fitfully, and it is still not up to pre-crisis levels.  Aside from the PPACA [Obamacare], congress hasn’t done much of anything, and the Fed tries to fill the void by expanding its balance sheet through QE1, which ended in June 2010. Things feel pretty punk altogether.

The FOMC can’t cut the Fed funds rate anymore, so it relies on language in its FOMC Statement to tell economic actors that Fed funds will be “exceptionally low” for an “extended period.”  Four months from then, the QE2 would sail, making the balance sheet of the Fed bigger, but probably doing little good for the economy.

The results of this period aren’t fully known yet because we still living in the same essential macro environment, with a few exceptions, which I will take up in the final section.

August 2014

Inflation remains low, but may finally be rising.  Unemployment has fallen, much of it due to discouraged workers, but there is much underemployment.  Housing has finally gotten traction in the last two years, but there are many cross-currents.  The financial crisis eliminated move-up buyers by destroying their equity.  Stocks have continued on a tear, and corporate credit spreads are very tight, tighter than any of the other periods where the yield curve was shaped as it is now.  The long bond has had a few scares, but has confounded market participants by hanging around in a range of 2.5%- 4.0% over the last two years.

There are rumblings from the FOMC that the Fed funds rate may rise sometime in 2015, after 72+ months hanging out at 0%.  QE may end in a few more months, leaving the balance sheet of the Fed at 5 times its pre-crisis size.  Change may be upon us.

This yield curve shape tends to happen over my survey period at a time when change is about to happen (4 of 7 times — 1971, 1977, 1993 and 2004), and one where the FOMC will raise rates aggressively (3 of 7 times — 1977, 1993 and 2004) after fed funds have been left too low for too long.  2 out of 7 times, this yield curve shape appears near the end of a loosening cycle (1991 and 2001).  1 out of 7 times it appears before a deep recession, as in 1971. 1 out of 7 times it appears in the midst of an uncertain recovery — 2010. 3 out 7 times, inflation will rise significantly, such as in 1971, 1977 and 2004.

My tentative conclusion is this… the fed funds rate has been too low for too long, and we will see a rapid rise in rates, unless the weak economy chokes it off because it can’t tolerate any significant rate increases.  One final note before I close: when the tightening starts, watch the long end of the yield curve.  I did this 2004-7, and it helped me understand what would happen better than most observers.  If the yield of the long bond moves down, or even stays even, the FOMC probably won’t persist in raising rates much, as the economy is too weak.  If the long bond runs higher, it might be a doozy of a tightening cycle.

And , for those that speculate, look for places that can’t tolerate or would  love higher short rates.  Same for moves in the long bond either way, or wider credit spreads — they can’t get that much tighter.

This is an unusual environment, and as I like to say, “Unusual typically begets unusual, it does not beget normal.”  What I don’t know is how unusual and where.  Those getting those answers right will do better than most.  But if you can’t figure it out, don’t take much risk.

The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part I

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Simulated Constant Maturity Treasury Yields 8-1-14_24541_image001

 

Source: FRED

Above is the chart, and here is the data for tonight’s piece:

DateT1T3T5T7T10T20T30AAABAASpdNote
3/1/713.694.505.005.425.705.946.01*7.218.461.25High
4/1/775.446.316.797.117.377.677.738.049.071.03Med
12/1/914.385.396.196.697.097.667.708.319.260.95Med
8/1/933.444.365.035.355.686.276.326.857.600.75Med
10/1/012.333.143.914.314.575.345.327.037.910.88Med
7/1/042.103.053.694.114.505.245.235.826.620.80Med
6/1/100.321.172.002.663.203.954.134.886.231.35High
8/1/140.130.941.672.162.523.033.294.184.750.57Low

Source: FRED   |||     * = Simulated data value  |||  Note: T1 means the yield on a one-year Treasury Note, T30, 30-year Treasury Bond, etc.

Above you see the seven yield curves most like the current yield curve, since 1953.  The table also shows yields for Aaa and Baa bonds (25-30 years in length), and the spread between them.

Tonight’s exercise is to describe the historical environments for these time periods, throw in some color from other markets, describe what happened afterward, and see if there might be any lessons for us today.  Let’s go!

March 1971

Fed funds hits a local low point as the FOMC loosens policy under Burns to boost the economy, to fight rising unemployment, so that Richard Nixon could be reassured re-election.  The S&P 500 was near an all-time high.  Corporate yield spreads  were high; maybe the corporate bond market was skeptical.

1971 was a tough year, with the Vietnam War being unpopular. Inflation was rising, Nixon severed the final link that the US Dollar had to Gold, an Imposed wage and price controls.  There were two moon landings in 1971 — the US Government was in some ways trying to do too much with too little.

Monetary policy remained loose for most of 1972, tightening late in the years, with the result coming in 1973-4: a severe recession accompanied by high inflation, and a severe bear market.  I remember the economic news of that era, even though I was a teenager watching Louis Rukeyser on Friday nights with my Mom.

April 1977

Once again, Fed funds is very near its local low point for that cycle, and inflation is rising.  After the 1975-6 recovery, the stock market is muddling along.  The post-election period is the only period of time in the Carter presidency where the economy feels decent.  The corporate bond market is getting close to finishing its spread narrowing after the 1973-4 recession.

The “energy crisis” and the Cold War were in full swing in April 1977.  Economically, there was no malaise at the time, but in 3 short years, the Fed funds rate would rise from 4.73% to 17.61% in April 1980, as Paul Volcker slammed on the brakes in an effort to contain rising inflation.  A lotta things weren’t secured and flew through the metaphorical windshield, including the bond market, real GDP, unemployment, and Carter’s re-election chances.  Oddly, the stock market did not fall but muddled, with a lot of short-term volatility.

