Archive for September, 2010

Why it’s NOT Different This Time

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

-          Edmund Burke – British Statesman and Philosopher (1729-1797) 

I wasn’t a history major in college, but I’ve learned two things by studying history books: 1) The unchanging psyche of human nature leads history consistently to repeats itself; and 2) There is never a shortage of goofballs willing to make zany predictions.

Robert Zuccaro is no exception to lesson number two, as evidenced by his 2001 book, Why it’s Different this Time…Dow 30,000 by 2008!   Sticking one’s neck out is never too difficult when you have a multi-decade trend behind your back – I guess Dow “14,000” just didn’t sound sexy enough back then. Unfortunately the herd reacting to these bold, extreme predictions eventually realize (usually post-mortem) that they are quickly approaching a tail-end of a cycle. The cab driver, hair dresser, and mechanic realized the dangers of following the “New Economy” cheerleaders in 1999 when everyone was piling into dot-com stocks (see Bubblicious technology table ).

Dow 1,000 Here We Come!

Source: Yahoo! Finance

Today, the Zuccaros of the world have been washed to the curb, and new “Armageddon” extremists have sprouted up to the surface, like perma-bear Peter Schiff and his call for Dow 2,000  or his $5,000 per ounce gold estimate. More recently, Robert Prechter has one-upped Schiff by forecasting Dow 1,000 with the assistance of the not-so ironclad Elliott Wave Theory philosophy (see Technical Analysis: Astrology or Lob Wedge). If you’re in the Prechter camp, either crawl back into your bunker or start digging that dream cave you always wanted.

Source: Elliott Wave International

“Hey, Look Here at My Crazy Forecast!”

Publicity doesn’t necessarily rain praise on those parroting the consensus view (although the warmth of job security is appreciated), but rather the extreme outliers love to bask in the glow of media attention. The extremists consistently repeat “why it’s  different this time.” What is different is the set of circumstances, but what history shows us over and over again is the emotions of fear and greed feeding the bubbles of excess are exactly the same. Whether you’re talking about the Tulip-Mania of the 1630s, the Nifty Fifty stocks of 1973-1974, the technology Four Horsemen of the mid-1990s, or the Icelandic Banks of 2008, what we learn from the lessons of history is that human nature will never change and fear and greed will continue creating and bursting future bubbles.

People playing the game long enough understand, “It’s NOT different this time.” Not only have we endured repeated wars, recessions, banking crises, currency crises, but we have also survived every exotic animal disease known to man, including Mad Cow, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, West Nile, etc.

Robert Zuccaro and Robert Prechter may get an “A” for their attention grabbing forecasts, but thus far the grade earned on accuracy is closer to an “F.” More specifically, Zuccaro’s prediction never came close to 30,000 by the end of 2008 (only off by about 21,000 points), and guess what, Bob Prechter has a long way to go before reaching his Dow 1,000 target. So here is my proposition: Why don’t we just split the difference between Zuccaro’s 2008 and Prechter’s 2016 forecasts and take the average? If it turns out they are equally bad forecasters, then Dow 15,500 by 2012 should be no problem ([30,000 + 1,000] ÷ 2)!

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this market (double-dip or sustained recovery), what I do know is there will continue to be wacky outlandish forecasters rationalizing why a trend will go on for infinity and why “this time is different.” In reality these attention mongers will always be around ensuring this time (or next time) will never be different…just the same fear and greed as always.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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 position 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.

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September 29, 2010 at 12:09 am 2 comments

The Next Looming Bailout…Muni Bonds

Source: Photobucket

Government politicians and voters have made it clear they do not want to bail out “fat-cat” bankers in the private sector, but what about bailing out “fat-cat” state pensioners in the public sector? States and cities across the country are increasingly under economic strain with deficits widening and debt-loads stacking up. California’s statewide budget problems have been well publicized, but you are now also hearing about more scandalous financial problems at the city level (read about the multi-million dollar malfeasance in the city of Bell).

Why Worry?

Well if a 2010 $1.3 trillion federal deficit is not enough to tickle your fancy, then how does another $137 billion in state deficits over fiscal 2011 and 2012 sound to you (National Governors Association)? Unfortunately, the states have made no meaningful structural improvements. If you layer on general economic “double dip” recession fears with excess pension liabilities, then you have a recipe for a major unresolved financial predicament.

Despite the dire financial state of the states, municipal bond prices have generally survived the 2008-2009 financial crisis unscathed. With unacceptably poor state budget risks, muni bond prices have continued to rise in 2010. The downside…new investors must accept a pitiful yield of 2.75% on 10-year municipal debt, according to Financial Advisor Magazine.

One investor who is not buying into the strength of the tax-free municipal bond market is famed investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA/BRKB), Warren Buffett. Here is what he wrote about munis in his legendary annual shareholder letter last year:

“Insuring tax-exempts, therefore, has the look today of a dangerous business…Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date.”

 

Buffett has this to say about rating muni bonds:

“I mean, if the federal government will step in to help them [municipalities], they’re triple-A. If the federal government won’t step in to help them, who knows what they are?”

 

Safety Net Disappears

Source: Photobucket

Like a high wire artist dangling high in the air without a safety net below, the states are currently borrowing money with little to no protection from the bond insurance providers. The shakeout of the subprime debt defaults has battered the insurers from many perspectives, leaving a much smaller market in the wake of the financial crisis. In 2007 about 50% of new municipal bonds were issued with bond insurance, while today only approximately 7% carry it (UBS Wealth Management Research). With decreased insurance coverage, the silver lining for muni investors is the necessity for them to perform more comprehensive research on their bond holdings.

