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Just a note before I begin. My piece called “Where Money Goes to Die” was an abnormal piece for me, and it received abnormal attention.  The responses came in many languages aside from English, including Spanish, Turkish and Russian.  It was interesting to note the level of distortion of my positions among those writing articles.  That was less true of writing responses here.

My main point is this: if something either has no value or can’t be valued, it can’t be an investment.  Speculations that have strong upward price momentum, like penny stocks during a promotion, are dangerous to speculate in.  Howard Marks, Jamie Dimon and Ray Dalio seem to agree with that.  That’s all.

Now for Q&A:

Greetings and salutations.  🙂

Hope all is well with you and the family!

Just have what I believe is a quick question. I already know [my husband’s] answer to this (Vanguard index funds – it his default answer to all things investment), but this is for my Mom, so it is important that she get it right (no wiggle room for losing money in an unstable market), hence my asking you. My Mom inherited money and doesn’t know what to do with it. a quarter of it was already in index funds/mutual funds and she kept it there. The rest came from the sale of real estate in the form of a check. That is the part that she doesn’t know what she should do with. She wanted to stick it in a CD until she saw how low the interest rates are. She works intermittently (handyman kind of work – it is demand-dependent), but doesn’t have any money saved in a retirement account or anything like that, so she needs this money get her though the rest of her life (she is almost 60). What would you recommend? What would you tell [name of my wife] to do if she were in this position? BTW, it is approx $ZZZ, if that makes a difference. Any advice you can give would be very much appreciated!

Vanguard funds are almost always a good choice.  The question here is which Vanguard funds?  To answer that, we have to think about asset allocation.  My thoughts on asset allocation is that it is a marriage of two concepts:

  • When will you need to spend the money? and
  • Where is there the opportunity for good returns?

Your mom is the same age as my wife.  A major difference between the two of them is that your mom doesn’t have a lot of investable assets, and my wife does.  We have to be more careful with your mom.  If your mom is only going to draw on these assets in retirement, say at age 67, and will draw them down over the rest of her life, say until age 87, then the horizon she is investing over is long, and should have stocks and longer-term bonds for investments.

But there is a problem here.  Drawing on an earlier article of mine, investors today face a big problem:

The biggest problem for investors is low future returns.  Bonds have low rates of returns, and equities have high valuations.  You’ll see more about equity valuations in my next post.

This is a real problem for those wanting to fund retirements.  Stocks are priced to return around 4%/year over the next ten years, and investment-grade longer bonds are around 3%.  There are some pockets of better opportunity and so I suggest the following:

  • Invest more in foreign and emerging market stocks.  The rest of the world is cheaper than the US.  Particularly in an era where the US is trying to decouple from the rest of the world, foreign stocks may provide better returns than US stocks for a while.
  • Invest your US stocks in a traditional “value” style.  Admittedly, this is not popular now, as value has underperformed for a record eight years versus growth investing.  The value/growth cycle will turn, as it did back in 2000, and it will give your mom better returns over the next ten years.
  • Split your bond allocation into two components: long US high-quality bonds (Treasuries and Investment Grade corporates), and very short bonds or a money market fund.  The long bonds are there as a deflation hedge, and the short bonds are there for liquidity.  If the market falls precipitously, the liquidity is there for future investments.

I would split the investments 25%, 35%, 20%, 20% in the order that I listed them, or something near that.  Try to sell your mom on the idea of setting the asset allocation, and not sweating the short-term results.  Revisit the strategy every three years or so, and rebalance annually.  If assets are needed prematurely, liquidate the assets that have done relatively well, and are above their target weights.

I know you love your mom, but the amount of assets isn’t that big.  It will be a help to her, but it ultimately will be a supplement to Social Security for her.  Her children, including you and your dear husband may ultimately prove to be a greater help for her than the assets, especially if the markets don’t do well.  The asset allocation I gave you is a balance of offense and defense in an otherwise poor environment.  The above advice also mirrors what I am doing for my own assets, and the assets of my clients, though I am not using Vanguard.

