Photo Credit: eflon || Ask to visit the Medieval dining hall!  Really!

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December 2016February 2017Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in November indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace since mid-year.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has continued to expand at a moderate pace.No real change.
Job gains have been solid in recent months and the unemployment rate has declined.Job gains remained solid and the unemployment rate stayed near its recent low.No real change.
Household spending has been rising moderately but business fixed investment has remained soft.Household spending has continued to rise moderately while business fixed investment has remained soft.No real change.
 Measures of consumer and business sentiment have improved of late.New sentence.
Inflation has increased since earlier this year but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation increased in recent quarters but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective.Shades their view of inflation up.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation have moved up considerably but still are low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.What would be a high number, pray tell?  TIPS are showing higher inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.15%, up 0.07%  from December.
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. But don’t blame the Fed, blame Congress.
The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further. Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further, and inflation will rise to 2 percent over the medium term.Drops references to falling energy prices stopping, and wage pressures. Strengthens language on inflation, which is a slam dunk, given that it is there already on better inflation measures than the PCE deflator.

CPI is at +2.1% NOW, yoy.

Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.No change.
In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/2 to 3/4 percent.No change. Builds in the idea that they are reacting at least partially to expected future conditions in inflation and labor.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.No change. They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.  Think of monetary policy as a drug for which a tolerance gets built up.

What would a non-accommodative monetary policy be, anyway?

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.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.No change.
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.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.No change.
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.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.No change.  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, 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.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.No change.  Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of treasury, agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Esther L. George; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Patrick Harker; Robert S. Kaplan; Neel Kashkari; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Full agreement; new people.

 

Comments

  • The FOMC holds, but deludes itself that it is still accommodative.
  • The economy is growing well now, and in general, those who want to work can find work.
  • Maybe policy should be tighter. The key question to me is whether lower leverage at the banks was a reason for ultra-loose policy.
  • The change of the FOMC’s view is that inflation is higher. Equities are stable and bonds fall a little. Commodity prices rise and the dollar weakens.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.

The global economy is growing, inflation is rising globally, the dollar is rising, and the 30-year Treasury has not moved all that much relative to all of that.  My guess is that the FOMC could get the Fed funds rate up to 2% if they want to invert the yield curve.  A rising dollar will slow the economy and inflation somewhat.

Aside from that, I am looking for what might blow up.  Maybe some country borrowing too much in dollars?  Tightening cycles almost always end with a bang.

Data from the CIA Factbook

Data from the CIA Factbook

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I write about this every now and then, because human fertility is falling faster then most demographers expect. Using the CIA Factbook for data, the present total fertility rate for the world is 2.407 births per woman that survives childbearing. That is down from 2.425 in 2014, 2.467 in 2012, and 2.489 in 2010.  At this rate, the world will be at replacement rate (2.1), somewhere between 2035 and 2040. That’s a lot earlier than most expect, and it makes me suggest that global population will top out somewhat below 9 Billion in 2050, lower and earlier than most expect.

Have a look at the Total Fertility Rate by group in the graph above. The largest nations for each cell are listed below the graph. Note Asian nations to the left, and African nations to the right.

Africa is so small, that the high birth rates have little global impact. Also, AIDS consumes their population, as do wars, malnutrition, etc.

The Arab world is also slowing in population growth. When Saudi Arabia at replacement rate (2.11), you can tell that the women are gaining the upper hand there, which is notable given the polygamy is permitted.

In the Developed world, who leads in fertility? Israel at 2.66. Next is France at 2.07 (Arabs), New Zealand at 2.03, Iceland at 2.01, Ireland at 1.98 (up considerably), UK at 1.89, Sweden at 1.88, and the US at 1.87, which is below replacement. The US still grows from immigration, as does France.

Most of the above is a quick update of my prior pieces, which have some additional crunchy insights.  When I look at the new data, I wonder if developed nations might not finally be waking up to the birth dearth.  Take a look at this graph:

Now, the bottom left is a little crammed.  What if I expand it?

I did the second graph in order to make the point that nations with fertility below 1.76 in 2010 tended to increase their fertility, while those above 1.76 tended to decrease it.  Not that you should trust any statistical analysis, but if you could, this is statistically significant at a level well above 99%.  (Note: this is an ordinary least squares regression.  Every “nation” is weighted equally.  If I get asked nicely, I could do a weighted least squares regression which gives heavy weight to China, India and the US, and less weight to Somalia, the West Bank, and Tonga.  I don’t think the result would change much.)