Defaults on the Rise

On the whole, less insurance will result in more defaults. Although defaults are expected to decline in 2010, non-payments totaled $6.9 billion in 2009, up from $526 million in 2007 (Distressed Debt Securities). Even though the numbers sounds large, the recent default rate only represents a 0.25% default rate on the hefty $2.8 trillion market. That muni default rate compares to a more intimidating corporate bond default rate of 11% in 2009.

Bigger Bark Than Bite?

James T. Colby, senior municipal strategist at Van Eck Global, understands the severity of the states’ budget crisis but he believes a lot of the doomsday headlines are bogus. Riva Atlas, writer for Financial Advisor Magazine, summarizes Colby’s thoughts:

“Even those states in the worst straits like California and Illinois have provisions in their constitutions or statutes requiring them to pay their debts. In California, the state’s constitution says bondholders come second only to the school system, so the state would have to empty its jails before it stopped paying its teachers.”

 

Certainly municipalities could raise taxes to compensate for any budget shortfalls, but we all know most politicians are reluctant to raise taxes, because guess what? Tax increases may result in fewer votes – the main motivator driving most politicians.

If the states decide to not raise taxes, they still have other ways to weasel out of obligations. For starters, they can just stick it to the insurance company (if coverage exists). If that option is not available, the municipalities can look to the federal government for a bailout. Irresponsible actions have their consequences, and like consumers walking away from payments on their mortgages, municipalities will effectively be preventing themselves from future access to borrowing. Either way, the bark is less than the bite for investors since the insurance company or federal government will be making them whole.

BABs and Taxes Add Fuel to the Fire

A glut of Build America Bonds (BABs) issued by municipalities, driven by demand from yield hungry pension funds, along with expected tax hikes for the wealthy have created a scarcity of tax-free munis.

In the first half of 2010 BABs accounted for more than 25% of municipal bonds issued, which was a significant contributing factor to the robust muni market. The BABs tailwinds aiding muni prices won’t last forever, as the bond issuance program is expected to expire at the end of 2010.

On the tax front, the wealthy are likely to see higher federal tax rates in the future – upwards of 36% – 40%. If you include the double tax-exempt benefits in states like New York and California, the relative attractiveness becomes even that much better. Combined, these factors have elevated muni prices.

Despite higher defaults, scarier headlines, and the lack of insurance, the municipal bond market remains robust. General interest rate declines caused by macroeconomic fears have caused investors to flock to the perceived “safe haven” status of Treasuries and Munis, but as we have all witnessed, the fickle pendulum of emotions never sits still for long.

Managing the Munis

As is evident from the municipal bond discussion, states and cities across the country have been plagued by the same deficit and debt issues as the country faces on a federal level. Tough structural expense issues, and revenue generating tax policies need to be scrutinized in order to prevent federal taxpayer bailouts of municipalities across the country.

From a municipal bond investor perspective, it’s best to focus on general obligation bonds (GOs) because those bonds are backed by the taxing authority of the municipal government. On the flip side, it’s best to stray away from revenue bonds or privately issued municipals because revenue streams from these bond channels are not guaranteed by the municipality, meaning the risk of default is larger.

While Congress sorts out financial regulatory reform with respect to banking bailouts and “too big to fail” corporations, our federal government should not lose sight of the widespread municipality problems our country faces today. If not, get ready to pull out the checkbook to pay for another taxpayer-led bailout… 

Read the Complete Financial Advisor Magazine Article: The Muni Minefield

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including CMF), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in BRKA/B 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.

September 27, 2010 at 12:47 am 1 comment

Microsoft Makes Dividend Splash

Source: ActingLikeAnimals.com

I’ve talked about growing profits and cash piles for a while now (read more), but at some point investors and board members get restless and demand action (Steve Jobs has not yet). The most recent blue-chip company to make a splash, when it comes to capital management, is Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), which just announced a significant +23% increase in its dividend in conjunction with $4.75 billion in debt offerings. These capital structure changes still leave plenty of room for additional share repurchases and acquisitions.

Debt Offering – Are You Sure?

Huh? What in the heck is Microsoft doing borrowing money? I mean, does a company with $44 billion in cash and investments, generating a whopping additional $22 billion in free cash flow in fiscal 2010 (ended in June), really need access to additional capital? The short answer is “NO.” But a company like Microsoft borrowing $4.75 billion is like Donald Trump borrowing $50 on his credit card. Well wait, “The Donald” has actually had some hair and Chapter 11 problems, so the more appropriate analogy would be Bill Gates borrowing $20 on his credit card. Not only is it a rounding error, but it’s a good financial management practice for corporations to take advantage of the debt tax shield (read definition).

What makes Microsoft’s debt issuance that much more incredible is the astonishingly low rates the company is paying investors on the debt. According to Dealogic, Microsoft set a record low for yield paid on corporate unsecured debt. For the separate maturities ranging from 2013 to 2040, Microsoft paid a stunningly low 25-83 basis point spread over Treasuries. I don’t want to get into government credit worthiness today, but who knows, maybe Microsoft will pay lower debt rates than the U.S. Treasury, in the not too distant future?!

Regardless of the array of capital structure management strategies used by other companies, Microsoft is not alone in dealing with its cash hoarding problems. Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO), another blue-chip cash printing press, just announced the initiation of a 1-2% dividend to be paid by the end of their fiscal year ending in July 2011 (read more about dividend cash “un-hoarding”).

But Who Cares?