Joel Tillinghast, one of the best mutual fund managers, runs the money in Fidelity’s Low-Priced Stock Fund.  It has one of the best long-term records among stock funds over the 28 years that he has managed it.

The author gives you a recipe for how to pick good stocks, but he doesn’t give you a machine that produces them.  In a style that is clever and discursive, he summarizes his main ideas at the beginning and end of the book, and explains the ideas in the middle of the book.  The ideas are simple, but learning to apply them will take a lifetime.

Here are the five ideas as written in the beginning (page 3):

  1. Make decisions rationally

  2. Invest in what we know (did I mention Peter Lynch wrote the foreword to the book?)

  3. Worth with honest and trustworthy managers

  4. Avoid businesses prone to obsolescence and financial ruin, and 

  5. Value stocks properly

At this point, some will say “You haven’t really given us anything!  These ideas are too big to be useful!”  I was surprised, though, to see that the same five points at the end of the book said more (page 276).  Ready?

  1. Be clear about your motives, and don’t allow emotions to guide your financial decisions

  2. Recognize that some things can’t be understood and that you don’t understand others.  Focus on those that you understand best.

  3. Invest with people who are honest and trustworthy, and are doing something unique and valuable.

  4. Favor businesses that will not be destroyed by changing times, commoditization, or excessive debt.

  5. Above all, always look for investments that are worth a great deal more than you are paying for them.

That says more, and I think the reason they are different is that when you read through the five sections of the book, he unpacks his initial statements and becomes more definite.

Much of the book can be summarized under the idea of “margin of safety.”  This is a type of value investing.  When he analyzes value, it is like a simplified version of reverse discounted cash flows.  He tries to figure out in a broad way what an investment might return in terms price paid for the investment and what “owner earnings,” that is, free cash flow, it will generate on a conservative basis.

One aspect of the conservatism that I found insightful is that he assumes that the terminal value of an investment is zero. (page 150)  In my opinion, that is very smart, because that is the area where most discounted cash flow analyses go wrong.  When the difference between the weighted average growth rate of free cash flow and the discount rate is small, the terminal value gets really big relative to the value of the cash lows prior to the terminal value.  In short, assumptions like that say that the distant future is all that matters.  That’s a tough assumption in a world where companies and industries can become obsolete.

Even though I described aspects of a mathematical calculation here, what I did was very much like the book.  There are no equations; everything is described verbally, even the math.  Note: that is a good exercise to see whether you understand what the math really means.  (If more people on Wall Street did that, we might not have had the financial crisis.  Just sayin’.)

One more fun thing about the book is that he goes trough his own experiences with a wide variety of controversial stocks from the past and his experiences with them.  His conservatism kept him a great number of errors that tripped up other celebrated managers.

I learned a lot from this book, and I enjoyed the writing style as well.  He clearly put a lot of effort into it; many people will benefit from his insights.

Quibbles

His methods are a lot like mine, and he clearly put a lot of thought into this book.  That said, he doesn’t understand insurance companies as well as he thinks (I’m an actuary by training).  There are a number of small errors there, but not enough to ruin a really good book.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

I highly recommend this book.  This is a book that will benefit investors with moderate to high experience most. For those with less experience, it may help you, but some of the concepts require background knowledge.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: Big Money Thinks Small: Biases, Blind Spots, and Smarter Investing.

Full disclosure: The publisher asked me if I wanted a free copy and I assented.

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.

Picture Credit: Denise Krebs || What RFK said is not applicable to investing.  Safety First!  Don’t lose money!

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Investment entities, both people and institutions, often say one thing and mean another with respect to risk.  They can keep a straight face with respect to minor market gyrations.  But major market changes leading to the possible or actual questioning of whether they will have enough money to meet stated goals is what really matters to them.

There are six factors that go into any true risk analysis (I will handle them in order):

  1. Net Wealth Relative to Liabilities
  2. Time
  3. Liquidity
  4. Flexibility
  5. Investment-specific Factors
  6. Character of the Entity’s Decision-makers and their Incentives

Net Wealth Relative to Liabilities

The larger the surplus of assets over liabilities, the more relaxed and long-term focused an entity can be.  For the individual, that attempts to measure the amount needed to meet future obligations where future investment earnings are calculated at a conservative level — my initial rule of thumb is no more than 1% above the 10-year Treasury yield.