December 1991

This yield curve is the second most like today’s yield curve.  It comes very near the end of the loosening that the FOMC was doing in order to rescue the banks from all of the bad commercial real estate lending they had done in the late 1980s.  A wide yield curve would give surviving banks the ability to make profits and heal themselves (sound familiar?).  Supposedly at the beginning of that process in late 1990, Alan Greenspan said something to the effect of “We’re going to give the banks a lay-up!”  Thus Fed funds went from 7.3% to 4.4% in the 12 months prior to December 1991, before settling out at 3% 12 months later.  Inflation and unemployment were relatively flat.

1991 was a triumphant year in the US, with the Soviet Union falling, Gulf War I ending in a victory (though with an uncertain future), 30-year bond yields hitting new lows, and the stock market hitting new all time highs.  Corporate bonds were doing well also, with tightening spreads.

What would the future bring?  The next section will tell you.

August 1993

This yield curve is the most like today’s yield curve.  Fed funds are in the 13th month out of 19 where they have been held there amid a strengthening economy.  The housing market is doing well, and mortgage refinancing has been high for the last three years, creating a situation where those investing in mortgages securities have a limited set of coupon rates that they can buy if they want to put money to work in size.

An aside before I go on — 1989 through 1993 was the era of clever mortgage bond managers, as CMOs sliced and diced bundles of mortgage payments so that managers could make exotic bets on moves in interest and prepayment rates.  Prior to 1994, it seemed the more risk you took, the better returns were.  The models that most used were crude, but they thought they had sophisticated models.  The 1990s were an era where prepayment occurred at lower and lower thresholds of interest rate savings.

As short rates stayed low, long bonds rallied for two reasons: mortgage bond managers would hedge their portfolios by buying Treasuries as prepayments occurred.  They did that to try to maintain a constant degree of interest rate sensitivity to overall moves in interest rates.  Second, when you hold down short rates long enough, and you give the impression that they will stay there (extended period language was used — though no FOMC Statements were made prior to 1994), bond managers start to speculate by buying longer securities in an effort to clip extra income.  (This is the era that this story (number 2 in this article) took place in, which is part of how the era affected me.)

At the time, nothing felt too unusual.  The economy was growing, inflation was tame, unemployment was flat.  But six months later came the comeuppance in the bond market, which had some knock-on effects to the economy, but primarily was just a bond market issue.   The FOMC hiked the Fed funds rate in February 1994 by one quarter percent, together with a novel statement issued by Chairman Greenspan.  The bond market was caught by surprise, and as rates rose, prepayments fell.  To maintain a neutral market posture, mortgage bond managers sold long Treasury and mortgage bonds, forcing long rates still higher.  In the midst of this the FOMC began raising the fed funds rate higher and higher as they feared economic growth would lead to inflation, with rising long rates a possible sign of higher expected inflation.  The FOMC raises Fed fund by 1/2%.

In April, thinking they see continued rises in inflation expectation, they do an inter-meeting surprise 1/4% raise of Fed funds, followed by another 1/2% in May.  It is at this pint that Vice Chairman McDonough tentatively realizes [page 27] that the mortgage market has now tightly coupled the response of the long end of the bond market to the short end the bond market, and thus, Fed policy.  This was never mentioned again in the FOMC Transcripts, though it was the dominant factor moving the bond markets.  The Fed was so focused on the real economy, that they did not realize their actions were mostly affecting the financial economy.

FOMC policy continued: Nothing in July, 1/2% rise in August, nothing in September, 3/4% rise in November, nothing in December, and 1/2% rise in February 1995, ending the tightening. In late December 1994 and January of 1995, the US Treasury and the Fed participated in a rescue of the Mexican peso, which was mostly caused by bad Mexican economic policy, but higher rates in the US diminished demand for the cetes, short-term US Dollar-denominated Mexican government notes.

The stock market muddled during this period, and the real economy kept growing, inflation in check, and unemployment unaffected.  Corporate spreads tightened; I remember that it was difficult to get good yields for my Guaranteed Investment Contract [GIC] business back then.

But the bond markets left their own impacts: many seemingly clever mortgage bond managers blew up, as did the finances of Orange County, whose Treasurer was a mortgage bond speculator.  Certain interest rate derivatives blew up, such as the ones at Procter & Gamble.  Several life insurers lost a bundle in the floating rate GIC market; the company I served was not one of them.  We even made extra money that year.

The main point of August 1993 is this: holding short rates low for an extended period builds up imbalances in some part of the financial sector — in this case, it was residential mortgages.  There are costs to providing too much liquidity, but the FOMC is not an institution with foresight, and I don’t think they learn, either.

This has already gotten too long, so I will close up here, and do part II tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.

On Current Credit Conditions

Friday, July 18th, 2014

This should be short.  Remember that credit and equity volatility are strongly related.

I am dubious about conditions in the bank loan market because Collateralized Loan Obligations [CLOs] are hot now and there are many that want to take the highest level of risk there.  I realize that I am usually early on credit issues, but there are many piling into CLOs, and willing to take the first loss in exchange for a high yield.  Intermediate-term, this is not a good sign.

Note that corporations take 0n more debt when rates are low.  They overestimate how much debt they can service, because if rates rise, they are not prepared for the effect on earnings per share, should the cost of the debt reprice.

It’s a different issue, but consider China with all of the bad loans its banks have made.  They are facing another significant default, and the Chinese Government looks like it will let the default happen.  That will not likely be true if the solvency of one of their banks is threatened, so keep aware as the risks unfold.