I’m chuckling a little bit as I write this, because this is an interesting result, and one that I never thought I would be writing when I started this project.  Interesting, huh?  My guess is that there is a limit to how much you can get people to reduce family sizes before they begin to question the idea.  Older parents may say, “What was that all about?” but children are usually fun and cute when they are little if they are reasonably disciplined.

One final note: I’ve been running into a lot of demographic articles of late, but this was the one that got me to write this: The World’s Most Populous Country Is Turning Gray.  The barbaric “One Child Policy” of China is having its impact; demography is often destiny.  That said, over the last six years China’s total fertility rate has moved from 1.54 to 1.60.

As it says in the article:

Births in 2016 reached 17.86 million, the most since 2000, rising by 1.91 million from 2015, the National Health and Family Planning Commission said this month. That still falls short of the official projection. Last June, the ministry estimated there would be an increase of 4 million new births every year until 2020. China will continue to implement the two-child policy to promote a balanced population, the plan said.

Fertility doesn’t turn on a dime.  When women conclude that the rewards of society (money, power, approval of peers) go to those with fewer children, that’s a tough cultural idea to overcome.  I would conclude that it will take a lot longer than a single five-year plan to turn around birthrates in China… if they can be turned around at all.  All across Asia, marriages happen at lesser rates, happen later, and produce fewer children.  China is one of the more notable examples.

PS — Picky note: the two-child policy in China is only available to a husband and wife where at least one is an “only child.”  It won’t create a balanced population near replacement rate, as everyone else must have only one child (with exceptions).

Photo Credit: eflon || The title of the article comes from a comment Greenberg supposedly made to Buffett when AIG was much bigger than Berkshire Hathaway — times change…

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The title of the article comes from a comment Greenberg supposedly made to Buffett when AIG was much bigger than Berkshire Hathaway [BRK] — times change…

It’s come to this: AIG has sought out reinsurance from BRK to cap the amount of losses they will pay for prior business written.  It’s quite a statement when you are willing to pay $10 billion in order to have BRK pay 80% of claims over $25 billion, up to $20 billion in total.  At $50 Billion in claims AIG is on its own again.

So what business was covered?  A lot.  This is the one of the biggest deals of its type, ever:

The agreement covers 80% of substantially all of AIG’s U.S. Commercial long-tail exposures for accident years 2015 and prior, which includes the largest part of AIG’s U.S. casualty exposures during that period. AIG will retain sole authority to handle and resolve claims, and NICO has various access, association and consultation rights.

Or as was said in the Wall Street Journal article:

The pact covers such product lines as workers’ compensation, directors’ and officers’ liability, professional indemnity, medical malpractice, commercial automobile and some other liability policies.

Now, AIG is not among the better P&C insurance companies for reserving out there.  2.5 years ago, they made the Aleph Blog Hall of Shame for P&C reserving.  Now if you would have looked on the last 10-K on page 296 for item 8, note 12, you would note that AIG’s reserving remained weak for 2014 and 2015 as losses and loss adjustment expenses incurred for the business of prior years continued positive.

For AIG, this puts a lot of its troubles behind it, after the upcoming writeoff (from the WSJ article):

AIG, one of the biggest sellers of insurance by volume to businesses around the globe, also said it expects a material fourth-quarter charge to boost its claims reserves. AIG declined to comment on the possible size. Its fourth-quarter earnings will be released next month.

For BRK, this is an opportunity to make money investing the $10 billion as claims on the long-tail business get paid out slowly.  It’s called float, which isn’t magic, but Buffett has done better than most at investing the float, and choosing insurance business to write and reinsure that doesn’t result in large losses for BRK.

I expect BRK to make an underwriting profit on this, but let’s assume the worst, that BRK pays out the full $20 billion.  Say the claims come at a rate of $5 billion/year.  The average payout period would be 7.5 years, and BRK would have to earn 9.2% on the float to break even.  At $3.75B/yr, the figures would be 10 years and 6.9%.  At $2.5B/yr, 15 years and 4.6%.

