Archive for March, 2017

What’s Important? Moving on Beyond Politics…

On a daily basis we turn on the TV or read about Democrats screaming at Republicans, or vice versa. Despite screams from the opposition, a Democratically-led Congress was able to successfully push Obamacare through the House and Senate in 2010 in a partisan fashion. The Republicans, however, were unable to jam repeal Obamacare legislation seven years later – at least on their first attempt.

While many Americans who sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum continue to scream at each other until they’re purple in the face, data indicates it is the Independents who are controlling the outcomes of elections. More specifically, a recent Gallup poll shows that 43% of voters identify as political independents, while over the last decade the percentage of voters identifying themselves with the traditional parties of Democrats and Republicans have declined to 30% and 26%, respectively.

It is true, President Trump potentially has a very limited party majority window before next year’s midterm elections. While Republicans do currently have an advantage over Democrats, as I’ve stated before, there are more important issues than these political ones, especially when it relates to your finances.

Whether the discussion revolves around healthcare, tax reform, defense spending, or immigration, the amount of influence you as a voter have on the political outcomes pales in comparison to the amount of control you ultimately have over your personal financial situation. As I’ve written in the past (see also Getting to Your Number), creating a secure financial plan will impact your long-term monetary success much more than senseless cheering or screaming for Obamacare’s long-run success or failure.

More critical than focusing on politics, the importance of calculating your budget, income sources, time horizon, and risk tolerance should be higher priorities. Everybody’s personal situation is different, therefore it is essential to explore a variety of other essential questions, including the following:

  • How many more years do you plan to work?
  • How much income will you need in retirement?
  • What is your expected return on investments, given your asset allocation?
  • How much debt do you presently have, and what are your plans to reduce it?
  • What are the probabilities of you gaining an inheritance, and at what estimated value?
  • Do you have an estate plan in place?
  • Do you have children, and if so, what are your educational goals, and what type of inheritance or financial support are you looking to provide your children?

Since every investor’s situation is unique, there are plenty of other items to investigate. Politics is a state of mind, so don’t let the vicissitudes of Washington DC affect your long-term financial well-being.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing 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 27, 2017 at 12:13 am Leave a comment

Double Dip Expansion?

Ever since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, every time the stock market has experienced a -5%, -10%, or -15% correction, industry pundits and media talking heads have repeatedly sounded the “Double Dip Recession” alarm bells. As you know, we have yet to experience a technical recession (two reported quarters of negative GDP growth), and stock prices have almost quadrupled from a 2009 low on the S&P 500 of 666 to 2,378 today (up approximately +257%).

Over the last nine years, so-called experts have been warning of an imminent stock market collapse from the likes of PIIGS (Portugal/Italy/Ireland/Greece/Spain), Cyprus, China, Fed interest rate hikes, Brexit, ISIS, U.S. elections, North Korea, French elections, and other fears. While there have been plenty of “Double Dip Recession” references, what you have not heard are calls for a “Double Dip Expansion.”

Is it possible that after the initial 2010-2014 economic expansionary rebound, and subsequent 2015-2016 earnings recession caused by sluggish global growth and a spike in the value of the U.S. dollar, we could possibly be in the midst of a “Double Dip Expansion?” (see earnings chart below)

Source: FactSet

Whether you agree or disagree with the new political administration’s politics, the economy was already on the comeback trail before the November 2016 elections, and the momentum appears to be continuing. Not only has the pace of job growth been fairly consistent (+235,000 new jobs in February, 4.7% unemployment rate), but industrial production has been picking up globally, along with a key global trade index that accelerated to 4-5% growth in the back half of 2016 (see chart below).

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

This continued, or improved, economic growth has arisen despite the lack of legislation from the new U.S. administration. Optimists hope for an improved healthcare system, income tax reform, foreign profit repatriation, and infrastructure spending as some of the initiatives to drive financial markets higher.

Pessimists, on the other hand, believe all these proposed initiatives will fail, and cause financial markets to fall into a tailspin. Regardless, at least for the period following the elections, investors and companies have perceived the pro-business rhetoric, executive orders, and regulatory relief proposals as positive developments. It’s widely understood that small businesses supply the largest portion of our nation’s jobs, and the upward spike in Small Business Optimism early in 2017 is a welcome sign (see chart below).

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Yes, it is true our new president could send out a rogue tweet; start a trade war due to a tariff slapped on a critical trading partner; or make a hawkish military remark that isolates our country from an ally. These events, along with other potential failed campaign promises, are all possibilities that could pause the trajectory of the current bull market. However, more importantly, as long as corporate profits, the mother’s milk of stock price appreciation, continue to march higher, then the stock market fun can continue. If that’s the case, there will likely be less talk of “Double Dip Recessions,” and more discussions of a “Double Dip Expansion.”