Who cares about Microsoft’s wimpy 2.62% yield anyway? Well, for one, I sure care! A 10-year Treasury Note is yielding a measly, static 2.55%. If Microsoft continued on the same dividend path growth over the next five years as it did over the last five years, investors could potentially be talking about a 5.2% yield on our initial investment, and this excludes any potential stock price appreciation. With only roughly a 25% payout ratio on Microsoft’s fiscal 2010 free cash flow, the company has a lot of freedom to hike future dividends, even if earnings don’t grow. Microsoft has also enhanced shareholder value by putting its money where its mouth is by purchasing over $30 billion of company stock over the last three years.

Nice trend in dividend growth.

The extreme case of dividend growth is Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), which if purchased in 1972 would provide a +2,300% yield on the original investment, excluding any benefit from the massive price appreciation ($.05 split-adjusted per share to $53.65). Microsoft is no young chick like Wal-Mart 40 years ago, but you get the gist (read Dividend Sapling to Fruit Tree).  

So while strategists and economists fret about the possibilities of a “double dip” recession, in the interim there have been 179 companies in the S&P 500 index that have hiked dividends in 2010 (versus only 3 companies that have cut). Microsoft has been no slouch either, growing revenues by +22% and EPS (Earnings Per Share) by +50% in their most recent fiscal fourth quarter. Although Microsoft’s stock is down -20% for 2010, the capital management and dividend splash recently announced by Microsoft (and other companies) should eventually capture the eye of investors currently earning squat on overpriced bonds and almost worthless Certificates of Deposit.

Read complete Microsoft dividend story 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, CSCO, nd WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in MSFT, 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.

September 24, 2010 at 12:03 am 2 comments

Skiing Portfolios Down Bunny Slopes

Oh Nelly, take it easy…don’t get too crazy on that bunny slope. With fall officially kicking off and the crisp smell of leaves in the air, the new season also marks the beginning of the ski season. In many respects, investing is a lot like skiing.  Unfortunately, many investors are financially skiing their investment portfolios down a bunny slope by stuffing their money in low yielding CDs, money market accounts, and Treasury securities. The bunny slope certainly feels safe and secure, but many investors are actually doing more long-term harm than good and could be potentially jeopardizing their retirements.

Let’s take a gander at the cautious returns offered up from the financial bunny slope products:

Source: Bankrate.com

That CD earning 1.21% should cover a fraction of your medical insurance premium hike, or if you accumulate the interest from your money market account for a few years, perhaps it will cover the family seeing a new 3-D movie. If you also extend the maturity on that CD a little, maybe it can cover an order of chicken fingers at Applebees (APPB)?!

We all know, for much of the non-retiree population, the probability that entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare will be wiped out or severely cut is very high. Not to mention, life expectancies for non-retirees are increasing dramatically – some life insurance actuarial tables are registering well above 100 years old. These trends indicate the criticalness of investing efficiently for a large swath of the population, especially non-retirees.

Let’s Face It, One Size Does Not Fit All

Bodie Miller & Grandpa

As I have pointed out in the past, when it comes to investing (or skiing), one size does not fit all (see article). Just as it does not make sense to have Bode Miller (32 year old Olympic gold medalist) ski down a beginner’s bunny slope, it also does not make sense to take a 75-year old grandpa helicopter skiing off a cornice. The same principles apply to investment portfolios. The risk one takes should be commensurate with an individual’s age, objectives, and constraints.

Often the average investor is unaware of the risks they are taking because of the counterintuitive nature of the financial market dangers. In the late 1990s, technology stocks felt safe (risk was high). In the mid-2000s, real estate felt like a sure bet (risk was high), and in 2010, Treasury bonds and gold are currently being touted as sure bets and safe havens (read Bubblicious Bonds and Shiny Metal Shopping). You guess how the next story ends?

Unquestionably, coasting down the bunny slopes with CDs, money market accounts, and Treasuries is prudent strategy if you are a retiree holding a massive nest egg able to meet all your expenses. However, if you are younger non-retiree and do not want to retire on mac & cheese or work at Wal-Mart as a greeter into your 80s, then I suggest you venture away from the bunny slope and select a more suitable intermediate path to financial success.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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 position in APPB,  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.

September 22, 2010 at 1:24 am Leave a comment

Unemployment Hypochondria

Average investors feel ill from the 2008-2009 financial mess, and like hypochondriacs they can only find fleeting reassurances by reviewing endless amounts of unemployment data. Volatile monthly data is not sufficient, so even more erratic weekly jobless claims data are relied upon. Why just stop there? With this insatiable appetite for unemployment rate data right now, people can’t get enough, so I am not only petitioning for the release of a daily jobs report, but also an hourly one.

Jobs data are relatively straightforward and simple for most Americans to understand.  However, most people have more difficulty connecting with economic acronyms and data points such as GDP, PPI, CPI, industrial production, Philly Fed, capacity utilization, Conference Board LEI, durable goods, factory orders, energy inventories, trade balance, unit labor costs, and other economic figures.

Normal Progression

What’s the big deal surrounding the infatuation with myopic unemployment data? We have these things called “recessions” about twice every decade, and of the last 11 post-WWII recessions we have had 11 recoveries – not a bad batting percentage. Obviously, unemployment is a big deal if you are one of the 15 million or so people with no job, but as Jim Paulsen, Chief Investment Strategist at Wells Capital Management points out in his August Economic and Market Perspective, this current recovery is progressing at the fastest pace of any recovery over the last 25 years, and yes, jobs are being added (albeit slower than hoped).

“The consensus perception that this recovery is the ‘worst ever’ and consequently extremely vulnerable to a potential double-dip recession is overblown…Even if this recovery is weak compared to older postwar norms, it is still stronger than any other recovery in the last 25 years,” states Mr. Paulsen.