Finally, look at the peace and calm of low implied volatilities of the equity markets.  It feels like 2006, when parties were willing to sell volatility with abandon because the central banks of our world had everything under control.  Ah, remember that?  Maybe it is time to buy volatility when it is cheap.  Now here is my question to readers: aside from buying long Treasury bonds, what investments can you think of that benefit from rising implied volatility and credit spreads, aside from options and derivatives?  Leave you answers in the comments or email me.

This will sound weird, but I am not as much worried about government bond rates rising, as I am with credit spreads rising.  Again, remember, I am likely early here, so don’t go nuts applying my logic.

PS — weakly related, also consider the pervasiveness of BlackRock’s risk control model.  Dominant risk control models may not truly control risk, because who will they sell to?  Just another imbalance of which to be wary.

Questions from Readers

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Miscellaneous questions post — here goes:

Thank you very much for your blog! I am hooked since I found it and have been getting smarter by the day!

I like Safety Insurance Group, found it through your blog, noticed you were no longer long. They don’t do life insurance, just cars and houses – I know you say not to mix because they are sold and underwritten differently. They had a rough Q1 but a good 2013, seems like the winter Mass weather might have done it. They are over Book of 1 so there are other insurers that are cheaper, but they look like a good compliment to NWLI (also found through you and like very much) in the auto space, in a small (and thus dominate-able) market. 

Am I missing something about SAFT? 

Many sincere thanks David!

I like the management team at Safety Insurance.  When I met with them years ago, they impressed me as bright businessmen competing well in one of the most dysfunctional insurance markets in the US — Massachusetts.  Most major insurers did not write auto and home insurance there as a result.  But then the state of Massachusetts began to loosen up their tight regulations, and some of the bigger insurers that stayed away have entered — GEICO, MetLife, Liberty Mutual, etc.

When the market was more closed, SAFT had strategies that allowed them to profitably take market share Commerce Group [now Mapfre].  With more competition in Massachusetts, Safety’s earnings have suffered.  I can’t get excited about a short tail P&C insurer trading above book at 13-14x forecast earnings.

Maybe people are buying it for the 4%+ dividend.  I don’t use dividend yield as an investment criteria, for the most part.  I would avoid Safety Insurance.  It’s well-run, but the price of the stock is too high.  If it drops below $35, it would be a compelling buy.

Hi David,

I was interested in your comment on Normalized Operating Accruals as an indicator of accounting quality.

Why is this?

I tend to view changes in accruals as an indication of the underlying strength of a business, but would appreciate your insight on this.

Thanks

The idea behind net operating accruals is that accrual entries represent future cash flows, which are less certain than cash flows that have already happened.  Companies that report high levels of accounts receivable, inventories, etc., as a fraction of assets or earnings, tend to offer negative earnings surprises, because many of those accruals will not convert to cash as expected.

Here is how I measure Net Operating Accruals:

(Total assets – Cash  – (Total liabilities – Short-term debt – Preferred stock – Long-term debt))/Total assets (or earnings)

An apology here, because the term commonly used is “net operating accruals” and I messed up by calling it “normalized.”

Companies with conservative accounting (fewer accruals) tend to have stronger earnings than those that are more liberal in revenue recognition.

Dave, you and I are too old school. We need to move into this century. The way that most people seem to get into the investment industry has nothing to do with what you talk about. It is far easier to become a “financial advisor” that pushes annuities on the 60+ crowd. You don’t really have to learn anything about investing. All you need to know is about salesmanship. Offer a free lunch/dinner and reel them in!

I honestly think that more folks are going this route instead of the “hard way” you have outlined. . .

Maybe you can do a sarcastic post: “How to NOT be valuable, but make a lot of money in the Investment Business.”

Personally I find the annuity and non-traded REIT pushers very repulsive. At the same time, I know several of them that have done very well . . .

There are two factors at work here — yield and illiquidity.  The need for yield is driven by monetary policy.  Particularly with a sizable increase in retirees, many of whom can’t make enough “income” when interest rates are so low, they take undue risks to get “income,” not realizing the risks of capital loss that they are taking.

When I was an analyst/manager of Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities, there was a key fact one needed to understand: safe mortgages do not depend on whether the businesses leasing the properties operate well or not.  Safe mortgages have no operational risk, and thus avoid theaters, marinas, etc.  Stick to the four food groups: Multifamily, Retail, Office, and Industrial.

There will be negative events with insecure investments offering a high yield.  You may not get the return of your money, as you try to get a high return on your money.

Then there is the illiquidity — that is what allows the sponsors the ability to pay high commissions to those who sell the annuities and non-traded REITs.  Because the investors can’t leave the game, the income stream of the sponsor is very certain.  They take a portion of the anticipated income stream, and pay it in a lump sum to their agents as a commission.  And that is why the agents are so highly motivated.

Eventually, the demand for yield will be disappointed.  Uncertain yields will fail in a crisis, and reset much lower.  Income that stems from dividends, preferred dividends, MLPs, junk bonds, structured notes, etc., is not secure in the short-to-intermediate run.  It is far better to invest to grow value than to invest for income.  They can pay you a yield, sure, but if the underlying value is not growing, you will eventually get capital losses, and after that, much less yield.

Look for safety in yield investments.  If you are going to take risks in investing, take risk, but ignore the income component.  Don’t stretch for yield.

Classic: Changes in Corporate Bonds

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

This was a two part article that was published at RealMoney July 19-20, 2004:

=-==–==-=-=-=-=-==-=–==–=-=-==-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Two changes have taken place in the corporate bond market in recent years. The first change deals with credit default swaps, which I’ll discuss in today’s column. In Part 2 I’ll talk about how corporate bonds are analyzed differently now.

Surviving the Loss of a Major Class of Investor

There used to be a tendency for Wall Street to hold a supply of corporate bonds to sell to the buy side. That changed when credit default swaps were, or CDS, developed. A credit default swap is a transaction where one party buys protection against the default of a corporate credit from another party. The party selling protection receives a constant payment over the life of the transaction so long as the corporate credit does not default.

