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Six years ago, I reviewed a book The Club No One Wanted To Join.  It was a poorly done book written by a bunch of people who were swindled by Bernie Madoff.  Now, I didn’t want to be unsympathetic — after all, they were cheated.  But they missed many signals that tipped off others, and could have tipped off them to the fraud.  Worse, they tried to argue that since many top-performing mutual funds had total returns similar to that of Madoff, there was no way anyone could have figured out that it was a scam.  They neglected to note that Madoff’s returns were ultra-smooth, while the returns of the mutual funds were not.  Big difference.

There’s one more thing: many of them gave in to the idea that they had found a hole in the system.  Far from it being “The Club No One Wanted To Join,” rather, it was their own secret private club that they were smart enough to join when fate smiled on them, and they got their opportunity.

Tonight, I am talking about a different sort of scam that sucked in a different class of people.  This scam was a corporation where the management took a firm into bankruptcy that could easily pay its debts, at least in the short-run.  The management likely conspired with the bondholders against its shareholders, seemingly in an effort to gain a greater reward from the bondholders who would own the firm post-bankruptcy than they could from operating the firm outside of bankruptcy.  The name of this firm is Horsehead Holdings [ZINCQ].

For background, you can read this article in the New York Times.  For the ultimate result of the bankruptcy, you can read this article in the Wall Street Journal: Zinc Producer Horsehead Cleared to Exit Bankruptcy.

I’m not writing about this to give a blow-by-blow description of how the bondholders and management cheated shareholders out of their ownership interests, though I will touch on that at points.  I am writing about this to respond to those who wrote to me in the midst of the bankruptcy trial to try to gain some coverage of what was going on.

Over 20 people wrote to me and almost 100 journalists/media in an attempt to create “viral” coverage of the trial, and if nothing else, bring public attention to the travesty that was the bankruptcy process.  As it is, I wrote one paragraph on the matter, but I didn’t see anything from any major publication until after the trial completed.  I did mention to a number of the writers that efforts to get coverage would not affect the outcome of the bankruptcy court; it is relatively insulated from public opinion, as it should be.

(As an aside: if you write such a letter to journalists, or me, try to stay on topic.  It is not relevant to call the bondholders “greedy,” that they are a hedge fund, or talk about their prior dealings with Collateralized Debt Obligations that failed during the recent financial crisis.)

Aleph Blog is mostly about risk control.  As I read the letters from the shareholders who were watching their ownership rights be destroyed, I noted a few things that might have enabled some of them to avoid much of the unfavorable outcome:

  • Buying a levered highly cyclical company.
  • Relying on the insights of bright investors who buy concentrated stakes  in a few companies.
  • Not diversifying enough.

Let me take these in order:

Buying a levered highly cyclical company

If you look at the risk of owning a single company, there are two ways where a company can affect the degree to which a change in sales can raise the profits of the company.  The first way is to choose a production method that has high fixed costs and low variable costs, which is typically true of cyclical companies.  The second way is to borrow money.  Both methods magnify returns, right or wrong.

Typically, you only do one at a time.  Supermarkets are stable, so they often borrow more to lever up returns.  Mining companies, among other industries that require heavy capital investment, are anything but stable booms and busts are common and follow product prices.

Horsehead Holdings had a high degree of leverage from both debt and being in a cyclical industry.  It ran into a scenario where the price of its main product, zinc, fell hard.  At the time before they filed for bankruptcy, management could legitimately say to themselves, “If the price of zinc remains this low we will shortly be insolvent, particularly if our new processing plant doesn’t work out.”

Now, the bankruptcy code is a rather flexible beastie.  It allows for a management team to file before things are at their worst so that they can try to preserve a better outcome for the company.  My suspicion is that management’s motives were mixed when they filed — they wanted the best deal they could get for themselves, but may have assumed that there wasn’t much life left to the equity anyway.  Who could have predicted that the price of zinc would rally back so much, such that the company could have survived in its pre-bankruptcy state?

Now, has this ever happened to me?  Not exactly, but there are other ways that managements can dispose of a company to the detriment of the stockholders.  I lost money on C. Brewer Homes when management did a leveraged buyout when the stock price was unduly depressed.  Enough stock was in the hands of arbs that the deal went through.  Oh, and if you want another one, there was the loss on National Atlantic Holdings which I described in ugly detail in this article.

