Archive for May, 2010

Gravity Takes Hold in May

Warner Bros. picture of Wile E. Coyote’s failed apprehension of Roadrunner

Wile E. Coyote, the bumbling, roadrunner-loving carnivore from Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes series spends a lot of time in the air chasing his fine feathered prey. Unfortunately for Mr. Coyote his genetic make-up and Acme purchases could not cure the ills caused by gravity (although user error was the downfall of Wile E’s effective Bat-Man flying outfit purchase). Just as gravity hampered the coyote’s short-term objectives, so too has gravity hampered the equity markets’ performance this May.

So far the adage of “Sell in May and walk away” has been the correct course of action. Just one day prior to the end of the month, the Dow Jones Industrial and S&P 500 indexes were on pace of recording the worst May decline in almost 50 years. If the -6.8% monthly decline in the S&P and the -7.8% drop in the S&P remains in place through the end of the month, these declines would mark the worst performance in a May month since 1962.  

Should we be surprised by the pace and degree of the recent correction? Flash crash and Greece worries aside, any time a market increases +70-80% within a year, investors should not be  caught off guard by a subsequent 10%+ correction. In fact corrections are a healthy byproduct of rapid advances. Repeated boom-bust cycles are not market characteristics most investors crave.  

It was a volatile, choppy month of trading for the month as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX). The fear gauge more than doubled to a short-run peak of around 46, up from a monthly low close of about a reading of 20, before settling into the high 20s at last close. Digesting Greek sovereign debt issues, an impending Chinese real estate bubble bursting, budget deficits, government debt, and financial regulatory reform will determine if elevated volatility will persist. Improving macroeconomic indicators coupled with reasonable valuations appear to be factoring in a great deal of these concerns, however I would not be surprised if this schizophrenic trading will persist until we gain certainty on the midterm elections. As Wile E. Coyote has learned from his roadrunner chasing days, gravity can be painful – just as investors realized gravity in the equity markets can hurt too. All the more reason to cushion the blow to your portfolio through the use of diversification in your portfolio (read Seesawing Through Chaos article).  

Happy long weekend!  

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.   

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in TWX, VXX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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May 28, 2010 at 1:24 am Leave a comment

Soros & Reflexivity: The Tail Wagging the Dog

Billionaire investor George Soros, who is also Chairman of Soros Fund Management and author of The Crash of 2008¸ is well known for his theory on reflexivity, which broadly covers political, social, financial, and economic systems. Soros built upon this concept (see also Soros Super Bubble), which was influenced by philosopher Karl Popper. With all the fear and greed rippling through global geographies as diverse as Iceland, California, Dubai, and Greece, now is an ideal time to visit Soros’s famous reflexivity theory, which may allow us to put the recent chaos in context. With the recent swoon in the market, despite domestic indicators trending positively, a fair question to ask is whether the dog is wagging the tail or the tail wagging the dog?

The Definition of Reflexivity

Simply stated, reflexivity can be explained as the circular relationship that exists between cause and effect. Modern financial theory teaches you these lessons: 1) Financial markets are efficient; 2) Information flows freely; 3) Investors make rational decisions; and 4) Markets eventually migrate towards equilibrium. Reflexivity challenges these premises with the claims that people make irrational and biased decisions with incomplete information, while the markets trend toward disequilibrium, evidenced by repeated boom and bust cycles.

Let’s use the housing market as an example of reflexivity. By looking at the housing bubble in the U.S., we can shed some light on the theory of reflexivity. Americans initial buying love affair with homes pushed prices of houses up, which led to higher valuations of loans on the books of banks, which allowed the banks to lend more money to buyers, which meant more home buying and pushed prices up even higher. To make matters worse, even the government joined the game by adding incentives for people who could not afford homes. As you can see, the actions and decisions of an observer can have a direct impact on other observers and the system itself, thereby creating a spiraling upward (or downward) effect.

Now What?