That said, for entities with well defined liabilities, like a defined benefit pension plan, a bank, or an insurance company, using 1% above the yield curve should be a maximum for investment earnings, even for existing fixed income assets.  Risk premiums will get taken into net wealth as they are earned.  They should not be planned as if they are guaranteed to occur.

Time

The longer it is before payments need to be made, the more aggressive the investment posture can be.  Now, that can swing two ways — with a larger surplus, or more time before payments need to be made, there is more freedom to tactically overweight or underweight risky assets versus your normal investment posture.

That means that someone like Buffett is almost unconstrained, aside from paying off insurance claims and indebtedness.  Not so for most investment entities, which often learn that their estimates of when they need the money are overestimates, and in a crisis, may need liquidity sooner than they ever thought.

Liquidity

High quality assets that can easily be turned into spendable cash helps make net wealth more secure.  Unexpected cash outflows happen, and how do you meet those needs, particularly in a crisis?  If you’ve got more than enough cash-like assets, the rest of the portfolio can be more aggressive.  Remember, Buffett view cash as an option, because of what he can buy with it during a crisis.  The question is whether the low returns from holding cash will get more than compensated for by capital gains and income on the rest of the portfolio across a full market cycle.  Do the opportunistic purchases get made when the crisis comes?  Do they pay off?

Also, if net new assets are coming in, aggressiveness can increase somewhat, but it matters whether the assets have promises attached to them, or are additional surplus.  The former money must be invested coservatively, while surplus can be invested aggressively.

Flexibility

Some liabilities, or spending needs, can be deferred, at some level of cost or discomfort.  As an example, if retirement assets are not sufficient, then maybe discretionary expenses can be reduced.  Dreams often have to give way to reality.

Even in corporate situations, some payments can be stretched out with some increase in the cost of financing.  One has to be careful here, because the time you are forced to conserve liquidity is often the same time that everyone else must do it as well, which means the cost of doing so could be high.  That said, projects can be put on hold, realizing that growth will suffer; this can be a “choose your poison” type of situation, because it might cause the stock price to fall, with unpredictable second order effects.

Investment-specific Factors

Making good long term investments will enable a higher return over time, but concentration of ideas can in the short-run lead to underperformance.  So long as you don’t need cash soon, or you have a large surplus of net assets, such a posture can be maintained over the long haul.

The same thing applies to the need for income from investments.  investments can shoot less for income and more for capital gains if the need for spendable cash is low.  Or, less liquid investments can be purchased if they offer a significant return for giving up the liquidity.

Character of the Entity’s Decision-makers and their Incentives

The last issue, which many take first, but I think is last, is how skilled the investors are in dealing with panic/greed situations.  What is your subjective “risk tolerance?”  The reason I put this last, is that if you have done your job right, and properly sized the first five factors above, there will be enough surplus and liquidity that does not easily run away in a crisis.  When portfolios are constructed so that they are prepared for crises and manias, the subjective reactions are minimized because the call on cash during a crisis never gets great enough to force them to move.

A: “Are we adequate?”

B: “More than adequate.  We might even be able to take advantage of the crisis…”

The only “trouble” comes when almost everyone is prepared.  Then no significant crises come.  That theoretical problem is very high quality, but I don’t think the nature of mankind ever changes that much.

Closing

Pay attention to the risk factors of investing relative to your spending needs (or, liabilities).  Then you will be prepared for the inevitable storms that will come.

26 paths, and all of them wrong

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I lost this post once already, hopefully it will be better-written this time.  I’ve been playing around with the stock market prediction model in order to give some idea of how the actual results could vary from the forecasts.

Look at the graph above.  it shows potential price returns that vary from -1.51%/year to 4.84%/year, with a most likely value of 2.79%, placing the S&P 500 at 3200 in March 2027.  Add onto this a 2% dividend yield to get the total returns.

