Archive for March, 2012

Time Arbitrage: Investing vs. Speculation

The clock is ticking, and for many investors that makes the allure of short-term speculation more appealing than long-term investing. Of course the definition of “long-term” is open for interpretation. For some traders, long-term can mean a week, a day, or an hour.  Fortunately, for those that understand the benefits of time arbitrage, the existence of short-term speculators creates volatility, and with volatility comes opportunity for long-term investors.

What is time arbitrage? The concept is not new and has been addressed by the likes of Louis Lowenstein, Ralph Wanger, Bill Miller, and Christopher Mayer. Essentially, time arbitrage is exploiting the benefits of moving against the herd and buying assets that are temporarily out of favor because of short-term fears, despite healthy long-term fundamentals. The reverse holds true as well. Short-term euphoria never lasts forever, and experienced investors understand that continually following the herd will eventually lead you to the slaughterhouse. Thinking independently, and going against the grain is ultimately what leads to long-term profits.

Successfully executing time arbitrage is easier said than done, but if you have a systematic, disciplined process in place that assists you in identifying panic and euphoria points, then you are well on your way to a lucrative investment career.

Winning via Long-Term Investing

Legg Mason has a great graphical representation of time arbitrage:

Source: Legg Mason Funds Management

The first key point to realize from the chart is that in the short-run it is very difficult to distinguish between gambling/speculating and true investing. In the short-run, speculators can make money just as well as anybody, and in some cases, even make more profits than long-term investors. As famed long-term investor Benjamin Graham so astutely states, “In the short run the market is a voting machine. In the long run it’s a weighing machine.” Or in other words, speculative strategies can periodically outperform in the short run (above the horizontal mean return line), while thoughtful long-term investing can underperform. 

Financial Institutions are notorious for throwing up strategies on the wall like strands of spaghetti. If some short-term outperforming products spontaneously stick, then the financial institutions often market the bejesus out of them to unsuspecting investors, until the strategies eventually fall off the wall.

Beware o’ Short-Termism

I believe Jack Gray of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo got it right when he said, “Excessive short-termism results in permanent destruction of wealth, or at least permanent transfer of wealth.” What’s led to the excessive short-termism in the financial markets (see Short-Termism article)? For starters, technology and information are spreading faster than ever with the proliferation of the internet, creating a sense of urgency (often a false sense) to react or trade on that information. With more than 2 billion people online and 5 billion people operating mobile phones, no wonder investors are getting overwhelmed with a massive amount of short-term data. Next, trading costs have declined dramatically in recent decades, to the point that brokerage firms are offering free trades on various products. Lower trading costs mean less friction, which often leads to excessive and pointless, profit-reducing trading in reaction to meaningless news (i.e., “noise”).  Lastly, the genesis of ETFs (exchange traded funds) has induced a speculative fervor, among those investors dreaming to participate in the latest hot trend. Usually, by the time an ETF has been created, the cat is already out of the bag, and the low hanging profit fruits have already been picked, making long-term excess returns tougher to achieve.

There is never a shortage of short-term fears, and today the 2008-09 financial crisis; “Flash Crash”; debt downgrade; European calamity; upcoming presidential elections; expiring tax cuts; and structural debts/deficits are but a few of the fear issues du jour in investors’ minds. Markets may be overbought in the short-run, and a current or unforeseen issue may derail the massive bounce from early 2009. For investors who can put on their long-term thinking caps and understand the concept of time arbitrage, buying oversold ideas and selling over-hyped ones will lead to profitable usage of investment time.

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 position 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.

March 25, 2012 at 6:09 pm Leave a comment

Ping Pong Vet Blasts Goldman

Source: Photobucket

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Greg Smith, former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) employee and ping pong medalist at the Jewish Olympics, came out with an earth-shattering revelation… he discovered and revealed that Goldman Sachs was not looking out for the best interests of its clients. I was floored to discover that a Wall Street bank valued at $60 billion would value profits more than clients’ needs.