 

As you can see from Paulsen’s table below, our current recovery is not as brisk as the recoveries in the pre-1983 era, but he chalks up this trend to subpar growth in the United States’ labor force.

Source: James Paulsen, Wells Capital Management

 Paulsen identified this dampened worker growth since the mid-1980s. He doesn’t attribute moderate growth to the “New Normal,” as described by PIMCO pals Bill Gross and Mohamed El-Erian (see also New Normal is Old Normal), but rather ascribes the phenomenon to a continuing trend.  Paulsen adds:

“Whatever is causing the ‘new-normal’ economy has been doing it for the last 25 years. The ‘new normal’ is actually kind of old—at least a quarter century old.”

 

If you think about it, what businesses carried out over the last two years is clearly consistent with a normal economic recovery:

1)      Businesses fired employees swiftly amid great uncertainty.

2)      Businesses cut expenses, especially discretionary ones, and now profits and cash are piling up.

3)      Businesses are buying more capital equipment. Spending is up +12% (to ~$1.3 trillion) from early 2009 according to Joe Lavorgna, an economist at Deutsche Bank.

4)      Business acquisitions are beginning to heat up. Witness BHP Billiton’s (BHP) bid for Potash Corp (POT), and HP’s (HPQ) bid for 3Par (PAR) as examples (read HP’s Winner’s Curse).

5)      Businesses are paying larger dividends and buying back more of their own stock.

All these actions are very reasonable given the continued uncertain economic environment and rapidly building cash war chests.  Buying back stock, doing acquisitions, and prudently spending on cost saving equipment are, generally speaking, accretive measures for a company’s profit and loss statement. On the other hand, hiring employees is usually a lagging indicator of economic expansion and acts as diluting profit forces – at least in the short-run until workers become more productive.  Eventually cash and/or business confidence will rise enough to push human resource departments over the fence to begin hiring again.

The weekly unemployment claims chart shows how rapidly improvement has been achieved over the last few decades, even though the improvement has stalled at a lofty level.

Source: ScottGrannis.Blogspot.com (8/13/10).

Japan Case Study: Demographic Double Edged Sword

Be careful what you wish for. Low unemployment is not the end-all, be-all of the world we live in. Take Japan for example. From 1953 until 2010, Japan’s unemployment rate averaged about 2.6%. The last reported rate registered 5.2% in July, double Japan’s average, but almost half of the U.S.’s current 9.6% rate.

Why does Japan have lower unemployment? There are numerous reasons cited – everything from over-employment in the agriculture sector to uncounted married women and protective conglomerates to better disincentives in unemployment insurance program. Overshadowing these reasons is the unmistakable aging of the Japanese population. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research predicts the Japanese population will fall 30% to 90 million by 2055. Low birthrates, limited immigration, and retirement all increase demand for employment, therefore Japan’s younger-age workforce becomes a scarcer resource and will be more likely to secure and maintain employment. Eventually, I will become old enough in retirement that I will need my underwear and bedpan changed, and create a job for someone in the process – a job that cannot be outsourced I may add. Of course there are very few countries that want a declining population, even if it may lead to an improved unemployment rate. A growing country with liberal immigration laws, healthy birthrates, abundant resources, and pro-business initiatives may have higher unemployment rates but also have more jobs available because of the growing workforce.

 

Source: UN via Financial Times. Declining Japanese population is putting a growing burden on fewer shoulders.

Eventually the 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946-1964 are going to be exiting the workforce and will increase the burden on our younger workforce. Do we want to follow in the same path of Japan? Or do we want to adjust our legislative process to meet the draining demands of our aging society? My answers are “No,” and “Yes,” respectively.

The unemployment hypochondriacs can take a deep breath knowing the path we are experiencing is nothing new. Certainly I would like to see better policies implemented to accelerate the economic recovery, but regardless of what inept politicians bungle, our innovative companies, and restless voters are waking up to keep our representatives accountable. This is important because we are like a younger but stronger cousin of Japan, and we do not want to follow along the decaying path of an aging indebted country. In the short-run, we all want to see job growth for the millions of unemployed. In the long-run, retiring Boomers will be stretching the resources of our country even more. So although the unemployment hypochondriacs have little to fear in the near-term as the recovery continues, fiscal responsibility needs to be kept in check or hidden economic illnesses may become reality.

Read James Paulsen’s complete August Economic and Market Perspective

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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 position in BHP, POT, HPQ, PAR, 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.

September 20, 2010 at 12:37 am 4 comments

Questioning the Death of Buy & Hold Investing

In the midst of the so-called “Lost Decade,” pundits continue to talk about the death of “buy and hold” (B&H) investing. I guess it probably makes sense to define B&H first before discussing it, but like most amorphous financial concepts, there is no clear cut definition. According to some strict B&H interpreters, B&H means buy and hold forever (i.e., buy today and carry to your grave). For other more forgiving Wall Street lexicon analysts, B&H could mean a multi-year timeframe. However, with the advent of high frequency trading (HFT) and supercomputers, the speed of trading has only accelerated further to milliseconds, microseconds, and even nanoseconds. Pretty soon B&H will be considered buying a stock and holding it for a day! Average mutual fund turnover (holding periods) has already declined from about 6 years in the 1950s to about 11 months in the 2000s according to John Bogle.

Technology and the lower costs associated with trading advancements is obviously a key driver to shortened investment horizons, but even after these developments, professionals success in beating the market is less clear. Passive gurus Burton Malkiel and John Bogle have consistently asserted that 75% or more of professional money managers underperform benchmarks and passive investment vehicles (e.g., index funds and exchange traded funds).

