Photo Credit: Day Donaldson

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson

October 2015December 2015Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in September suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in October suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace.No change.
Household spending and business fixed investment have been increasing at solid rates in recent months, and the housing sector has improved further; however, net exports have been soft.Household spending and business fixed investment have been increasing at solid rates in recent months, and the housing sector has improved further; however, net exports have been soft.No change.
The pace of job gains slowed and the unemployment rate held steady. Nonetheless, labor market indicators, on balance, show that underutilization of labor resources has diminished since early this year.A range of recent labor market indicators, including ongoing job gains and declining unemployment, shows further improvement and confirms that underutilization of labor resources has diminished appreciably since early this year.Shades labor employment up.
Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.No real change.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation moved slightly lower; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; some survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have edged down.Little change and mixed.  TIPS are showing lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 1.71%, down 0.08% from September.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will continue to expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.Shifts language to reflect moving from easing to tightening.
The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced but is monitoring global economic and financial developments.Overall, taking into account domestic and international developments, the Committee sees the risks to the outlook for both economic activity and the labor market as balanced.Flips the sentence around with little change in meaning.
Inflation is anticipated to remain near its recent low level in the near term but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.CPI is at +0.4% now, yoy.  Not much change in the meaning.
The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen some further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.The Committee judges that there has been considerable improvement in labor market conditions this year, and it is reasonably confident that inflation will rise, over the medium term, to its 2 percent objective.Sentence moved from below.  I reordered the last FOMC Statement to reflect the change.

Language changes to reflect the move to tightening.

To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate.Given the economic outlook, and recognizing the time it takes for policy actions to affect future economic outcomes, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/4 to 1/2 percent.Language changes to reflect the move to tightening.
In determining whether it will be appropriate to raise the target range at its next meeting, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative after this increase, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.Language changes to reflect the move to tightening.
 In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.New sentence.  Gives expected measures for analysis of policy.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
 In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.New sentence.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent. The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run. Sentence no longer needed.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.All agree on tightening, but do they agree on why?
Voting against the action was Jeffrey M. Lacker, who preferred to raise the target range for the federal funds rate by 25 basis points at this meeting. Lacker got what he wanted.


  • They finally tightened. The next two questions are how much and how quickly.  The last question is what they do when something blows up.
  • The only data change for the FOMC is that labor indicators are stronger. I still don’t see it, aside from the unemployment rate.  Too many people dropped out of the labor force.
  • Equities steady and bonds rise. Commodity prices rise and the dollar falls.  Maybe some expected a bigger move.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • Don’t know they keep an optimistic view of GDP growth, especially amid falling monetary velocity.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain’t moving rates up, absent improvement in labor market indicators, much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.

Photo Credit: t m || Seven sisters sitting on the hill

Photo Credit: t m || Seven sisters sitting on the hill

1) I started in this game as an amateur, and built up my skills gradually, reading widely.  My academic studies ended at age 25, and it was after that that I began learning the practical knowledge.  Though I had investment-related jobs, I never held a position in investing, until I was 38, and I never wrote on investing for the public in any significant way until I was 42, when Cramer invited me to write for RealMoney.  I’m now 55, and I think I am still growing in my knowledge of investing.

i write this to simply say that you don’t have to take a traditional path into the investment business.  I am grateful that I want through the circuitous path through the insurance industry, because it deepened my perspective on investing.  All of the asset-liability modeling, where I often tried to challenge existing paradigms, helped me to understand why often the conventional wisdom is true.  Where it is not true, there is usually an anomaly to profit from.

The other reason that I write this, is that it is possible to get significant knowledge as an amateur, and on a book basis, as good as many professionals.  You won’t get the respect from professionals until you are a professional, but who cares?  You can do better for yourself in investing.  Just don’t get arrogant and forget to put risk control forst.

2) After all of the political fights are over, OPEC nations will once again agree that they will cut production as a group.  Remember, much of OPEC has a low cost of production, and so when production decreases in a coordinated way, profits will rise for almost all OPEC nations.

In the long run, economics triumphs over politics.  The challenge comes in the short-run from trying to figure out who cuts how much from what baseline.  Even after that, discipline takes a while to achieve, because the incentive to cheat is high.

I stand by the view that in the intermediate term, crude oil prices will be around $50.  Demand for crude oil is growing globally, not shrinking, and marginal supplies would price out at around $50/barrel, if OPEC nations act to maximize their profits, rather than engage in a market share war.  (Prices would be higher still  if OPEC nations acted to maximize the present value of their long-run profits, but I doubt that will happen until the profligate producers deplete their reserves.