The main point is this: don’t assume that management will act in the interests of stockholders, particularly in a stressed situation.  The leverage and cyclicality of Horsehead Holdings set up the possibility of that occurrence, and the fall in the price of zinc triggered it.

Relying on the insights of bright investors who buy concentrated stakes  in a few companies

I respect both Mohnish Pabrai and Guy Spier.  They are bright guys, and from what I can tell at a distance, ethical too.  They were big holders of Horsehead Holdings, and I’m sure they had good reasoning behind their decisions.  But, even excellent investment managers aren’t infallible. If you are just picking one of their ideas, that could be a rocket to the sky — or the ground, while their portfolio as a whole might do well.

Also, they will make their decisions with some lead time over you if the data shifts.  Any investment advisor you mimic is not required to tell you when they change their mind, aside from required filings with the SEC… which are delayed, and sometimes don’t cover everything.

Has this happened to me?  Yes it has.  I have sometimes invested partly  on who is invested in a company, though never to the point of not doing my “due diligence.”  But aside from some early failures 20+ years ago, it never hurt me much because I was never guilty of:

Not Diversifying Enough

A number of the people emailing me said they put more than half their savings into Horsehead Holdings.  If you are going to engage in such risky behavior, you need to know more than everyone else investing in the stock.  No exceptions.  I agree with investing in a concentrated way, but my view of that for average people is no positions larger than 5% of your capital.  That is plenty concentrated enough.

I have one holding that is 13% of my assets — a private company that I know exceptionally well.  My house is another 13%.  After that, my next largest holding is 3% of my assets.  I believe in the assets that I buy, but I concentrate enough by only owning individual stocks, and very little in the way of pooled investment vehicles.

With 75% of my assets in risk assets, I take enough risk.  I don’t have to amplify that by taking disproportionate security-specific risk.  (The stock portfolios that I provide for clients have 35 or so stocks in them… given that I tend to concentrate in a few industries, that takes reasonable rsk.)

Summary

Again, my sympathies to those who lost on Horsehead.  I can’t do anything about those losses.  At least you have the opportunity to sue the management of the company.  It certainly seems like the management team cheated the stockholders, though I can’t say for sure.

What I can help are future investors, and my counsel is this: Diversify!  You are your own best defender, so don’t merely mimic bright investors; do your own due diligence.  Be wary of investing in cyclical companies with high debt levels.  Don’t implicitly trust that management teams will act in your interest.  And finally, diversify, as it protects against failures in other areas.

PS — I looked through my notes of the past.  I did look at Horsehead Holdings, and I passed on it.  That said, I don’t know why… hopefully it was for a good reason, though I expect that I didn’t have room for another cyclical company, and not another one in base metals.

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.

Photo Credit: Wayne Stadler || Most of us have limited vision, myself included

Photo Credit: Wayne Stadler || Most of us have limited vision, myself included

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In the time I have been managing money for myself and others in my stock strategy, I set a limit on the amount of cash in the strategy.  I don’t let it go below 0%, and I don’t let it go over 20%.

I have bumped against the lower limit six or so times in the last sixteen years.  I bumped against it around five times in 2002, and once in 2008-9.  All occurred near the bottom of the stock market.  In 2002, I raised cash by selling off the stocks that had gotten hurt the least, and concentrating in sound stocks that had taken more punishment.  In September 2002, when things were at their worst, I scraped together what spare cash I had, and invested it.  I don’t often do that.

In 2008-9 I behaved similarly, though my household cash situation was tighter.  Along with other stocks I thought were bulletproof, but had gotten killed, I bought a double position of RGA near the bottom, and then held it until last week, when it finally broke $100.

But, I had never run into a situation yet where I bumped into the 20% cash limit until yesterday.  Enough of my stocks ran up such that I have been selling small bits of a number of companies for risk control purposes.  The cash started to build up, and I didn’t have anything that I deeply wanted to own, so it kept building.  As the limit got closer, I had one stock that I liked that would serve as at least a temporary place to invest — Tesoro [TSO].  Seems cheap, reasonably financed, and refining spreads are relatively low right now.  I bought a position in Tesoro yesterday.

I could have done other things.  I could have moved the position sizes of my portfolio up, but I would have had to increase the position sizes a lot to have some stocks hit the lower edge of the trading band, but that would have been more bullish than I feel now.  As it is, refiners have been lagging — I can live with more exposure there to augment Valero, Marathon Petroleum and PBF.

I also could have doubled a position size of an existing holding, but I didn’t have anything that I was that impressed with.  It takes a lot to make me double a position size.