The 26 paths above come from the 26 times in the past that the model forecast total returns within 1% of 4.79%.  4.79% is at the 90th percentile of expected returns.  Typically in the past, when expected returns were in the lower two deciles, actual returns were lower still.  For the 26 scenarios, that difference was 0.63%/year, which would imply 10-year future returns in the 4.16%/year area.

The pattern of residuals is unusual.  The model tends to overestimate returns at the extremes, and underestimate when expected returns are “normal.”  I can’t think of a good reason for this.  If you have a good explanation please give it in the comments.

Now if errors followed a normal distribution, a 95% confidence interval on total returns would be plus or minus 3.8%, i.e., from 1.0% to 8.6%.  I find the non-normal confidence interval, from 0.5% to 6.8% to be more plausible, partly because valuations would be a new record in 2027 if we had anything near 8.6%/year for the next ten years.  Even 6.8%/year would be a record.  That”s why I think a downward bias on results makes sense, with high valuations.

At the end of the first quarter, the model forecast total returns of 5.06%/year for the next ten years.  With the recent rally, that figure is now 4.79%/year.  Now, how excited should we be about these returns?  Not very?  I can buy that.

But what if you were a financial planner and thought this argument to be plausible?  Maybe you can get 3.5%/year out of bonds over the next ten years.  With 4.79% on stocks, and a 60/40 mix of stocks/bonds, that means returns of 4.27%.  Not many financial planning models are considering levels like that.

But now think of pension plans and endowments.  How many of them have assumptions in the low 4% region?  Some endowments are there as far as a spending rule goes, but they still assume some capital gains to preserve the purchasing power of the endowment.  Pension plans are nowhere near that, and if they think alternative investments will bail them out, they don’t know what they are doing.  Alternatives are common enough now that the face the same allocative behavior from institutional investors, which then correlates their returns with regular investments in the future, even if they weren’t so in the past.

I don’t have much more to say, so I will close with this: if you want to study this model more, you need to read the articles in this series, and the articles referenced at the Economic Philosopher blog.  Move your return expectations down, and diversify away from the US; there are better returns abroad — but remember, there are good reasons for home bias, so choose your foreign investments with care.

 

Markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you.  Sometimes that is when the market has done exceptionally well, and you have been too cautious.   That tends to be my error as well.  I’m too cautious in bull markets, but on the good side, I don’t panic in bear markets, even the most severe of them.

The bull market keeps hitting new highs.  It’s the second longest bull market in the last eighty years, and the third largest in terms of cumulative price gain.  Let me show you a graph that simultaneously shows how amazing it is, and how boring it is as well.

The amazing thing is how long the rally has been.  We are now past 3000 days.  What is kind of boring is this — once a rally gets past two years time, price return results fall into a range of around 1.1-2.0%/month for the rally as a whole, averaging around 1.4%/month, or 18.5% annualized.  (The figure for market falling more than 200 days is -3.3%/month, which is slightly more than double the rate at which it rises.  Once you throw in the shorter time frames, the ratio gets closer to double — presently around 2.18x.  Note that the market rises are 3.2x as long as the falls.  This is roughly similar to the time spans on the credit cycle.)

That price return rate of 1.4%/month isn’t boring, of course, and is close to where the stock market prediction model would have predicted back in March 2009, where it forecast total returns of around 16%/year for 10 years.  That would have implied a level a little north of 2500, which is only 3% away, with 21 months to go.

Have you missed the boat?

If you haven’t been invested during this rally, you’ve most like missed more than 80% of the gains of this rally.  So yes, you have missed it.

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Omar Khayyám from The Rubaiyat

In other words, “If ya missed the last bus, ya missed the last bus.  Yer stuck.”

We can only manage assets for the future, and only our decrepit view of the future is of any use.  We might say, “I have no idea.” and maintain a relatively constant asset allocation policy.  That’s mostly what I do.  I limit my asset allocation changes because it is genuinely difficult to time the market.

If you are tempted to add more money now, I would tell you to wait for better levels.  If you can’t wait, then do half of what you want to do.

