Archive for January, 2014

Aaaaaaaah: Turbulence or Nosedive?

Airplane Landing

We’ve all been there on that rocky plane ride…clammy hands, heart beating rapidly, teeth clenched, body frozen, while firmly bracing the armrests with both appendages. The sky outside is dark and the interior fuselage rattles incessantly until….whhhhhssssshhh. Another quick jerking moment of turbulence has once again sucked the air out of your lungs and the blood from your heart. The rational part of your brain tries to assure you that this is normal choppy weather and will shortly transition to calm blue skies. The irrational and emotional, part of our brains  (see Lizard Brain) tells us the treacherous plane ride is on the cusp of plummeting into a nosedive with passengers’ last gasps saved for blood curdling screams before the inevitable fireball crash.

Well, we’re now beginning to experience some small turbulence in the financial markets, and at the center of the storm is a collapsing Argentinean peso and a perceived slowing in China. In the case of Argentina, there has been a century-long history of financial defaults and mismanagement (see great Scott Grannis overview). Currently, the Argentinean government has been painted into a corner due to the depletion of its foreign currency reserves and financial mismanagement, as evidenced by an inflation rate hitting a whopping 25% rate.

On the other hand, China has created its own set of worries in investors’ minds.  The flash Markit/HSBC Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) dropped to a level of 49.6 in January from 50.50 in December, which has investors concerned of a market crash. Adding fuel to the fear fire, Chinese government officials and banks have been trying to reverse excesses encountered in the country’s risky shadow banking system. While the size of Argentina’s economy may not be a drop in the bucket, the ultimate direction of the Chinese economy, which is almost 20x’s the size of Argentina’s, should be much more important to global investors.

At the end of the day, most of these mini-panics or crises (turbulence) are healthy for the overall financial system, as they create discipline and will eventually change irresponsible government behaviors. While Argentinean and Chinese issues dominate today’s headlines, these matters are not a whole lot different than what we have read about Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey, and other negligent countries. As I’ve stated before, money goes where it’s treated best, and the stock, bond, and currency vigilantes ensure that this is the case by selling the assets associated with deadbeat countries. Price declines eventually catch the attention of politicians (remember the TARP vote failure of 2008?).

Is This the Beginning of the Crash?!

What goes up, must come down…right? That is the pervading sentiment I continually bump into when I speak to people on the street. Strategist Ed Yardeni did a great job of visually capturing the last six years of the stock market (below), which highlights the most recent bear market and subsequent major corrections. Noticeably absent in 2013 is any major decline. So, while many investors have been bracing for a major crash over the last five years, that scenario hasn’t happened yet. The S&P chart shows we appear to be due for a more painful blue (or red) period of decline in the not-too-distant future, but that is not necessarily the case. One would need only to thumb through the history books from 1990-1997 to see that investors lived through massive gains while avoiding any -10% correction – stocks skyrocketed +233% in 2,553 days. I’m not calling for that scenario, but I am just pointing out we don’t necessarily always live through -10% corrections annually.  

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Even though we’ve begun to experience some turbulence after flying high in 2013, one should not panic. You may be better off watching the end of the airline movie before putting your head in between your legs in preparation for a nosedive.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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.

January 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm 2 comments

Earnings Coma: Digesting the Gains

Eating Cake

Over the last five years, the stock market has been an all-you-can-eat buffet of gains for investors.  It has been almost two years since the spring of 2012 when the Arab Spring and potential exit of Greece from the EU caused a -10% correction in the S&P 500 index (see Series of Unfortunate Events). Indigestion of this 10% variety is typically on the menu and ordered at least once per year. With stocks up about +50% over the last two years, performance has tasted sweet. But even binging on your favorite entrée or dessert will eventually lead to a food coma. At that bloated point, a digestion phase is required before another meal of gains can be consumed.