Hmmm, I wonder what new eye-opening breakthrough he will unveil next? Perhaps Smith will get a job at Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS) for 12 years and then enlighten the public that casinos are in the business of making money at the expense of their customers. I can’t wait to learn about that breaking news.

But really, with all sarcasm aside, any objective observer understands that Goldman Sachs and any other Wall Street firm are simply middlemen operating at the center of capitalism – matching buyers and sellers (lenders and borrowers) and providing advice on both sides of a transaction. As a supposed trusted intermediary, these financial institutions often hold privileged information that can be used to the firms’ (not clients) benefit.

Most industry veterans like me understand how rife with conflicts the industry operates under, but very few insiders publicly speak out about these “dirty little secrets.” Readers of Investing Caffeine  know I am not bashful about speaking my mind. In fact, I have tackled this subject in numerous articles, including Wall Street Meets Greed Street written a few months ago. Here’s an excerpt**:

“Wall Street and large financial institutions, however, are driven by one single mode…and that is greed. This is nothing new and has been going on for generations. Over the last few decades, cheap money, loose regulation, and a relatively healthy economy have given Wall Street and financial institutions free rein to take advantage of the system.”


As with any investment, clients and investors should understand the risks and inherent conflicts of interest associated with a financial relationship before engaging into business. While certain disclosures are sorely lacking, it behooves investors and clients to ask tough questions of bankers and advisors – questions apparently Mr. Smith did not ask his employer over his 12 year professional career at Goldman Sachs.

Reputational Risk Playing Larger Role

Even though Goldman called some clients “muppets,” Smith states there was no illegal activity going on. Regardless of whether the banks have gotten caught conducting explicit law-breaking behavior, the public and politicians love scapegoats, and what better target than the “fat-cat” bankers. With a financial crisis behind us, along with a multi-decade banking bull market of declining interest rates, the culture, profitability-model, and regulations in the financial industry are all in the midst of massive changes. As client awareness and frustration continue to rise, reputational risk will slowly become a larger concern for Wall Street banks.

Could the Goldman glow as the leading Wall Street investment bank finally be getting tarnished? Well, besides their earnings collapsing by about 2/3rds in 2011, the selection of Morgan Stanley (MS) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) ahead of Goldman Sachs as the lead underwriters in the Facebook (FB) initial public offering (IPO) could be a sign that reputational risk is playing a larger role in investment banking market share shifts.

The public and corporate America may be slow in recognizing the shady behavior practiced on Wall Street, but eventually, the excesses become noticed. Congress eventually implements new regulations (Dodd-Frank) and customers vote with their dollars by moving to banks and institutions they trust more.

I commend Mr. Smith for speaking out about the corrupt conflicts of interest and lack of fiduciary duty at Goldman Sachs, but let’s call a spade a spade and not mischaracterize a situation as suddenly shifting when the practices have been going on forever. Either he is naïve or dishonest (I hope the former rather than the latter), but regardless, finding a new job on Wall Street may be challenging for him. Fortunately for Mr. Smith, he has something to fall back on…the professional ping-pong circuit.

***Other Relevant Articles and Video:

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 position in FB, GS, MS, JPM, LVS, 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.

March 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm 1 comment

Happy Birthday Bull Market!

Birthdays are always fun, but they are always more fun when more people come to the party. The birthday of the current bull market started on March 9, 2009, and as many bears point out, volume has been low, with a relatively small number of investors joining the party with hats and horns. This skepticism is not unusual in typical bull markets because the psychological scars from the previous bear market are still fresh in investors’ minds. How can investors get excited about investing when we are surrounded by record deficits, political gridlock, a crumbling European Union, slowing China, and peak corporate margins?

Bears Receive Party Invite but Stay Home

Perma-bears like Peter Schiff, Nouriel Roubini, John Mauldin, Mohamed El-Erian, and David Rosenberg have been consistently wrong over the last three years with their advice, but in some instances can sound smart shoveling it out to unassuming investors.

