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

=======

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

========================

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?

====================================

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.

=========================

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

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

=============================================================

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

=============================

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.

 

-==-=-=-

Here’s the quick summary of what I will say: People and companies need liquidity.  Anything where payments need to be made needs liquidity.  Secondary markets will develop their own liquidity if it is needed.

Recently, I was at an annual meeting of a private company that I own shares in.  Toward the end of the meeting, one fellow who was kind of new to the firm asked what liquidity the shares had and how people valued them.  The board and management of the company wisely said little.  I gave a brief extemporaneous talk that said that most people who owned these shares know they are illiquid, and as such, they hold onto them, and enjoy the distributions.  I digressed a little and explained how one *might* put a value on the shares, but trading values really depended on who was more motivated — the buyer or the seller.

Now, there’s no need for that company to have a liquid market in its stock.  In general, if someone wants to sell, someone will buy — trades are very infrequent, say a handful per year.  But the holders know that, and most plan not to sell the shares, looking to other sources if they need money to spend — liquidity.

And in one sense, the shares generate their own flow of liquidity.  The distributions come quite regularly.  Which would you rather have?  A bucket of golden eggs, or the goose that lays them one at a time?

Now the company itself doesn’t need liquidity.  It generates its liquidity internally through profitable operations that don’t require much in the way of reinvestment in order to maintain its productive capacity.

Now, Buffett used to purchase only companies that were like this, because he wanted to reallocate the excess liquidity that the companies threw off to new investments.  But as time has gone along, he has purchased capital-intensive businesses like BNSF that require continued capital investment.  Quoting from a good post at Alpha Architect referencing Buffett’s recent annual meeting:

Question: …In your 1987 Letter to Shareholders, you commented on the kind of companies Berkshire would like to buy: those that required only small amounts of capital. You said, quote, “Because so little capital is required to run these businesses, they can grow while concurrently making all their earnings available for deployment in new opportunities.” Today the company has changed its strategy. It now invests in companies that need tons of capital expenditures, are over-regulated, and earn lower returns on equity capital. Why did this happen?

Warren Buffett…It’s one of the problems of prosperity. The ideal business is one that takes no capital, but yet grows, and there are a few businesses like that. And we own some…We’d love to find one that we can buy for $10 or $20 or $30 billion that was not capital intensive, and we may, but it’s harder. And that does hurt us, in terms of compounding earnings growth. Because obviously if you have a business that grows, and gives you a lot of money every year…[that] isn’t required in its growth, you get a double-barreled effect from the earnings growth that occurs internally without the use of capital and then you get the capital it produces to go and buy other businesses…[our] increasing capital [base] acts as an anchor on returns in many ways. And one of the ways is that it drives us into, just in terms of availability…into businesses that are much more capital intensive.

Emphasis that of Alpha Architect

Liquidity is meant to support the spending of corporations and people who need services and products to further their existence.  As such, intelligent entities plan for liquidity needs in advance.  A pension plan in decline allocates more to bonds so that the cash flow from the bonds will fund expected net payouts.  Well-run insurance companies and banks match expected cash flows at least for a few years.

Buffer funds are typically low-yielding assets of high quality and short duration — short maturity bonds, CDs, savings and bank deposits, etc.  Ordinary people and corporations need them to manage the economic bumps of life.  Expenses are up, and current income doesn’t exceed them.  Got cash?  It certainly helps to be able to draw on excess assets in a pinch.  Those who run a balance on their credit cards pay handsomely for the convenience.

In a crisis, who needs liquidity most?  Usually, it’s whoever is at the center of the crisis, but usually, those entities are too far gone to be helped.  More often, the helpable needy are the lenders to those at the center of the crisis, and woe betide us if no one will privately lend to them.  In that case, the financial system itself is in crisis, and then people end up lending to whoever is the lender of last resort.  In the last crisis, Treasury bonds rallied as a safe haven.

In that sense, liquidity is a ‘fraidy cat.  Marginal borrowers can’t get it when they need it most.  Liquidity typically flows to quality in a crisis.  Buffett bailed out only the highest quality companies in the last crisis. Not knowing how bad it would be, he was happy to hit singles, rather than risk it on home runs.

Who needs liquidity most now?  Hard to say.  At present in the US, liquidity is plentiful, and almost any person or firm can get a loan or equity finance if they want it.  Companies happily extend their balance sheets, buying back stock, paying dividends, and occasionally investing.  Often when liquidity is flush, the marginal bidder is a speculative entity.  As an example, perhaps some emerging market countries, companies and people would like additional offers of liquidity.

That’s a major difference between bull and bear markets — the quality of those that can easily get unsecured loans.  To me that is the leading reason why we are in the seventh or eighth inning of a bull market now, because almost any entity can get the loans they want at attractive levels.  Why isn’t it the ninth inning?  We’re not at “nuts” levels yet.  We may never get there though, which is why baseball analogies are sometimes lame.  Some event can disrupt the market when it is so high, and suddenly people and firms are no longer so willing to extend credit.

Ending the article here — be aware.  The time to take inventory of your assets and their financing needs is before the markets have an event.  I’ve just completed my review of my portfolio.  I sold two of the 35 companies that I hold and replaced them with more solid entities that still have good prospects.  I will sell two more in the new year for tax reasons.  My bond portfolio is high quality.  My clients and I are ready if liquidity gets worse.