A wise person knows that the past is gone, and can’t be changed.  So aim for the best in the future, which at present means having at least your normal percentage of safe assets in your asset allocation.

(the closing graph shows the frequency and size of market gains since 1928)

Photo Credit: Daniel Broche || To the victor goes the spoils, or, does a victory get spoiled?

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I was at a CFA Baltimore board meeting, and we were talking before the meeting.  Most of us work for value investors, or, growth-at-a-reasonable-price investors.  One fellow who has a business model somewhat like mine, commented that all the money was flowing into ETFs which were buying things like Facebook, Amazon and Google, which was distorting the market.  I made a comment that something like that was true during the dot-com bubble, though it was direct then, not due to ETFs, and went to a different group of stocks.

Let’s unpack this, starting with ETFs.  ETFs are becoming a greater proportion of the holders of stocks, and other assets also.  When do new shares of ETFs get created?  When it is profitable to do so.  The shares of the ETF must be worth more than the assets going into the ETF, or new shares will not get created.

It is the opposite for ETFs if their shares get liquidated. That only happens when it is profitable to do so.  The shares of the ETF must be worth less than the assets going out of the ETF, or shares will not get liquidated.

Is it likely that the growth in ETFs is driving up the price of shares? Not much; all that implies is that people are willing to pay somewhat more for a convenient package of stocks than what they are worth separately.  Fewer people want to own individual assets, and more like to hold bunches of assets that represent broad ideas.  Invest in the stock market of a country, a sector, an industry, a factor or a group of them.

The creators and liquidators of ETF shares typically work on a hedged basis.  They are long whatever is cheaper, and short whatever is more expensive — but on net flat.  When they have enough size to create or liquidate, they go to the ETF and do that.  Thus, the actions of the creators/liquidators should not affect prices much.  Their trading operations have to be top-notch to do this.

(An aside — long-term holders of ETFs get nipped by the creation and liquidation processes, because both diminish the value of the ETF to long-term holders.  Tax advantages make up some or more than all of the difference, though.)

Does the growth in ETFs change the nature of the stickiness of the holding of the underlying stocks?  Does it make the stickiness more like a life insurer holding onto a rare “museum piece” bond that they could never replace, or like a day trader trying to clip nickels?  I think it leans toward less stickiness; my own view of ETF holders is that they fall mostly into two buckets — traders and investors.  The investors hold a long time; the traders are very short term.

As such, more ETFs owning stocks probably makes the ownership base more short-term.  ETFs are simple looking investments that mask the underlying complexity of the individual assets.  There is no necessary connection between a bull market and and growth in ETFs, or vice-versa.  In any given market cycle there might be a connection, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

ETFs don’t create or retire shares of underlying stocks or bonds.  And, the ETFs don’t necessarily create more net demand for the underlying assets.  Open end mutual fund holders and direct holders shrink and ETFs grow, at least for now.  That may make a holder base a little more short-term, but it shouldn’t have a big impact on the prices of the underlying assets.

My friend made a common error, confusing primary and secondary markets.  No money is flowing into the corporations that he mentioned.  Relative prices are affected by greater willingness to pay a still greater amount for the stock of growthy, highly popular, large companies relative to that of average companies or worse yet, value stocks.

Now the CEOs of companies with overvalued shares may indeed find ways to take advantage of the situation, and issue stock slowly and quietly.  The same might apply to value stocks, but they would buy back their stock, building value for shareholders that don’t sell out.  In this example, the secondary markets give pricing signals to companies, and they use it to build value where appropriate — secondary markets leads primary markets here.  The home run would be that the companies with overvalued shares would buy the companies with undervalued shares, if the companies were related, and it seemed that management could integrate the firms.

What we are seeing today is a shift in relative prices.  Growth is in, and value is out.  What we aren’t seeing is the massive capital destruction that took place when seemingly high growth companies were going public during the dot-com bubble, where cash flowed into companies only to get eaten by operational losses.  There will come a time when the relative price of growth vs value will shift back, and performance will reflect that then.  It just won’t be as big of a shift as happened in the early 2000s.