Now, the reflexivity tail that is wagging the dog is Europe…specifically Greece. The bear case goes as follows: the Greek financial crisis will brew into a stinky contagion, eventually spreading to Spain and Italy, thus hammering shut a U.S. export market. The double dip recession in the U.S. will not only exacerbate the pricking of the Chinese real estate bubble, but also topple all other global economies into ruin.

Certainly, the excessive sovereign debt levels across the globe have grown like cancer. Fortunately, we have identified the problem and politicians are being forced by voters to address the fiscal problems. More importantly, capital flows are an unbiased arbiter of economic policies. Over time – not in the short-run necessarily – capital will move to where it is treated best. Meaning those countries that harness responsible debt loads, institute pro-business growth policies, remove unsustainable and insolvent entitlements, and incentivize education and innovation will be the countries that earn the honor of holding their fair share of vital capital. If the politicians don’t make the correct decisions, the hemorrhaging of capital to foreigners and the painfully high unemployment levels will force Washington into making the tough but right decisions (usually in the middle of a crisis).

Reflexivity, as it pertains to financial markets, has been a concept the 79 year old George Soros has passionately espoused since his 1987 book, The Alchemy of Finance. Perhaps a better understanding of reflexivity will help us better take advantage of the tail wagging disequilibriums experienced in the current financial markets. Time will tell how long this disequilibrium will last.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 26, 2010 at 1:21 am 1 comment

Stocks…Bonds on Steroids

With all the spooky headlines in the news today, it’s no wonder everyone is piling into bonds. The Investment Company Institute (ICI), which tracks mutual fund data, showed -88% of the $14 billion in weekly outflows came from equity funds relative to bonds and hybrid securities. With the masses flocking to bonds, it’s no wonder yields are hovering near multi-decade historical lows. Stocks on the other hand are the Rodney Dangerfield (see Doug Kass’s Triple Lindy attempt) of the investment world – they get “no respect.” By flipping stock metrics upside down, we will explore how hated stocks can become the beloved on steroids, if viewed in the proper context.

Davis on Debt Discomfort

Chris Davis, head of the $65 billion in assets at the Davis Funds, believes like I do that navigating the “bubblicious” bond market will be a treacherous task in the coming years.  Davis directly states, “The only real bubble in the world is bonds. When you look out over a 10-year period, people are going to get killed.” In the short-run, inflation is not a real worry, but it if you consider the exploding deficits coupled with the exceedingly low interest rates, bond investors are faced with a potential recipe for disaster. Propping up the value of the dollar due to sovereign debt concerns in Greece (and greater Europe) has contributed to lower Treasury rates too. There’s only one direction for interest rates to go, and that’s up. Since the direction of bond prices moves the opposite way of interest rates, mean reversion does not bode well for long-term bond holders.

Earnings Yield: The Winning Formula

Average investors are freaked out about the equity markets and are unknowingly underestimating the risk of bonds. Investors would be in a better frame of mind if they listened to Chris Davis.  In comparing stocks and bonds, Davis says, “If people got their statement and looked at the dividend yield and earnings yield, they might do things differently right now. But you have to be able to numb yourself to changes in stock prices, and most people can’t do that.” Humans are emotional creatures and can find this a difficult chore.

What us finance nerds learn through instruction is that a price of a bond can be derived by discounting future interest payments and principle back to today. The same concept applies for dividend paying stocks – the value of a stock can be determined by discounting future dividends back to today.

A favorite metric for stock jocks is the P/E (Price-Earnings) ratio, but what many investors fail to realize is that if this common ratio is flipped over (E/P) then one can arrive at an earnings yield, which is directly comparable to dividend yields (annual dividend per share/price per share) and bond yields (annual interest/bond price).

Earnings are the fuel for future dividends, and dividend yields are a way of comparing stocks with the fixed income yields of bonds. Unlike virtually all bonds, stocks have the ability to increase dividends (the payout) over time – an extremely attractive aspect of stocks. For example, Procter & Gamble (PG) has increased its dividend for 54 consecutive years and Wal-Mart (WMT) 37 years – that assertion cannot be made for bonds.