As it is, my actions are that of following the rules that discipline my investing, but acting in such a way that reflects my moderate bearishness over the intermediate term.  In the short run, things can go higher; the current odds even favor that, though at the end the market plays for small possible gains versus a larger possible loss.

The credit cycle is getting long in the tooth; though many criticize the rating agencies, their research (not their ratings) can serve as a relatively neutral guidepost to investors.  Corporate debt is high and increasing, and profits are flat to shrinking… not the best setup for longs.  (Read John Lonski at Moody’s.)

I will close this piece by saying that I am looking over my existing holdings and analyzing them for need for financing over the next three years, and selling those that seem weak… though what I will replace them with is a mystery to me.

Bumping up against my upper cash limit is bearish… and that is what I am working through now.

Full disclosure: long VLO MPC PBF and TSO

Wiped Out

Before I start this evening, thanks to Dividend Growth Investor for telling me about this book.

This is an obscure little book published in 1966.  The title is direct, simple, and descriptive.  A more flowery title could have been, “Losing Money in the Stock Market as an Art Form.”  Why?  Because he made every mistake possible in an era that favored stock investment, and managed to lose a nice-sized lump sum that could have been a real support to his family.  Instead, he tried to recoup it by anonymously publishing  this short book which goes from tragedy to tragedy with just enough successes to keep him hooked.

Whom God Would Destroy

There is a saying, “”Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”  My modification of it is, “Whom God would destroy, he first makes proud.”  In this book, the author knows little about investing, but wishing to make more money in the midst of a boom, he entrusts a sizable nest egg for a young middle-class family to a broker, and lo and behold, the broker makes money in a rising market with a series of short-term investments, with very few losses.

Rather than be grateful, the author got greedy.  Spurred by success, he became somewhat compulsive, and began reading everything he could on investing.  To brokers, he became “the impossible client,” (my words, not those of the book) because now he could never be satisfied.  Instead of being happy with a long-run impossible goal of 15%/year (double your money every five years), he wanted to double his money every 2-3 years. (26-41%/year)

As such, he moved his money from the broker that later he admitted he should have been satisfied with, and sought out brokers that would try to hit home runs.  The baseball analogy is useful here, because home run hitters tend to strike out a lot.  The analogy breaks down here: a home run hitter can be useful to a team even if he has a .250 average and strikes out three times for every home run.  Baseball is mostly a game of team compounding, where usually a number of batters have to do well in order to score.  Investment is a game of individual compounding, where strikeouts matter a great deal, because losses of capital are very difficult to make up.  Three 25% losses followed by a 100% gain is a 15% loss.

In the process of trying to win big, he ended up losing more and more.  He concentrated his holdings.  He bought speculative stocks, and not “blue chips.”  He borrowed money to buy more stock (used margin).  He bought “story stocks” that did not possess a margin of safety, which would maybe deliver high gains  if the story unfolded as illustrated.  He did not do homework, but listened to “hot tips” and invested off them.  He let his judgment be clouded by his slight relationships with corporate insiders at the end.  HE TRIED TO MAKE BIG MONEY QUICKLY, AND CUT EVERY CORNER TO DO SO.  His expectations were desperately unrealistic, and as a result, he lost it all.

As he lost more and more, he fell into the psychological trap of wanting to get back what he lost, and being willing to lose it all in order to do so.  I.e., if he lost so much already, it was worth losing what was left if there was a chance to prove he wasn’t a fool from his “investing.”  As such, he lost it all… but there are three good things to say about the author:

  1. He had the humility to write the book, baring it all, and he writes well.
  2. He didn’t leave himself in debt at the end, but that was good providence for him, because if he had waited one more day, the margin clerk would have sold him out at a decided loss, and he would have owed the brokerage money.
  3. In the end, he knew why he had gone wrong, and he tells his readers that they need to: a) invest in quality companies, b) diversify, and c) limit speculation to no more than 20% of the portfolio.

His advice could have been better, but at least he got the aforementioned ideas right.  Margin of safety is the key.  Doing significant due diligence if you are going to buy individual stocks is required.

Quibbles

This book will not teach you what to do; it teaches what not to do.  It is best as a type of macabre financial entertainment.

Also, though you can still buy used copies of the book, if enough of you try to buy the used books out there, the price will rise pretty quickly.  If you can, borrow it from interlibrary loan.  It is an interesting historical curiosity of a book, and a cautionary tale for those who are tempted to greed.  As the author closes the book:

“Cupidity is seldom circumspect.”

