Archive for December, 2012
Between Felix Baumgartner flying through space at the speed of sound and the masses flapping their arms Gangnam style, we all still managed to survive the Mayan apocalyptic end to the world. Investing Caffeine also survived and managed to grow it’s viewership by about +50% from last year.
Thank you to all the readers who inspire me to spew out my random but impassioned thoughts on a somewhat regular basis. Investing Caffeine and Sidoxia Capital Management wish you a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year in 2013!
Here are some of the most popular Investing Caffeine postings over the year:
Explaining how billions of dollars in stock selling can lead to doubling in stock prices.
Good investors love ambiguity.
What would you do if our country was a stock?
Determining whether history will repeat itself after the presidential elections.
How robots are changing the face of the global job market.
Lessons learned from Iceland four years after Lehman Brothers.
Continue reading at IC & perhaps you too can become a member?!
It appears that the cycle from previous years is happening again.
Explaining the tight correlation of European & U.S. markets, and what to do about it.
Stock market returns are beginning to make change perceptions about holding cash.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), 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.
Gorging oneself at an all-you-can eat buffet has its advantages, but managing the associated extra pounds and bloatedness carries its own challenges. In a similar fashion, businesses and consumers are devouring data at an exponential rate, while simultaneously attempting to slice, dice, manage, and store all of this information. Data is quickly becoming as cheap as oxygen, and there are virtually no limitations on the amount consumed.
With the help of my handy smart phone, tablet, and digital camera, I can almost store and watch every moment of my life, very much like the movie The Truman Show. Social media and cloud services, coupled with inexpensive storage, have only made it simpler to digitally archive my life. Pretty soon, with the click of a mouse (or tap of the tablet) everyone will be able to instantaneously access every important moment of their life from cradle to grave.
Consuming Data Bytes at a Time
If you are in the mood for consuming free data, there are plenty of free multi-gigabyte services to choose from, including Dropbox, Mozy, and SkyDrive among other. For those chomping on more than 25 gigabytes of data, paid services like Amazon.com’s (AMZN) Simple Storage Service (a.k.a, “S3”) allow users to store a terabyte of data for about $0.01 – $0.05 per month. However, if renting storage is not your gig (no pun intended), you can own your personal storage device for next to nothing. In fact, you can buy a 1 terabyte (equal to 1,000 gigabytes) external hard drive today for less than $70. If that’s too rich for your blood, then just wait 12 months or so and pay $50 bucks. To put a terabyte in context, this amount of storage can hold approximately 625,000 high quality photos or 412 DVD quality movies, according to a Financial Times article talking about “big data.”
A terabyte may sound like a lot, but if we’re going to be honest, this amount of storage is Tiddly Winks. Once we start talking about petabytes (1,000 terabytes), exabytes (1,000,000 terabytes), and zettabytes (1 billion terabytes), things begin to get a little more interesting (see chart below). If you consider that 2012 global data center traffic estimates amount to 2.6 zettabytes (or 2.6 billion terabytes), it doesn’t take long to appreciate the enormity of the data management challenge facing billions of people.
The Financial Times also points out the following:
“From the beginning of recorded time until 2003, we created five exabytes of data. In 2011 the same amount was created every two days. By 2013 it’s expected that the time will shrink to 10 minutes.”
Digital World Driving Data Appetite
What’s driving the global gusher of data growth? There’s not just one answer, but one can start understanding the scope of the issue after contemplating the trillions of annual text messages; 1 billion Facebook (FB) users; 800 million monthly YouTube visitors watching 4 billion hours of videos; six billion cell phones worldwide; and a global 122 million tablet market (IDC).
I certainly wasn’t the first person to discover this megatrend, but I am not hesitating to invest both my client’s money and my money into benefiting from this massive growth trend. Businesses are prospering from the data tidal wave too, as evidenced in part by Oracle Corp’s (ORCL) stellar quarterly earnings results reported just a few days ago. The mass migration of services to the “cloud” (software delivered over the internet) combined with the need to manage and store exploding industry data, resulted in Oracle reporting growth of +18% in its profitable Software License Sales and Cloud Subscriptions segment. With results like these, no wonder Oracle’s founder and CEO Larry Ellison owns a 141-mile square island, a multi-hundred million yacht, and is worth $41 billion according to Forbes (#3 on the Forbes 400 list).