As stock prices drop, the dividend yields rise – the bond dynamics have been developing in reverse (prices up, yields down). With S&P 500 earnings catapulting upwards +84% in Q1 and the index trading at a very reasonable 13x’s 2010 operating earnings estimates, stocks should be able to outmuscle bonds in the medium to long-term (with or without steroids). There certainly is a spot for bonds in a portfolio, and there are ways to manage interest rate sensitivity (duration), but bonds will have difficulty flexing their biceps in the coming quarters.

Read the full article on Chris Davis’s bond and earnings yield comments

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in PG,  or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 24, 2010 at 1:17 am Leave a comment

Membership Privileges: Cheese Tubs & Space Travel

With Senate proposals pushing to cap debit card fees earned by the credit card companies (Visa Inc. [V] and MasterCard Inc. [MA]), you better hurry up and take advantage of underappreciated membership privileges while you still can. The card companies are not too happy, but maybe they deserve some legitimate sympathy. I mean, supporting banks that gouge customers at rates reaching upwards of 20% can be challenging for any card network oligopoly to handle. So before Congress strips away the card companies’ God-given right to siphon away fees from millions of Americans, you have the obligation to utilize the membership privileges of your credit card – even if those benefits include using Visa’s concierge services for purchasing a giant tub of nacho cheese or booking a space travel trip. Unfortunately, many cardholders are unaware they carry the power of a personal servant in their wallet or purse. Tim Ferriss, creator of Experiments in Life Design, on the other hand chose to repeatedly use his personal servant to handle some of the most mission critical responsibilities you could imagine…for example:

1)      Punch Bowl Tub of Cheese: Ferriss didn’t make his request for a tub of cheese completely uncompromising, but rather he was flexible in his demands. When the Visa concierge, David, asked Ferris what size cheese container he wanted, Ferriss reasonably responded, “Can, jar, tub, I don’t care. I just want liquid cheese, and a lot of it.”

2)      Crossword Magicians: Why get flustered with a USA Today crossword clue (“Blue Grotto Locale”) when you can simply ring Maurice, your trusty Visa crossword concierge to solve the puzzle? Ferris used this approach and found the method much classier than using a computer or phone to find the answer. The answer to 62 across: ISLE OF CAPRI.

3)      Feeling Blue? No problem, daily affirmations are just a few keypad strokes away from your fingertips. Getting told he was “good enough” by Jamie the concierge was a little ambitious, but Ferriss was satisfied by receiving a third party affirmation service along with a gratuitous note from Jamie letting him know what a good person he was.

4)      Going Galactic: Now that he was getting warmed up, Ferriss had loftier goals (no pun intended). Specifically he requested the concierge to “book a trip to space.” Ferriss was not let down – the Visa Signature concierge came through with a $200,000 price quote from Virgin Galactic.

5)      Looking at Limitations: Overall, the concierge service delivered on its mission of fielding random requests and answering questions. Nonetheless, Visa Signature needed a  little more time to complete a self assessment of the services Visa could NOT perform (e.g., plan a wedding, call a friend, or write an article). Eventually Ferriss received an adequate response and went on to complete his prank-a-thon.

 Believe it or not, some financial institutions provide services to you without charging you an arm and a leg. Maybe the card companies already have enough arms and legs to keep themselves content, but given political pressure on Visa and MasterCard, you better book that space flight and place that cheese tub order ASAP.

