The Aleph Blog

I’m Not in This for Love

Much as I appreciate those who like what I write at this blog, I don’t write to be loved.  I don’t write to be hated, either.  I am sensitive to what people think of me, but not to the degree that it changes what I write.

I may have nonconsensus views on:

  • The Federal Reserve
  • Gold
  • Social Security & Medicare (and their cousins around the globe)
  • The current Bull Market in Stocks and Corporate Bonds
  • Long Treasuries
  • and more…..

But I write what I write to disclose the truth.  I am an active equity manager, but I encourage people to use passive investing via index funds, unless they can find a manager who can reliably obtain outperformance.

I don’t blog for economic advantage.  If I wanted to do that, I could channel a wide variety of ideas on investing that are popular, but I know are marginal at best in terms of effectiveness.

Some friends of mine have told me, “Why don’t you write about companies that you own, or companies that look attractive to you?”

I’ve been burned by doing that.  For every ten that you get right, you get the same response from every one you get wrong.  As with most of the web, the complainers dominate.  That’s why I don’t trot out many individual stock ideas.  It’s not that I don’t have them, but I only share them as a group, not as a single idea, most of the time.

Summary

I’m here to tell the truth, even if it cuts against my own short-term economic interests.  Most of the time, I adjust my portfolio so that it is ready for everything, but sometimes I delay, because I know that changes in the market usually happen slowly.

I do not write to be popular.  I write to change the consensus, unlikely as that will be.  Finance is a perverse area of life where fear and greed take over.  And with academics, they have these lame models that are fit for Vulcans (maybe) but not humans (and certainly not Ferengi).

We need new models that reflect the fear-greed cycle, and make valuation a significant input in risk assessments.

I’m not in this for love; I only want to change the way that we view investment decisions.

To Live off of, and Die from, the Equity Premium and Alpha

I’m working on my taxes.  I’m not in a good mood.  Okay, writing that made me chuckle, because I am usually in a good mood.

Let me divide my working life into four segments:

  • 1986-1998: Actuary — reasonably well paid, and significantly underpaid compared to the value I delivered.
  • 1998-2007 — Investment risk manager, Mortgage bond manager, Corporate bond manager, and Senior Analyst at a long/short hedge fund.  Paid well for my efforts, and the  rewards to clients were far more than what I was paid.
  • 2007-2010 — Almost no pay, as I deal with home issues, provide research to a small minority broker-dealer, and try to gain institutional asset management clients.  Living off of assets from earlier days.
  • 2010-2014 — Living off of asset income as I slowly build a retail and small institutional client base for my value investing.

The last two periods are the most interesting in a way, because I was drawing more income from investments than I was from any other source.  Even during my time at the hedge fund, I made more money from my own investing every year than I was paid, and I was paid well.  That said the mid-2000s were a hot time, particularly if you made the right calls on a growing global economy.

My net worth today is roughly where it was at the peak of the markets in 2007, despite my low wage income.  I have been bailed out by the returns of the equity market and my alpha.

This is not a comfortable place to be, because general equity returns are not predictable, and alpha, though I have had it for years, is not predictable either.  That said, my client base has been growing, and in another year or so, my practice should support my family even if the markets don’t do well.

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

Though I just told a story about me, the real story isn’t about me.  Think of all of the people who are trying to manage their lump sum in retirement.  They are relying on strong equity markets; they are hoping for alpha.  They are not ready for setbacks.

Unless you are seriously wealthy, when you are not receiving reliable income from a wage-like source, you can feel like you are in a weak position. I have felt that on occasion, but in general  I have not worried.

I write this because equity outperformance over bonds will likely be limited over the next ten years.  I peg equities at about a 5%/year average nominal return, with a diversified portfolio of bonds at around 2-3%/year.  Also the ability to add alpha is limited, because alpha is zero in total, and are you smart enough to find the managers that can do it?

In desperate times desperate men do desperate things.  Low interest rates are leading many to speculate more than they ordinarily would.  Equity allocations go higher.  Allocations to “alternatives” go higher.  People start using nonguaranteed income vehicles as if they had the structural protections of bonds.

As I always say, be careful.  Those trying to manage a lump sum for income in retirement are playing a dangerous game where if you try to draw more than 3.5%/year with regularity will prove challenging, because that is playing at the boundary of what the assets can deliver, and leaves little room for an adverse scenario.  Be careful.

Book Review: Letters to a Young Analyst

letters cover (snipped)

 

We need to spend more time thinking about the big picture issues in investing.  Why do we do what we do?  How do we structure our firm to get the best out of the talented people that we employ?  Where do we really have a sustainable competitive advantage?

This slim volume has much advice in these areas, but focuses on how young analysts can make themselves valuable to the firms that they work for.