These swaps were developed in the mid-1990s, but they remained somewhat tangential to investment banks until the negative side of the credit cycle hit in 2000-2002. Many banks did a huge business in CDS, but they traded cash bonds and CDS separately. Typically, the cash bond side of the house was net long corporate bonds, and the CDS side was typically flat credit risk. From late 2001 through 2002, a major change rippled through the “bulge bracket” firms on Wall Street. They got the bright idea to trade cash bonds and CDS together as a group.

This had several desirable outcomes:

  • It enabled them to hold a larger inventory of corporate bonds with less risk.
  • It enabled them to be flat the corporate bond market in a period of severe stress. (However, it must be noted that most of those that instituted programs like this had the trough of the corporate bond market.)
  • It allowed them to trade more rationally. There were new trades that could be done by comparing the cash bond market and CDS market, going long one and short the other. (Note: Here’s how to make money on corporate trading desks: You have more flow in the market than most people you trade with. When clients offer you mispriced trades in your favor, you trade with them and then buy or sell the offsetting positions in the intradealer market at a fair price. With CDS, you have more options for laying off the risk.)

This had the unfortunate effect of removing a seemingly natural buyer from the corporate bond market at a time when the corporate bond market could least afford it. It is my guess that that was part of the reason why the corporate bond market bottomed out in October of 2002, rather than July of 2002. Pressure on the corporate bond market from CDS-related selling did not abate until mid-November of 2002.

As a result, there is only one major buyer of long-term corporate credit risk left in the U.S. economy: life insurance companies. Pension funds play a role in this market, as do foreign institutional buyers. So when corporate bonds do badly or well, life insurance companies are disproportionately affected.

In one sense, we are in a brave new world for both life insurance companies and the corporate bond market because the life insurance industry alone is not big enough to purchase all of the corporate bonds outstanding. Perhaps foreign institutions have filled the gap at present; if so, it will be interesting to see whether foreign capital is as patient as the life insurance industry if we have another downturn in the credit markets.

An Additional Implication of CDS

CDS unify the debt capital structure of debt-issuing companies. In the old days, companies that borrowed money from banks, or issued debt, did so in marketplaces that were separately priced. That separation allowed corporations a greater degree of wiggle room when financial times got tough. Even if the bond market temporarily shut down after a company was downgraded to junk, typically banks would still lend to them, even if the terms were more onerous.

But with the advent of CDS, the banks might lend, but they will lay all the risk on the CDS market. As more risk gets laid off, the credit default swap spreads rise. As the credit default swap spreads rise, an arbitrage opportunity appears against cash bonds.

This leads the corporate bond market default in tandem with rising credit default swaps spreads. Finally, because of arbitrage between equity prices, equity volatility, corporate bond spreads and credit default swap spreads, even a dislocation in the equity markets can lead to trouble in the debt markets and vice versa.

Here is an example of how the world has changed. In late 2000, Xerox (XRX) was under threat of downgrade from both ratings agencies. A downgrade from either agency would make Xerox unable to sell commercial paper, which it needed to finance its deteriorating business. The company tried to issue more commercial paper, but the auction failed, which forced it to exit the commercial paper market. To make up for the cash flow shortfall, Xerox went to its banks to tap its CP backup credit lines. The banks, distressed that what was previously considered free money for them was actually going to be put to use, went to hedge their risks in the CDS market as the CP backup lines got drawn down. The massive buying demand for Xerox CDS led the CDS spreads to widen, which spread into the corporate bond market through arbitrage and eventually led the price of Xerox common equity downward. This happened in a matter of a few days, although the effects rippled for weeks afterward.

Thus, in a panic situation, every market that provides capital to corporations fights against the corporations in a unified manner. This is very different from how the markets behaved 10 years ago. The implication for equity investors is that if you’re buying the equity of debt-issuing corporations, you must be aware that in a crisis they will be more volatile than they were in the past.

Since the bottom of corporate bond market in the 2002, corporations have enjoyed stronger profits and free cash flow. Many corporations have deleveraged. This would be reason alone for corporate spreads to tighten. But there is another factor at play here that is less known outside of the corporate market.

Two Methods of Analysis

There are two distinctly different ways to analyze corporate bonds. The first way is the old standard, which relies on fundamental analysis of a company’s financial statements. The second way relies on contingent claims theory (options theory, Merton’s model) and primarily uses market-oriented variables like stock prices and option volatility.

The basic idea behind the latter method is that the unsecured debt of a firm can be viewed as having sold a put option to the equity owners. In an insolvency, the most the equity owners can lose is their investment. The unsecured bondholders (in a simple two-asset-class capital structure) are the new “de facto” equity holders of the firm. That equity interest is most often worth far less than the original debt. Recoveries are usually 40% or so of the original principal.

Under contingent claims theory, spreads should narrow when equity prices rise, and when implied volatility of equity options falls. Both of these make the implied put option of the equity holders less valuable. Equity holders do not want to give the bondholders a firm that is worth more, or more stable.

So what’s the point? Over the last seven years, more and more managers of corporate credit risk use contingent claims models. Some use them exclusively; others use them in tandem with traditional models. They have a big enough influence on the corporate bond market that they often drive the level of spreads.

Because of this, the decline in implied volatility for the indices and individual companies has been a major factor in the spread compression that has happened. I would say that the decline in implied volatility, and deleveraging, has had a larger impact on spreads than improved profitability has.

Wider Implications for the Markets

Contingent claims models are not perfect, but they are quite good. To ignore them is foolish, but understanding their weaknesses is helpful.