And thus, much as the greedy need to hear this advice, it is unlikely they will listen.  Greed is compulsive.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

A good book, subject to the above limitations.  It is best for entertainment, because it will teach you what not to do, rather than what to do.

Borrow it through interlibrary loan.  If you feel you have to buy it, you can buy it here: WIPED OUT. How I Lost a Fortune in the Stock Market While the Averages Were Making New Highs.

Full disclosure: I bought it with my own money for three bucks.

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.

ecphilosopher data 2015 revision_21058_image001

You might remember my post Estimating Future Stock Returns, and its follow-up piece.  If not they are good reads, and you can get the data on one file here.

The Z.1 report came out yesterday, giving an important new data point to the analysis.  After all, the most recent point gives the best read into current conditions.  As of March 31st, 2016 the best estimate of 10-year returns on the S&P 500 is 6.74%/year.

The sharp-eyed reader will say, “Wait a minute!  That’s higher than last time, and the market is higher also!  What happened?!”  Good question.

First, the market isn’t higher from 12/31/2015 to 3/31/2016 — it’s down about a percent, with dividends.  But that would be enough to move the estimate on the return up maybe 0.10%.  It moved up 0.64%, so where did the 0.54% come from?

The market climbs a wall of worry, and the private sector has been holding less stock as a percentage of assets than before — the percentage went from 37.6% to 37.1%, and the absolute amount fell by about $250 billion.  Some stock gets eliminated by M&A for cash, some by buybacks, etc.  The amount has been falling over the last twelve months, while the amount in bonds, cash, and other assets keeps rising.

If you think that return on assets doesn’t vary that much over time, you would conclude that having a smaller amount of stock owning the assets would lead to a higher rate of return on the stock.  One year ago, the percentage the private sector held in stocks was 39.6%.  A move down of 2.5% is pretty large, and moved the estimate for 10-year future returns from 4.98% to 6.74%.

Summary

As a result, I am a little less bearish.  The valuations are above average, but they aren’t at levels that would lead to a severe crash.  Take note, Palindrome.

Bear markets are always possible, but a big one is not likely here.  Yes, this is the ordinarily bearish David Merkel writing.  I’m not really a bull here, but I’m not changing my asset allocation which is 75% in risk assets.

Postscript for Nerds

One other thing affecting this calculation is the Federal Reserve revising estimates of assets other than stocks up prior to 1961.  There are little adjustments in the last few years, but in percentage terms the adjustments prior to 1961 are huge, and drop the R-squared of the regression from 90% to 86%, which also is huge.  I don’t know what the Fed’s statisticians are doing here, but I am going to look into it, because it is troubling to wonder if your data series is sound or not.

That said, the R-squared on this model is better than any alternative.  Next time, if I get a chance, I will try to put a confidence interval on the estimate.  Till then.

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Let me mention four posts that I did recently on energy issues:

There were four main ideas that came out of those articles:

  • Saudi Arabia would allow the price of crude oil to fall to hurt competitors/rivals, particularly Iran.
  • The price of crude oil would stay near $50/barrel.
  • Lots of overlevered companies dependent on a high price for crude oil would go bankrupt.
  • But bankruptcy would happen to fewer, and more slowly, because of all the private equity wanting to buy distressed assets.

All that said, my view has changed a little recently.  I could be wrong, but I think that the ceiling price for crude oil may be $70/barrel for a few years, with the average remaining at $50.  I believe this because I think the Saudis are more desperate for cash than most believe.

Here’s my reasoning:

  • First, you have them selling off a 5% interest in Saudi Aramco.  When you need money, there is a tendency to sell high quality easily saleable assets, because they will sell for a high price, and with little fuss.  Admittedly, they aren’t rushing to do it, which weakens my point.  My view is that you would sell off lesser things that aren’t core, rather than complicate life by selling off a portion of a top quality asset.
  • Second, they are seeking loans, and considering selling bonds.
  • Third, they are considering decreasing the subsidies that they give to their people.  I think this will be very difficult to achieve politically.
  • Fourth, when the amount of Saudi holdings of US Treasury bonds was announced, it was lower than many expected, at $120+ billion, which only covers a little more than a year of their budget deficits, which was $98 billion last year.
  • Fifth, and most speculatively, I wonder if many of the US Treasury holdings have been pledged to cover other debts.  No proof here, but it’s not uncommon to use highly liquid assets as collateral for privately contracted debts.  That may explain the musing by some that there had to be more US Treasuries  there… but where are they?