Whether you realize it or not, we are all consuming heaps of all-you-can eat data at the digital buffet. Rather than rolling over into a data consumption coma, you will be much better off figuring out how to profit from the exploding data trends.
See also: The Age of Information Overload
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), GOOG, and AMZN, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in FB, ORCL, 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.
Not all performance is created equally. Now is the time of year where professional money managers jockey for position before year-end, either with the intent of locking in above-average performance or throwing up a Hail Mary pass in hopes of gaining lost performance ground. Typically, top performing managers are lauded for their eye-popping returns and shrewd investing acumen, when in fact, often these managers have been playing a game of roulette in which a risky, low probability strategy of betting on “green zero” has paid off (a winner about 2.6% of the time).
With tens of thousands hedge fund managers, mutual fund managers, and investment advisors self-reporting their results, even if the performance is accurate, the “Law of Large Numbers” dictates a small percentage will outperform. In other words, short-term luck can often trump long-term skill in the investment world, so investors really need to take a look under the covers to better understand the composition of the results.
Here are some factors contributing to performance distortions and misunderstandings:
Leverage: Adding leverage to your investment strategy is a lot like switching from a bicycle to a motorcycle. The new vehicle may get you to your destination faster, but the risks are lot higher than riding a bike, including death. The same principles apply to investing. A leveraged portfolio may be a fun ride when prices appreciate, but the agony on the downside can be equally painful in reverse. Often, many managers obscure the amount of leverage, and point to absolute returns rather than risk-adjusted returns, which rightfully account for the underlying volatility of the security or investment. To better measure investment performance on an apples-to-apples basis, risk-adjusted ratios such as Sharpe ratios and Treynor ratios should be used.
Concentration/Style Drift: Similarly to playing a game of roulette, putting all your money on black can result in a very handsome payout, but the downside can be just as severe. In the late 1990s growth managers benefited tremendously by concentrating their portfolios into technology stocks because prices appreciated virtually unabated. Many value managers succumbed to style drift by abandoning their value investment mandates and chasing performance. Investors should scrutinize the composition of their portfolios to better comprehend the bets managers are making. Excessive concentration or style drift may lead to a rude awakening.
Benchmark Cherry Picking: Buried in the fine print of an investment prospectus or pitchbook, a performance benchmark, which acts like a measuring stick, can usually be found. The non-standardized game of performance reporting is a lot like a beauty contest in which the investment manager can pick ugly competitors to make themselves look better. Typically a manager compares their performance against the worst performing benchmark or index, and if the benchmark performance improves, a manager can again substitute the old benchmark with a newer, uglier one.
Spaghetti Effect: Another misleading marketing strategy used by many investment firms is what I like to call the “Throwing-Spaghetti-Against-the-Wall” technique, which involves throwing as many strategies at investors as it takes and see what sticks. Famed hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made Herculean profits during the collapse of the subprime crisis, used this strategy in hopes of capitalizing on his sudden fame. The results haven’t been pretty over the last few years as his major funds have massively underperformed and assets have collapsed from about $38 billion at the peak to less than an estimated $20 billion now. Paulson has proved that parlaying one successful bet into many spaghetti throwing strategies (Advantage, Advantage Plus, Partners Fund, Enhanced Fund, Credit Opportunities, and Recovery) can lead to billions in gained assets, albeit shrinking.
Window-Dressing: Portfolio managers are notorious for selling their stinkers and buying the darlings at the end of a quarter, just so they can avoid uncomfortable questions from investors. By analyzing a manager’s portfolio turnover (i.e., the average holding period for a position), an investor can gauge how much shuffling is really going on. Generally speaking, managers performing this value-destroying, smoke and mirrors behavior are doing more harm than good due to all the trading costs and frictions.
While periodically reviewing absolute reported returns is important, more critical than that is analyzing the risk-adjusted returns of a portfolio, so apples-to-apples comparisons can be made. Any and all strategies are bound to underperform for periods of time, but in order to make rational investment decisions investors need to truly understand the underlying strategy and philosophy of the manager(s). Without following all these steps, investors will have better luck putting their money on green.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any Paulson funds 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.
Uncertainty is like a fin you see cutting through the water – many people are uncertain whether the fin sticking out of the water is a great white shark or a dolphin? Uncertainty generates fear, and fear often produces paralysis. This financially unproductive phenomenon has also reared its ugly fin in the investment world, which has led to low-yield apathy, and desensitization to both interest rate and inflation risks.