In addition to the advice of Tom Brakke, you get the advice of 12+ analysts, many of whom I respect, explaining the “nuts and bolts” of good analysis to young analysts.  I was on of the twelve, and judging from the other comments, there are many who remember what it was like to be young and grasping for help.  What would we have done differently, given our acquired knowledge?  This book is meant to give young and amateur investors a leg up.

The end of the book gives a wealth of resources on how the young analyst can learn.  In this era, it’s almost more of a question of excluding pervasive bad content.

This is a great book for young analysts, and serious amateur stockpickers.  If you are interested, you can buy it here.

Unlike most of my book reviews, there is no way for me to profit off of this one, not that I ever profit much off of my book reviews.  If you buy it, I encourage you to study it, because many older investors have given their best to aid young analysts.

Tower Group Errata

I try to run an ethical blog here, so when I make mistakes, I admit them.  In this case, I don’t think the errors make a lot of difference to the investment decision, but I will confess to being wrong on  details in my last post.  I made the statement:

Though there are no financing contingencies to this deal, ACP Re can walk away with no penalty if it merely wants to do so.

That’s wrong.  ACP Re can walk away of its own accord if there is a material adverse change, and under some conditions, they would receive a breakup fee.  As such, it is not a “free look.”  But it is one-sided in this sense: if the reserves are too low, ACP Re can declare a material adverse change.  If they are fair or high, ACP will happily do the merger and enjoy the profits.

On the delay of the 10-K, which is more than a month late, I repeat that most of the figures in the balance sheet are easy to calculate.  I was trained as an actuary, albeit a life actuary, though I was an insurance buy-side analyst for 4.5 years.  The difficult question with any P&C insurer is whether the reserves are correct, and even actuaries inside a company are never fully sure of the reserves.  That’s why reserves at P&C insurers are usually set conservatively, even though GAAP says to use best estimate.  It is not a bad thing to bend GAAP accounting to be conservative, and be slow in recognizing income.

My experience with insurers that are tardy with their financials is that it is wise to steer clear.  Aggressive insurance management teams tend to go through a string of corrections before the financials are set right.

Between 1998-2000, I used to do arbitrage on small deals.  On net, I did fair with it, but the deals where I lost, you could feel a kind of “sag” where you would not ordinarily expect it.  Good arb deals show strength after an initial period of selling by those that do not want to hang around for the arb.

Now, I don’t think my reasoning is depressing the stock price, but it is interesting that the stock price keeps heading lower, and slowly.  I have a saying that slow moves tend to persist, while fast moves tend to mean-revert.

I don’t have any inside information, but this situation feels bad.  Ordinarily with takeovers, the bid for stock is far more firm.

Full disclosure: No positions in any of the companies mentioned

Reaching For Yield

15 months ago I wrote a piece called Expensive High Yield – II.  High yield is still expensive.  I won’t post all of the regressions, but I have re-run them.  The results are largely the same as before.  Yields are low, and spreads are overly tight for everything except CCC bonds.

Much of this is the result of the Fed’s low fed funds rate and quantitative easing, which forces investors to take more risk.  Another aspect is the strong equity market.

Also, CCC bonds offering opportunity may not adjust for the loosening of covenant protections.  There is a tendency for investors to try to maintain yield levels while letting quality & covenants sag.  In a low interest environment, with more and more people retiring, there is a growing desire for the simplicity of yield.

My conclusion last time was this:

All of the corporate bond market is expensive relative to history, perhaps excluding CCC bonds.  That doesn’t mean it can’t get more expensive, particularly if stocks continue to move upward.   But this won’t last for more than two years; the signs of speculation are here, and that should make us cautious.

As a result, I am investing my bond strategy cautiously now.  What little yield I get comes from emerging market sovereigns.  Credit risk from corporates is small.

Well, I blew it with emerging markets; what a kick in the teeth.  I would have been better off in high yield.  As it is, for me and my bond clients, the strategy is Fire and Ice.  20% long Treasuries for deflation, 80% short credit instruments for inflation.  So far, so good.

Be wary in this environment.  So many are reaching for yield amid a weak economy with yields that are low relative to past trends.  But also be aware that a rising stock market can support the corporate bond market.  That has worked for the last two years, but it can’t work forever.