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing 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 19, 2017 at 12:34 pm Leave a comment

Munger: Buffett’s Wingman & the Art of Stock Picking

Simon had Garfunkel, Batman had Robin, Hall had Oates, Dr. Evil had Mini Me, Sonny had Cher, and Malone had Stockton. In the investing world, Buffett has Munger. Charlie Munger is one of the most successful and famous wingmen of all-time –  evidenced by Berkshire Hathaway Corporation’s (BRKA/B) outperformance of the S&P 500 index by approximately +624% from 1977 – 2009, according to MarketWatch. Munger not only provides critical insights to his legendary billionaire boss, Warren Buffett, but he was also Chairman of Berkshire’s insurance subsidiary, Wesco Financial Corporation from 1984 until 2011. The magic of this dynamic duo began when they met at a dinner party 58 years ago (1959).

In an article he published in 2006, the magnificent Munger describes the “Art of Stock Picking” in a thorough review about the secrets of equity investing. We’ll now explore some of the 93-year-old’s sage advice and wisdom.

Model Building

Charlie Munger believes an individual needs a solid general education before becoming a successful investor, and in order to do that one needs to study and understand multiple “models.”

“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”

 

Although Munger indicates there are 80 or 90 important models, the examples he provides include mathematics, accounting, biology, physiology, psychology, and microeconomics.

Advantages of Scale

Great businesses in many cases enjoy the benefits of scale, and Munger devotes a good amount of time to this subject. Scale advantages can be realized through advertising, information, psychological “social proofing,” and structural factors.

The newspaper industry is an example of a structural scale business in which a “winner takes all” phenomenon applies. Munger aptly points out, “There’s practically no city left in the U.S., aside from a few very big ones, where there’s more than one daily newspaper.”

General Electric Co. (GE) is another example of a company that uses scale to its advantage. Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO, learned an early lesson. If the GE division is not large enough to be a leader in a particular industry, then they should exit. Or as Welch put it, “To hell with it. We’re either going to be # 1 or #2 in every field we’re in or we’re going to be out. I don’t care how many people I have to fire and what I have to sell. We’re going to be #1 or #2 or out.”

Bigger Not Always Better

Scale comes with its advantages, but if not managed correctly, size can weigh on a company like an anchor. Munger highlights the tendency of large corporations to become “big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.” An implicit corruption also leads to “layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They’re too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.”

Becoming too large can also create group-think, or what Munger calls “Pavlovian Association.” Munger goes onto add, “If people tell you what you really don’t want to hear what’s unpleasant there’s an almost automatic reaction of antipathy…You can get severe malfunction in the high ranks of business. And of course, if you’re investing, it can make a lot of difference.”

Technology: Benefit or Burden?

Munger recognizes that technology lowers costs for companies, but the important question that many managers fail to ask themselves is whether the benefits from technology investments accrue to the company or to the customer? Munger summed it up here:

“There are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that’s still going to be lousy. The money still won’t come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.”

 

Buffett and Munger realized this lesson early on when productivity improvements gained from technology investments in the textile business all went to the buyers.

Surfing the Wave

When looking for good businesses, Munger and Buffett are looking to “surf” waves or trends that will generate healthy returns for an extended period of time. “When a surfer gets up and catches the wave and just stays there, he can go a long, long time. But if he gets off the wave, he becomes mired in shallows,” states Munger. He notes that it’s the “early bird,” or company that identifies a big trend before others that enjoys the spoils. Examples Munger uses to illustrate this point are Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Intel Corp. (INTC), and National Cash Register from the old days.

Large profits will be collected by those investors that can identify and surf those rare large waves. Unfortunately, taking advantage of these rare circumstances becomes tougher and tougher for larger investors like Berkshire. If you’re an elephant trying to surf a wave, you need to find larger and larger waves, and even then, due to your size, you will be unable to surf as long as small investors.

Circle of Competence

Circle of competence is not a new subject discussed by Buffett and Munger, but it is always worth reviewing.  Here’s how Munger describes the concept:

“You have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.”

 

For Munger and Buffett, sticking to their circle of competence means staying away from high-technology companies, although more recently they have expanded this view to include International Business Machines (IBM), which they are now a large investor.

Market Efficiency or Lack Thereof

Munger acknowledges that financial markets are quite difficult to beat. Since the markets are “partly efficient and partly inefficient,” he believes there is a minority of individuals who can outperform the markets. To expand on this idea, he compares stock investing to the pari-mutuel system at the racetrack, which despite the odds stacked against the bettor (17% in fees going to the racetrack), there are a few individuals who can still make decent money.

The transactional costs are much lower for stocks, but success for an investor still requires discipline and patience. As Munger declares, “The way to win is to work, work, work, work and hope to have a few insights.”

Winning the Game – 10 Insights / 20 Punches

As the previous section implies, outperformance requires patience and a discriminating eye, which has allowed Berkshire to create the bulk of its wealth from a relatively small number of investment insights. Here’s Munger’s explanation on this matter:

“How many insights do you need? Well, I’d argue: that you don’t need many in a lifetime. If you look at Berkshire Hathaway and all of its accumulated billions, the top ten insights account for most of it….I don’t mean to say that [Warren] only had ten insights. I’m just saying, that most of the money came from ten insights.”