3) The ferment in high yield bonds is unlikely to peak before there are significant defaults.  It’s possible that we get a rally from here in the short run — yield spreads are relatively wide compared to earnings yields on stock.  At this point, it doesn’t pay so well to borrow money and buy back stock.  That isn’t stopping many corporations from doing their buybacks.  Buybacks should be tactical rather than constant.  Only buy back when there is a significant discount to the fair market value of the firm.

That said, it’s unusual for a large amount of credit stress to go away without defaults.  It’s rare to see a credit problem work out by firms growing out of it.  Thus what might be more likely than a junk rally is a fall in stock prices.  Perhaps the most optimistic scenario would be that only energy is affected — it has defaults, and the rest of the market continues to rally.  Not impossible.

4) Regarding F&G Life — congrats to holders, you won.  A dumb aggressive foreign buyer jumped on the grenade for you. (Now let’s see, has that ever happened before to F&G Life?)  Be grateful and sell.  Let the arbs take the risk of the deal not going through.

5) One phrase that all investors should learn is, “I missed that one.”  You can’t catch every opportunity.  Some will pass you by despite your best efforts.  Rather than jump on late, it is better to look for the next opportunity, lest you buy high and sell low.

On the opposite side of timing, if you tend to get to opportunities too early, maybe consider waiting until the price breaks the 200-day moving average from below.  Let the market confirm that it agrees with your thesis, and then invest.

6) Regarding the Fed, I think too much is being made out of them for now.  I will be watching the yield curve for clues, and seeing if the curve flattens or steepens.  I expect it to flatten more quickly than the market currently expects, limiting the total amount of Fed tightening.

As it is, every time the Fed tightens, the short interest-bearing deposits at banks reprice up, with some lesser amount pass-through to lending rates.  I would expect bank profits to be squeezed.

Aside from that, most of what the FOMC will say tomorrow will just be noise.  They don’t have a theory that guides them; they are just making it up as they go, so they wander and try to discover what their goals should be.

7) I’ve sometimes commented that at the start of a tightening cycle that those who have been cheating blow up, like Third Avenue Focused Credit, which bought assets far less liquid than the shares of its mutual fund.  At the end of the tightening cycle, something blows up that would be a surprise now, which sometimes jolts the FOMC to stop tightening.  The question here is: what could that group of economic entities be?  China, Brazil, repo markets, agricultural loans, auto loans, or something else?  Worth thinking about — we know about energy, but what else has issued the most debt since the end of 2008?

(As an aside, the recent moves to make China more integrated with the global economy also make it more subject to financial risks that are global, and not just local, of which it has enough.)

A: How are you doing? Are you here for more enlightening banter?

Q: Not so well.  Have you heard of the Third Avenue Focused Credit Fund [TFCIX]?

A: Uh, the one that is in the news?

Q: Come on.

A: Yes, I know about it, but not much more than I have recently read.  Of all of Third Avenue’s Funds I know it least well.

Q: Weren’t you a bond manager who liked to take concentrated positions though?  You should be able to say something about this mess.

A: I dealt mainly with investment grade credit.  What’s more, I had a real balance sheet behind me at the life insurance company.  An ordinary open-end mutual fund has investors that can leave whenever they want — often at the worst possible time for them, or in this case, those that could not get out.

The main difference was that I could never be forced to sell, under most conditions.  I could buy and hold, and if the eventual credit of the borrower was good, my client would receive all that he expected.  TFCIX faced significant redemptions, and increasingly had mostly bonds that could not be quickly sold, and thus, were difficult to value.  That’s why they cut off redemptions — they couldn’t liquidate assets to give cash to customers on a favorable basis.  Personally, I think setting up the liquidation trust was the best that could be done.  That will allow Third Avenue to negotiate with interested buyers of the bonds without being rushed by redemptions.  The remaining fundholders should be grateful for them doing this now, though it would have been better to act sooner.

Q: But I own shares in TFCIX and need the money now.  What can I do?

A: Oh, my.  My sympathies.  You can’t do much.  There might be some off the beaten track lenders out there that might take it off your hands, but they wear “panky rangs,” as a mortgage borrower once said to me.

Q: Panky Rangs?

A: Pinky rings.  He was from the deep South.  I.e., no one is going to give you a decent bid for your shares, even if you could find someone willing to do so.  First, the value of the bonds is questionable, and the timing of the sales are uncertain.

In some ways, this reminds me a little of The London Whale incident.

Q: How is that relevant?

A: JP Morgan became too great of a part of the indexed credit derivatives market, and as a result, they lost the ability to value their positions, because they were too big relative to the market in which they traded.  Their very buying and selling had a huge impact on the pricing.  Though a value was placed on the positions, the entire situation was impossible to value accurately;  you couldn’t assemble a group to buy it all.