Contingent claims models have a tendency to overestimate the risk of default with corporations that are overleveraged but have a long maturity debt structure. In many of these cases, the indebted corporation has a great deal of “breathing room” and often can maneuver its way out of the situation. This can offer real opportunities for buy-and-hold investors because they can buy the debt or equity at depressed levels and hold it through the apparent crisis. Doing this requires careful fundamental analysis, so if you invest in any of these situations, make sure you do your homework thoroughly.

Finally, the combination of contingent claims theory and the existence of CDS can produce other anomalies. It becomes theoretically possible to hedge CDS against common equity. Some hedge funds do this. They analyze bank debt, corporate bonds, convertible bonds, preferred and common stocks, options, warrants and other financing instruments, to find the cheapest aspect of a company’s credit structure and buy it, and find the richest aspect and sell it.

The full set of implications for the asset markets from this is unknown, partly because funds that do this are small relative to the markets as a whole. If the hedge funds that did this were too large for the markets, it would create too many feedback loops that have not yet been tested, which would have a tendency to amplify price moves in a crisis.

I can’t tell where such a crisis might lurk. The markets are relatively optimistic now. But being aware that these feedback loops could exist, can give you an edge in a crisis. The main upshot is this: Having a strong balance sheet is worth more today than it was in the past. It’s one of many reasons why I continue to focus on higher-quality companies in my equity investing.

Why it is Hard to Win in Investing

Saturday, April 26th, 2014

Before I start this evening, I want to say something about many investment books that I have been reading of late.  In terms of information toward the stated goal of the book, there is often a lot of build up, some of it necessary, some not, some of it interesting, some not, occasionally some unique insights, but most of the time not.  Much of it is filler that could be eliminated.  And, if you eliminated the filler, and boiled down the part of the book that attempts to prove the stated goal, you would have something the size of a long-form blog post.  That’s why there is the filler — you would have a hard time selling a single chapter book, even though that contains the real value of the book, and would save your reader the time of wading through filler material.

Also, when I review books, I read them in entire.  If I don’t read them in entire, I state that plainly at the beginning of the review, along with why I thought I could review the book without reading it.  But after some of the books I have read lately, editing to condense the volume and stick to the topic at hand would be a help.

Finally, if the author doesn’t prove his case in an ironclad way, maybe the book shouldn’t be written.  I often get to the end of a book disappointed, because the author promised a significant result, and did not deliver.

Onto tonight’s topic:

When is the best time to invest?  When everyone else is scared to death of investing.  It’s when friends come up to you and say, “I’m never investing in stocks ever again.”  When the magazine covers proclaim “The Death of Equities,” it is time to invest.

Guess what?  Very few people do invest then.  It’s too painful to contemplate throwing away your money when nothing is going right, and losses are cascading.  Remember, we are not rational, we are mimics.

When do people like to invest?  When it’s popular to do so. When prices have been rising for a while, and the lure of “free money” is in the air.  Books on easy money flipping homes proliferate, and there is a brisk business in seminars teaching an easy road to riches.  It’s that time when people say, “Let the market pay your employees.”

I’ve talked about the fear/greed cycle many times before.  I’ve also talked about time-weighted vs dollar-weighted returns before. I’ve talked about vintage years in lending before, and about absolute return investors before.  I’ve talked about industry rotation before, as well as long-term mean reversion.  These are all manifestations of the same phenomenon in investing — it is best to invest in any given area when few are doing so, and worst to invest when almost all are doing so.

Let me give a bunch of parallel examples to make this clear.

Why do great mutual fund managers cease to be great?  When they are great, they have less money to manage than their ideas could bear managing.  But money follows performance because we are not rational, we mimic.  Eventually enough money comes in  such that the talented investor no longer has good places to put incremental money, and can’t just leave some of the money in cash, or an index fund… from a business angle, it would not fly.

Lest you think that this does not happen to passive investing, money follows performance there also.  It also happens in open-ended index funds, ETPs, and closed-end funds of any sort (expressed through the premium or discount).

This also applies to quantitative investment strategies — even those with broad themes like momentum and valuation.  Let me illustrate this with a slide from a presentation I have done before a large CFA Society:

Efficient Markets versus Adptive Markets

 

And this applies to lending whether securitized or direct.  When money is being thrown at a sub-asset class, like subprime RMBS in 2006-7, or manufactured housing ABS in 2000-1, the results are bad.  The best results occur when few are lending, and only the best deals are getting done.  But that means that few get those high returns.  That is the nature of the markets.

The same applies to corporate bonds.  It is wise to avoid the area of the market where issuance is well above average.  When I was a corporate bond manager, I sold out my auto bonds, and my questionable telecom bonds, amidst much issuance.  I had many brokers puzzle over why I would not buy their deals, even though they were cheap relative to their ratings.

The same applies to private equity.  When a lot of money is being applied there, it is a time to avoid it.  As it is now, private equity is throwing money at promising companies, many of which hold onto the money for safety purposes, because they don’t have place to invest it.  That doesn’t sound promising for future returns.

Finally, we have a few absolute return investors like Klarman, Grantham, and Buffett.  They are reducing allocations to risk assets, at least in relative terms.  Opportunities are not as great, and so they wait.

Summary

The intelligent investor estimates likely returns, and invests if the returns are worth the risk.  I am reducing my risk positions, slowly, as I see best for my clients and me.

Most profitable investing takes an uncomfortable view versus the consensus, and buys when the market offers good deals.  If there are no good deals, profitable investing sits on cash, and waits for a better day.

