Family responsibilities have kept me from posting. As a father of eight (five adopted), I found the WSJ article on how much children cost fascinating. Fascinating, and hooey. It doesn’t take that much to raise children properly. In a large family, particularly, one of the benefits is that the children like having so many siblings (even as the parents go nuts). It restricts the number of extra activities that any child can take on, particularly as older children must help to make the family work.

It is very easy to be too indulgent with children. Children respect and love strict parents, if the parents are rational and communicate why they are that way.

But I digress. Last week was tough. I did 60 bp better than the S&P 500, and considerably better than small cap indexes. That’s cold comfort when you’re losing money.

Last week, some oddball names helped me. I sold some Fresh Del Monte Produce to rebalance my positions, because it had run so much. I will do the same with Grupo Casa Saba if it runs another 5%. Much as I think the stock is undervalued, on any stock I own I still take a modest amount of profits after every run of 20%.

Anyone looking at my broad market portfolio would see a decent amount of economic sensitivity in the names there. I am not trying to overdo it; I am aiming at cheap names in sectors that I like. That’s how I invest. I let industry selection and cheapness limit my risks, rather than exiting the equity market altogether.

More to come next week as I look at my indicators, and see how the market responds after the weekend. Personally, I would be neutral-to-positive over the next week.


It’s been a weird three days as far as portfolio management goes. Each day I outperformed the S&P 500 by 10-20 basis points. It’s been too regular, and it has to shift, but which way?

Cement names hurt me today, including Cemex and Lafarge SA. Barclays plc also hurt. On the plus side were SABESP and Grupo Casa Saba. On net, the results were nearly breakeven to me.

There may be other exogenous discontinuous events ready to smack the market around, but after early panic yesterday, the market became very rational in aggregate. The panic is over. Time to adopt a normal posture of moderate bullishness.

Moderate bullishness should be the posture of most investors because absent famine, plague, war on your home soil, and aggressive socialism, markets tend to appreciate over the intermediate term.

As I have pointed out at RealMoney, it is important to avoid non-prime lenders and homebuilders for now. Short them?! Well, that is for gamblers, not investors.

I was a little ahead of the market yesterday, say 10-15 basis points ahead of the S&P. Leading the charge were Fresh Del Monte (my current largest loser), and Grupo Casa Saba (what a great undiscovered stock). Fresh Del Monte was upgraded from underperform to neutral after their less bad earnings. Grupo Casa Saba reported excellent earnings. They run drugstores in Mexico, an excellent industry for a country with a growing middle class. For my balanced mandates, I kicked out the QQQQs that I bought yesterday. The rally wasn’t as big as the reduction in short term risk implied by the VIX.
At, I had a post late in the day called, “What I Have Learned Over the Past 36 Hours.” It attempted to put forth a dozen things that have been revealed since the recent crisis hit. Here’s an explanation:

  1. China sneezes; the world catches cold. If we needed any proof that America no longer solely dominates the global scene we saw it on Tuesday.
  2. Systemic risk may or may not be a problem now, but a lot of people acted like it was a problem. Thus the rallies in the currencies used to finance the carry trades. The Yen and the Swiss Francs are good hedges here. I am more dubious about long Treasuries, though not long TIPS. (It was neat to see the rallies in the yen and swiss francs. Thne long bond fell more today than the carry trade currencies did.)

  3. The current equity market infrastructure is marginal to handle the volume of the last two days. Given the nature of modern finance, major errors are not acceptable. I got off a couple of good trades as a result of the accident, but those trades were accidental as well.
  4. The lack of human intermediaries with balance sheets leaves markets more volatile than before. It genuinely helps to have someone who can stop the market at certain volatile points, and then restart with an auction so that a fair level can be determined after news gets disseminated. Also, liquidity providers show their value in a crisis.
  5. Algorithmic trading and quantitative money management is making stock price changes more correlated with one another than they used to be. Markets behave differently in normal times, and under stress. The methods that make money when the market is calm exacerbate volatility when market stress appears