Some clever hedge funds took note of it, and began taking the opposite positions, thinking that they were overvalued, and fed JP Morgan more of what it was already bloated with.  Now maybe, if there hadn’t been so much press furor over it, together with the accounting questions that affected the financials of JP Morgan, they could have found a way out.  JP Morgan’s balance sheet was big enough, and if you left them alone, they would have all self -liquidated.  They might not have made the money they wanted that way, but it could have been done.  As it was, they were forced to liquidate more rapidly, and if I recall, they even called upon one of the opposing hedge funds to help them.

In any case, the forced liquidation led to losses.  Most forced liquidations do.

Q: So, what do think my shares are worth?

A: They are worth the liquidating distributions that you will receive.

Q: That’s no help.

A: Is the Federal Reserve willing to step up and buy the assets as they did with the Maiden Lane Trusts?  No one has a bigger balance sheet than they do, oh, oops.  Maybe they can’t do that anymore… who know where those emergency lending rules go…

Look, I’m sorry that you are stuck.  The Madoff “investors” were stuck also.  They had to wait quite a while.  In the end, they got paid more than most imagined they ever would.  Subject to credit conditions, I would suspect that the more time Third Avenue takes to liquidate, the more you will get.

Q: But that’s dribs and drabs over time, and I need it now.

A: Patience is a virtue.  Make other adjustments; sell something else; scale back plans… it’s no different than most people have to do when they have a loss.  It happens.

Q: I guess… but it would help to know what it was worth, so that I could estimate tradeoffs.

A: yes, it would, but the timing and amount of liquidations are uncertain, and the “market prices” don’t really exist for the underlying — they are too influenced by Third Avenue’s holdings.

Maybe they could have converted it into a closed-end fund,  but that would have cost money, and there still would have been the valuation issue.  People could have gotten paid now if that had happened, but I bet they would have blanched at the size of the unrealized losses.  I would just accept the payments as they come, that will probably give the best return, subject to future credit conditions.

Q: Do we have to modify your statement was true when we first started this discussion:

Q: What is an asset worth?

A: An asset is worth whatever the highest bidder will pay for it at the time you offer it for sale.

After all, if it is worth the liquidating distributions if I wait, maybe you should add, “or the cash flows you receive over time.”

A: I will do that, and that is part of what I have been arguing for here, but the price here and now is not that.  Just because you can’t sell it now doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value… we just don’t know what that value is.

Anyway, lunch is on me today, because there is another thing that you can’t sell that has value.

Q: What’s that?

A: Me.  A friend.

Q: Let’s go…


Photo Credit: Baynham Goredema || When things are crowded, how much freedom to move do you have?

Photo Credit: Baynham Goredema || When things are crowded, how much freedom to move do you have?

Stock diversification is overrated.

Alternatives are more overrated.

High quality bonds are underrated.

This post was triggered by a guy from the UK who sent me an infographic on reducing risk that I thought was mediocre at best.  First, I don’t like infographics or video.  I want to learn things quickly.  Give me well-written text to read.  A picture is worth maybe fifty words, not a thousand, when it comes to business writing, perhaps excluding some well-designed graphs.

Here’s the problem.  Do you want to reduce the volatility of your asset portfolio?  I have the solution for you.  Buy bonds and hold some cash.

And some say to me, “Wait, I want my money to work hard.  Can’t you find investments that offer a higher return that diversify my portfolio of stocks and other risky assets?”  In a word the answer is “no,” though some will tell you otherwise.

Now once upon a time, in ancient times, prior to the Nixon Era, no one hedged, and no one looked for alternative investments.  Those buying stocks stuck to well-financed “blue chip” companies.

Some clever people realized that they could take risk in other areas, and so they broadened their stock exposure to include:

  • Growth stocks
  • Midcap stocks (value & growth)
  • Small cap stocks (value & growth)
  • REITs and other income passthrough vehicles (BDCs, Royalty Trusts, MLPs, etc.)
  • Developed International stocks (of all kinds)
  • Emerging Market stocks
  • Frontier Market stocks
  • And more…

And initially, it worked.  There was significant diversification until… the new asset subclasses were crowded with institutional money seeking the same things as the original diversifiers.

Now, was there no diversification left?  Not much.  The diversification from investor behavior is largely gone (the liability side of correlation).  Different sectors of the global economy don’t move in perfect lockstep, so natively the return drivers of the assets are 60-90% correlated (the asset side of correlation, think of how the cost of capital moves in a correlated way across companies).  Yes, there are a few nooks and crannies that are neglected, like Russia and Brazil, industries that are deeply out of favor like gold, oil E&P, coal, mining, etc., but you have to hold your nose and take reputational risk to buy them.  How many institutional investors want to take a 25% chance of losing a lot of clients by failing unconventionally?