What this implies to me is that Saudi Arabia is now little different than most of their associates in OPEC.  Their financial situation is tight enough that they must pump crude oil without respect to the strategy of holding crude oil off the markets to get better prices.  It’s not just punishing US shale oil production and Iranian crude production — the Saudis need the money.

If the Saudis need the money, and must pump, then OPEC lacks any significant coalition to raise prices.  Prices will rise with growth in demand, and cheap resource depletion… but as for right now, there are enough barrels to come out of the ground below $70.

The Saudi need for money is a much simpler explanation than trying to knock out US shale oil, or gouge the Iranians, because it has the Saudis acting directly in their own interests, and it fits the price series for crude oil better.

PS — One more note: this is mildly bearish for the US Dollar as the US does not have the same dedicated buyer of US Dollar assets as it once did.  I say mildly bearish, because most of the damage is already past.

How Lucky Do You Feel?

How Lucky Do You Feel?

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Nine years ago, I wrote about the so-called “Fed Model.” The insights there are still true, though the model has yielded no useful signals over that time. It would have told you to remain in stocks, which given the way many panic,, would not have been a bad decision.

I’m here to write about a related issue this evening.  To a first approximation, most investment judgments are a comparison between two figures, whether most people want to admit it or not.  Take the “Fed Model” as an example.  You decide to invest in stocks or not based on the difference between Treasury yields and the earnings yield of stocks as a whole.

Now with interest rates so low, belief in the Fed Model is tantamount to saying “there is no alternative to stocks.” [TINA]  That should make everyone take a step back and say, “Wait.  You mean that stocks can’t do badly when Treasury yields are low, even if it is due to deflationary conditions?”  Well, if there were only two assets to choose from, a S&P 500 index fund and 10-year Treasuries, and that might be the case, especially if the government were borrowing on behalf of the corporations.

Here’s why: in my prior piece on the Fed Model, I showed how the Fed Model was basically an implication of the Dividend Discount Model.  With a few simplifying assumptions, the model collapses to the differences between the earnings yield of the corporation/index and its cost of capital.

Now that’s a basic idea that makes sense, particularly when consider how corporations work.  If a corporation can issue cheap debt capital to retire stock with a higher yield on earnings, in the short-run it is a plus for the stock.  After all, if the markets have priced the debt so richly, the trade of expensive debt for cheap equity makes sense in foresight, even if a bad scenario comes along afterwards.  If true for corporations, it should be true for the market as a whole.

The means the “Fed Model” is a good concept, but not as commonly practiced, using Treasuries — rather, the firm’s cost of capital is the tradeoff.  My proxy for the cost of capital for the market as a whole is the long-term Moody’s Baa bond index, for which we have about 100 years of yield data.  It’s not perfect, but here are some reasons why it is a reasonable proxy:

  • Like equity, which is a long duration asset, these bonds in the index are noncallable with 25-30 years of maturity.
  • The Baa bonds are on the cusp of investment grade.  The equity of the S&P 500 is not investment grade in the same sense as a bond, but its cash flows are very reliable on average.  You could tranche off a pseudo-debt interest in a way akin to the old Americus Trusts, and the cash flows would price out much like corporate debt or a preferred stock interest.
  • The debt ratings of most of the S&P 500 would be strong investment grade.  Mixing in equity and extending to a bond of 25-30 years throws on enough yield that it is going to be comparable to the cost of capital, with perhaps a spread to compensate for the difference.

As such, I think a better comparison is the earnings yield on the S&P 500 vs the yield on the Moody’s BAA index if you’re going to do something like the Fed Model.  That’s a better pair to compare against one another.

A new take on the Equity Premium

A new take on the Equity Premium!

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That brings up another bad binary comparison that is common — the equity premium.  What do stock returns have to with the returns on T-bills?  Directly, they have nothing to do with one another.  Indirectly, as in the above slide from a recent presentation that I gave, the spread between the two of them can be broken into the sum of three spreads that are more commonly analyzed — those of maturity risk, credit risk and business risk.  (And the last of those should be split into a economic earnings  factor and a valuation change factor.)