This is not the first time that B&H has been held for dead. For example, BusinessWeek ran an article in August 1979 entitled The Death of Equities (see Magazine Cover article), which aimed to eradicate any stock market believers off the face of the planet. Sure enough, just a few years later, the market went on to advance on one of the greatest, if not the greatest, multi-decade bull market run in history. People repudiated themselves from B&H back then, and while B&H was in vogue during the 1980s and 1990s it is back to becoming the whipping boy today.

Excuse Me, But What About Bonds?

With all this talk about the demise of B&H and the rise of the HFT machines, I can’t help but wonder why B&H is dead in equities but alive and screaming in the bond market? Am I not mistaken, but has this not been the largest (or darn near largest) thirty year bull market in bonds? The Federal Funds Rate has gone from 20% in 1981 to 0% thirty years later. Not a bad period to buy and hold, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Fed Funds won’t go from 0% to a negative -20% over the next thirty years.

Better Looking Corpse

There’s no denying the fact that equities have been a lousy place to be for the last ten years, and I have no clue what stocks will do for the next twelve months, but what I do know is that stocks offer a completely different value proposition today. At the beginning of the 2000, the market P/E (Price Earnings) valued earnings at a 29x multiple with the 10-year Treasury Note trading with a yield of about 6%. Today, the market trades at 13.5 x’s 2010 earnings estimates (12x’s 2011) and the 10-Year is trading at a level less than half the 2000 rate (2.75% today). Maybe stocks go nowhere for a while, but it’s difficult to dispute now that equities are at least much more attractive (less ugly) than the prices ten years ago. If B&H is dead, at least the corpse is looking a little better now.

As is usually the case, most generalizations are too simplistic in making a point. So in fully reviewing B&H, perhaps it’s not a bad idea of clarifying the two core beliefs underpinning the diehard buy and holders:

1)      Buying and holding stocks is only wise if you are buying and holding good stocks.

2)      Buying and holding stocks is not wise if you are buying and holding bad stocks.

Even in the face of a disastrous market environment, here are a few stocks that have met B&H rule #1:

Maybe buy and hold is not dead after all? Certainly there have been plenty of stinking losing stocks to offset these winners. Regardless of the environment, if proper homework is completed, there is plenty of room to profitably resurrect stocks that are left for a buy and hold death by the so-called pundits.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, AMZN, ARMH, and NFLX, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GGP, APKT, KRO, AKAM, FFIV, OPEN, RVBD, BIDU, PCLN, CRM, FLS, GMCR, HANS, BYI, SWN (*2,901% is correct %), CTSH, CMI, ISRG, ESRX, 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.

September 17, 2010 at 1:26 am 1 comment

The Curious Case of Gen Y and Benjamin Button

If a current Gen Y-er aged backwards like Benjamin Button, he would feel right at home when it comes to investing, because acute conservatism and risk aversion have struck older and younger generations alike. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  is a story that follows the critical peaks and valleys of a boy born in his eighties, who immediately begins to reverse the aging process. Investors of all ages have suffered their peaks and valleys over the last decade, and these experiences have impacted investing attitudes and perceptions heavily during the prime earning years. For retirees, it’s virtually impossible for extreme events like the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, Kennedy’s assassination, and Nixon’s impeachment to NOT have had an influence on individuals’ investing behavior.

Investing Consequences on Younger Investors

If a younger Mr. Button were still alive today, there is no doubt the disheartening events experienced in his 80s would only become reinforced by the bleak occurrences in 2008-2009. His reverse aging would not only have allowed him to witness the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but also behold the demise and bailout of other gargantuan financial institutions. Today, if Benjamin wasn’t busy watching the MTV Video Music Awards, he would most likely be diligently managing his bullet-proof portfolio of cash, CDs (Certificates of Deposit), Treasury bills, and maybe some tax-free municipals if he was feeling a little spunky.

The cautious stance of youthful savers was confirmed in a recent study conducted by Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management. The report demonstrates how the recent financial crisis has had a severe dampening impact on the risk appetites of 18-34 year old “Millennials.” So dramatic an effect was the recession, the nervous conservatism experienced by the 30-somethings was only rivaled by fear from 65 year olds. In fact, the 56% of young investors, who were more cautious today than a year ago, was the highest percentage registered by any age group.

Here’s what Christopher Geczy adjunct associate professor of finance at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School had to say about younger Millennials:

“We’re coming off a series of financial crises that hit this young generation at points in their lives where external events shape strong opinions…Many of them have witnessed a decline in the wealth of their families and seen their parents delay retirement or even return to the workforce.”

 

Beyond witnessing the challenges faced by their parents, the Millennials are encountering their own obstacles – such as joblessness. For those workers under age 35, the unemployment rate in August stood at more than 13% – significantly higher than the 9.6% national rate.

Note to Youths: Stocks for the Long Haul

In the typical life cycle of investing, investors flaunt a higher risk tolerance in their younger years and exhibit more risk aversion as they approach or enter retirement. Historically, this makes perfect sense because workers earlier in their careers have plenty of time to ride out the fluctuations associated with owning equities. Jeremy Siegel, professor at the Wharton University Professor, says stocks significantly outperform bonds by 6% per year over longer timeframes (see Siegel Digs in Heels).

For Gen Y-ers the larger risk is being too conservative, not too aggressive. Barry Nalebuff, a strategy professor at Yale’s School of Management agrees:

“The biggest risk for this generation is that they’ll live too long. With medical breakthroughs, the reality is that many of them will live beyond 100…The only way they have enough assets to last them is to invest in stocks. If they don’t, a lot of people will have to keep working way past when they want to because they won’t have enough money saved up.”