So far investors haven’t been compelled to expel their meals quite yet, but it’s clear to me the rate of appreciation is not sustainable over the long-term. Could the incredible returns continue in the short-run during 2014? Certainly. As I’ve written before, the masses remain skeptical of the recovery/rally and any definitive acceleration in economic growth could spark the powder-keg of skeptics to come join the party (see Here Comes the Dumb Money). If and when that happens, I will be gladly there to systematically ring the register of profits I’ve consumed, by locking in gains and reallocating to less loved areas (i.e., go on a stock diet).

Q4 Appetizers Here, Main Course Not Yet

The 4th quarter earnings appetizers have been served, evidenced by the 50-odd S&P 500 corporations that have reported their financial results, and thus far some Tums may be needed to relieve some heartburn. Although about half of those companies reporting have beat Wall Street estimates, 37% of the group have missed expectations, according to Thomson Reuters. It’s still early in the earnings season, but as of now, the ratio of companies beating Wall Street forecasts is below historical averages.

We can put a little meat on the earnings bone by highlighting the disappointing profit warnings and lackluster results from bellwether companies like United Parcel Service (UPS), Intel Corp (INTC), General Electric (GE), CSX Corp (CSX), and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA), to name a few. Is it time to panic and run for the restroom (or exits)? Probably not.  About 90% of the S&P 500 companies still need to give their Q4 profitability state of the union. What’s more, another reason to not throw in the white towel yet is the global economic environment looks significantly better in areas like Europe, China, and other emerging markets.

Worth remembering, the stock market is a discounting mechanism. The market pays much more attention to the future versus the past. So, even if the early earnings read doesn’t look so great now, the fact that the S&P 500 is down less than -1% off of its all-time, record highs may be an indication of better things ahead.

Recipe for a Pullback?

If earnings continue to drag on in a disappointing fashion, and political brinkmanship materializes surrounding the debt ceiling, it could easily be enough to spark some profit-taking in stocks. While Sidoxia is finding no shortage of opportunities, it has become apparent some speculative pockets of euphoria have developed. Areas like social media and biotech are ripe for corrections.

While the gains over the last few years have been tantalizing, investors must be reminded to not overindulge. Carefully selecting stocks to chew and digest is a better strategy than recklessly binging on everything in the buffet line. There are plenty of healthy areas of the market to choose from, so it’s important to be discriminating…or your portfolio could end up in a coma.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 position in  UPS, INTC, GE, CSX, RDSA, 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.

January 18, 2014 at 12:51 pm Leave a comment

Controlling the Investment Lizard Brain

Brain

“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Investing is challenging enough without bringing emotions into the equation. Unfortunately, humans are emotional, and as a result investors often place too much reliance on their feelings, rather than using objective information to drive rational decision making.

What causes investors to make irrational decisions? The short answer: our “amygdala.” Author and marketer Seth Godin calls this almond-shaped tissue in the middle of our head, at the end of the brain stem, the “lizard brain” (video below). Evolution created the amygdala’s instinctual survival flight response for lizards to avoid hungry hawks and humans to flee ferocious lions.

 

Over time, the threat of  lions eating people in our modern lives has dramatically declined, but the human’s “lizard brain” is still running in full gear, worrying about  other fear-inducing warnings like Iran, Syria, Obamacare, government shutdowns, taxes, Cyprus, sequestration, etc. (see Series of Unfortunate Events)

When the brain in functioning properly, the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain in charge of reasoning) is actively communicating with the amygdala. Sadly, for many people, and investors, the emotional response from the amygdala dominates the rational reasoning portion of the prefrontal cortex. The best investors and traders have developed the ability of separating emotions from rational decision making, by keeping the amygdala in check.

With this genetically programmed tendency of constantly fearing the next lion or stock market crash, how does one control their lizard brain from making sub-optimal, rash investment decisions? Well, the first thing you should do is turn off the TV. And by turning off the TV, I mean stop listening to talking head commentators, economists, strategists, analysts, neighbors, co-workers, blogger hacks, newsletter writers, journalists, and other investing “wannabes”. Sure, you could throw my name into the list of people to ignore if you wanted to, but the difference is, at least I have actually invested real money for over 20 years (see How I Managed $20,000,000,000.00), whereas the vast majority of those I listed have not. But don’t take my word for it…listen or read the words of other experienced investors Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, Ron Baron,  John Bogle, Phil Fisher, and other investment titans (see also Sidoxia Hall of Fame). These investment legends have successful long-term investment track records and they lived through wars, recessions, financial crises, and other calamities…and still managed to generate incredible returns.