While nervous investors and bears have missed the 125%+ rally (see table below) over the last three years (mitigated by upward but underperforming gold prices), what many observers have not realized is that the so-called “Lost Decade” (see also Can the Lost Decade Strike Twice?) has actually been pretty spectacular for shrewd investors. Even if you purchased small and mid cap stocks at the peak of the market in March 2000, that large swath of stocks is up over +100%…yes, that’s right, more than doubled over the last 12 years. If you consider dividends, the numbers look significantly better.

Doubters of the equity market rally also ignore the three-year +135% advance in the NASDAQ (see also Ugly Stepchild) in part because the 11-year highs being registered still lag the peak levels reached in March 2000. Even though the NASDAQ increased 9-fold in the 1990s, if you bought the NASDAQ index in the first half of 1999, you would have still outperformed the S&P 500 index through the 2012 year-to-date period. Irrespective of how anyone looks at the performance of the NASDAQ index, it still has outperformed the S&P 500 index by more than +200% over the last 25 years, even if you include the bursting of the 2000 technology bubble.


The point of all these statistics is to show that if you didn’t buy technology stocks at the climax of late 1999 or early 2000 prices, then the amount and type of available opportunities have been plentiful. The table above does not include emerging markets like Brazil, Mexico, and India (to name a few) that have also about doubled in price from the 2000 timeframe to 2012.

Heartburn can Accompany Sweet Treats

Being Pollyannaish after a doubling in market prices is never a wise decision. After three years of massive appreciation, those participating in the bull market run have eaten a lot of tasty cake. Now the question becomes, will investors also get some ice cream and a gift bag to go before the party ends? With the sweetness of the cake still being digested, there are still plenty of scenarios that can create investor heartburn. Obviously, the sovereign debt pig still needs to work its way through the European snake, and that could still take some time. In addition, although macroeconomic data (including employment data) generally have been improving, the trajectory of corporate profits has been decelerating  – due in part to near record profit margins getting pressured by rising input costs. Domestically, structural debt and deficit issues have not gone away, and perpetual neglect will only exacerbate the current problems. On the psychology front, even though investors remain skittish, those still in the game are getting more complacent as evidenced by the VIX index now falling to the teens (a negative contrarian indicator).

Despite some of these cautionary signals, the good news is that many of these issues have been known for some time and have been reflected in valuations of the overall large cap indexes. Moreover, trillions of dollars remain idle in low yielding strategies as investors wait on the sidelines. Once prices move higher and there is more comfort surrounding the sustainability of an economic recovery, then capital will come pouring back into equity markets. In other words, investors will have to pay a premium cherry price if they wait for a comforting consensus to coalesce. 

Limited Options

The other advantage working in investors’ favor is the lack of other attractive investment alternatives. Where are you going to invest these days when 10-year Treasuries and short-term CDs are yielding next to nothing? How about investing in risky, leveraged, illiquid real estate, just as banks unload massive numbers of foreclosures and process millions of short sales? If those investments don’t tickle your fancy, then how about pricey insurance and annuity products that nobody can understand? Cash was comforting in 2008-2009 and during volatility in recent summers, but with spiking food, energy, leisure, and medical costs, when does that cash comfort turn to cash pain?

Easy money and low interest rate policies being advocated by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and other global central bankers have sucked up available investment opportunities and compelled investors to look more closely at riskier assets like equities. With the large run in equities, I have been trimming back my winners and redeploying proceeds into higher dividend paying stocks and underperforming sectors of the market. Skepticism still abounds, and we may be ripe for a short-term pullback in the equity markets. For those rare birthday party attendees who are called long-term investors, opportunities still remain despite the large run in equities. The cake has been sweet so far, but if you are patient, some ice cream and a gift bag may be coming your way as well.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including emerging market, international, and bond/treasury ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in VXX, MXY,  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.