 

Even for those downbeat on the domestic equity markets – rightfully so with no price gains achieved over the last decade – younger investors should not lose sight of the tremendous equity opportunities available internationally (see the Blowing the Perfect Investment Game).

For many people, reverse aging may be fun for a while, but for Benjamin Button, living through the Great Depression and multiple wars as an adult would likely dampen the mood and increase risk aversion dramatically. Millennials have persevered through difficult times too. Generation Y has survived two recessionary bubbles caused by excessive technology spending and consumer credit binging, both over a short timeframe. Becoming too conservative for these investors will feel comfortable in the short-run if uncertainty continues to prevail. But investing now with adequate, diversified equity exposure is the prudent course of action. Even a wrinkly Benjamin Button could agree, wisely investing in some equities during your earlier career sure beats working as a Wal-Mart (WMT) greeter into your 80s.

Read the full Money-CNN and Newsweek articles on the subject

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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 position in BAC/Merrill, Lehman, 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.

September 14, 2010 at 11:12 pm 1 comment

From Bearded Monks to Greek Decline

Photo source: vatopaidi.wordpress.com

Noted author Michael Lewis has sold millions of books and written on topics ranging from professional baseball to Wall Street and Iceland to Silicon Valley. Now, he has decided to tackle the gripping but nebulous Greek financial crisis through the eyes and bearded mouths of Greek monks in a recently released article from Vanity Fair.

At the heart of the story is a Christian monastery (Vatopaidi), located on a northeastern peninsula of Greece. This ten-century old sanctuary has helped expose the tenuous state of the Greek economy, which is estimated to be sitting on $1.2 trillion in debt (representing $.25 million per working Greek adult) – a massive number considering the relatively petite size of the country. Beyond interviewing the Vatopaidi monks, Lewis trolled through the country interviewing various politicians, businessmen, government officials, and natives in order to make sense of this Mediterranean mess.

The Scandal Genesis

Starting in 2008, news filtered out that Vatopaidi had somehow acquired a practically worthless lake and swapped it for 73 different government properties, including a 2004 Olympics center. The Vatopaidi monastery effectively created an estimated $1 billion+ commercial real estate portfolio from nothing, thanks to one of the key Vatopaidi monks negotiating a fishy, behind-the-door government exchange scheme. This scandal, among other issues, ultimately lead to the collapse of the prior Greek ruling party and sent Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis packing his bags.

The Greek crisis did not happen overnight, but rather decades. A casual observer may mistake the caustic Greek media headlines as proof to blame Greece as the reason behind the global financial meltdown,  Rather, the challenges faced by this island-based country are more symptomatic of the weak global credit standards and the undisciplined disregard for excessive debt levels. Even with an embarrassingly high debt/GDP ratio (Gross Domestic Product) of about 130%, Greece’s desperate financial situation is a relatively minor blemish in the whole global scheme of things. More specifically, the $300 billion or so in Greek GDP represents the equivalent of a pubescent pimple on the face of a $60 plus trillion global economy.

The Greek Concern

The Vatopaidi scandal is still being investigated, but how did this broader debt-induced, Greek fiscal catastrophe occur?

Lax tax collection, absence of legal enforcement, and simple corruption are a few of the contributing reasons. Lewis describes the situation as follows:

“Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing.”

 

A tax collector and real estate agent from the article had this to say:

“If the law was enforced, every doctor in Greece would be in jail.”  AND
 “Every single member of the Greek Parliament is lying to evade taxes.”

 

The Greek government also did an incredible job of distorting the reported economic data and swept reality under the rug:

“How in the hell is it possible for a member of the euro area to say the deficit was 3 percent of G.D.P. when it was really 15 percent?” a senior I.M.F. (International Monetary Fund) representative asked.

 

The Greek debacle was not an isolated incident. The significant dislocations occurring around the earth’s small and dark corners have directly impacted our lives here in the U.S. Take for example Iceland, the country that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called a converted “hedge fund with glaciers.” Not only did this historically tiny fishing island do dynamic damage to its southern neighbors in Europe, but damage from its collapsing banks extended all the way to busted condominium developments in Beverly Hills, California.  Or consider Dubai and the multi-billion dollar debt restructuring at Nakheel Development that held the world breathless as people around the world watched in trepidation.

These examples, coupled with the Greek financial crisis highlight how widespread the collateral damage of cheap credit proliferated. The cost of money is still dangerously low, as governments around the globe attempt to stimulate demand, however the regulators and banking industry must remain vigilant in maintaining loan and capital deployment discipline. The hot debates over financial regulatory reform in the U.S., along with the recent Basel III banking requirement discussions are evidence of the need to restore balance and stability to the global financial playing field.

The global financial crisis has spooked billions of people around the world. Like a mysterious boogeyman, the crisis has turned cheap and easy credit into the public’s worst nightmare. The mysticism and general opacity surrounding the inner-workings of Wall Street and global financial markets attacks at investors’ inherent emotional vulnerabilities. Michael Lewis has once again helped turn what on the exterior seems extremely complex and confusing and boiled the essence of the problem down into terms the masses can digest and put into perspective.

Bearded monks loading up on government-swapped commercial real estate may have provided valuable lessons and insights into the global financial crisis, however now I can hardly wait for Michael Lewis’s next topic…perhaps balding nuns in South African gold mines?

Read the whole Vanity Fair article written by Michael Lewis

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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 position 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.