Why do I hear crickets?  Hmm…

Well, the game wasn’t up yet, and those that pursued diversification pursued alternatives, and they bought:

  • Timberland
  • Real Estate
  • Private Equity
  • Collateralized debt obligations of many flavors
  • Junk bonds
  • Distressed Debt
  • Merger Arbitrage
  • Convertible Arbitrage
  • Other types of arbitrage
  • Commodities
  • Off-the-beaten track bonds and derivatives, both long and short
  • And more… one that stunned me during the last bubble was leverage nonprime commercial paper.

Well guess what?  Much the same thing happened here as happened with non-“blue chip” stocks.  Initially, it worked.  There was significant diversification until… the new asset subclasses were crowded with institutional money seeking the same things as the original diversifiers.

Now, was there no diversification left?  Some, but less.  Not everyone was willing to do all of these.  The diversification from investor behavior was reduced (the liability side of correlation).  These don’t move in perfect lockstep, so natively the return drivers of the risky components of the assets are 60-90% correlated over the long run (the asset side of correlation, think of how the cost of capital moves in a correlated way across companies).  Yes, there are some that are neglected, but you have to hold your nose and take reputational risk to buy them, or sell them short.  Many of those blew up last time.  How many institutional investors want to take a 25% chance of losing a lot of clients by failing unconventionally?

Why do I hear crickets again?  Hmm…

That’s why I don’t think there is a lot to do anymore in diversifying risky assets beyond a certain point.  Spread your exposures, and do it intelligently, such that the eggs are in baskets are different as they can be, without neglecting the effort to buy attractive assets.

But beyond that, hold dry powder.  Think of cash, which doesn’t earn much or lose much.  Think of some longer high quality bonds that do well when things are bad, like long treasuries.

Remember, the reward for taking business risk in general varies over time.  Rewards are relatively thin now, valuations are somewhere in the 9th decile (80-90%).  This isn’t a call to go nuts and sell all of your risky asset positions.  That requires more knowledge than I will ever have.  But it does mean having some dry powder.  The amount is up to you as you evaluate your time horizon and your opportunities.  Choose wisely.  As for me, about 20-30% of my total assets are safe, but I have been a risk-taker most of my life.  Again, choose wisely.

PS — if the low volatility anomaly weren’t overfished, along with other aspects of factor investing (Smart Beta!) those might also offer some diversification.  You will have to wait for those ideas to be forgotten.  Wait to see a few fund closures, and a severe reduction in AUM for the leaders…


This book is not what I expected; it’s still very good. Let me explain, and it will give you a better flavor of the book.

The author, Jason Zweig, is one of the top columnists writing about the markets for The Wall Street Journal.  He is very knowledgeable, properly cautious, and wise.  The title of the book Ambrose Bierce’s book that is commonly called The Devil’s Dictionary.

There are three differences in style between Zweig and Bierce:

  • Bierce is more cynical and satiric.
  • Bierce is usually shorter in his definitions, but occasionally threw in whole poems.
  • Zweig spends more time explaining the history of concepts and practices, and how words evolved to mean what they do today in financial matters.

If you read this book, will you learn a lot about the markets?  Yes.  Will it be fun?  Also yes.  Is it enough to read this and be well-educated?  No, and truly, you need some knowledge of the markets to appreciate the book.  It’s not a book for novices, but someone of intermediate or higher levels of knowledge will get some chuckles out of it, and will nod as he agrees along with the author that the markets are a treacherous place disguised as an easy place to make money.

As one person once said, “Whoever called them securities had a wicked sense of humor.”  Enjoy the book; it doesn’t take long to read, and it can be put down and picked up with no loss of continuity.



Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

If you have some knowledge of the markets, and you want to have a good time seeing the wholesome image of the markets skewered, you will enjoy this book.  if you want to buy it, you can buy it here: The Devil’s Financial Dictionary.

Full disclosure: The author sent a free copy to me via his publisher.

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.

I intended on writing this at some point, but Dr. Wesley Gray (an acquaintance of mine, and whom I respect) beat me to the punch.  As he said in his blog post at The Wall Street Journal’s The Experts blog:

WESLEY GRAY: Imagine the following theoretical investment opportunity: Investors can invest in a fund that will beat the market by 5% a year over the next 10 years. Of course, there is the catch: The path to outperformance will involve a five-year stretch of poor relative performance.  “No problem,” you might think—buy and hold and ignore the short-term noise.

Easier said than done.

Consider Ken Heebner, who ran the CGM Focus Fund, a diversified mutual fund that gained 18% annually, and was Morningstar Inc.’s highest performer of the decade ending in 2009. The CGM Focus fund, in many respects, resembled the theoretical opportunity outlined above. But the story didn’t end there: The average investor in the fund lost 11% annually over the period.

What happened? The massive divergence in the fund’s performance and what the typical fund investor actually earned can be explained by the “behavioral return gap.”