Sorted Weekly Tweets

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Stocks & Industries

  • Invest In Stubs, Spin-Offs And Liquidations For Alternative Returns http://t.co/ccezep0K9Y Cites a Gabelli article http://t.co/xTrqEfmQeq $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Real Estate Management Better Than Owning Real Estate? http://t.co/IFaDLiwTRa Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Definitely adds more leverage $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Wells Fargo Securities Lending Lawsuit Ends in Settlement http://t.co/w3lSY4Cw8D Low margin business that can go badly wrong in a crisis $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Makani, a $GOOG subsidiary makes an airborne wind turbine that dramaticlly increases power generation efficiency http://t.co/0Fug49o7gC $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Google to Buy Titan Aerospace as Web Giants Battle for Air Superiority http://t.co/HjJ8wKtnjM Makes me think $GOOG has 2much $$ 2spend Apr 18, 2014
  • Profit Tastes Like Chicken in Hunt for Cheaper US Meat http://t.co/drgQbwEiKR With recent rise in beef & pork prices people substitute $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Roads Versus Rail:The Big Battle Over Public Transportation http://t.co/ydBxEglexC Makes case that American will own fewer cars in future $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Barclays Ups $LNC To Buy, Says $MET , $PRU Are Undervalued – Stocks To Watch http://t.co/c7yNaVZqdp Stock Market sensitive insurance cos $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Bidding War Looming for Aspen? Analysts Say Don’t Count On It http://t.co/iMotqyAgHv Offer 4 $AHL looks pretty full 2me, dont look4more $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Biggest LBO Demise Poised to Put Oncor in Play http://t.co/d30djwOa5M Buffett is unlikely 2 enter into bidding in a competitive sale $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Target of Naked Short Sellers Is Angry, Confused http://t.co/I3ZZDn5JNp @matt_lavine takes on imaginary naked shorting in $LPHI $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Radioactive Waste Is North Dakota’s New Shale Problem http://t.co/BiMkO0ZdgK Significant amounts of low level radiation from radium $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • The death of mortgage lending http://t.co/u8uQBvZCuS Loan yields must rise in order to compensate for higher required capital at banks $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Kochs’ Flood Insurance Opposition Becomes Campaign Issue http://t.co/b1iuvoVhZK 1 of the few businesses the Kochs’ aren’t in is insurance $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Office Markets Strengthen Where Tech, Energy Jobs Are http://t.co/sESuHUeAVr Helps explain the spottiness of commercial RE prices $$ $CMBS Apr 18, 2014
  • Labor Shortage Threatens to Bust the Shale Boom http://t.co/R1TctaTelD Can’t find a job? Consider learning to weld; monotonous but pays $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Koch Brothers Net Worth Tops $100B as TV Warfare Escalates http://t.co/XgH0M6CNIR Almost as wealthy as extended Walton family $$ $WMT $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • Big Banks Ramp Up Business Lending http://t.co/83dMAPIQia Signs of life spotted in big corporations, but r they just buying back stock? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • How Can Yahoo Be Worth Less Than Zero? http://t.co/sr3owwkyNE @matt_levine argues a breakup of $YHOO makes sense even if core biz loses $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Wal-Mart Undercuts Rivals With New U.S. Money Transfer Service http://t.co/a4vq0HYALi Useful if u need 2 transfer $$ inside the US $WMT $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • How Chick-fil-A Spent $50M to Change Its Grilled Chicken http://t.co/Q9kpXoSIbF The marinade matters, but the grill design was the key $$ Apr 15, 2014
  • Small US Colleges Battle Death Spiral as Enrollment Drops http://t.co/nHRhO4Gc1R Too much capacity & affordability is a problem $$ $APOL Apr 14, 2014

Outside the US

  • China GDP Gauge Seen Showing Deeper Slowdown http://t.co/ntIxxdXcpO If China increases consumption GDP growth will fall faster still $$ $FXI Apr 18, 2014
  • Housing Trouble Grows in China http://t.co/Z4tKUuqLFd Overbuilding by Real-Estate Developers Leaves Smaller Cities W/Glut of Apartments $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Suddenly, Europe Is Taking a Harder Line on Russia Sanctions http://t.co/MnzxvMP3pe Nations can solidify when they face a common threat $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Las Bambas Copper Mine Purchase Shows China’s Still in the Hunt for Commodities http://t.co/h1cqGERGCu China may not b changing much $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Forgetting How to Speak Russian http://t.co/D0UwT6unki Among former Soviet republics knowing Russian is less important for business $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • The Middle East War on Christians http://t.co/BW1NwCAXuH Israeli Ambassador 2 UN argues Israel is tolerant of Christians, not like some $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Britons Struggle to Save for Home Down Payments as Prices Surge http://t.co/M6vH0vDlDs Space is constrained in London & foreigners buy $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • US Said to Warn Money Managers of More Russia Sanctions http://t.co/rB8AUQTsnc Putin knows Iran survived worse sanctions; Russia tougher $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • China Sentences Four Activists on Disturbing Public Order Charge http://t.co/Tx95rrhWsb Mostly, US has rule of law, China has rule by law $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • US govt isn’t perfect, but in principle the govt is subject to the Constitution & laws, & not merely able 2 use law 2 enforce its will $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Frontier Fund Buyers Find It Pays To Look Under The Hood http://t.co/JQ6khwYllJ 2much $$ is being thrown @ frontier mkts; crowded trade $FM Apr 18, 2014
  • Why iShares’ ‘FM’ Is About To Get Better http://t.co/4FiqlfW0YS Diversifies out of Middle East, but frontier market vals r stretched $$ $FM Apr 18, 2014
  • Putin’s 21-Year Quest to Be Russian Guardian Began in Estonia http://t.co/5oelLBHCmN Father was betrayed by Estonians in WWI, almost died $$ Apr 15, 2014