Are you ready?

Ben Graham, who else?

================================================================
Well, I didn’t think I would do any more “Rules” posts, but here one is:

In markets, “what is true” works in the long run. “What people are growing to believe is true” works in the short run.

This is a more general variant of Ben Graham’s dictum:

“In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

Not that I will ever surpass the elegance of Ben Graham, but I think there are aspects of my saying that work better.  Ben Graham lived in a time where capital was mostly physical, and he invested that way.  He found undervalued net assets and bought them, sometimes fighting to realize value, and sometimes waiting to realize value, while all of the while enjoying the arts as a bon vivant.  In one sense, Graham kept the peas and carrots of life on separate sides of the plate.  There is the tangible (a cheap set of assets, easily measured), and the intangible — artistic expression, whether in painting, music, acting, etc. (where values are not only relative, but contradictory — except perhaps for Keynes’ beauty contest).

Voting and weighing are discrete actions.  Neither has a lot of complexity on one level, though deciding who to vote for can have its challenges. (That said, that may be true in the US for 10% of the electorate.  Most of us act like we are party hacks. 😉 )

What drives asset prices?  New information?  Often, but new information is only part of it. It stems from changes in expectations.  Expectations change when:

  • Earnings get announced (or pre-announced)
  • Economic data gets released.
  • Important people like the President, Cabinet members, Fed governors, etc., give speeches.
  • Acts of God occur — earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, terrorist attacks, etc.
  • A pundit releases a report, whether that person is a short, a long-only manager, hedge fund manager, financial journalist, sell-side analyst, etc.  (I’ve even budged the market occasionally on some illiquid stocks…)
  • Asset prices move and some people mimic to intensify the move because they feel they are missing out.
  • Holdings reports get released.
  • New scientific discoveries are announced
  • Mergers or acquisitions or new issues are announced.
  • The solvency of a firm is questioned, or a firm of questionable solvency has an event.
  • And more… nowadays even a “tweet” can move the market

In the short run, it doesn’t matter whether the news is true.  What matters is that people believe it enough to act on it.  Their expectation change.  Now, that may not be enough to create a permanent move in the price — kind of like people buying stocks that Cramer says he likes on TV, and the Street shorts those stocks from the inflated levels.  (Street 1, Retail 0)

But if the news seems to have permanent validity, the price will adjust to a higher or lower level.  It will then take new data to move the price of the asset, and the dance of information and prices goes on and on.  Asset prices are always in an unstable equilibrium that takes account of the many views of what the world will be like over various time horizons.  They are more volatile than most theories would predict because people are not rational in the sense that economists posit — they do not think as much as imitate and extrapolate.

Read the news, whether on paper or the web — “XXX is dead,” “YYY is the future.”  Horrible overstatements most of the time — sure, certain products or industries may shrink or grow due to changes in technology or preferences, but with a few exceptions, a new temporary unstable equilibrium is reached which is larger or smaller than before.  (How many times has radio died?)

“Stocks rallied because the Fed cut interest rates.”

“Stocks rallied because the Fed tightened interest rates, showing a strong economy.”

“Stocks rallied just because this market wants to go up.”

“Stocks rallied and I can’t tell you why even though you are interviewing me live.”

Okay, the last one is fake — we have to give reasons after the fact of a market move, even anthropomorphizing the market, or we would feel uncomfortable.

We like our answers big and definite.  Often, those big, definite answers that seem right at 5PM will look ridiculous in hindsight — especially when considering what was said near turning points.  The tremendous growth that everyone expected to last forever is a farce.  The world did not end; every firm did not go bankrupt.

So, expectations matter a lot, and changes in expectations matter even more in the short-run, but who can lift up their head and look into the distance and say, “This is crazy.”  Even more, who can do that precisely at the turning points?

No one.

There are few if any people who can both look at the short-term information and the long-term information and use them both well.  Value investors are almost always early.  If they do it neglecting the margin of safety, they may not survive to make it to the long-run, where they would have been right.  Shorts predicting the end often develop a mindset that keeps them from seeing that things have stopped getting worse, and they stubbornly die in their bearishness.  Vice-versa, for bullish Pollyannas.

Financially, only two things matter — cash flows, the cost of financing cash flows, and how they change with time.  Amid the noise and news, we often forget that there are businesses going on, quietly meeting human needs in exchange for a profit.  The businessmen are frequently more rational than the markets, and attentive to the underlying business processes producing products and services that people value.

As with most things I write about, the basic ideas are easy, but they work out in hard ways.  We may not live long enough to see what was true or false in our market judgments.  There comes a time for everyone to hang up their spurs if they don’t die in the saddle.  Some of the most notable businessmen and market savants, who in their time were indispensable people, will eventually leave the playing field, leaving others to play the game, while they go to the grave.  Keynes, the great value investor that he was, said, “In the long run we are all dead.”  The truth remains — omnipresent and elusive, inscrutable and unchangeable like a giant cube of gold in a baseball infield.

As it was, Ben Graham left the game, but never left the theory of value investing.  Changes in expectations drive prices, and unless you are clever enough to divine the future, perhaps the best you can do is search for places where those expectations are too low, and tuck some of those assets away for a better day.  That better day may be slow in coming, but diversification and the margin of safety embedded in those assets there will help compensate for the lack of clairvoyance.

After all, in the end, the truth measures us.