September 13, 2010 at 12:57 am Leave a comment

Crisis Delivers Black-Eye to Classic Economists

Markets are efficient. Individuals behave rationally. All information is reflected in prices. Huh…are you kidding me? These are the beliefs held by traditional free market economists (“rationalists”) like Eugene Fama (Economist at the University of Chicago and a.k.a. the “Father of the Efficient Market Hypothesis”). Striking blows to the rationalists are being thrown by “behavioralists” like Richard Thaler (Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics at the University of Chicago), who believes emotions often lead to suboptimal decisions and also thinks efficient market economics is a bunch of hogwash.

Individual investors, pensions, endowments, institutional investors, governments, are still sifting through the rubble in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Experts and non-experts are still attempting to figure out how this mass destruction occurred and how it can be prevented in the future. Economists, as always, are happy to throw in their two cents. Right now traditional free market economists like Fama have received a black eye and are on the defensive – forced to explain to the behavioral finance economists (Thaler et. al.) how efficient markets could lead to such a disastrous outcome.

Religion and Economics

Like religious debates, economic rhetoric can get heated too. Religion can be divided up in into various categories (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other), or more simply religion can be divided into those who believe in a god (theism) and those who do not (atheism). There are multiple economic categorizations or schools as well (e.g., Keynsians, monetarism, libertarian, behavioral finance, etc.).  Debates and disagreements across the rainbow of religions and economic schools have been going on for centuries, and the completion of the 2008-09 financial crisis has further ignited the battle between the “behavioralists” (behavioral finance economists) and the “rationalists” (traditional free market economists).

Behavioral Finance on the Offensive

In the efficient market world of the “rationalists,” market prices reflect all available information and cannot be wrong at any moment in time. Effectively, individuals are considered human calculators that optimize everything from interest rates and costs to benefits and inflation expectations in every decision. What classic economics does not include is emotions or behavioral flaws.

Purporting that financial market decisions are not impacted by emotions becomes more difficult to defend if you consider the countless irrational anomalies considered throughout history. Consider the following:

  • Tulip Mania: Bubbles are nothing new – they have persisted for hundreds of years. Let’s reflect on the tulip bulb mania of the 1600s. For starters, I’m not sure how classic economists can explain the irrational exchanging of homes or a thousand pounds of cheese for a tulip bulb? Or how peak prices of $60,000+ in inflation-adjusted dollars were paid for a bulb at the time (C-Cynical)? These are tough questions to answer for the rationalists.
  • Flash Crash: Seeing multiple stocks (i.e., ACN and EXC) and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) temporarily trade down -99% in minutes is not exactly efficient. Stalwarts like Procter & Gamble also collapsed -37%, only to rebound minutes later near pre-collapse levels. All this volatility doesn’t exactly ooze with efficiency (see Making Millions in Minutes).
  • Negative T-Bill Rates: For certain periods of 2008 and 2009, investors earned negative yields on Treasury Bills. In essence, investors were paying the government to hold their money. Hmmm?
  • Technology and Real Estate Bubbles: Both of these asset classes were considered “can’t lose” investments in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, respectively. Many tech stocks were trading at unfathomable values (more than 100 x’s annual profits) and homebuyers were inflating real estate prices because little to no money was required for the purchases.
  • ’87 Crash: October 19, 1987 became infamously known as “Black Monday” since the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged over -22% in one day (-508 points), the largest one-day percentage decline ever.

The list has the potential of going on forever, and the recent 2008-09 financial crisis only makes rationalists’ jobs tougher in refuting all this irrational behavior. Maybe the rationalists can use the same efficient market framework to help explain to my wife why I ate a whole box of Twinkies in one sitting?

Rationalist Rebuttal

The rationalists may have gotten a black eye, but they are not going down without a fight. Here are some quotes from Fama and fellow Chicago rationalist pals:

On the Crash-Related Attacks from Behavioralists: Behavioralists say traditional economics has failed in explaining the irrational decisions and actions leading up to the 2008-09 crash. Fama states, “I don’t see this as a failure of economics, but we need a whipping boy, and economists have always, kind of, been whipping boys, so they’re used to it. It’s fine.”

Rationalist Explanation of Behavioral Finance: Fama doesn’t deny the existence of irrational behavior, but rather believes rational and irrational behaviors can coexist. “Efficient markets can exist side by side with irrational behavior, as long as you have enough rational people to keep prices in line,” notes Fama. John Cochrane treats behavioral finance as a pseudo-science by replying, “The observation that people feel emotions means nothing. And if you’re going to just say markets went up because there was a wave of emotion, you’ve got nothing. That doesn’t tell us what circumstances are likely to make markets go up or down. That would not be a scientific theory.”

Description of Panics: “Panic” is not a term included in the dictionary of traditional economists. Fama retorts, “You can give it the charged word ‘panic,’ if you’d like, but in my view it’s just a change in tastes.” Calling these anomalous historic collapses a “change in tastes” is like calling Simon Cowell, formerly a judge on American Idol, “diplomatic.” More likely what’s really happening is these severe panics are driving investors’ changes in preferences.

Throwing in White Towel Regarding Crash: Not all classic economists are completely digging in their heels like Fama and Cochrane. Gary Becker, a rationalist disciple, acknowledges “Economists as a whole didn’t see it coming. So that’s a black mark on economics, and it’s not a very good mark for markets.”

Settling Dispute with Lab Rats

The boxing match continues, and the way the behavioralists would like to settle the score is through laboratory tests. In the documentary Mind Over Money, numerous laboratory experiments are run using human subjects to tease out emotional behaviors. Here are a few examples used by behavioralists to bolster their arguments:

  • The $20 Bill Auction: Zach Burns, a professor at the University of Chicago, conducted an auction among his students for a $20 bill. Under the rules of the game, as expected, the highest bidder wins the $20 bill, but as an added wrinkle, Burns added the stipulation that the second highest bidder receives nothing but must still pay the amount of the losing bid. Traditional economists would conclude nobody would bid higher than $20. See the not-so rational auction results here at minute 1:45.