The mass exodus out of stocks into bonds worked well for the very few that timed an early 2008 exit out of equities, but since early 2009, the performance of stocks has handily trounced bonds (the S&P has outperformed the bond market (BND) by almost 100% since the beginning of March 2009, if you exclude dividends and interest). While the cozy comfort of bonds has suited investors over the last five years, a rude awakening awaits the bond-heavy masses when the uncertain economic clouds surrounding us eventually lift.
The Certainty of Uncertainty
What do we know about uncertainty? Well for starters, we know that uncertainty cannot be avoided. Or as former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin stated so aptly, “Nothing is certain – except uncertainty.”
Why in the world would one of the world’s richest and most successful investors like Warren Buffett embrace uncertainty by imploring investors to “buy fear, and sell greed?” How can Buffett’s statement be valid when the mantra we continually hear spewed over the airwaves is that “investors hate uncertainty and love clarity?” The short answer is that clarity is costly (i.e., investors are forced to pay a cherry price for certainty). Dean Witter, the founder of his namesake brokerage firm in 1924, addressed the issue of certainty in these shrewd comments he made some 78 years ago, right before the end of worst bear market in history:
“Some people say they want to wait for a clearer view of the future. But when the future is again clear, the present bargains will have vanished.”
Undoubtedly, some investors hate uncertainty, but I think there needs to be a distinction between good investors and bad investors. Don Hays, the strategist at Hays Advisory, straightforwardly notes, “Good investors love uncertainty.”
When everything is clear to everyone, including the novice investing cab driver and hairdresser, like in the late 1990s technology bubble, the actual risk is in fact far greater than the perceived risk. Or as Morgan Housel from Motley Fool sarcastically points out, “Someone remind me when economic uncertainty didn’t exist. 2000? 2007?”
What’s There to Worry About?
I’ve heard financial bears argue a lot of things, but I haven’t heard any make the case there is little uncertainty currently. I’ll let you be the judge by listing these following issues I read and listen to on a daily basis:
- Fiscal cliff induced recession risks
- Syria’s potential use of chemical weapons
- Iran’s destabilizing nuclear program
- North Korean missile tests by questionable new regime
- Potential Greek debt default and exit from the eurozone
- QE3 (Quantitative Easing) and looming inflation and asset bubble(s)
- Higher taxes
- Lower entitlements
- Fear of the collapse in the U.S. dollar’s value
- Rigged Wall Street game
- Excessive Dodd-Frank financial regulation
- High Frequency Trading / Flash Crash
- Unsustainably growing healthcare costs
- Exploding college tuition rates
- Global warming and superstorms
I could go on for another page or two, but I think you get the gist. While I freely admit there is much less uncertainty than we experienced in the 2008-2009 timeframe, investors’ still remain very cautious. The trillions of dollars hemorrhaging out of stocks into bonds helps make my case fairly clear.
As investors plan for a future entitlement-light world, nobody can confidently count on Social Security and Medicare to help fund our umbrella-drink-filled vacations and senior tour golf outings. Today, the risk of parking your life savings in low-rate wealth destroying investment vehicles should be a major concern for all long-term investors. As I continually remind Investing Caffeine readers, bonds have a place in all portfolios, especially for income dependent retirees. However, any truly diversified portfolio will have exposure to equities, as long as the allocation in the investment plan meshes with the individual’s risk tolerance and liquidity needs.
Given all the uncertain floating fins lurking in the economic background, what would I tell investors to do with their hard-earned money? I simply defer to my pal (figuratively speaking), Warren Buffett, who recently said in a Charlie Rose interview, “Overwhelmingly, for people that can invest over time, equities are the best place to put their money.” For the vast majority of investors who should have an investment time horizon of more than 10 years, that is a question I can answer with certainty.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) including BND, 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.
Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary December 3, 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.
Over the last year, investors’ concerns have jumped around like a frog moving from one lily pad to the next. From the debt ceiling debate to the European financial crisis, and then from the presidential election to now the “fiscal cliff.” With the election behind us (Obama winning 332 electoral votes vs 206 for Romney; and Obama 50.8% of the popular vote vs 47.5% for Romney), the frog’s bulging eyes are squarely focused on the fiscal cliff. For the uninformed frogs that have been swimming underwater, the fiscal cliff is the roughly $600 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that are scheduled to be triggered by the end of this year, if Congress cannot come to some type of agreement (for more fiscal cliff information see videos here). The mathematical consequences are clear: Congress + No Deal = Recession.