Another famed investor, William O’Neil, summed this idea nicely by adding the following:

“Since the market tends to go in the opposite direction of what the majority of people think, I would say 95% of all these people you hear on TV shows are giving you their personal opinion. And personal opinions are almost always worthless … facts and markets are far more reliable.”

 

The Harmful Consequence of Brain on Pain

Besides forcing damaging decisions, another consequence of our lizard brain is its ability to distort reality. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner) and Amos Tversky through their research demonstrated the pain of $50 loss is more than twice as painful as the pleasure from $50 gain (see Pleasure/Pain Principle). Common sense would dictate our brains would treat equivalent scenarios in a proportional manner, but as the chart below shows, that is not the case:

Source: Investopedia

Source: Investopedia

Kahneman adds to the decision-making relationship of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex by describing the concepts of instinctual and deliberative choices in his most recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow  (see Decision Making on Freeways).

Optimizing Risk

Taking excessive risks in technology stocks in the 1990s or in housing in the mid-2000s was very damaging to many investors, but as we have seen, our lizard brains can cause investors to become overly risk averse. Over the last five years, many people have personally experienced the ill effects of unwarranted conservatism. Investment great Sir John Templeton summed up this risk by stating, “The only way to avoid mistakes is not to invest – which is the biggest mistake of all.”

Every person has a different perception and appetite for risk. The optimal amount of risk taken by any one investor should be driven by their unique liquidity needs and time horizon…not a perceived risk appetite. Typically risk appetites go up as markets peak, and conservatism reaches a fearful apex near market bottoms – the opposite tendency of rational decision making. Besides liquidity and time horizon, a focus on valuation coupled with diversification across asset class (stocks/bonds), geography (domestic/international), size (small/large), style (value/growth) is critical in controlling risk. If you can’t determine your personal, optimal risk profile, then find an experienced and knowledgeable investment advisor to assist you.

With the advent of the internet and mobile communication, our brains and amygdala continually get bombarded with fearful stimuli, leading to disastrous decision-making and damaging portfolio outcomes. Turning off the TV and selectively choosing the proper investment advice is paramount in keeping your amygdala in check. Your lizard brain may protect you from getting eaten by a lion, but falling prey to this structural brain flaw may eat your investment portfolio alive.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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.

January 11, 2014 at 4:39 pm 8 comments

The Ski Slope Market: What’s Next in 2014?

ski

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (January 2, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text. 

Skiing, or snowboarding in my case, is a lot like investing in the stock market…a bumpy ride. Snow, wind, ice, and moguls are common for seasoned skiers, and interest rate fluctuations, commodity price spikes, geopolitical turmoil, and -10% corrections are ordinary occurrences for veteran equity investors. However, in 2013 stock investors enjoyed pristine conditions, resulting in the best year for the Dow Jones Industrial Average since 1996. Individuals owning stocks witnessed their portfolios smoothly race to sunny, powder-like returns. More specifically, a December Santa Claus rally (S&P +2.4% for the month) capped off a spectacular year, which resulted in the S&P 500 Index soaring +30%, the NASDAQ Composite Index +38%, and the Dow +26%.

Despite the meteoric move in stocks this year, many observers missed the excitement of the equity ski slopes in exchange for lounging in the comfort of the deceivingly risky but warm lodge. In the lodge, these stock-frightened individuals sipped hot cocoa with wads of inflation-losing cash, bonds, and gold. As a result, these perceived safe assets have now become symbolic relics of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. In the short-run, the risk-averse coziness of the lodge may feel wonderful, but before the lounging observers can say “bull market,” the overpriced cocoas and holiday drinks will eat holes through retirement wallets and purses.