This is why I’m not a fan of the concept of the equity premium.  The concept relies on the idea that equities and T-bills are a binary choice within the beta calculation, as if only the risky returns trade against one another.  The returns of equities can be explained in a simpler non-binary way, one that a businessman or bond manager could appreciate.  At certain points lending long is attractive, or taking credit risk, or raising capital to start a business.  Together these form an explanation for equity returns more robust than the non-informative academic view of the equity premium, which mysteriously appears out of nowhere.

Summary

When looking at investment analyses, ask “What’s the comparison here?”  By doing that, you will make more intelligent investment decisions.  Even a simple purchase or sale of stock makes a statement about the relative desirability of cash versus the stock.  (That’s why I prefer swap transactions.)  People aren’t always good at knowing what they are comparing, so pay attention, and you may find that the comparison doesn’t make much sense, leading you to ask different questions as a result.

 

Photo Credit: Kathryn

Photo Credit: Kathryn || Truly, I sympathize.  I try to be strong for others when internally I am broken.

Entire societies and nations have been wiped out in the past.  Sometimes this has been in spite of the best efforts of leading citizens to avoid it, and sometimes it has been because of their efforts.  In human terms, this is as bad as it gets on Earth.  In virtually all of these cases, the optimal strategy was to run, and hope that wherever you ended up would be kind to foreigners.  Also, most common methods of preserving value don’t work in the worst situations… flight capital stashed early in the place of refuge and gold might work, if you can get there.

There.  That’s the worst survivable scenario I can think of.  What does it take to get there?

  • Total government and market breakdown, or
  • A lost war on your home soil, with the victors considerably less kind than the USA and its allies

The odds of these are very low in most of the developed world.  In the developing world, most of the wealthy have “flight capital” stashed away in the USA or someplace equally reliable.

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Most nations, societies and economies are more durable than most people would expect.  There is a cynical reason for this: the wealthy and the powerful have a distinct interest in not letting things break.  As Solomon observed a little less than 3000 years ago:

If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent perversion of justice and righteousness in a province, do not marvel at the matter; for high official watches over high official, and higher officials are over them. Moreover the profit of the land is for all; even the king is served from the field. — Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 [NKJV]

In general, I think there is no value in preparing for the “total disaster” scenario if you live in the developed world.  No one wants to poison their own prosperity, and so the rich and powerful hold back from being too rapacious.

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If you don’t have a copy, it would be a good idea to get a copy of Triumph of the Optimists.  [TOTO]  As I commented in my review of TOTO:

TOTO points out a number of things that should bias investors toward risk-bearing in the equity markets:

  1. Over the period 1900-2000, equities beat bonds, which beat cash in returns. (Note: time weighted returns. If the study had been done with dollar-weighted returns, the order would be the same, but the differences would not be so big.)

  2. This was true regardless of what presently developed nation you looked at. (Note: survivor bias… what of all the developing markets that looked bigger in 1900, like Russia and India, that amounted to little?)

  3. Relative importance of industries shifts, but the aggregate market tended to do well regardless. (Note: some industries are manias when they are new)

  4. Returns were higher globally in the last quarter of the 20th century.

  5. Downdrafts can be severe. Consider the US 1929-1932, UK 1973-74, Germany 1945-48, or Japan 1944-47. Amazing what losing a war on your home soil can do, or, even a severe recession.

  6. Real cash returns tend to be positive but small.

  7. Long bonds returned more than short bonds, but with a lot more risk. High grade corporate bonds returned more on average, but again, with some severe downdrafts.

  8. Purchasing power parity seems to work for currencies in the long run. (Note: estimates of forward interest rates work in the short run, but they are noisy.)

  9. International diversification may give risk reduction. During times of global stress, such as wartime, it may not diversify much. Global markets are more correlated now than before, reducing diversification benefits.

  10. Small caps may or may not outperform large caps on average.

  11. Value tends to beat growth over the long run.

  12. Higher dividends tend to beat lower dividends.

  13. Forward-looking equity risk premia are lower than most estimates stemming from historical results. (Note: I agree, and the low returns of the 2000s so far in the US are a partial demonstration of that. My estimates are a little lower, even…)

  14. Stocks will beat bonds over the long run, but in the short run, having some bonds makes sense.

  15. Returns in the latter part of the 20th century were artificially high.

Capitalist republics/democracies tend to be very resilient.  This should make us willing to be long term bullish.