The behavioral return gap works as follows: During periods of strong fund performance, investors pile in, but when fund performance is at its worst, short-sighted investors redeem in droves. Thus, despite a fund’s sound long-term process, the “dollar-weighted” returns, or returns actually achieved by investors in the fund, lag substantially.

In other words, fund managers can deliver a great long-term strategy, but investors can still lose.

CGMFX Dollar Weighted_1552_image002That’s why I wanted to write this post.  Ken Heebner is a really bright guy, and has the strength of his convictions, but his investors don’t in general have similar strength of convictions.  As such, his investors buy high and sell low with his funds.  The graph at the left is from the CGM Focus Fund, as far back as I could get the data at the SEC’s EDGAR database.  The fund goes all the way back to late 1997, and had a tremendous start for which I can’t find the cash flow data.

The column marked flows corresponds to a figure called “Change in net assets derived from capital share transactions” from the Statement of Changes in Net Assets in the annual and semi-annual reports.  This is all public data, but somewhat difficult to aggregate.  I do it by hand.

I use annual cashflows for most of the calculation.  For the buy and hold return, i got the data from Yahoo Finance, which got it from Morningstar.

Note the pattern of cashflows is positive until the financial crisis, and negative thereafter.  Also note that more has gone into the fund than has come out, and thus the average investor has lost money.  The buy-and-hold investor has made money, what precious few were able to do that, much less rebalance.

This would be an ideal fund to rebalance.  Talented manager, will do well over time.  Add money when he does badly, take money out when he does well.  Would make a ton of sense.  Why doesn’t it happen?  Why doesn’t at least buy-and-hold happen?

It doesn’t happen because there is a Asset-Liability mismatch.  It doesn’t matter what the retail investors say their time horizon is, the truth is it is very short.  If you underperform for less than a few years, they yank funds.  The poetic justice is that they yank the funds just as the performance is about to turn.

Practically, the time horizon of an average investor in mutual funds is inversely proportional to the volatility of the funds they invest in.  It takes a certain amount of outperformance (whether relative or absolute) to get them in, and a certain amount of underperformance to get them out.  The more volatile the fund, the more rapidly that happens.  And Ken Heebner is so volatile that the only thing faster than his clients coming and going, is how rapidly he turns the portfolio over, which is once every 4-5 months.

Pretty astounding I think.  This highlights two main facts about retail investing that can’t be denied.

  1. Asset prices move a lot more than fundamentals, and
  2. Most investors chase performance

These two factors lie behind most of the losses that retail investors suffer over the long run, not active management fees.  remember as well that passive investing does not protect retail investors from themselves.  I have done the same analyses with passive portfolios — the results are the same, proportionate to volatility.

I know buy-and-hold gets a bad rap, and it is not deserved.  Take a few of my pieces from the past:

If you are a retail investor, the best thing you can do is set an asset allocation between risky and safe assets.  If you want a spit-in-the-wind estimate use 120 minus your age for the percentage in risky assets, and the rest in safe assets.  Rebalance to those percentages yearly.  If you do that, you will not get caught in the cycle of greed and panic, and you will benefit from the madness of strangers who get greedy and panic with abandon.  (Why 120?  End of the mortality table. 😉 Take it from an investment actuary. 😉 We’re the best-kept secret in the financial markets. 😀 )

Okay, gotta close this off.  This is not the last of this series.  I will do more dollar-weighted returns.  As far as retail investing goes, it is the most important issue.  Period.


Recently I got asked for a list of investment books that I would recommend. These aren’t all pure investment books — some of them will teach you how markets operate in general, but they do so in a clever way. I have also reviewed all of them, which limited my choices a little. Most economics, finance, investment books that I have really liked I have reviewed at Aleph Blog, so that is not a big limit.

This post was also prompted by a post by another blogger of sorts publishing at LinkedIn.  I liked his post in a broad sense, but felt that most books by or about traders are too hard for average people to implement.  The successful traders seem to have systems that go beyond the simple systems that they write about.  If that weren’t true, we’d see a lot of people prosper at trading for a time, until the trades got too crowded, and the systems failed.  That’s why the books I am mentioning are longer-term investment books.

General Books on Value Investing

Don’t get me wrong.  I like many books on value investing, but the first three are classic.  Graham is the simplest to understand, and Klarman is relatively easy as well.  Like Buffett, Klarman recognizes that we live in a new world now, and the simplistic modes of value investing would work if we could find a lot of stocks as cheap as in Graham’s era — but that is no longer so.  But even Ben Graham recognized that value investing needed to change at the end of his life.

Whitman takes more of a private equity approach, and aims for safe and cheap.  Can you find mispriced assets inside a corporation or elsewhere where the value would be higher if placed in a different context?  Whitman is a natural professor on issues like these, though in practice, the stocks he owned during the financial crisis were not safe enough.  Many business models that were seemingly bulletproof for years were no longer so when asset prices fell hard, especially those connected to housing.  This should tell us to think more broadly, and not trust rules of thumb, but instead think like Buffett, who said something like, “We’re paid to think about the things that seemingly can’t happen.”