  6. Panic rarely pays.
  7. Patience usually pays.
  8. Diversification pays.
  9. In a crisis, strong balance sheets and free cash flow are golden. During times of stress, these four bits of wisdom pay off. They protect an investor from his own worst temptations.
  10. People want the Fed to loosen more than the FOMC itself does. The FOMC doesn’t care about weak GDP if labor employment is robust. The FOMC certainly doesnot care about te stok market unless i affects the banking system, which is unlikely.
  11. The oscillator is not oversold, yet. Sad, but true. We have a decent number of days in the rear-view mirror that aren’t so bad. The intermediate-term panic level is not high.
  12. What do you know? Cyclicals are cyclical. I’m just glad I didn’t get kicked worse yesterday. That’s the danger in playing cyclical names. I take my risk therethough, rather than in growth that might not materialize.

All this said, I feel well positioned for the next few trading sessions. I am working on my quarterly portfolio reshaping, which will take out a few companies, and replace them with cheaper companies in industries with more potential. Once I complete that analysis, you will hear about it on RealMoney and here.

I don’t think my troubles are here to stay, either. I was down a little more than 3.3%, better than the S&P 500, but not by much. So what whacked me? Generally, cyclical companies: Cemex, Conoco, Barclays, Sappi, Jones Apparel, Sanamento [SBS], Lafarge, Magna International, Lyondell, Deerfield Triarc, Patterson-UTI Energy, Japan Smaller Capitalization Fund, and Lithia Automotive.
For the most part, these are companies with strong balance sheets where they will do well in the intermediate term, in my opinion.

As for my balanced mandates, I don’t have solid numbers yet, but I suspect I was down a little more than 1%. Not bad, but I hate to lose, period. I take some comfort, but not much, that I am still up a little less than 2% so far this year on the broad market portfolio. Let’s see if we can do better in the next trading session.

This will be kind of stream-of-consciousness as I go through my indicators. I have a lot of them so bear with me.

Gold, Copper, Oil, Gasoline, Heating Oil, and Natural Gas were all down. The yen and Swiss franc were up big, 2% and 1% respectively. (Nice hedges for me, I added them in the last month as a hedge for systemic risk. British pound flat. Canadian dollar lower. Yuan still appreciating… controlled appreciation there.

Shift at the tails of the of the distribution of stock returns, even if the mean has only moved 3%+. More new lows than highs, but still more stocks over the 200-day MA than under it.

Investment grade credit spreads in CDS gapped out 4.5 bp on the IBOXX 7 deal. 10 year swap spreads moved out 2 basis points, which is more notable when they usually tighten when yields fall, due to mortgage hedging. Bond volatility measures gapped out, but not severely.

The Merger Fund dropped 31 basis points — a very good indicator on how the arbs are doing. My oscillator, which is a knockoff of a famous one that Cramer refers to, had the worst single day that I have ever seen, but the 10-day MA indicates that we are not oversold yet.
Anticipated inflation during the 2012-2017 period fell like a stone to a 52-week low. The inversion at the short end of the curve deepened, while the long end lost some inversion. The TED spread jumped 7 bp. The VIX jumped more than it should have, given its ordinary relationship to returns on the S&P.
Okay, now. Putting it all together, yesterday was an expression of :

  • Decreased global demand from China.
  • Increased perception of systemic risk.
  • Increased likelihood of Fed loosening.

So what does this mean for today? Asian markets are down today, but Shanghai is holding its ground as I write. I would expect to see European markets flattish, and the US market to have a small volatile rally today. Treasury notes (excluding effects from the GDP report) should sell off.

We’ll see how it all works out by 4PM. I’ll have more for you later.