This doesn’t seem so bad to me — now I don’t know how bad reserve development will be for AIG, but BRK is usually pretty careful about underwriting this sort of thing. That said BRK has a lot of excess cash sitting around already, and desirable targets for large investments are few.  This had better make an underwriting profit, or a small loss, or maybe Buffett is ready for the market to fall apart, and thus the rate he can earn goes up.

All that said, it is an interesting chapter in the relationship between the two companies.  If BRK wasn’t the dominant insurance company of the US after the 2008 financial crisis, it definitely is now.

Full disclosure: long BRK/B for myself and clients

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I was driving to a meeting of the Baltimore CFA Society, and listening to Bloomberg Radio, which was carrying President-Elect Trump’s Press Conference. I didn’t think too much about what I heard until Sheri Dillon talk about what was being done to eliminate conflicts of interest. Here is an excerpt:

Some have asked questions. Why not divest? Why not just sell everything? Form of blind trust. And I’d like to turn to addressing some of those questions now.

Selling, first and foremost, would not eliminate possibilities of conflicts of interest. In fact, it would exacerbate them. The Trump brand is key to the value of the Trump Organization’s assets. If President-elect Trump sold his brand, he would be entitled to royalties for the use of it, and this would result in the trust retaining an interest in the brand without the ability to assure that it does not exploit the office of the presidency.

[snip]

Some people have suggested that the Trump — that President-elect Trump could bundle the assets and turn the Trump Organization into a public company. Anyone who has ever gone through this extraordinarily cumbersome and complicated process knows that it is a non-starter. It is not realistic and it would be inappropriate for the Trump Organization.

It went on from there, but I choked on the last paragraph that I quoted above. (Credit: New York Times, not all accounts carried the remarks of Ms. Dillon, a prominent attorney with the firm Morgan Lewis who structured the agreements for Trump)  As I said before:

An IPO of the Trump Organization was realistic.  I’m not saying it could have been done by the inauguration, but certainly by the end of 2017, and likely a lot earlier.  I’ve seen insurance companies go through IPO processes that took a matter of months, a few because they had to sell the company to raise liquidity quickly for some reason.

In an IPO, Trump, all of Trump’s children and anyone else with an equity interest would have gotten their proportionate share of the new public company.  Trump could have provided a lot of shares for the IPO, and instructed the trustee for his assets to sell it off the remainder over the next year or so.

While difficult, this would not have been impossible or imprudent.  Trump might lose some value in the process, but hey, that should be part of the cost for a very wealthy man who becomes President of the US.  There would be the countervailing advantage that all capital gains are eliminated, and who knows, that might settle his existing negotiations with the IRS.

Ending the counterfactual, though conflict of interest rules don’t apply to the President, Trump had an opportunity to eliminate all conflicts of interest, and did not take it.

PS — Many major hotels are in the “name licensing” business — I also don’t buy the argument that Trump could not sell off the organization in entire, with no future payments for the rights of using the name.  A bright businessman could create a new brand easily.  It’s been done before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three More Reasons to Distrust Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

With that, be skeptical of forecasts.

 

Photo Credit: New America || Could only drive through the rear-view mirror

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This is the time of year where lots of stray forecasts get given.  I got tired enough of it, that I had to turn off my favorite radio station, Bloomberg Radio, after hearing too many of them.  I recommend that you ignore forecasts, and even the average of them.  I’ll give you some reasons why:

  • Most forecasters don’t have a good method for generating their forecasts.  Most of them represent the present plus their long-term bullishness or bearishness.  They might be right in the long-run.  The long-run is easier to forecast, in my opinion, because a lot of noise cancels out.
  • Most forecasters have no serious money on the line regarding what they are forecasting.  Aside from loss of reputation, there is no real loss to being wrong.  Even the reputational loss issue is a weak one, because Wall Street generally has no memory.  Why?  Enough things get predicted that pundits can point to something that they got right, at least in some years.  Memories are short on Wall Street, anyway.
  • The few big players that make public forecasts have already bought in to their theses, and only have limited power to continue buying their ideas, particularly if they are wrong.  This is particularly true in hedge funds, and leveraged financial firms.
  • Forecasts are bad at turning points, and average forecasts by nature abhor turning points.  That’s when you would need a forecast the most, when conditions are going to change.  If a forecast presumes “sunny weather” on an ordinary basis it’s not much of a forecast.
  • Most forecasters only think about income statements.  Most of the limits stem from balance sheets proving insufficient, or cash flows inverting, and staying that way for a while.
  • Most forecasts also presume good responses from policymakers, and even when they are right, they tend to be slow.
  • Forecasts almost always presume stability of external systems that the system that holds the forecasted variable is only a part of.  Not that anyone is going to forecast a war between major powers (at present), or a cataclysm greater than the influenza epidemic of 1918 (1-2% of people die), but are users of a forecast going to wholeheartedly believe it, such that if a significant disaster does strike, they are totally bereft?  When is the last time we had a trade war or a payments crisis?  Globalization and the greater division of labor is wonderful, but what happens if it goes backward, or a major nation like France faces a scenario like the PIIGS did?