Sorted Weekly Tweets

Rest of the World

  • Putin’s Rejection of the West, in Writing http://t.co/X0SOPFH80d ”Russia must be viewed as a unique and original civilization…” $$ $MACRO Apr 05, 2014
  • Japan Working Women Face Tax Blow as Their Numbers Swell http://t.co/D38taPNgWT Govt’s like women working o/s home: can tax their output $$ Apr 05, 2014
  • China Leverage Seen Rising Through 2016 http://t.co/8hJzmlSBp5 It’s relatively worse than advertised, debts r private, bank & muni $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • China Unsated by US Ham Means More Food Deals http://t.co/Cn7hFTEGwP If China is rebalancing to consumption, expect large food imports $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Rajan Offers No Solace as Developers Fight Rut http://t.co/Ml8RhIt7Eb Rising rates put pressure on Indian businessmen $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • CHINA IS IMPORTING GOLD SECRETLY USING MILITARY CHANNELS http://t.co/gYAjRrwz1c @JamesGRickards new book is coming out in a few days $$ $GLD Apr 01, 2014
  • How rumour sparked panic and three-day bank run in Chinese city http://t.co/i3K74leRHG All it took was a rumor that went viral $$ $FXI $SPY Apr 01, 2014
  • Foreign Policy Legacy of Obama Administration in European Hands http://t.co/LTF2ozdpyA U don’t want Europeans 2question the value of NATO $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Chinese Private Sector Debt http://t.co/4LMSyjvEV9 China’s ratio of private debt to GDP is higher than the US & EU http://t.co/lXhCxlzumX $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Poor Coordination Led to Flawed Search for Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 http://t.co/RugoIUSm1y Maybe, but would have been hard $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • South Sudan Ethnic Hatred Drives Rebel Leader’s White Army http://t.co/diy5Tk9W8M Read the last sentence & u will c y this war persists $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • She’s lost 3 sons in the war & is adamant should continue. “The war will not be stopped until we kill all Dinka, including the children,” $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • China Burns Speculators as $5.5B Lost on Yuan Bets http://t.co/srRCSJ9kmU Real market goes more than 1 way, doles out punishment 2losers $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Almost 10,000 Divorces Each Day in China’s Breakup Boom http://t.co/0T7pTpeg4e Driven by increasing economics & greater freedom 2 do so $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Dashed Ikea Dreams Show Decades Lost to Bribery in Ukraine http://t.co/9fU4nPMnSj Corruption & denial of propty rights keep nations poor $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • China’s $14.5B Test http://t.co/W9lO6L2LDc China seizes $14.5B assets from family, associates of ex-security chief http://t.co/6STqFY74DB $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • China Lake Saved From Stink Leaves Fiscal Cleanup for Li http://t.co/lAOloKNSxo Ability 2 service municipal debt is a problem 4 China $$ Apr 01, 2014

US Politics & Policy

  • A Catastrophe Like No Other http://t.co/zKuULERWYm Peggy Noonan: The president tries to put a good face on ObamaCare $$ #unforcederror $TLT Apr 05, 2014
  • Janet Yellen’s Human Message Gets Clouded http://t.co/8oYHkdPN4W Truth is monetary policy is weak w/respect to unemployment $$ Change regs Apr 03, 2014
  • Yelp Reviews Brew Fight Over Free Speech, Fairness http://t.co/2SoSO8K54f Free speech doesn’t mean u can say anything, libel is a crime $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Democrats Bet on Technology Instead of Paying Down Debts http://t.co/UjTKK9VFjC Dems put lack of $$ where mouth is, b/c debts don’t matter Apr 01, 2014
  • Constitutional conundrum: Michigan demand 4a balanced budget could trigger amendment convention http://t.co/UU2pVgEnuu States take power? $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • The House Republican Mess http://t.co/COfoZ0303M GOP leadership held unannounced voice vote on a one-year unfunded “doc fix” 4 Medicare $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • What Is a Patent Troll? Congress, Courts Try to Find Out http://t.co/BDDs3DOccp Should not be able to patent ideas, many ways 2 implement $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Controversial FHA payoff rule to end http://t.co/gopPWWpQYL At closings, FHA required one month’s interest from sellers who prepaid mtge $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Supreme Court skeptical of computer-based patents http://t.co/nHLTpDyP8J Multiple ways 2 achieve same results w/computer code $$ $MSFT $GOOG Apr 01, 2014
  • Yellen Assures Markets on Interest Rates http://t.co/OeOTmQHZuj In the short-run, monetary looseness helps, in the long-run it hurts $$ $TLT Apr 01, 2014
  • GOP Sees a New Path for Senate Through Iowa http://t.co/wsb8jJKpWd Looking at the data, the GOP will have a hard time taking the Senate $$ Apr 01, 2014            