Now, many people look at their societies and shake their heads, wondering if things won’t keep getting worse.  This typically falls into three non-exclusive buckets:

  • The rich are getting richer, and the middle class is getting destroyed  (toss in comments about robotics, immigrants, unfair trade, education problems with children, etc.  Most such comments are bogus.)
  • The dependency class is getting larger and larger versus the productive elements of society.  (Add in comments related to demographics… those comments are not bogus, but there is a deal that could be driven here.  A painful deal…)
  • Looking at moral decay, and wondering at it.

You can add to the list.  I don’t discount that there are challenges/troubles.  Even modestly healthy society can deal with these without falling apart.

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If you give into fears like these, you can become prey to a variety of investment “experts” who counsel radical strategies that will only succeed with very low probability.  Examples:

  • Strategies that neglect investing in risk assets at all, or pursue shorting them.  (Even with hedge funds you have to be careful, we passed the limits to arbitrage back in the late ’90s, and since then aggregate returns have been poor.  A few niche hedge funds make sense, but they limit their size.)
  • Gold, odd commodities — trend following CTAs can sometimes make sense as a diversifier, but finding one with skill is tough.
  • Anything that smacks of being part of a “secret club.”  There are no secrets in investing.  THERE ARE NO SECRETS IN INVESTING!!!  If you think that con men in investing is not a problem, read On Avoiding Con Men.  I spend lots of time trying to take apart investment pitches that are bogus, and yet I feel that I am barely scraping the surface.

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Things are rarely as bad as they seem.  Be willing to be a modest bull most of the time.  I’m not saying don’t be cautious — of course be cautious!  Just don’t let that keep you from taking some risk.  Size your risks to your time horizon for needing cash back, and your ability to sleep at night.  The biggest risk may not be taking no risk, but that might be the most common risk economically for those who have some assets.

To close, here is a personal comment that might help: I am natively a pessimist, and would easily give into disaster scenarios.  I had to train myself to realize that even in the worst situations there was some reason for optimism.  That served me well as I invested spare assets at the bottoms in 2002-3 and 2008-9.  The sun will rise tomorrow, Lord helping us… so diversify and take moderate risks most of time.

This is the fourth article in this series, and is here because the S&P 500 is now in its second-longest bull market since 1928, having just passed the bull market that ended in 1956.    Yeah, who’da thunk it?

This post is a little different from the first three articles, because I got the data to extend the beginning of my study from 1950 to 1928, and I standardized my turning points using the standard bull and bear market definitions of a 20% rise or fall from the last turning point.  You can see my basic data to the left of this paragraph.

Before I go on, I want to show you two graphs dealing with bear markets:

As you can see from the first graph, small bear markets are much more common than large ones.  Really brutal bear markets like the biggest one in the Great Depression were so brutal that there is nothing to compare it to — financial leverage collapsed that had been encouraged by government policy, the Fed, and a speculative mania among greedy people.

The second graph tells the same story in a different way.  Bear markets are often short and sharp.  They don’t last long, but the intensity in term of the speed of declines is a little more than twice as fast as the rises of bull markets.  If it weren’t for the fact that bull markets last more than three times as long on average, the sharp drops in bear markets would be enough to keep everyone out of the stock market.

Instead, it just keeps many people out of the market, some entirely, but most to some degree that would benefit them.

Oh well, on to the gains:

Like bear markets, most bull markets are small.  The likelihood of a big bull market declines with size.  The current bull market is the fourth largest, and the one that it passed in duration was the second largest.  As an aside, each of the four largest bull markets came after a surprise:

  1. (1987-2000) 1987: We knew the prior bull market was bogus.  When will inflation return?  It has to, right?
  2. (1949-56) 1949: Hey, we’re not getting the inflation we expected, and virtually everyone is finding work post-WWII
  3. (1982-7) 1982: The economy is in horrible shape, and interest rates are way too high.  We will never recover.
  4. (2009-Present) 2009: The financial sector is in a shambles, government debt is out of control, and the central bank is panicking!  Everything is falling apart.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose...

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose…

Note the two dots stuck on each other around 2800 days.  The arrow points to the lower current bull market, versus the higher-returning bull market 1949-1956.

Like bear markets, bull markets also can be short and sharp, but they can also be long and after the early sharp phase, meander upwards.  If you look through the earlier articles in this series, you would see that this bull market started as an incredibly sharp phenomenon, and has become rather average in its intensity of monthly returns.

Conclusion

It may be difficult to swallow, but this bull market that is one of the longest since 1928 is pretty average in terms of its monthly average returns for a long bull market.  It would be difficult for the cost of capital to go much lower from here.  It would be a little easier for corporate profits to rise from here, but that also doesn’t seem too likely.