I leave aside the “surprises”-type documents, which are an interesting parlor game, but have their own excuses built-in.

My advice for you is simple.  Be ready for both bad and good times.  You can’t tell what is going to happen.  Valuations are stretched but not nuts, which justifies a neutral risk posture.  Keep dry powder for adverse situations.

And, from David at the Aleph Blog, have a happy 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emphasis that of Alpha Architect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you ready?

Photo Credit: darwin Bell || You ain't getting out easily...

Photo Credit: darwin Bell || You ain’t getting out easily…

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How would you like a really good model to make money as a money manager? You would? Great!

What I am going to describe is a competitive business, so you probably won’t grow like mad, but what money you do bring in the door, you will likely keep for some time, and earn significant fees.

This post is inspired by a piece written by Jason Zweig at the Wall Street Journal: The Trendiest Investment on Wall Street…That Nobody Knows About.  The article talks about interval funds.  Interval funds hold illiquid investments that would be difficult to sell at a fair price  quickly.  As such, liquidity is limited to quarterly or annual limits, and investors line up for distributions.  If you are the only one to ask for a distribution, you might get a lot paid out, perhaps even paid out in full.  If everyone asked for a part of the distribution, everyone would get paid their pro-rata share.

But there are other ways to capture assets, and as a result, fees.

  • Various types of business partnerships, including Private REITs, Real Estate Partnerships, etc.
  • Illiquid debts, such as structured notes
  • Variable, Indexed and Fixed Annuities with looong surrender charge periods.
  • Life insurance as an investment
  • Weird kinds of IRAs that you can only set up with a venturesome custodian
  • Odd mutual funds that limit withdrawals because they offer “guarantees” of a sort.
  • And more, but I am talking about those that get sold to or done by retail investors… institutional investors have even more chances to tie up their money for moderate, modest or negative incremental returns.
  • (One more aside, Closed end funds are a great way for managers to get a captive pool of assets, but individual investors at least get the ability to gain liquidity subject to the changing premium/discount versus NAV.)

My main point is short and simple.  Be wary of surrendering liquidity.  If you can’t clearly identify what you are gaining from giving up liquidity, don’t make the investment.  You are likely being hoodwinked.

It’s that simple.

If you can't clearly identify what you are gaining from giving up liquidity, don't make the… Click To Tweet

Ben Graham, who else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stocks rallied because the Fed cut interest rates.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one.

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Bloomberg || Graph of Penn Treaty’s stock price 2002-2009

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I wrote about this last in October 2009 in a piece lovingly entitled: At Last, Death! (speaking of the holding company, not the insurance subsidiaries).  I’m going to quote the whole piece here, because it says most of the things that I wanted to say when I heard the most recent news about Penn Treaty, where the underlying insurance subsidiaries are finally getting liquidated.  It will be the largest health insurer insolvency ever, and second largest overall behind Executive Life.

Alas, but all good things in the human sphere come to an end.  Penn Treaty is the biggest insurer failure since 2004.  Now, don’t cry too much.  The state guaranty funds will pick up the slack.  The banks are jealous of an industry that has so few insolvencies.  Conservative state regulation works better than federal regulation.

Or does it?  In this case, no.  The state insurance regulator allowed a reinsurance treaty to give reserve credit where no risk was passed.  The GAAP auditor flagged the treaty and did not allow credit on a GAAP basis, because no risk was passed.  No risk passed? No additional surplus; instead it is a loan.  I do not get how the state regulators in Pennsylvania could have done this.  Yes, they want companies to survive, but it is better to take losses early, than let them develop and fester.