The last book is mostly unknown, but I think it is useful.  Penman takes apart GAAP accounting to make it more useful for decision-making.  In the process, he ends up showing that very basic forms of quantitative value investing work well.

Books that will help you Understand Markets Better

The first link is two books on the life of George Soros.  Soros teaches you about the nonlinearity of markets — why they overshoot and undershoot.  Why is there momentum?  Why is the tendency for price to converge to value weak?  What do markets look and feel like as they are peaking, troughing, etc?  Expectations are a huge part of the game, and they affect the behavior of your fellow market participants.  Market movements as a result become self-reinforcing, until the cash flows can by no means support valuations, or are so rich that businessmen buy and hold.

Consider what things are like now as people justify high equity valuations.  At every turning point, you find people defending vociferously why the trend will go further.  Who is willing to think differently at the opportune time?

Triumph of the Optimists is another classic which should teach us to be slightly biased toward risk-taking, because it tends to win over time.  They pile up data from around 20 nations over the 20th century, and show that stock markets have done very well through a wide number of environments, beating bonds by a little and cash by a lot.

For those of us that tend to be bearish, it is a useful reminder to invest most of the time, because you will ordinarily make good money over the long haul.

Books on Managing Risk

After the financial crisis, we need to understand better what risk is.  Risk is the likelihood and severity of loss, which is not constant, and cannot be easily compressed into simple figure.  We need to think about risk ecologically — how is an asset priced relative to its future prospects, and is there any possibility that it is significantly misfinanced either internally or by its holders.  For the latter, think of the Chinese using too much margin to carry stocks.  For the former, think of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  They took risks that forced them into insolvency, even though over the long run they would have been solvent institutions.  (You can drown in a river with an average depth of six inches.  Averages reveal; they also conceal.)

Hot money has a short attention span.  It needs to make money NOW, or it will leave.  When an asset is owned primarily by hot money, it is an unstable situation, where the trade is “crowded.”  So it was with housing-related assets and a variety of arbitrage trades in the decade of the mid-2000s.  Momentum blinded people to the economic reality, and made them justify and buy into absurdly priced assets.

As for the last book, hedge funds as a group are a dominant form of hot money.  They have grown too large for the pool that they fish in, and as a result, their returns are poor as a group.  With any individual hedge fund, your mileage may vary, there are some good ones.

These books as a whole will teach you about risk in a way that helps you understand the crisis in a systemic way.  Most people did not understand the situation that way before the crisis, and if you talk to most politicians and bureaucrats, they still don’t get it.  A few simple changes have been made, along with a bunch of ineffectual complex changes.  The financial system is a little better as a result, but could still go through a crisis like the last one — we would need a lot more development of explicit and implicit debts to get there though.

An aside: the book The Nature of Risk is simple, short and cute, and can probably reach just about anyone who can grasp the similarities between a forest ecology under threat of fire, and a financial system.


I chose some good books here, some of which are less well-known.  They will help understand the markets and investing, and make you a bigger-picture thinker… which makes me think, I forgot the second level thinking of The Most Important Thing, by Howard Marks.  Oops, also great, and all for now.

PS — you can probably get Klarman’s book through interlibrary loan, or via some torrent on the internet.  You can figure that out for yourselves.  Just don’t spend the $1600 necessary to buy it — you will prove you aren’t a value investor in the process.

I was asked to participate with 57 other bloggers in a post that was entitled 101 ETF Investing Tips.  It’s a pretty good article, and I felt the tips numbered 2, 15, 18, 23, 29, 35, 44, 48, 53, 68, 85, 96, and 98 were particularly good, while 10, 39, 40, 45, 65, 67, 74, 77, 80, and 88 should have been omitted.  The rest were okay.

One consensus finding was that Abnormal Returns was a “go to” site on the internet for finance.  I think so too.

Below were the answers that I gave to the questions.  I hope you enjoy them.

1) What is the one piece of advice you’d give to an investor just starting to build a long-term portfolio?

You need to have reasonable goals.  You also have to have enough investing knowledge to know whether advice that you receive is reasonable.  Finally, when you have a reasonable overall plan, you need to stick with it.

2) What is one mistake you see investors make over and over?

They think investment markets are magic. They don’t save/invest anywhere near enough, and they think that somehow magically the markets will bail out their woeful lack of planning.  They also panic and get greedy at the wrong times.

3) In 20 years, _____. (this can be a prediction about anything — investing-related or otherwise)

In 20 years, most long-term public entitlement and private employee benefit schemes that promised fixed payments/reimbursement will be scaled back dramatically, and most retirees will be very disappointed.  The investment math doesn’t work here – if anything, the politicians were more prone to magical thinking than naïve investors.