Market Impact

  • Buying Bonds in Sellers’ World: Prepare to Fail http://t.co/y7DBRjX57P If u r a life insurer, don’t want 2 give up income from prem bonds $$ Apr 05, 2014
  • Emerging markets ETFs take off in March and June http://t.co/Dd5IMvcU8B Bear market rallies r short & sharp, watch monetary tightening $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Investors Clamor for Risky Debt Offerings http://t.co/pYAj8nxQve High yield isn’t so high anymore, & income starvation leads ppl astray $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Gross Worst as Volatility Spikes in Fund http://t.co/V1ncKkJNHW Bad idea to move to 5s just as Yellen began to speak unguardedly $$ #taper Apr 03, 2014
  • Forget the lottery. Time for the Billionaire ETF? http://t.co/K2IZvH5CuA Kind of a follow the 13Fs of the wealthy fund, could do worse $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Vanguard Beats BlackRock Winning Most ETF Money This Year http://t.co/V1IppyRKyv Low fees, sticky clients, tracks index well, low fees $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Andreesen On How To Kill Stock Market http://t.co/sbgdxaumyy Personal pet peeve is how Sarbox killed off sponsored listings of fgn firms $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Activists Beat S&P 500 in 48% Gain for Shareholders http://t.co/TwRuCI4lp3 Cool interactive graphic $$ $SPY Apr 01, 2014
  • Investors Picking Fights Enhance Value as Stocks Beat S&P 500 http://t.co/c7N0cM7ytB Problem: avg investors can’t find those stocks early $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Biggest ETF Flow From US Debt Since ’10 on Growth Optimism http://t.co/YEy2MGXYKI Funny how long Tsys haven’t tanked yet $$ $TLT Apr 01, 2014
  • So Far, So Meh http://t.co/0dCzzhpav3 @ReformedBroker tells us to expect a boring year when all is done with lots of jolts inbetween $$ $SPY Apr 01, 2014
  • Flows Don’t Follow Value, They Follow Performance http://t.co/lwe3zP0zIX @reformedbroker tells u small investors r always late & lose $$ Apr 01, 2014  

High Frequency Trading (Boo!)

  • Michael Lewis Feels No Shame as Book Curdles Tempers http://t.co/qIbX9ztO2r Must admit, I lost respect 4 him on this last media circus $$ Apr 05, 2014
  • High-Frequency Trading May Be Too Efficient http://t.co/3yLdqjijcA @matt_levine explains the effect of HFT, who gets hurt, who doesn’t $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • High-Frequency Traders Chase Currencies as Stock Volume Recedes http://t.co/YSHRec5emx Ponder how HFT can b good 1 place & bad in others $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • What Michael Lewis Gets Wrong About High-Frequency Trading http://t.co/1kf3Uh9fDH He gets quite a bit wrong; this is a good summary $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • An Adaptation From ‘Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,’ by Michael Lewis http://t.co/8TB1fkkzbt Tells story creating a fair stock exchange $$ Apr 01, 2014  

Marvel Comics Movies

  • Kevin Feige, Marvel’s Superhero at Running Movie Franchises http://t.co/R5wWdhlAUX Great article. Explains the strategic aspects well $$ Apr 05, 2014
  • Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire–And Both Lost http://t.co/NuRuteq8f1 Provides backstory for Marvel $$ Apr 05, 2014  

Companies & Industries

  • Energy Future Talks Pit Billionaires Against Billionaires http://t.co/Foaq3v50rf & the IRS, who is owed billions, creditors want 2 stiff $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Old Math Casts Doubt on Accuracy of Oil Reserve Estimates http://t.co/wM1FQHAKvz Life of fracked wells is a lot shorter than conventional $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • New $GOOG Shares Hit Market as Founders Cement Grip With Split http://t.co/FdYqQCPFPR Won’t hurt much, just don’t issue2many C shs $$ $GOOGL Apr 03, 2014
  • The Argument for $75 Oil Should Be $95 Oil http://t.co/2EZdu90Scv W/weak global econ, oil should b falling but it is not; new equilibrium $$ Apr 01, 2014  

Other

  • Loans Are Finally Easier to Get http://t.co/JaVFE1LBLG If this persists for 6 months, start watching consumer price inflation $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Jules Kroll’s KBRA Out to Disrupt Cozy Ratings Agency Business http://t.co/xGOiU3Tg7V Starts in area of greatest failure: securitizations $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • So U Think You’re Smarter Than A CIA Agent http://t.co/OLWUPMnQi9 Good Judgment project finds bright ppl who predict better than experts $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Do We Hate Female Bosses? http://t.co/0oR9PBiSLe Never had one, so I don’t know. ;) $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • How Americans Meet Their Spouses http://t.co/f5L9GZ6i8K Fewer people meet their spouses @ work, more meet them over the internet than b4 $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • US Airports Are Off the Chart http://t.co/s1dO4kOeOR @Ritholtz shows how lack of infrastructural investment hurts the US $$ $SPY $TLT Apr 01, 2014
  • Millennials Mired in Wealth Gap as Older Americans Gain http://t.co/OfXlbWIV0l If u had lots of debts & few assets going into 2008, ouch $$ Apr 01, 2014  