There’s a lot of bits and bytes spilled in the war between Elliott Associates (and those that favor their position) and the current board of Arconic.  I want to point out a few things, having held Alcoa since prior to the breakup, and added to my positions in both new Alcoa and Arconic post-breakup.

  • Profitability will likely improve more if Elliott’s nominees are elected to the board, and Larry Lawson is CEO.
  • The existing management team does not deserve credit for the recent rise in the stock price for two reasons: a decent amount of the rise in Arconic’s stock price anticipates a rising probability that the board and management team will be replaced.  Second, a decent amount of the increase in the stock price of Alcoa has been due to a rise in the price of aluminum, for which no single entity can take credit.  Current Arconic benefited from that, at least until it sold its whole stake in Alcoa.
  • To their discredit, the existing management team and board resisted the breakup of the company into upstream and downstream for years.  (See point 2 of this Elliott letter, Was Dr. Kleinfeld the Driving Force Behind the Separation?)
  • Existing management was not a good capital allocator.
  • Prior to the agitation by Elliott, Alcoa and Arconic sold at low valuations, because earnings prospects were poor.  Now new Alcoa is in better hands, and that might be true for Arconic in the future, which may further improve valuation.
  • The existing board has low ownership in Arconic.  Many of the existing board members have been around too long.
  • The current board are late to the party of improving corporate governance.  Though their proposals are good, it looks like they were dragged there by the activists, and therefore, can’t be trusted to maintain these improvements.

That’s my short summary; it is not meant to be detailed, as Elliott’s arguments are.  In general, I agree with the arguments over at New Arconic, and will be voting the blue proxy card.  If you disagree, then you should vote the white proxy card sent out by the existing board.

I’m not telling you what to do.  Vote the proxy that reflects your view of what will improve Arconic the most.

Full disclosure: long AA & ARNC for my clients and me (Note: Aleph Investments, LLC, is dust on the scales in this fight, representing less than 0.01% of outstanding shares.)

What a difference a quarter makes!  As I said one quarter ago:

Are you ready to earn 6%/year until 9/30/2026?  The data from the Federal Reserve comes out with some delay.  If I had it instantly at the close of the third quarter, I would have said 6.37% — but with the run-up in prices since then, the returns decline to 6.01%/year.

So now I say:

Are you ready to earn 5%/year until 12/31/2026?  The data from the Federal Reserve comes out with some delay.  If I had it instantly at the close of the fourth quarter, I would have said 5.57% — but with the run-up in prices since then, the returns decline to 5.02%/year.

A one percent drop is pretty significant.  It stems from one main factor, though — investors are allocating a larger percentage of their total net worth to stocks.  The amount in stocks moved from 38.00% to 38.75%, and is probably higher now.  Remember that these figures come out with a 10-week delay.

Remember that the measure in question covers both public and private equities, and is market value to the extent that it can be, and “fair value” where it can’t.  Bonds and most other assets tend to be a little easier to estimate.

So what does it mean for the ratio to move up from 38.00% to 38.75%?  Well, it can mean that equities have appreciated, which they have.  But corporations buy back stock, pay dividends, get acquired for cash which reduces the amount of stock outstanding, and places more cash in the hands of investors.  More cash in the hands of investors means more buying power, and that gets used by many long-term institutional investors who have fixed mandates to follow.  Gotta buy more if you hit the low end of your equity allocation.

And the opposite is true if new money gets put into businesses, whether through private equity, Public IPOs, etc.  One of the reasons this ratio went so high in 1998-2001 was the high rate of business formation.  People placed more money at risk as they thought they could strike it rich in the Dot-Com bubble.  The same was true of the Go-Go era in the late 1960s.

Remember here, that average returns are around 9.5%/year historically.  To be at 5.02% places us in the 88th percentile of valuations.  Also note that I will hedge what I can if expected 10-year returns get down to 3%/year, which corresponds to a ratio of 42.4% in stocks, and the 95th percentile of valuations.  (Note, all figures in this piece are nominal, not inflation-adjusted.)  At that level, past 10-year returns in the equity markets have been less than 1%, and in the short-to-intermediate run, quite poor.)