Market Dynamics & Fundamentals

  • Bridgewater Founder Says 85 Percent Of Pensions will Go Bankrupt http://t.co/YknEmyGgfJ 9% pension returns required, 4% is most likely $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • The Fitch Fundamentals Index Dashboard http://t.co/OzI6KWUFfs Interesting little utility 4 understanding where we are in the credit cycle $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Rich Start-Ups Go Back for Another Helping http://t.co/ZbFbpLVgmM When capital is plentiful, bad decisions get made. expected returns low $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Stumbling S&P 500 Reaches Worst Stretch of Election Cycle http://t.co/zgJTynu2od Interesting timing, wonder whether past is prologue? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • How a 56-Year-Old Engineer’s $45K Loss Spurred SEC Probe http://t.co/3HfdH2aqxK Always read the risk factors in the prospectus or 10K $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • High-Speed Traders Said to Be Subpoenaed in NY Probe http://t.co/2qxmrxeVd7 What level of technology is legitimate 2 gain an advantage? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Nuggets of Corporate Governance Wisdom From Charlie Munger http://t.co/gMFIE9jlRM Also c this paper: http://t.co/033v0bgdYr $$ $BRK.B $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • Global stock rally: World market cap reached record high in March, &is $2.4T above pre-recession, pre-crisis level http://t.co/iMq0IoBhch $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Speed—the only HFT advantage? Not so fast—Flash Boyshttp://www.cnbc.com/id/101586488 Algorithms may also be an advantage w/price patterns $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Investor Alert – Exchange-Traded Notes—Avoid Unpleasant Surprises http://t.co/NqhUr2whsJ A helpful reminder 2b wary of exotic ETNs $$ $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • Americans Sold on Real Estate as Best Long-Term Investment http://t.co/La4UROU0ie Helps explain y retail investors lose on average $$ $GLD Apr 18, 2014
  • Destroying Smart Beta 2: Ground Rules http://t.co/uecYqZLCEe Smart beta is a trendy but vapid concept, factors should be part of alpha $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Gross Loses to Goldman in Hot Bond Strategy as Pimco Lags http://t.co/VWv7UC72bS Series of bad bets makes Pimco a laggard as AUM flees $$ Apr 15, 2014
  • Trillion-Dollar Firms Dominating Bonds Prompting Probes http://t.co/RXZNkNwtFs Concentrated markets can lead to bond pricing distortions $$ Apr 15, 2014

US Politics & Policy

  • What’s the Matter With Illinois? http://t.co/wmDiyWDN1e They r the exemplary state for shortsightedness & corruption $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Heartbleed Hackers Steal Encryption Keys in Threat Test http://t.co/dYfezfXe8A >6 people were able to extract private key of a website $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Elijah Cummings, W/IRS, Targeted Tea Party Group True The Vote http://t.co/TE5A1zTM0y I live in his gerrymandered district; kick him out $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Yellen Lays Groundwork for Rules on Short-Term Credit Markets http://t.co/z03MWlpsqI Fed doesn’t regulate the banks well, y try 4 more? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Schooling on a ‘Debit Card’ http://t.co/wwixbB0pqy Arizona created a program so that special needs kids can get specialized schooling $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • IRS Among Agencies Using License Plate-Tracking Vendor http://t.co/HTs5aEMNtK Howard County Police use it & catch people 4 old crimes $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Wealth Effect Failing to Move Wealthy to Spend http://t.co/R3vfD5i94J Wealth effect, if it exists, is small, FOMC is pursuing illusions $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • NSA Said 2 Exploit Heartbleed Bug for Intelligence for Years http://t.co/9XvcLX9ZTE NSA quietly knows security vulnerabilities; uses them $$ Apr 15, 2014
  • The Wall Street second-chances rule: scandal makes the rich grow stronger http://t.co/8HhscWJjMN What does not kill us makes us stronger? $$ Apr 14, 2014

Practical

  • How well do you know your insurance policy? http://t.co/szp3G8H4kN Know what is covered & what isn’t, how much is covered & options $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Attention Shoppers: Fruit and Vegetable Prices Are Rising http://t.co/MMdPOLry9A As are meat prices & most food prices $$ #agflation Apr 18, 2014
  • How to start investing http://t.co/yGyziE8Tac Good advice from a credible source $$ Apr 18, 2014

Other

  • El Nino Signs Detected, Presaging Global Weather Change http://t.co/D1uDLS9aJ0 El Nino exists 2 give us something 2 blame when frustrated $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • More People Pick Elimination Diets to Discover Food Sensitivities http://t.co/ftQkzs3PxP Fad and Science of Not Eating Entire Food Groups $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • SAT Adopts Real-World Questions and Jettisons Obscure Words http://t.co/Mspw9EG3OV In 2016, changes from intelligence to achievement test $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Scientists Make First Embryo Clones From Adults http://t.co/e5qlwyiWwj Cloned cells 2create early-stage embryos, matching DNA tissue $$ Apr 18, 2014

Comments, Replies & Retweets

  • RT @howardlindzon: Funds still paying up (I say silly overpay) for private over public, this is spooking IPO ‘s for sure http://t.co/mclSd9… Apr 15, 2014

The Good ETF, Part 2 (sort of)

Friday, April 18th, 2014

About 4.5 years ago, I wrote a short piece called The Good ETF.  I’ll quote the summary:

Good ETFs are:

  • Small compared to the pool that they fish in
  • Follow broad themes
  • Do not rely on irreplicable assets
  • Storable, they do not require a “roll” or some replication strategy.
  • Not affected by unexpected credit events.
  • Liquid in terms of what they repesent, and liquid it what they hold.

The last one is a good summary.  There are many ETFs that are Closed-end funds in disguise.  An ETF with liquid assets, following a theme that many will want to follow will never disappear, and will have a price that tracks its NAV.