Wrong

  • 2hard: US Seeks Changes to ‘Skewed’ Data in UN Climate Draft http://t.co/udApXg8XFq Models r 2complex 2produce any sort of accuracy $$ $SPY Apr 05, 2014
  • Wrong: Investment strategies you’d be foolish to ignore – Pros http://t.co/CTaNMR01Sb Many of these might work in the short-run, not L-T $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Wrong: Schwab: HFT a cancer that needs to be stopped http://t.co/iVh9eatou2 It’s more complex than that; improves mkts in some ways $$ $SPY Apr 03, 2014
  • Wrong: Christine Lagarde: global economic growth is still too slow http://t.co/doefcWDiLN Aside frm degegulation govts can’t affct growth $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Wrong: This Ratio Reveals The Market’s Top Bargains http://t.co/Hs9A55z9To Makes rookie error of applying FCF 2 financials, can’t b done $$ Apr 03, 2014
  • Wrong: The Modern View of the Stock Market http://t.co/OnhWdKgPrj Value of MPT is that it sidelines smart people who would b competitors $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Meh: Flight 370 Search Gains Vessel With Black Box-Detector http://t.co/5PhcNkIEhL Late 2 arrive; can’t probe more than 1 mile deep $$ $BA Apr 01, 2014
  • Maybe: Home Sales in US Poised to Surge With Spring http://t.co/Pi2oE4es0n Maybe if prices come down this might happen, few moveup buyers $$ Apr 01, 2014
  • Very Wrong: When You Really Look, Financial Quicksand Turns Into Oligarchical BS http://t.co/LhiEZNxtas Claims Govt debt doesn’t matter $$ Apr 01, 2014  

Comments, Replies, and Retweets

  • @charlie_simpson Marry young, have children, a recipe for happiness that fights loneliness — true for men as well. Apr 02, 2014
  • @insidermonkey @jimcramer @katsuyama Stupid argument. Read & learn http://t.co/AtOpRCaRrN $$ Apr 02, 2014
  • . @dpinsen seems he just wants it 2 stop. Also notes Darfur attacked once again http://t.co/HRQ1xRLNYc & http://t.co/dDE995HFi0 $$ $SPY $TLT Apr 01, 2014
  • @dpinsen I’m not backing the Ukraine in NATO — only caution. NATO should be bold or silent, but not in-between, counting the costs. $$ Mar 30, 2014

Best of the Aleph Blog, Part 24

These articles appeared between November 2012 and January 2013:

On Time Horizons

Investment advice without a time horizon is not investment advice.

This Election Will Solve Nothing

So far that is true of the 2012 elections.

NOTA Bene

We need to add “None of the Above” as an electoral choice in all elections.

Eliminating the Rating Agencies, Part 2

Eliminating the Rating Agencies, Part 3

Where I propose a great idea, and then realize that I am wrong.

The Rules, Part XXXV

Stability only comes to markets in a self-reinforcing mode, from buy and hold (and sell and sit on cash) investors who act at the turning points.

The Rules, Part XXXVI

It almost never makes sense to play for the last 5% of something; it costs too much. Getting 90-95% is relatively easy; grasping for the last 5-10% usually results in losing some of the 90-95%.

Charlie Brown the Retail Investor

Where Lucy represents Wall Street, the football is returns, and Charlie Brown is the Retail Investor. Aaauuuggh!

On Hucksters

Why to be careful when promised results seem too good, and they get delayed, or worse.

Bombing Baby BDC Bonds

Avoid bonds with few protective covenants, unless the borrower is very strong.

On Math Education

Why current efforts to change Math Education will fail.  Pedagogy peaked in the ’50s, and has been declining since then.

On Human Fertility, Part 2

On the continuing decline in human fertility across the globe.

If you Want to be Well-off in Life

Simple advice on how to be better off.  Warning: it requires discipline.

Young People Should Favor Low Discount Rates

If we had assumed lower discount rates in the past, we wouldn’t have the problems we do now.  (And maybe DB pensions would have died sooner.)

Problems in Life Insurance

On why we should be concerned about life insurance accounting.

Investing In P&C Insurers

On why analyzing P&C insurers boils down to analyzing management teams.

Selling Options Cheaply (Did You Know?)

Naive bond investors often take on risks that they did not anticipate.

Book Review: The Snowball, Part One

Book Review: The Snowball, Part Two

Book Review: The Snowball, Part Three

Book Review: The Snowball, Part Four

Book Review: The Snowball, Epilogue

My review of the most comprehensive book on the life of Warren Buffett.

On Watchlists

How I met one of the Superinvestors of Graham-and -Doddsville, and how I generate investment ideas.

Why do Value Investors Like to Index?

How I admitted to not having  a correct perspective on value indexing.