A prior employer asked me about this company as a long idea, because it was trading at a significant discount to book.  I told him, “Gun to the head: I would short this.  Long-term care is not an underwritable contingency.  Those insured have more knowledge over their situation than the insurance company does.”  He did nothing.  He could not see shorting a company that was less than 50% of book value.

It was not as if I did not have some trust in the management team.  I knew the CEO and the Chief Actuary from my days at Provident Mutual.  Working against that was when I called each of them, they did not return my calls.  That made me more skeptical.  It is one thing not to return the call of a buyside analyst, but another thing not to return the call of one who was once a friend.

Aside from Penn Treaty, the only other company that I can think of as being at risk in the long term care arena is Genworth.  Be wary there.  What is worse is that they also underwrite mortgage insurance.  I can’t think of a worse combo: long term care and mortgage insurance.

The troubles at Penn Treaty are indicative of the future for those who fund long term care.  Be wary, because the troubles of the graying of the Baby Boomers will overwhelm those that try to provide long term care.  That includes government institutions.

Note that Genworth is down 60% since I wrote that, against a market that has less than tripled.  If their acquirer doesn’t follow through, it too may go the way of Penn Treaty.  (Give GE credit for kicking that “bad boy” out.  They bring good things to “life.” 😉 )

Okay, enough snark.  My main point this evening is that Pennsylvania should have had Penn Treaty stop writing new business by 2004 or so.  As I wrote to a reporter at Crain’s back in 2008:

On your recent article on Penn Treaty, one little known aspect of their treaty with Imagine Re is that it doesn’t pass risk.  Their GAAP auditors objected, but the State of Pennsylvania went along, which is the opposite of how it ordinarily works.
 
Now Imagine Re takes advantage of the situation and doesn’t pay, knowing that Penn Treaty is in a weak position and can’t fight back, partially because of the accounting shenanigans.
 
It is my opinion that Penn Treaty has been effectively insolvent for the past four years.  I don’t have any economic interest here, but I had to investigate it as an equity analyst one year ago.  Things are playing out as I predicted then.  What I don’t get is why Pennsylvania hasn’t taken them into conservation.

Another matter was that Imagine Re was an Irish reinsurer, and they have weak reserving rules.  That also should have been a “red flag” to Pennsylvania.  The deal with Imagine Re was struck in late 2005, leading to upgrades from AM Best that were reversed by mid-2006.

It was as if the state of Pennsylvania did not want to take the company over for some political reason.  Lesser companies have been taken over over far less.  Pennsylvania itself had worked out Fidelity Mutual a number of years earlier, so it’s not as if they had never done it before.

Had they acted sooner, the losses would never have been as large.  I remember looking through the claim tables in the statutory books for Penn Treaty because the GAAP statements weren’t filed, and concluding that the firm was insolvent back in 2005 or so.  Insurance regulators are supposed to be more conservative than equity analysts, because they don’t want companies to go broke, harming customers, and bringing stress to the industry through the guaranty funds.

The legal troubles post-2009 probably had a small effect on the eventual outcome — raising premiums might have lowered the eventual shortfall of $2.6 billion a little.  But raising premiums would make some healthy folks surrender, and those on benefit are not affected.  It would likely not have much impact.  Maybe some expenses could have been saved if the companies had been liquidated in 2009, 2012, or 2015 — still, that would not have been much either.

Some policyholders get soaked as well, as most state guaranty funds limit covered payments to $300,000.  About 10% of all current Penn Treaty policyholders will lose some benefits as a result.

Regulatory Policy Recommendations

Often regulators only care that premiums not be too high for the insurance, but this is a case where the company clearly undercharged, particularly on the pre-2003 policies.  For contingencies that are long-lived, where payments could be made for a long time, regulators need to spend time looking at premium adequacy.  This is especially important where the company is a monoline and in a line of business that is difficult to underwrite, like long-term care.

The regulators also need to review early claim experience in those situations (unusual business in a monoline), and even look at claim files to get some idea as to whether a company is likely to go insolvent if practices continue.  A review like that might have shut off Penn Treaty’s ability to write business early, maybe prior to 2002.  Qualitative indicators of underpricing show up in the types of claims that arrive early, and the regulators might have been able to reduce the size of this failure.

But wave goodbye to Penn Treaty, not that it will be missed except by policyholders that don’t get full payment.