Read Full Tim Ferriss Article on Concierge Services  (post was originally published on Credit Card Chaser)

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in V, MA, Virgin,  or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 21, 2010 at 12:41 am Leave a comment

Seesawing Through Organized Chaos

Still fresh in the minds of investors are the open wounds created by the incredible volatility that peaked just a little over a year ago, when the price of insurance sky-rocketed as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX).  Even though equity markets troughed in March of 2009, earlier the VIX reached a climax over 80 in November 2008. With financial institutions falling like flies and toxic assets clogging up the lending pipelines, virtually all asset classes moved downwards in unison during the frefall of 2008 and early 2009. The traditional teeter-totter phenomenon of some asset classes rising simultaneously while others were falling did not hold.  With the recent turmoil in Greece coupled with the “Flash Crash” (read making $$$ trading article) and spooky headline du jour, the markets have temporarily reverted back to organized chaos. What I mean by that is even though the market recently dove about +8% in 8 days, we saw the teeter-totter benefits of diversification kick in over the last month.

Seesaw Success

While the S&P fell about -4.5% over the studied period below, the alternate highlighted asset classes managed to grind out positive returns.

 

While traditional volatility has returned after a meteoric bounce in 2009, there should be more investment opportunities to invest around. With the VIX hovering in the mid-30s after a brief stay above 40 a few weeks ago, I would not be surprised to see a reversion to a more normalized fear gauge in the 20s – although my game plan is not dependent on this occurring.

VIX Chart Source: Yahoo! Finance

Regardless of the direction of volatility, I’m encouraged that even during periods of mini-panics, there are hopeful signs that investors are able to seesaw through periods of organized chaos with the assistance of good old diversification.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including AGG, BND, VNQ, IJR and TIP), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in VXX, GLD,  or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 19, 2010 at 12:28 am 3 comments

Ball & Chaining the Rating Agencies

After sifting through the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Congress is spreading the blame liberally across various constituencies, including the almighty rating agencies (think of Moody’s [MCO], Standard & Poor’s [MHP], and Fitch). The Senate recently added a proposed amendment to the financial regulation bill that would establish a government appointed panel to select a designated credit rating agency for certain debt deals. The proposal is designed to remove the inherent conflict of interest of debt issuers – such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), UBS, and others – shopping around for higher ratings in exchange for higher payments to the banks. The credit rating agencies are not satisfied with being weighed down with a ball and chain, and apparently New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic with the agencies. Cuomo recently subpoenaed Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, UBS and five other banks to see whether the banks misled credit-rating services about mortgage-backed securities.

Slippery Slope of Government Intervention

Many different professions, inside and outside the financial industry, provide critical advice in exchange for monetary compensation. In many industries there are inherent conflicts of interest between the professional and the end-user, and a related opinion provided by the pro may result in a bad outcome. If government intervention is the appropriate solution in the rating agency field, then maybe we should answer the following questions related to other fields before we rush to regulation:

  • Should the government control which auditors check the books of every American company because executives may opportunistically shop around for more lenient reviews of their financials?
  • Perhaps the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should dictate which investment bank should underwrite an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or other stock issuance?
  • Maybe the government should decide which medicine or surgery should be administered by a doctor because they received funding or donations from a drug and device company?  

Where do you draw the line? Is the amendment issued by Al Franken (Senator of Minnesota) a well thought out proposal to improve the conflicts of interest, or is this merely a knee-jerk reaction to sock it some greedy Wall Street-ers and solidify additional scapegoats in the global financial meltdown?

In addition to including a controversial government-led rating agency selection process, the transforming regulatory reform bill also includes a dramatic change to ban “naked” credit default swaps (CDS). As I’ve written in the past, derivatives of all types can be used to hedge (protect) or speculate (e.g., naked CDS).  Singling out a specific derivative product and strategy like naked CDSs is like banning all Browning 9x19mm Hi-Power pistols, but allowing hundreds of other gun-types to be sold and used. Conceptually, proper use of a naked CDS by a trader is the same as the proper use of a gun by a recreational hunter (see my derivatives article).

Solutions

Rather than additional government intervention into the rating agency and derivative fields, perhaps additional disclosure, transparency, capital requirements, and harsher penalties can be instituted. There will always be abusers, but as we learned from the collapse of Arthur Andersen on the road to Enron’s bankruptcy, there can be  cruel consequences to bad actors. If investment banks misrepresent opinions, laws can lead to severe results also. Take Jack Grubman, hypester of Worldcom stock, who was banned for life from the securities industry and forced to pay $15 million in fines. Or Henry Blodget, who too was banned from the securities industry and paid millions in fines, not to mention the $200 million in fraud damages Merrill Lynch was forced to pay.