4) Buy-and-hold investing is _____.

Buy-and-hold investing is the second-best strategy that average people can apply to markets, if done with sufficient diversification. It is a simple strategy, available to everyone, and it generally beats the performance of average investors who buy and sell out of greed and panic.

5) One book I wish every investor would read is _____. (note that non-investing books are OK!)

One book I wish every investor would read is the Bible. The Bible eliminates magical thinking, commends hard work and saving, and tells people that their treasure should be in Heaven, and not on Earth.  If you are placing your future hope in a worry-free, well-off retirement, the odds are high that you will be disappointed.  But if you trust in Jesus, He will never leave you nor forsake you.

6) The one site / Twitter account / newsletter that I can’t do without is _____.

Abnormal Returns provides the best summary of the top writing on finance and investing every day.  There is no better place to get your information each day, and it comes from a wide array of sources that you could not find on your own.  Credit Tadas Viskanta for his excellent work.

7) The biggest misconception about investing via ETFs is_____.

The biggest misconception about investing via ETFs is that they are all created equal.  They have different expenses and structures, some of which harm their investors.  Simplicity is best – read my article, “The Good ETF” for more.

8 ) Over a 20-year time horizon, I’m bullish on _____. (this can be an asset class, fund, technology, person — anything really!)

Over 20 years, I am bullish on stocks, America, and emerging markets.  Of the developed nations, America has the best combination of attributes to thrive.  The emerging markets offer the best possibility of significant growth.  Stocks may have a rough time in the next five years, but in an environment where demographic and technological change is favoring corporate profits, stocks will do better than other asset classes over 20 years.

9) The one site / Twitter account / newsletter that I can’t do without is _____.

Since you asked twice, the Aleph Blog is one of the best investing blogs on the internet, together with its Twitter feed.  It has written about most of the hard questions on investing in a relatively simple way, and is not generally marketing services to readers.  For the simple stuff, go to the personal finance category at the blog.

10) Any other ETF-related investing tips or advice?

For a fuller view of my ETF-related advice, go to Aleph Blog, and read here.  Briefly, be careful with any ETF that is esoteric, or that you can’t draw a simple diagram to explain how it works.  Also realize that traders of ETFs tend to do worse than those that buy and hold.


Photo Credit: Grant || Lotsa zinc there

Photo Credit: Grant || Lotsa zinc there

I haven’t written about promoted penny stocks in a long time.  Tonight I am not writing about promoted stocks, only penny stocks as promoted by a newsletter writer.  He profits from the newsletter.  Ostensibly, he does not front-run his readers.

Before we go on, let me run the promoted stocks scoreboard:

TickerDate of ArticlePrice @ ArticlePrice @ 12/1/15DeclineAnnualizedDead?


If you want to lose money, it is hard to do it more consistently than this.  No winners out of 31, and only one company looks legit at all — Barfresh.

But what of the newsletter writer?  He seems to have a couple of stylized facts that are misapplied.

  1. Every day, around 45 stocks double or more in price.
  2. Some wealthy investors have bought stocks like these.
  3. Wall Street firms own these stocks but never recommend them to ordinary individuals
  4. The media censors price information about these stocks so you never hear about them

Every day, around 45 stocks double or more in price.

That may be true, but most of those that do double or more in price don’t do so for fundamental reasons; they are often manipulated.  Second, the stocks that do double in price can’t be found in advance — i.e., picking the day that the price will explode.  Third, the prices more often fall hard for these tiny stocks.  Of the 30 stocks mentioned above that were not dead at the time of the last article, 10 fell more than 90% over the 10+ month period.  13 fell less than 90%, 1 broke even, and 7 rose in price.  The median stock fell 61%.  This was during a bull market.

Now you might say, “Wait, these are promoted stocks, of course they fell.”  Only the last one was being actively promoted, so that’s not the answer.

My fourth point is for the few that rise a lot, you can’t invest in them.  The stocks that double or more in a day tend to be the smallest of the stocks.  Two of the 30 stocks listed in the scoreboard rose 900% and 7100% in the 10+ month period since my last article.  How much could you have invested in those stocks?  You could have bought both companies for a little more than $10,000 each.  Anyone waving even a couple hundred bucks could make either stock fly.

So, no, these stocks aren’t a road to riches.  Now the ad has stories as to how much money people made at some point buying the penny stocks.  The odds of stringing several of these successful purchases in succession, parlaying the money into bigger and bigger stocks that double is remote at best, and your odds of losing a lot of it is high.

This idea is a less classy version of the idea promoted in the book 100 to 1 in the Stock Market.  If it is difficult to find the 100-baggers 30 years in advance, it is more difficult to find a stock that is going to double or more tomorrow, much less a bunch of them in succession.  You may as well go to Vegas and bet it all on Double Zero on the roulette wheel four times in a row.  The odds are about that bad, as trying to get rich buying penny stocks.