With the long bond, Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc, and option implied volatility rising today, there is a panicky feel to the markets. Though this could be the start of a “big, bad event,” the odds are that it will not be so bad. One signal of panic that I see is that the VIX is up 21% today, against an S&P 500 down 1.5%. Under ordinary circumstances, that ratio is 10, rather than the 14 we are seeing today. if that ratio gets over 20, it is a sign that too many people are buying index puts to protect their portfolios. If it gets under 5, too few are doing so.

And, as with most investing, stick to your normal way of doing business. Don’t overreact to the markets. We haven’t had significant volatility in a while, and frankly, we need some to keep people from speculating overly. Don’t react to today; ask yourself what things will likely be like three years from now, and use that as your guide to investing. The manic Mr. Market may serve up some bargains. If so, my rebalancing discipline will edge me more into the markets, bit-by-bit in a measured way. This takes the emotion out of it, which leads to better overall performance.

Late Update
Sold my TLT positions slightly after 3PM today and bought some QQQQs with the proceeds. I think that the short run selling is overdone, with the TRIN over 14, and my ratio mentioned above, which I call DeltaVIX over 17, I felt it was better to add a modest amount of equity exposure to my balanced mandates. We added some Hartford as well at the hedge fund. None of my broad market portfolio hit a rebalance point, so I didn’t do anything there, despite 32 out of my 35 stocks being down over 1%, and only one up. In aggregate, it looks like my braod market portfolio will be down 3% or so, and my balanced mandates down a little more than a percent.I’ll have more on this later this evening. I plan on reviewing all of my indicators tonight, and see what they suggest.

PS — a friend pinged me and suggested that today’s move in the VIX did not come from put buying, but from options selling. He cited the increased correlation of stocks to one another. I’ll have to think about this some more.

long FXY FXF QQQQ HIG (and apologies to the late Douglas Adams) and now after the update flat TLT

At my hedge fund’s weekly macro meeting, I noted the divergent trends in covenants. For newly issued BBB bonds, there is an increase in change of control covenants, which would allow bondholders to sell their bonds at investment grade levels (if not better) in a takeover.

But in bank loans to entities acquiring corporations, the covenants are getting weaker. I’m afraid that banks care more about present earnings than future earnings. Risk is getting transferred from the public equity space to the bank loan and private equity spaces. Personally, I think the eventual result will be ugly, though the current set of deals does not seem outlandish.

I want to give credit to Roger Nusbaum on his brief commentary on Dow Chemical. Too many people think short term about investing, and don’t consider how much a company might be worth over time, versus a buyout today.

I faced the same problem on National Atlantic Holdings. I believe it is more valuable as a going concern than as a buyout candidate at present. I was happy when the Commerce Group negotiations broke down, because Commerce wouldn’t pay up!

I don’t have to get all of my gains today. So long as I do well enough over the next 3-5 year period, I will be happy enough. I don’t have to make a killing today. Having slightly better than average performance over a moderate period of time is reward enough.

Long DOW NAHC (the firm I work for owns 17%)

I remember once being at a First Boston Insurance conference and talking to the (now former) CEO Ed Liddy afterwards. I mentioned that we were shareholders and that I thought the stock was cheap (then around $40). He looked at me intently and said that he could not figure out why the market valued Allstate so cheaply. It was an incredible free cash flow machine.

With the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 after that, one can see that the performance since then has been superb. But now we are in a soft pricing environment; profits will not rise rapidly, if at all. But even if profits remain level, Allstate looks cheap. EV/EBITDA is near 5x.
That should attract private equity. If one can take over Texas Utilities, Allstate should be easier. Here’s why: one can sell the life arm, Allstate Financial for $5 billion to one of the major life insurers. Along with that, the private equity buyers can lever up the holding company balance sheet to a BB- rating, which would leave the operating entities at a marginal investment grade of BBB-. The private equity buyers would use the free cash flow to repay the bank debt incurred, and five years from now, would IPO Allstate at a higher valuation.

Though I am not crazy about all of the increased leverage, a scenario like this could happen. It is just another ramification of interest rates that are too low.
Long ALL (the funds I work for and me personally)