You can also note that short-term and 10-year Treasury yields have risen, lowering the valuation advantage versus cash and bonds.

I have a few more small things to add.  Here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal: Individual Investors Wade In as Stocks Soar.  The money shot:

The investors’ positioning suggests burgeoning optimism, with TD Ameritrade clients increasing their net exposure to stocks in February, buying bank shares and popular stocks such as Amazon.com Inc. and sending the retail brokerage’s Investor Movement Index to a fresh high in data going back to 2010. The index tracks investors’ exposure to stocks and bonds to gauge their sentiment.

“People went toe in the water, knee in the water and now many are probably above the waist for the first time,” said JJ Kinahan, chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade.

This is sad to say, but it is rare for a rally to end before the “dumb money” shows up in size.  Running a small asset management shop like I do, at times like this I suggest to clients that they might want more bonds (with me that’s short and high quality now), but few do that.  Asset allocation is the choice of my clients, not me.  That said, most of my clients are long-term investors like me, for which I give them kudos.

Then there is this piece over at Bloomberg.com called: Wall Street’s Buzz Over ‘Great Leader’ Trump Gives Shiller Dot-Com Deja Vu.  I want to see the next data point in this analysis, which won’t be available by mid-June, but I do think a lot of the rally can be chalked up to willingness to take more risk.

I do think that most people and corporations think that they will have a more profitable time under Trump rather than Obama.  That said, a lot of the advantage gets erased by a higher cost of debt capital, which is partly driven by the Fed, and partly by a potentially humongous deficit.  As I have said before though, politicians are typically limited in what they can do.  (And the few unlimited ones are typically destructive.)

Shiller’s position is driven at least partly by the weak CAPE model, and the rest by his interpretation of current events.  I don’t make much out of policy uncertainty indices, which are too new.  The VIX is low, but hey, it usually is when the market is near new highs.  Bull markets run on complacency.  Bear markets plunge on revealed credit risk threatening economic weakness.

One place I will agree with Shiller:

What Shiller will say now is that he’s refrained from adding to his own U.S. stock positions, emphasizing overseas markets instead.

That is what I am doing.  Where I part ways with Shiller for now is that I am not pressing the panic button.  Valuations are high, but not so high that I want to hedge or sell.

That’s all for now.  This series of posts generates more questions than most, so feel free to ask away in the comments section, or send me an email.  I will try to answer the best questions.

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Late edit: changed bolded statement above from third to fourth quarter.

Photo Credit: Mike Morbeck || On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin!

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It was shortly after the election when I last moved my trading band.  Well, time to move it again, this time up 4%, with a small twist.  I’m at my cash limit of 20%, with a few more stocks knocking on the door of a rebalancing sale, and none near a rebalancing buy.  (To decode this, you can read my article on portfolio rule seven.)  Here is portfolio rule seven:

Rebalance the portfolio whenever a stock gets more than 20% away from its target weight. Run a largely equal-weighted portfolio because it is genuinely difficult to tell what idea is the best. Keep about 30-40 names for diversification purposes.

This is my interim trading rule, which helps me make a little additional money for clients by buying relatively low and selling relatively high.  It also reduces risk, because higher prices are riskier than lower prices, all other things equal.

There are two companies that are double-weights in my portfolio, one half-weight, and 32 single-weights.  The half-weight is a micro-cap that is difficult to buy or sell. (Patience, patience…)  With cash near 20%, a single-weight currently runs around 2.2% of assets, with buying happening near 1.75%, and selling near 2.63%.

But, I said there was a small twist.  I’m going to add another single-weight position.  I don’t know what yet.  Also, I’m leaving enough in reserve to turn one of the single-weights into a double-weight.  That company is a well-run Mexican firm that has  had a falling stock price even though it is still performing well.  If it falls another 10%, I will do more than rebalance.  I will rebalance and double it.