At the end of the day, enough disclosure and transparency needs to be made available to investors so they can make their own decisions. Those institutional investors that piled into these toxic, mortgage-related securities and lost their shirts because of over-reliance on the rating agencies’ evaluations deserve to lose money. If these structures were too complex to understand, then this so-called sophisticated institutional investor base should have balked from participation. Of course, if the banks or credit agencies misrepresented the complex investments, then sure, those intermediaries should suffer the full brunt of the law.

Although weighing down the cash-rich credit rating agencies (and CDS creators) with ball and chain regulations may appease the populist sentiment in the short-run, the reduction in conflicts of interest might be overwhelmed by the unintended consequences. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to do my homework on a naked CDS related to a AAA-rated synthetic CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in MCO, MHP, GS, MS, JPM, UBS, BAC, T or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 17, 2010 at 12:42 am Leave a comment

Cockroach Consumer Cannot be Exterminated

We’re told that cockroaches would inherit the earth if a nuclear war were to occur, due to the pests’ impressive resiliency.  Like a cockroach, the American consumer has managed to survive its own version of a financial nuclear war, as a result of the global debt binge and bursting of the real estate bubble. Although associating a consumer to a disease-carrying cockroach is not the most flattering comparison, I suppose it is okay since I too am a consumer (cockroach).

Confidence Cuisine

Cockroaches enjoy feasting on food, but they have been known to live close to a month without food, two weeks without water, and a half hour without air while submerged in water. On the other hand, consumers can’t live that long without food, water, and oxygen, but what really feeds buyer purchasing patterns is confidence. The April Consumer Confidence number from the Confidence Board showed the April reading reaching the highest level since September 2008. On a shorter term basis, the April figure measured in at 57.9, up from 52.3 in the previous month.

Where is all this buying appetite coming from? What we’re witnessing is merely a reversal of what we experienced in the previous years. In 2008 and 2009 more than 8 million jobs were shed and the fear-induced spiraling of confidence pushed consumers’ buying habits into a cave. With +290,000 new jobs added in April, the fourth consecutive month of additions, the tide has turned and consumers are coming out to see the sun and smell the roses.  Recently the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) revealed real personal consumption expenditures grew +3.6% in the first quarter – the largest quarterly increase in consumer spending since the first quarter of 2007.

Sure, there still are the “double-dippers” predicting an impending recession once the sugar-high stimulus wears off and tax increases kick-in. From my perch, it’s difficult for me to gauge the timing of any future slowing, other than to say I have not been surprised by the timing or magnitude of the rebound (I was writing about the steepening yield curve and the end of the recession last June and July, respectively). Sometimes, the farther you fall, the higher you will bounce. Rather than try to time or predict the direction of the market (see market timing article), I look, rather, to exploit the opportunities that present themselves in volatile times (e.g., your garden variety Dow Jones -1,000 point hourly plunge).  

Will the Trend End?

Can this generational rise in consumer spending continue unabated? Probably not. To some extent we are victims of our own success. As about 25% of global GDP and only 5% of the world’s population, changing directions of the U.S.A. supertanker is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Source: The New York Times (Economix)

However, more nimble, resource-rich developing countries have fewer demographic and entitlement-driven debt issues like many developed countries. In order to build on an envious standard of living, our country needs to build on our foundation of entrepreneurial capitalism by driving innovation to create higher paying jobs. With those higher paying jobs will come higher spending. Of course, if uncompetitive industries cannot compete in the global marketplace, and a mirage of spending is re-created through drug-like credit cards and excess leveraged corporate lending, then heaven help us. Even the impressively resilient cockroach will not be able to survive that scenario.

Read full New York Times article here

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 14, 2010 at 12:20 am 2 comments

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