The ad also lists three stock that at some point fit his paradigm — MeetMe [MEET], PlasmaTech Biopharmaceuticals, Inc. (PTBI) which is now called Abeona Therapeutics Inc. (ABEO), and Organovo (ONVO).  All of these are money-losing companies (MeetMe may be breaking into profitability now) that have survived by selling shares to raise cash.  The stocks have generally been poor.  Have they had volatile days where the price doubled?  At some point, probably, but who could have picked the date in advance, and found liquidity to do a quick in-and-out trade?

The author lists five future situations as a “come on” to get people to subscribe.  I find them dubious.

As for wealthy investors, he mentions two: Icahn pulling of a short squeeze on Voltari (difficult to generalize from), and Soros with PlasmaTech Biopharmaceuticals, Inc.  It should be noted that Soros has a big portfolio with many stocks, and that position was far less than 1% of his assets.  In general, the wealthy do not buy penny stocks.

As for brokers and the media not mentioning penny stocks, that is being responsible.  The brokers could get in hot water for recommending or buying penny stocks even under a weak suitability standard.  The media also does not want to be blamed for inciting destructive speculation.  Retail investors lose enough money through uninformed trading, why encourage them to do it where fundamentals are typically quite poor.

I’ve written two other pieces on less liquid stocks to try to explain the market better: On Penny Stocks and Good Over-the-Counter “Pink” Stocks.  It’s not as if there isn’t value in some of the stocks that “fly under the radar.”  That said, you have to be extra careful.

Near the end of the ad, the writer describes how he is being extra careful also.  Many of his rules make a lot of sense.  That said, following those rules will get you boring companies that won’t double or more in a day.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Most significant money is made slowly — it doesn’t come in a year, much less in a day.

That said, I recommend against the newsletter because of the way that it tries to attract people.  The rhetoric is over the top, and appeals to those who sense conspiracies keeping them from riches, so join my club where I hand out my secret knowledge so you can benefit.

In summary, as a first approximation, don’t invest in penny stocks.  The odds are against you.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  Don’t let greed get the better of you — after all, what is being illustrated is an illusion that  retail investors can’t generally achieve.

Photo Credit: Mary Merkel || I am busy all of the time

Photo Credit: Mary Merkel || I am busy all of the time

Every 100 posts or so, every year or so, I take a small break from covering the markets to give a few thoughts of mine that are less related to the markets.  I have not done that recently.  I skipped doing post 2700, and also a post for my eighth blogoversary.  I also slowed down my posting generally.  Today I would like to explain why that was so.

I carry a lot of responsibility outside of my business, family, and writing.  The last two years had me taking on more responsibility at my congregation because:

  • Our pastor left, and I helped lead the search for a new one, who started with us this past June.
  • When there is no pastor, who takes care of pastoral needs?  Those don’t go away.  Nor do the needs of a mission church that we oversee.  I picked up the pieces where I could, including visitation of a sick older friend who eventually died.
  • I also arranged for 80 weeks of temporary preaching.
  • Together with my fellow elders, we agreed to purchase a building adequate to hold our congregation, and end our situation of renting a school, as we had for the last 27 years.  We did that before we called a pastor.  I took care of all of the financial aspects of the decision, which made life easy for my fellow elders.  That transaction closed last week; in the picture above, that’s me standing at the back of the building in Burtonsville, Maryland.  (My congregational website is listed on the homepage — if you’re in the area on a Sunday, you can drop in for worship.  I’m the one up front leading the singing on most days.)
  • We are in the midst of selling a smaller building that we own, to help fund the purchase of the larger building.

There’s more than this, as I aided our Presbyterial and Denominational efforts, and aided the Baltimore CFA Institute, but those are normal duties for me.

Add in my two seniors in high school this fiscal year, and that makes me a little busier as I teach both of them economics, and one of them Calculus.  Both are also good athletes, and their schedules take up time.  Next year, home schooling gets quieter, as we will only have one left at home, and she is a quiet one.

During the busy time, something had to sag, and the two things that sagged were blogging, and marketing for my firm.  I did not let asset management sag, because I owe a debt of service to existing clients.  I dd not put much effort during the period into obtaining new clients.  I felt that was the right way to do things — I don’t have to grow, but I do have to serve.  Also, I don’t have to blog, but I like doing it, and never wanted to stop completely.

At this point, things have freed up enough, that more regular blogging  can resume, together with restarting marketing.  As for future topics, I do have a few more things to write on personal finance, and I hope to write out more book reviews, and the pieces in “the school of money” and “simple stuff” series, while still taking up intriguing topics where I have opportunity.

As always, thanks for reading me, and now you know how busy my life can be.