Evaluating Regulated Financials

Why regulated financials are different from other stocks, and how to analyze them.

Locking in a Smaller Loss

Why people are willing to lock in a loss against inflation, because of bad monetary policy.

Why I Sold the Long End

Great timing.

The Evaluation of Common Stocks

Value investing is still powerful, but the competition is a lot tougher.

The Order of Battle in Financial Planning for Ordinary Folks

The basics of personal finance

Sorting Through the News

How to use my free news screener to cut through the news flow, and eliminate noise.

On Financial Blogging

So why do we spend the time at this?

Matching Assets and Liabilities Personally

How to manage investments to fit your own need for cash in the future.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

How short-sighted, incompetent managers destroy value.

Expensive High Yield – II

No such thing as a bad trade , only an early trade… high yield prices moved higher from here.

2012 Financial Report of the US Government

Chronicling the financial promises made by the Federal Government

On Insurance Investing, Part 1

On Insurance Investing, Part 2

On Insurance Investing, Part 3

The first three parts of my 7-part series on how to understand this complex group of sub-industries.

How to Become Super-Rich?

Even Buffett didn’t get super-rich by only investing his own money.  He had to invest the money of others as well.  The super-rich form corporations and grow them; they build institutions bigger than themselves.

The Product that Never saw the Light of Day

On the Variable Annuity product that would simply be a tax scam.  Later I would learn that product exists now, just not in the form I proposed 8 years earlier when it didn’t exist.

Best of the Aleph Blog, Part 23

Before I start this evening, I would like to explain some of the reasons for these “Best of the Aleph Blog” articles.  I write these no closer than one year after an article was written, so that I can have a more dispassionate assessment of how good they were.  I write these for the following reasons:

  • Some people want a quick introduction to the way I think.
  • Some publishers on the web want additional copy, and I let them republish some of my best pieces.
  • One day I may bundle a bunch of them together, rewrite them to improve clarity, and integrate them to create a set of books on different topics.
  • One of my editors at RealMoney once shared with me that I was one of the few authors there whose articles got re-read, or read after a significant time had passed.  This is meant to be mostly “timeless” stuff.
  • New readers might be interested in older stuff.
  • I enjoy re-reading my older pieces, and sometimes it stimulates updates, and new ideas.

Anyway, onto this issue of the “Best of the Aleph Blog.”  These articles appeared between August 2012 and October 2012:

On Credit Scores

Why credit scores are important; make sure you guard yours.

Retail Investors and the Stock Market

On the pathologies of being an amateur investor when there are those who will take advantage of you, and you might sabotage yourself as well.

On the Poway School District

Goes through the details of how a school district outside San Diego mortgaged the future of the next generation who will live there, if any will live there.

Using Investment Advice, Part I

Using Investment Advice, Part II

Using Investment Advice, Part III

Using Investment Advice, Part IV

A series of articles inspired by what I wrote at RealMoney, encouraging people to be careful about listening to advice in the media on stocks, including those recommended by Cramer.

The Future Belongs to Those with Patience

On why patience and discipline are required for good investing.

What Caused the Crisis?

A retrospective, if somewhat controversial.

On the International Business Machines Industrial Average

Replace the DJIA with a new cap-weighted index of the 30 largest capitalization stocks.

How Warren Buffett is Different from Most Investors, Part 1

How Warren Buffett is Different from Most Investors, Part 2

You have to understand Buffett the businessman to understand Buffett the investor.

Volatility Analogy

How an interview I messed up led to an interesting way to explain volatility.

Spot the Gerrymander

Eventually we need to eliminate gerrymandering — hey, maybe we can do that at the future Constitutional Convention.

Reforming Public School Testing

Creating exams where you can’t study for the test; you can only study.

Carrying Capacity

Governments imagine that they can shape outcomes, and in the short-run, they can.  In the long-run, the real productivity of the economy matters, and only those that can make it without government help will make it.  Whatever government policy may try to achieve, eventually the economy reverts to what would happen naturally without incentives.  There is a natural carrying capacity for most activities, and efforts to change that usually fail.

Actuaries Versus Quants

On why Actuaries are much better than Quants

Neoclassical vs Austrian Economics

Applying math to economics has been a loser.  Who has a consistently good macroeconomic model?  No one that I know.  Estimates of future GDP growth and inflation are regularly wrong, and no one calls turning points well.

The Dilemma of Adding Yield

A quick summary of risk in bonds, and why additional yield is often not rewarded.

The Dilemma of Adding Yield, Redux

On working out the pricing between discount, premium, and par bonds.

Too Much Investment

Investment is a good thing, overinvestment is a bad thing.

Got Cash? (Part 2)

On Buffett and others carrying cash to give themselves flexibility.

Set it and Forget it

On what uneducated investors should do.