As you can see from the chart below, it is easy for the nervous lodge loungers to vividly remember the scary collapse of 2008-09 (point A to B). Surprisingly, many of these same skeptics are able to ignore or discount the explosive move of 2009-13 (point B to C). There’s another way of looking at this volatile time period. Had an investor fallen into a coma six years ago and then awakened today, an S&P portfolio would still have risen a respectable +26% (point A to C), plus more than +10% or so from dividends.

chart123

Turbulent Times on Back-Country Bond & Gold Trails

While stockholders have thoroughly enjoyed the recent climate, the 2013 weather conditions haven’t been as ideal for gold and bond investors. Gold investors felt less-than-precious in 2013 as they went flying off a cliff and broke a leg. In fact, the shiny metal suffered its worst performance in 30 years and underperformed stocks by a whopping -58%. With this year’s -28% loss (GLD), gold has underperformed stocks over the last six years, after including the impact of dividends.

Like gold traders, most bondholders were wounded in 2013 as well, but they did not get completely buried in an avalanche. Nevertheless, 2013 was a rocky ride overall for the bond haven hunters, as evidenced by the iShares Barclays Aggregate Bond composite (AGG), which fell -4%. As I’ve discussed previously, in Confessions of a Bond Hater, not all bonds are created equally, and actually many Sidoxia client portfolios include shorter-duration bonds, inflation protection bonds, convertible bonds, floating rate bonds, and high-yield bonds. Structured correctly, a thoughtfully constructed bond portfolio can outperform in a rising rate environment like we experienced in 2013.

Although bonds as a broad category may not currently offer great risk-reward characteristics, individuals in the mid-to-latter part of retirement need less volatility and more income – attributes bonds (not stocks) can offer. In other words, certain people are better served by snow-shoeing, or going on sleigh rides rather than risking a wipeout or tree collision on a downhill ski adventure. By owning the right types of bonds, your portfolio can avoid a severe investment crash.

Positive 2014 Outlook but Helmet Advised

With the NASDAQ index having more than tripled to over 4,176 from the 2009 lows, napping spectators are beginning to wake up and take notice. After money hemorrhaged out of the stock market for years (despite positive total returns in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), the fear trend began to reverse itself in 2013 and investment capital began returning to stock funds (see Here Comes the Dumb Money).

Adding fuel to the bull market fire, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) head Christine Lagarde recently signaled an increase in economic growth forecasts for the U.S. in 2014, thanks to an improving employment picture, successful Congressional budget negotiations, and actions by the Federal Reserve to unwind unprecedented monetary stimulus. If you consider the added factors of rising corporate profits, improving CEO confidence (e.g., Ford expansion), the shale energy boom, an expanding housing market, and our technology leadership position, one can paint a reasonably optimistic picture for the upcoming years.

Nonetheless, I am quick to remind investors and clients that the pace of the +30% appreciation in 2013 is unsustainable, and we are still overdue for a -10% correction in the major stock indexes.

The fundamental outlook for the economy may be improving, but there are still plenty of clouds on the horizon that could create a short-term market snowstorm. Domestically, we have the upcoming 2014 mid-term elections; debt ceiling negotiations; and a likely continuation of the Federal Reserve tapering program. Abroad, there are Iranian nuclear program talks; instability in Syria; meager and uncertain growth in Europe; and volatile economic climates in emerging markets like China, Brazil and India. After such a large advance this year, any one of these concerns (or some other unforeseen event) could provide an ample excuse to sell stocks and take some profits.

Since wipeouts are common, a protective helmet in the form of a valuation-oriented, globally diversified portfolio is strongly advised. For seasoned skiers and long-term investors, experiencing the never-ending ups and downs of skiing (investing) is a necessity to reach a desired destination. If you have trouble controlling your skis (money/emotions), it’s wise to seek the assistance of an experienced instructor (investment advisor) so your investment portfolio doesn’t crash.  

www.Sidoxia.com

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 position in AGG, GLD, F, 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.

January 4, 2014 at 10:00 am 1 comment


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