Though I said ETFs, I really meant ETPs, which included Exchange Traded Notes, and other structures.  I remain concerned that people get deluded by the idea that if it trades as a stock, it will behave like a stock, or a spot commodity, or an index.

What triggered this article was reading the following article: How a 56-Year-Old Engineer’s $45,000 Loss Spurred SEC Probe.  Quoting from the beginning of the article:

Jeff Steckbeck didn’t read the prospectus. He didn’t realize the price was inflated. He didn’t even know the security he read about online was something other than an exchange-traded fund.

The 56-year-old civil engineer ultimately lost $45,000 on the wrong end of a volatility bet, or about 80 percent of his investment, after a Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN) note known as TVIX crashed a week after he bought it in March 2012 and never recovered. Now Steckbeck says he wishes he’d been aware of the perils of bank securities known as exchange-traded notes that use derivatives to mimic assets from natural gas to stocks.

“In theory, everybody’s supposed to read everything right to the bottom line and you take all the risks associated with it if you don’t,” he said this month by phone from Lebanon, Pennsylvania. “But in reality, you gotta trust that these people are operating within what they generally say, you know?”

No, you don’t have to trust people blindly.  Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”  Anytime you enter into a contract, you need to know the major features of the contract, or have trusted expert advisers who do know, and assure you that things are fine.

After all, these are financial markets.  In any business deal, you may run into someone who offers you something that sounds attractive until you read the fine print.  You need to read the fine print.  Now, fraud can be alleged to those who actively dissuade people from reading the fine print, but not to those who offer the prospectus where all of the risks are disclosed.  Again, quoting from the article:

Some fail to adequately explain that banks can bet against the very notes they’re selling or suspend new offerings or take other actions that can affect their value, according to the letter.

[snip]

“My experience with ETN prospectuses is that they’re very clear about the fees and the risks and the transparency,” Styrcula said. “Any investor who invests without reading the prospectus does so at his or her own peril, and that’s the way it should be.”

[snip]

The offering documents for the VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX (VIX) Short Term ETN, the TVIX, says on the first page that the security is intended for “sophisticated investors.” The note “is likely to be close to zero after 20 years and we do not intend or expect any investor to hold the ETNs from inception to maturity,” according to the prospectus.

While Steckbeck said a supervisor at Clermont Wealth Strategies advised him against investing in TVIX in February 2012, he bought 4,000 shares the next month from his self-managed brokerage account. The adviser, whom Steckbeck declined to name, didn’t say that the price had become unmoored from the index it was supposed to track.

David Campbell, president of Clermont Wealth Strategies, declined to comment.

Steckbeck, who found the TVIX on the Yahoo Finance website, doesn’t have time to comb through dozens of pages every time he makes an investment, he said.

“Engineers — we’re not dumb,” said Steckbeck, who founded his own consulting company in 1990. “We’re good with math, good with numbers. We read and understand stuff fairly quickly, but we also have our jobs to perform. We can’t sit there and read prospectuses all day.”

If you are investing, you need to read prospectuses.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  I’m sorry, Mr. Steckbeck, you’re not dumb, but you are foolish.  Being bright with math and science is not enough for investing if you can’t be bothered to read the legal documents for the complex contract/security that you bought.  I read every prospectus for every security that I buy if it is unusual.  I read prospectuses and 10-Ks for many simple securities like stocks — the managements must “spill the beans” in the “risk factors” because if they don’t, and something bad happens that they didn’t talk about, they will be sued.

In general I am not a fan of a “liberal arts” education.  I am a fan of math and science.  But truly, I want both.  We homeschool, and our eight kids are “all arounds.”  They aren’t all smart, but they tend to be equal with verbal and quantitative reasoning.  Truly bright people are good with both math and language.  Final quotation from the article:

“The whole point of making these things exchange-traded was to make them accessible to retail investors,” said Colbrin Wright, assistant professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who has written academic articles on the indicative values of ETNs. “The majority of ETNs are overpriced, and about a third of them are statistically significant in their overpricing.”

So, I contacted Colby Wright, and we had a short e-mail exchange, where he pointed me to the paper that he co-wrote.  Interesting paper, and it makes me want to do more research to see how great ETN prices can be versus their net asset values [NAVs].  That said, end of the paper errs when it concludes:

We assert that the frequent and persistent negative WDFDs [DM: NAV premiums] that appear to be driven by uninformed return chasing investors would not exist to the conspicuous degree that we observe if ETNs offered a more investor-driven and fluid system for share creation. We believe the system for share creation is ineffective in mitigating the asymmetric mispricing investigated in our study. Hence, we recommend that ETN issuers reformulate the share creation system related to their securities. Specifically, we recommend the ETN share creation process be structured to mirror that of ETFs. At a minimum, the share creation process should be initiated by investors, rather than by the ETN issuers themselves, as we believe profit-motivated investors will be more diligent and responsive in creating ETN shares when severe mispricing arises.

Here’s the problem: ETNs are debt, not equity.  To have the same share creation system means that the debtor must be willing to take on what could be an unlimited amount of debt.  In most cases, that doesn’t work.

So I come back to where I started.  Be skeptical of complexity in exchange traded products.  Avoid complexity.  Complexity works in favor of the one offering the deal, not the one accepting the deal.  I have only bought one structured note in my life, and that was one that I was allowed to structure.  As Buffett once said (something like this), “My terms, your price.”

To close, here are four valuable articles on this topic:

So avoid complexity in investing.  Do due diligence in all investing, and more when the investments are complex.  I am astounded at how much money has been lost in exchange traded investments that are designed to lose money over the long term.  You might be able to avoid it, but someone has to hold every “asset,” so losses will come to those who hold investments long term that were designed to last for a day.

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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