Part of the reason for the move in both number of positions and position size at the same time is that both the half-weight and one single-weight that is at the top of its band are being acquired for cash, and so they (3.5% of assets) behave more like cash than stocks.

Thus, amid a portfolio that has been performing well, I am adjusting my positioning so that if the market continues to do well, the portfolio doesn’t lag much, or even continues to outperform.  I’m not out to make big macro bets; I will make a small bet that the market is high, and carry above average cash, but it will all get deployed if the market falls 25%+ from here.

I keep the excess cash around for the same reason Buffett does.  It gives you more easy options in a bad market environment.  Until that environment comes, you’ll never know how valuable is is to keep some extra cash around.  Better safe, than sorry.

Photo Credit: D.C.Atty || Scrawled in 2008, AFTER the crash started

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Comments are always appreciated from readers, if they are polite.  Here’s a recent one from the piece Distrust Forecasts.

You made one statement that I don’t really understand. “Most forecasters only think about income statements. Most of the limits stem from balance sheets proving insufficient, or cash flows inverting, and staying that way for a while.”

What is the danger of balance sheets proving insufficient? Does that mean that the company doesn’t have enough cash to cover their ‘burn rate’?

Not having enough cash to cover the burn rate can be an example of this.  Let me back up a bit, and speak generally before focusing.

Whether economists, quantitative analysts, chartists or guys who pull numbers out of the air, most people do not consider balance sheets when making predictions.  (Counterexample: analysts at the ratings agencies.)  It is much easier to assume a world where there are no limits to borrowing.  Practical example #1 would be home owners and buyers during the last financial crisis, together with the banks, shadow banks, and government sponsored enterprises that financed them.

In economies that have significant private debts, growth is limited, because of higher default probabilities/severity, and less capability of borrowing more should defaults tarry.  Most firms don’t like issuing equity, except as a last resort, so restricted ability to borrow limits growth. High debt among consumers limits growth in another way — they have less borrowing capacity and many feel less comfortable borrowing anyway.

Figuring out when there is “too much debt” is a squishy concept at any level — household, company, government, economy, etc.  It’s not as if you get to a magic number and things go haywire.  People have a hard time dealing with the idea that as leverage rises, so does the probability of default and the severity of default should it happen.  You can get to really high amounts of leverage and things still hold together for a while — there may be extenuating circumstances allowing it to work longer — just as in other cases, a failure in one area triggers a lot more failures as lenders stop lending, and those with inadequate liquidity can refinance and then fail.

Three More Reasons to Distrust Predictions

1) Media Effects — the media does not get the best people on the tube — they get those that are the most entertaining.  This encourages extreme predictions.  The same applies to people who make predictions in books — those that make extreme predictions sell more books.  As an example, consider this post from Ben Carlson on Harry Dent.  Harry Dent hasn’t been right in a long time, but it doesn’t stop him from making more extreme predictions.

For more on why you should ignore the media, you can read this ancient article that I wrote for RealMoney in 2005, and updated in 2013.

2) Momentum Effects — this one is two-sided.  There are momentum effects in the market, so it’s not bogus to shade near term estimates based off of what has happened recently.  There are two problems though — the longer and more severe the rise or fall, the more you should start downplaying momentum, and increasingly think mean-reversion.  Don’t argue for a high returning year when valuations are stretched, and vice-versa for large market falls when valuations are compressed.

The second thing is kind of a media effect when you begin seeing articles like “Everyone Ought to be Rich,” etc.  “Dow 36,000”-type predictions come near the end of bull markets, just as “The Death of Equities’ comes at the end of Bear Markets.  The media always shows up late; retail shows up late; the nuttiest books show up late.  Occasionally it will fell like books and pundits are playing “Can you top this?” near the end of a cycle.

3) Spurious Math — Whether it is the geometry of charts or the statistical optimization of regression, it is easy to argue for trends persisting longer than they should.  We should always try to think beyond the math to the human processes that the math is describing.  What levels of valuation or indebtedness are implied?  Setting new records in either is always possible, but it is not the most likely occurrence.

With that, be skeptical of forecasts.