Forest Fires and Central Banking

Short piece pointing out that small crises are needed to prevent huge crises.

Match Assets and Liabilities

Total Return Versus Long Liabilities

Cash flow matching has often been sneered at as an investment policy.  I explain why such a view is naive, not sophisticated, and definitely wrong.

The Rules, Part XXXIV

“Once something is used for hedging purposes, it becomes useless for predictive purposes.”

Why I LOVE Blogging

On the downsides of blogging, and why they aren’t so bad.

Higher Taxes, Inflation, Default (Choose One)

Coming to a country near you, and soon!

On the Virtue of Hard Questions for Young Analysts

How young analysts toughen up through hard competitions.

Dealing in Fractions of Sense

On how to reform High Frequency Trading

Yield is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels

Far from offering high price appreciation, it is far easier to cheat many people by offering a high yield, because average people look for ways to stretch their limited resources with a tight budget.

The Stock Market Is Rigged! The Stock Market Is Not Rigged!

After the announcement of Michael Lewis new book (which I don’t have a copy of, and I am not asking for one), together with a variety of interviews, he declared that the stock market is rigged.  This is a convenient finding that will gladden the hearts of many who have tried the markets and lost.  The trouble is, there are ways in which the market is rigged, and ways in which it is not.  There are ways to avoid much of the rigging, if are knowledgeable, disciplined and in control of your emotions.

Let’s start with a story.  My oldest son was an intern at a hedge fund that I worked at during a summer of high school.  He sat in with analysts, portfolio managers, and our trader.  He remarked to me, “The trading part seems like a lot of fun.”  I said to him, “Jason is a skilled trader, is good at discerning market conditions, and is able to trade our positions without divulging too much of what we want to do especially when stocks aren’t liquid.”

Another story: When I was a bond manager, and had to trade my portfolio (this is pre-TRACE where actual pricing data was scarce to anyone except the brokers who could see the inter-dealer market prices) realizing that the big brokers knew more than me, the regional brokers did not, and the little specialty brokers knew their niche at most, and nothing else.  I got very good at sniffing out potential trades, to the point where a number of my brokers would run ideas past me.  Most would not fly, a few would.

I learned that I had to be careful what I said and how I said it, because this was a voice-to-voice market, and not electronic.  Markets change when new information arrives.  I remember how delicate I had to be when I owned 35% of an illiquid bond that we liked, and I needed to sell it down without spooking the market.  I did it by telling the potential buyers that I really liked the bond, had no reason to sell it, but that I was a businessman, and would be willing to part with a few (million) bonds at a slightly higher price, more at a higher price, and a significant amount (20% of the issue) at a price that discounted most of the excess value of the bonds.  The bids came in, and I got the significant amount price, and  at a much higher price than had been previously seen for the bonds.

Now if I had done a “market order,” and said to a broker, “Sell half of the block at the current price,” I would have gotten a much lower price.  That would have signaled desperation.

Another thing from voice-to-voice trading, I would tell my brokers what I was doing with the proceeds of a sale.  I did not want them to think I had any special information that they did not have.  ”We need to raise cash to pay benefits.”  ”I see a class of bonds that are really cheap, and I need liquidity to do so.”  When I said those things, they were true, but it was like showing four cards of my poker hand, and hiding the fifth, the most critical card.

Information changes markets.  The reason that I mention bond trading, even though my target is stock trading, is that it was a *far* more rigged market because it was dealer-driven, and voice-to-voice.  It was far easier to lose to more skilled brokers, than trading stocks online today.

Now, Michael Lewis alleges that the market is rigged because there are clever high-frequency traders who trade quickly when they get significant information.  What information?  Market orders.  Market orders scream, “I gotta buy/sell the stock NOW!”  Motivated buyer, motivated seller?  That can change a market, if briefly.

Time for embarrassment.  I learned this one the hard way.  I was doing microcap value 1993-1998, with some significant success, but one day I slipped, and entered a market order for 1x the daily volume of a stock.  The stock’s price doubled before the order was fully filled, and then sank back down to very near where it was before I bought it.  To add insult to injury, the company was eventually a “take-under,” where control shareholders bought it out at a price even below that.

Don’t use market orders.  If people stopped using market orders, much of the advantage of high frequency trading would go away.  Use limit orders, and wait for your price, at the risk of the trade getting away from you in the short run.

Also, use orders that disguise your size and price you are willing to buy/sell at.  Reserve and discretionary orders are useful weapons to disguise your intent.  Also, get a low cost broker that charges commissions on a per share basis, and break up your trades into smaller chunks that are more easily digestible by the market.

But while trading is a large portion of the stock market reason to exist, it does not comprehend the true value of stocks.  There is a saying, and it is true: you don’t make money when you trade; you make money while you wait.