Does that mean the bull is doomed?  Well, yes, eventually… but stranger things have happened, it could persist for some time longer if the right conditions come along.

But that’s not the way I would bet.  Be careful, and take opportunities to lower your risk level in stocks somewhat.

PS — one difference with the Bloomberg article linked to in the first paragraph, the longest bull market did not begin in 1990 but in 1987.  There was a correction in 1990 that fell just short of the -20% hurdle at -19.92%, as mentioned in this Barron’s article.  The money shot:

The historical analogue that matches well with these conditions is 1990. There was a 19.9% drop in the S&P 500, lasting a bit under three months. But the damage to foreign stocks, small-caps, cyclicals, and value stocks in that cycle was considerably more. Both the Russell and the Nasdaq were down 32% to 33%. You might remember United Airlines’ failed buyout bid; the transports were down 46%. Foreign stocks were down about 30%.

And then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

That might have been the final trigger. The broad market top was in the fall of 1989, and most stocks didn’t bottom until Oct. 11, 1990. In the record books, it was a shallow bear market that didn’t even officially meet the 20% definition. But it was a damaging one that created a lot of opportunity for the rest of the 1990s.

FWIW, I remember the fear that existed among many banks and insurance companies that had overlent on commercial properties in that era.  The fears led Alan Greenspan to encourage the FOMC to lower rates to… (drumroll) 3%!!!  And, that experiment together with the one in 2003, which went down to 1.25%, practically led to the idea that the FOMC could lower rates to get out of any ditch… which is now being proven wrong.

Every now and then, you will run across a mathematical analysis where if you use a certain screening, trading, or other investment method, it produces a high return in hindsight.

And now, you know about it, because it was just published.

But wait.  Just published?

Think about what doesn’t get published: financial research that fails, whether for reasons of error or luck.

Now, luck can simply be a question of timing… think of my recent post: Think Half of a Cycle Ahead.  What would happen to value investing if you tested it only over the last ten years?

It would be in the dustbin of failed research.

Just published… well… odds are, particularly if the data only goes back a short distance in time, it means that there was likely a favorable macro backdrop giving the idea a tailwind.

There is a different aspect to luck though.  Perhaps a few souls were experimenting with something like the theory before it was discovered.  They had excellent returns, and there was a little spread of the theory via word of mouth and unsavory means like social media and blogs.

Regardless, one of the main reasons the theory worked was that the asset being bought by those using the theory were underpriced.  Lack of knowledge by institutions and most of the general public was a barrier to entry allowing for superior returns.

When the idea became known by institutions after the initial paper was published, a small flood of money came through the narrow doors, bidding up the asset prices to the point where the theory would not only no longer work, but the opposite of the theory would work for a time, as the overpriced assets had subpar prospective returns.

Remember how dot-com stocks were inevitable in March of 2000?  Now those doors weren’t narrow, but they were more narrow than the money that pursued them.  Such is the end of any cycle, and the reason why average investors get skinned chasing performance.

Now occasionally the doors of a new theory are so narrow that institutions don’t pursue the strategy.  Or, the strategy is so involved, that even average quants can tell that the data has been tortured to confess that it was born in a place where the universe randomly served up a royal straight flush, but that five-leaf clover got picked and served up as if it were growing everywhere.

Sigh.

My advice to you tonight is simple.  Be skeptical of complex approaches that worked well in the past and are portrayed as new ideas for making money in the markets.  These ideas quickly outgrow the carrying capacity of the markets, and choke on their own success.

The easiest way to kill a good strategy is to oversaturate it too much money.

As such, I have respect for those with proprietary knowledge that limit their fund size, and don’t try to make lots of money in the short run by hauling in assets just to drive fees.  They create their own barriers to entry with their knowledge and self-restraint, and size their ambitions to the size of the narrow doors that they walk through.

To those that use institutional investors, do ask where they will cut off the fund size, and not create any other funds like it that buy the same assets.  If they won’t give a firm answer, avoid them, or at minimum, keep your eye on the assets under management, and be willing to sell out when they get reeeally popular.

If it were easy, the returns wouldn’t be that great.  Be willing to take the hard actions such that your managers do something different, and finds above average returns, but limits the size of what they do to serve current clients well.

Then pray that they never decide to hand your money back to you, and manage only for themselves.  At that point, the narrow door excludes all but geniuses inside.