While political brinksmanship and theater are nothing new, the explosive amount of data is something new. In our mobile world of 6 billion cell phones (more than the number of toothbrushes on our planet) and trillions of text messages sent annually, nobody can escape the avalanche of global data. Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Twitter, and millions of blogs (including this one) didn’t exist 15 years ago, therefore fiscal boogeymen like obscure Greek debt negotiations and Chinese PMI figures wouldn’t have scared pre-internet generations underneath their beds like today’s investors. The fact of the matter is our country has triumphed over plenty of significant issues (many of them scarier than today’s headlines), including wars, assassinations, currency crises, banking crises, double digit inflation, SARS, mad cow disease, flash crashes, Ponzi schemes, and a whole lot more.
Although today’s jumpy investors may worry about the lily pads of a double-dip recession in the US, a financial meltdown in Europe, and/or a hard landing in China, fiscal frogs will undoubtedly be worried about different lily pads (concerns) twelve months from now. This may not be an insightful observation for day traders, but for the other 99% of investors, taking a longer term view of the daily news cycle may prove beneficial.
Fiscal Cliff Term Paper Due on Friday December 21st
As a college student, chugging Jolt Cola, in combination with a couple dosages of NoDoz, was part of the routine procrastination process the day before a term paper was due. Apparently Congress has also earned a PhD in procrastination, judging by the last minute conclusion of the debt ceiling negotiations last summer. There are only a few more weeks until politicians break for the Christmas holiday break, therefore I am setting an Investing Caffeine mandated fiscal cliff due date of December 21st. Could Congress turn in its term paper early? Anything is possible, but unfortunately turning in the assignment early is highly unlikely, especially when politically bashing your opponent is perceived as a better re-election tactic compared to bipartisan negotiation.
A higher probability scenario involves Americans stuck listening to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell on a daily basis as these politicians finger-point and call the other side obstructionists. While I’m not alone in believing a deal will ultimately get done before Christmas, how credible and substantive the announcement will be depends on whether the politicians seriously face entitlement and tax reforms. Regardless, any deal announced by Investing Caffeine’s December 21st due date will likely be received well by the market, as long as a framework for entitlement and tax reform is laid out for 2013.
Frog News Bites
GDP Revised Higher: Despite all the gloom and uncertainties, the barometer of the economy’s health (i.e., Real Gross Domestic Product), was revised higher to 2.7% growth for the third quarter (from 2.0%). Nominal growth, a related measurement that includes inflation, reached a five-year high of 5.55%. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which caused upwards of $50 billion in damage, fourth quarter GDP numbers are likely to be artificially depressed. The silver lining, however, is first quarter 2013 figures may get an economic boost from reconstruction efforts.
Housing Recovery Continues: Buoyed by record low interest rates (30-yr fixed mortgages < 3.5%), housing sales and prices continue on an upward trajectory. New home sales came in at 368,000 in October, below expectations, but sales are still up around +20% from 2011 (Calculated Risk).
Confidence Still Low but Climbing: The recently reported consumer confidence figures reached the highest level in more than four years, but as Scott Grannis highlights, this is nothing to write home about. These current confidence levels match where we were during the 1990-91 and 1980-82 recessions.
Car Sales Picking Up: Fiscal cliff discussions haven’t discouraged consumers from buying cars. As you can see from the chart below, car and truck sales reached 14.3 million annualized units in October. November sales are expected to rise about +13% on a year-over-year basis, reaching approximately 15.3 million units.
CIA Chief Fired in Sex Scandal: If you didn’t get enough of the Lindsay Lohan bar brawl dirt in New York, never fear, there was plenty of salacious details emanating from Washington DC this month. A complicated web of Florida socialites, a biographer, email chains, and a bare-chested FBI agent led to the firing of CIA director David Petraeus.
Death to Twinkies: After lining stomachs with golden cream-filled cakes for more than 80+ years, Hostess Brands was forced to halt production of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho Hos. Negotiations with union bakers crumbled, which led to Hostess Brands’ Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidation proceedings. My financial brain understands, but my sweet tooth is still grieving (see also Twinkie Investing).
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in FB, Twitter 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.