 

Chasing performance, trading too much, being too timid, and paying too high a price are not recipes for success. Independent thought accompanied with selective, bold decisions is the way to go. Munger’s solution to these problems is to provide investors with a Buffett 20-punch ticket:

“I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches ‑ representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.”

 

The great thing about Munger and Buffett’s advice is that it is digestible by the masses. Like dieting, investing can be very simple to understand, but difficult to execute, and legends like these always remind us of the important investing basics. Even though Charlie Munger may be slowing down a tad at 93-years-old, Warren Buffett and investors everywhere are blessed to have this wingman around spreading his knowledge about investing and the art of stock picking.

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, BRKA/B, GE, MSFT, INTC, IBM but at the time of this 3/12/17 updated publishing, SCM had no direct position in National Cash Register, 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 12, 2017 at 7:32 pm Leave a comment

March Madness or Retirement Sadness?

bball

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (March 1, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

“March Madness” begins in a few weeks with a start of the 68-team NCAA college basketball tournament, but there has also been plenty of other economic and political madness going on in the background. As it relates to the stock market, the Dow Jones Industrial Average index reached a new, all-time record high last month, exceeding the psychologically prominent level of 20,000 (closing the month at 20,812). For the month, the Dow rose an impressive +4.8%, and since November’s presidential election it catapulted an even more remarkable +13.5%.

Despite our 45th president just completing his first State of the Union address to the nation, American voters remain sharply divided across political lines, and that bias is not likely to change any time soon. Fortunately, as I’ve written on numerous occasions (see Politics & Your Money), politics have no long-term impact on your finances and retirement. Sure, in the short-run, legislative policies can create winners and losers across particular companies and industries, but history is firmly on your side if you consider the positive track record of stocks over the last couple of centuries. As the chart below demonstrates, over the last 150 years or so, stock performance is roughly the same across parties (up +11% annually), whether you identify with a red elephant or a blue donkey.

dem-v-rep

Nevertheless, political rants flooding our Facebook news feeds can confuse investors and scare people into inaction. Pervasive fake news stories regarding the supposed policy benefits and shortcomings of immigration, tax reform, terrorism, entitlements, foreign policy, and economic issues often result in heightened misperception and anxiety.

More important than reading Facebook political rants, watching March Madness basketball, or drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, is saving money for retirement. While some of these diversions can be temporarily satisfying and entertaining, lost in the daily shuffle is the retirement epidemic quietly lurking in the background. Managing money makes people nervous even though it is an essential part of life. Retirement planning is critical because a mountain of the 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 – 1964 have already reached retirement age and are not ready (see chart below).

eld-pop-growth

The critical problem is most Americans are ill-prepared financially for retirement, and many of them run the risk of outliving their savings. A recent study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that nearly half of families have no retirement account savings at all. The findings go on to highlight that the median U.S. family only has $5,000 in savings (see also Getting to Your Number). Even after considering my tight-fisted habits, that kind of money wouldn’t be enough cash for me to survive on.

Saving and investing have never been more important. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that government entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are at risk for millions of Americans. While I am definitely not sounding the alarm for current retirees who have secure benefits, there are millions of others whose retirement benefits are in jeopardy.

Missing the 20,000 Point Boat? Dow 100,000

Making matters worse, saving and investing has never been more challenging. If you thought handling all of life’s responsibilities was tough enough already, try the impossible task of interpreting the avalanche of instantaneous political and economic headlines pouring over our electronic devices at lighting speed.

Knee-jerk reactions to headlines might give investors a false sense of security, but the near-impossibility of consistently timing the stock market has not stopped people from attempting to do so. For example, recently I have been bombarded with the same question, “Wade, don’t you think the stock market is overpriced now that we have eclipsed 20,000?” The short answer is “no,” given the current factors (see Don’t Be a Fool). Thankfully, I’m not alone in this response. Warren Buffett, the wealthiest billionaire investor on the planet, answered the same question this week after investing $20,000,000,000 more in stocks post the election:

“People talk about 20,000 being high. Well, I remember when it hit 200 and that was supposedly high….You know, you’re going to see a Dow [in your lifetime] that certainly approaches 100,000 and that doesn’t require any miracles, that just requires the American system continuing to function pretty much as it has.”

Like a deer in headlights, many Americans have been scared into complacency. To their detriment, many savers have sat silently on the sidelines earning near-0% returns on their savings, while the stock market has reached new all-time record highs. While Dow 20,000 might be new news for some, the reality is new all-time record highs have repeatedly been achieved in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and now 2017 (see chart below).

record-highs

While I am not advocating for all people to throw their entire savings into stocks, it is vitally important for individuals to construct diversified portfolios across a wide range of asset classes, subject to each person’s unique objectives, constraints, risk tolerance, and time horizon. The risk of outliving your savings is real, so if you need assistance, seek out an experienced professional. March Madness may be here, but don’t get distracted. Make investing a priority, so your daily madness doesn’t turn into retirement sadness.

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in FB and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing 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 4, 2017 at 11:04 am Leave a comment


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