  • $100 Today or $102 Tomorrow? This was the question posed to a group of shoppers in Chicago, but under two different scenarios. Under the first scenario, the individuals were asked whether they would prefer receiving $100 in a year from now (day 366) or $102 in a year and one additional day (day 367)? Under the second scenario, the individuals were asked whether they would prefer receiving $100 today or $102 tomorrow? The rational response to both scenarios would be to select $102 under both scenarios. See how the participants responded to the questions here at minute 4:30.

Rationalist John Cochrane is not fully convinced. “These experiments are very interesting, and I find them interesting, too. The next question is, to what extent does what we find in the lab translate into how people…understanding how people behave in the real world…and then make that transition to, ‘Does this explain market-wide phenomenon?,’” he asks.

As alluded to earlier, religion, politics, and economics will never fall under one universal consensus view. The classic rationalist economists, like Eugene Fama, have in aggregate been on the defensive and taken a left-hook in the eye for failing to predict and cohesively explain the financial crash of 2008-09. On the other hand, Richard Thaler and his behavioral finance buds will continue on the offensive, consistently swinging at the classic economists over this key economic mind versus money dispute.

See Complete Mind Over Money Program

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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 position in ACN, EXC, 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.

September 9, 2010 at 12:23 am 8 comments

Winner’s Curse: HP’s Storage Prize

Congratulations HP (HPQ)…you are the proud winner of 3Par Inc. (PAR), a relatively small enterprise storage hardware and software company, for the bargain price of 125x’s 2011 earnings! Never mind that you were late to the game in your winning $2.4 billion bid against Dell Inc. (DELL), or that you paid more than triple the price ($33 per share) that 3Par was trading just 21 days ago (< $10 per share).  At least you have a storage trophy you can show all your friends and you don’t have to carry around all those heavy bills anymore.

Winner’s Curse

In bidding wars and auctions, the victor of the price battle runs the risk of earning the “Winner’s Curse.” The curse falls upon those that bid a price that exceeds an auctioned asset’s intrinsic value. How can this occur? Well for one reason, the bidder may not have complete information regarding the value of the asset. Secondly, there can be emotional factors, or ego, that play a role in the decision and price paid. Lastly, unique factors, such as strategic benefits or synergies may exist that allow one bidder to offer a higher price than other auction participants. For example, consider an exploration and production company (XYZ Drilling Co.) that is bidding for drilling lease rights in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. If XYZ Drilling Co. has unique existing drilling operations in the same area as the auctioned assets, XYZ Drilling Co. may be in a better position of making a profitable bid relative to its peers. 

HP vs. Dell – A Deeper Look

Let’s take a deeper dive into the HP bid of 3Par. While HP generates a lot of cash by selling printers, cartridges, and computers, the company doesn’t exactly have a bullet-proof balance sheet. Unlike let’s say Apple Inc. (AAPL), which has about $46 billion in cash on its balance sheet with no debt (see Steve Jobs: Gluttonous Hog), HP actually carries more debt than cash (about $20 billion in debt and $15 billion in cash). What’s more, HP has little tangible equity, once $42 billion in goodwill and intangible assets are subtracted from the total asset value of the company – leaving HP with an astronomically high ratio of 275x’s price to tangible book value. For most companies operating with a positive net cash position, making acquisitions accretive is not that difficult in this current environment – when cash is decaying away with a paltry 1% return. Unfortunately for HP, their accretive hurdle is higher than a cash-rich company. Their weighted average cost of capital is ratcheted significantly higher due to a net debt position (not net cash).

Here is the viewpoint on the deal from Ashok Kumar, senior technology analyst at Rodman & Renshaw LLC:

“It’s in excess of $3 million per employee. To put it in perspective, today 3Par has about 5 percent [market share] of the very high-end market and for these premiums to pay out, [HP] would have to expand their market share to about 25 percent or about $1.5 billion, which is 5x the projected growth rate. And all of that would come at the expense of incumbents [like] IBM, EMC, Hitachi.”

 

On the Bright Side

Although the price paid by Hewlett-Packard for 3Par is ridiculously too high, this deal alone is not going to break HP’s piggybank. HP is currently raking in about $8 billion in cash flow per year, so absent aggressive share buybacks or other large acquisitions, HP should be able to pay off the cost of the deal in a few quarters. Secondarily, HP does gain some synergies by integrating 3Par’s blocklevel data storage expertise into HP’s existing portfolio of other storage technologies ( i.e., StoreOnce and IBRIX). Thirdly, HP gains some strategic defensive benefits by keeping 3Par out of Dell’s hands, a potentially formidable competitor in the storage space, given the intensive overlap in customer bases between HP & Dell. Lastly, HP will no doubt be able to introduce and cross-sell 3Par products into Hewlett’s vastly larger customer distribution channels and reap the resulting rewards.

All in all, the 3Par acquisition by HP makes perfect strategic sense, however the price paid will turn out to be a much better deal for 3Par shareholders, rather than HP shareholders. HP ultimately shelled out a hefty price tag to become the victorious party in the 3Par bidding war, but rather than increasing shareholder value, HP ended up achieving the “Winner’s Curse.”

 Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HPQ, PAR, DELL, IBM, EMC, Hitachi, 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.

September 7, 2010 at 12:20 am 5 comments

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