The stock market will not make any more value than the cash flows that get distributed by the businesses comprised there.  Some individuals may prosper from momentum trading, but it is at the expense of other investors, not the company.

The waiting game is not rigged.  As companies make money, and reinvest/distribute it wisely, value is built.  This is Ben Graham’s “weighing machine” versus the trading market’s “voting machine.”  In the short-run, trading dominates.  In the long-run, corporate value generation (or lack thereof) dominates.

Never Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

But there is away that the market is significantly rigged, but it is lodged in human nature, and not lodged in nefarious fellows who pick off little bits of value off market orders (a trifling amount of the value gained for longer-term investors).  Most of the people who believe the market is rigged are those who haven’t studied the market enough and thought it would be easy.  It’s not easy; and if you think that it is easy, you will be skinned.

Much money for less skilled investors gets lost as a result of buying near peaks (greed, or late imitation), and selling near bottoms (fear, or  capital preservation).  If you don’t have skill, far better to buy and hold, with a moderate asset allocation to stocks, thus moderating volatility, and moderating fear and greed in the process.

Have healthy respect for your competition.  Even the best investment organizations know that their edge in the market is limited.  Few pursue every possible advantage; the best understand this is a game where you win by applying your limited advantage where it is strongest, and stay neutral or out where there is no advantage.

Though professionals may be somewhat prone to many of the same pathologies as retail investors, and have the further disadvantage of putting a lot of money to work, still, the professionals apply basic principles day after day, and make the market the hard-to-get-an-advantage place that it is.

Rigged?

So is the market rigged?  It depends who you are.  If you understand your limitations, do your due diligence, and control your emotions, then no, the markets are not rigged.

If you naively presume that you can make money in the markets without adequate study, discipline, experience, etc., eventually the markets will seem rigged.

And if you are a short-term trader, the high frequency traders have eliminated a lot of the low hanging fruit.  The high frequency traders are a reason for even traders to lengthen their time horizons, and use trading tools that disguise their efforts.

For me, the markets are not rigged.  They are highly competitive.  I keep applying my edge, realizing that I don’t know it all, and focusing on investments where my differential knowledge may make a difference.

My summary is this: the markets are not rigged.  They not efficient; we don’t know what that means.  The markets are highly competitive, and that makes them tough.

PS — with thanks to my friend Josh Brown, whose clever piece made me decide to write this.  My conclusion is a little different, but at base I think we agree.

Book Review: Treasure Islands

9780230341722

Tax havens exist to lower taxes and regulations on corporations and wealthy individuals.  But doing this involves significant complicated legal and accounting work.  The average person could not benefit because the fixed costs are high.  You need to have a lot of assets to benefit from tax havens.

So why do the wealthy governments of the world tolerate tax havens?  Why don’t they “use NATO to blockade these places, and tell them to end their tax-avoidance-facilitation policies, or else.”  Sadly, the wealthy have disproportionate power over politicians, and the majority of politicians are wealthy.  They like the system as it is.  You can make the tax code as progressive as you like; you will not end up taxing the intelligent wealthy much more.

This book confronts transfer pricing, where profits get shifted to low-tax countries by clever accountants.  Very difficult to police.

The is an amusing section in the middle of the book about the City of London Corporation, which has unique rights in the UK.  It is the home of most financial activity n London, and is mostly unaccountable to the UK.

In general, I believe that taxation should be the same regardless of the structure of the entity being taxed, its location, etc.  To that end, I think that corporations should be taxed on their global income as expressed to its owners.  Or, don’t tax corporations, but make all taxation like limited partnerships, and tax the individuals that own them.

There are other possible solutions.  There can be limits on corporate structure.  Israel limits subsidiaries such that the depth from the holding company cannot exceed two.  There could be consolidation and/or non-recognition of  subsidiaries in tax havens.

Additional Resources

Longreads article

Book website (those reading at Amazon, come to Aleph Blog to get links)

Quibbles

The book makes its last chapter about how tax havens helped cause the financial crisis, but it makes a very weak case.  Individuals and Banks overlevered themselves as asset prices rose, creating a bubble — not much different than the 1920s.  Tax havens played little role, even if they aided securitization in a few ways.

The book argues for capital controls, but those controls often create incentives for greater corruption.

My main problem with the book is that it does not offer any workable solutions to the problems.  My secondary problem is that the problem is not so much with the tax havens, which we could easily marginalize, but with the politicians, who do not do the hard work of seeing that taxation takes place, regardless of the corporate form or location.

Who would benefit from this book: You have to be willing to endure complex arguments to benefit from this book.  If you want to, you can buy it here: Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens.

Full disclosure: I borrowed it at my library.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, 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.

Disclaimer


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


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


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

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