March 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm Leave a comment

Investors Sit on Fence and Watch New Highs

Article includes excerpts from Sidoxia Capital Management’s 3/1/2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

We’ve seen some things jump during this 2012 Leap Year (mainly stock prices), but investors have not been jumping – rather they have been doing a lot of fence sitting. Despite the NASDAQ index hitting 11+ year highs (+14% in 2012 excl. dividends), and the S&P 500 index approaching 4-year highs, investors have been pulling cash out in droves from equities. Just last month, Scott Grannis at Calafia Beach Pundit highlighted that $355 billion in equity outflows has occurred since September 2008, including $155 billion since April 2011 and $6 billion siphoned out at the beginning of 2012.

Once again, listening to the vast majority of TV talking heads has decimated investor portfolios. However, ignoring the dreadful, horrific news over the last three years would have made an equity investor 100%+ (yes, that’s right…double). Somehow, the facts have escaped the psyches of millions of average Americans as the train is leaving the station. Certainly in 2008, a generational decline in equity markets was accompanied by horrific headlines. Those who were positioned too aggressively suffered about 15 months of severe pain, but those who capitulated with knee-jerk reactions after the collapse did incredibly more damage by selling near the bottom and locking in losses. Only now, after the Dow has exploded from 6,500 to 13,000 over the last three years have investors begun to ask whether now is the time to buy stocks.

Of course, making decisions by reacting to news headlines is a horrible way to manage one’s money and will only lead to a puddle of tears in the long-run. Psychological studies have shown that losses are 2.5x’s as painful as the pleasure experienced from gains. The wounds from the 2000 technology bubble and 2008-2009 financial crisis are still too fresh in investors’ minds, and until the scars heal, millions of investors will remain on the sidelines. As usual, average investors unfortunately get more excited after much of the gains have already been garnered.

Investing should be treated like an extended game of chess that requires long-term thinking. As in investing, there are many strategies that can be used in chess. Shadowing your opponent’s every move generally is not a winning strategy. Rather than defensively reacting to an opponent’s every move, proactively planning for the future is a healthier strategy. Don’t be a pawn, but instead create a long-term, low-cost investment plan that accounts for your current balance sheet, future goals, and risk tolerance in order to achieve your retirement checkmate. But before you can do that, you must first get that rump off the fence and put a plan into action.


Hot News Bites

  Chili Pepper

How Do You Like Them Apples? Apple Inc. (AAPL) has become the most valuable company on the planet as it has surpassed a half-trillion dollars in market value at the end of February. Thanks to record sales of new iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers, Apple has managed to stuff away close to $100 billion in cash in its coffers. What’s next for Apple? Besides introducing new versions of existing products, Apple is expected to innovate its television platform later this year.

Greece Dips into Euro Purse Again: Euro-zone ministers approved a $172 billion rescue package for Greece to avoid default for the second time in less than two years. In addition to the Greek citizens, private bondholders are sharing in the pain. The deal calls for debt holders to write down their Greek debt by 74%; demands stark austerity measures (Debt/GDP ratio of 120.5% by 2020); and a continuous monitoring of Greece’s fiscal standing by a European task force.

Taxes-Schmaxes: There’s nothing more exciting in politics than the discussion of taxes. OK, maybe former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s moon colony proposal is a tad more interesting. Nonetheless, Congress voted to extend the payroll-tax cut through December, and both President Obama and presidential candidate Mitt Romney unveiled their new tax plans. Although Obama’s plan hopes to tax the rich, both politicians have plenty of tax-cuts embedded in their plans. In an election year, apparently debt and deficit amnesia have set in.

Investors “Like” Facebook: Although investors appear to be “Like”-ing Facebook in advance of its initial public offering (IPO), employees and owners seem to be even happier, considering the company is estimated to reach up to $100 billion in value once shares begin trading. I can’t wait to read CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s status update when he cashes in on a portion of his stake of $25 billion or so.

Gas Prices Empty Wallet: Improving global economic data is not the only reason behind escalating gasoline prices (currently averaging $3.73 per gallon for Regular). Iran reduced its sales of crude oil to Britain and France after those countries stopped importing Iranian oil, and Iran stated it has made progress on its nuclear-development program. Can’t we just all get along?!

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, FB and AAPL, 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.

March 2, 2012 at 8:07 pm 1 comment

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