Posts filed under ‘economy’

Stocks Winning Olympic Gold

 

medals

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (August 1, 2016). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

The XXXI Olympics in Rio, Brazil begin this week, but stocks in 2016 have already won a gold medal for their stellar performance. The S&P 500 index has already triumphantly sprinted to new, all-time record highs this month. A significant portion of the gains came in July (+3.6%), but if you also account for the positive results achieved in the first six months of 2016, stocks have advanced +6.3% for the year. If you judge the 2%+ annualized dividend yield, the total investment return earns an even higher score, coming closer to +8% for the year-to-date period.

No wonder the U.S. is standing on the top of the economic podium compared to some of the other international financial markets, which have sucked wind during 2016:

  • China Shanghai Index: -15.8%
  • Japan Nikkei Index: -12.9%
  • French Paris CAC Index: -4.3%
  • German Dax Index: -3.8%
  • Europe MSCI Index: -3.5%
  • Hong Kong Heng Sang Index: -0.1%

While there are some other down-and-out financial markets that have rebounded significantly this year (e.g., Brazil +61% & Russia +23%), the performance of the U.S. stock market has been impressive in light of all the fear, uncertainty, and doubt blanketing the media airwaves. Consider the fact that the record-breaking performance of the U.S. stock market in July occurred in the face of these scary headlines:

  • Brexit referendum (British exit from the European Union)
  • Declining oil prices
  • Declining global interest rates
  • More than -$11,000,000,000,000.00 (yes trillions) in negative interest rate bonds
  • Global terrorist attacks
  • Coup attempt in Turkey
  • And oh yeah, a contentious domestic presidential election

With so many competitors struggling, and the investment conditions so challenging, then how has the U.S. prospered with a gold medal performance in this cutthroat environment? For many individuals, the answer can be confusing. However, for Sidoxia’s followers and clients, the strong pillars for a continued bull market have been evident for some time (described again below).

Bull Market Pillars

Surprising to some observers, stocks do not read pessimistic newspaper headlines or listen to gloomy news stories. In the short-run, stock prices can get injured by emotional news-driven traders and speculators, but over the long-run, stocks and financial markets are drawn like a magnet to several all-important metrics. What crucial metrics am I referring to? As I’ve reiterated in the past, the key drivers for future stock price appreciation are corporate profits, interest rates, valuations (i.e., price levels), and sentiment indicators (see also Don’t Be a Fool).

Stated more simply, money goes where it is treated best, and with many bonds and savings accounts earning negative or near 0% interest rates, investors are going elsewhere – for example, stocks. You can see from the chart below, economy/stocks are treated best by rising corporate profits, which are at/near record high levels. With the majority of stocks beating 2nd quarter earnings expectations, this shot of adrenaline has given the stock market an added near-term boost. A stabilizing U.S. dollar, better-than-expected banking results, and firming commodity prices have all contributed to the winning results.

jul 16 gdp

Price Follows Earnings…and Recessions

What history shows us is stock prices follow the direction of earnings, which helps explain why stock prices generally go down during economic recessions. Weaker demand leads to weaker profits, and weaker profits lead to weaker stock prices. Fortunately for U.S. investors, there currently are no definitive signs of imminent recession clouds. Scott Grannis, the editor of Calafia Beach Pundit, sums up the relationship between recessions and the stock market here:

“Recessions typically follow periods of excesses—soaring home prices, rising inflation, widespread optimism—rather than periods dominated by risk aversion such as we have today. Risk aversion can still be found in abundance: just look at the extremely low level of Treasury yields, and the lack of business investment despite strong corporate profits.”

Similar to the Olympics, achieving success in investing can be very challenging, but if you want to win a medal, you must first compete. If you’re not investing, you’re not competing. And if you’re not investing, you have no chance of winning a financial gold medal. Just as in the Olympics, not everyone can win, and there are many ups and downs along the way to victory. Rather than focusing on the cheers and boos of the crowd, implementing a disciplined and diversified investment strategy that accounts for your time horizon, objectives, and risk tolerance is the championship approach that will increase your probability of landing on the Olympic medal podium.

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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.

August 1, 2016 at 1:39 pm Leave a comment

EU Marriage Ends in Messy Brexit Divorce

divorce

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (July 1, 2016). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

What Just Happened?

Breakups are never easy, especially when they come as a surprise. That’s exactly what happened with last week’s “Brexit” (British exit) referendum results. History was made when 51.9% of the United Kingdom (U.K.) voters from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cast their vote to divorce (“Leave”) their country from the European Union (EU). In the end, the 48.1% of U.K. voters could not generate enough support to “Remain” in the EU (see chart below). Despite torrential downpours in southern Britain, voter turnout was extraordinarily high, as 72% of the 46.5 million registered voters came out in full force to have their voices heard.

Divorce is never cheap, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron paid the ultimate price with his defeat in the Brexit referendum…the loss of his job. Immediately following the release of the referendum results, Cameron, the British Prime Minister since 2010 and leader of the Conservative Party, immediately announced his resignation, effective no later than October 2016 after the selection of his successor.

brexit votes

Source: Bloomberg

One of the reasons behind the shock of the Brexit Leave decision is the longstanding relationship the U.K. has had with the EU. European Union membership first began in 1957 with Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Netherlands being the founding countries of this new political-economic union.

A few decades later, the U.K. officially joined the EU in 1973 with Ireland and the Denmark, shortly before Margaret Thatcher came into power. If you fast forward to today, some 43 years after U.K. originally joined the EU, the Brexit decision represents the largest turning point in European political history. Not since the 1989 falling of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent demise of the Cold War in the Soviet Union has such a large, earth-moving political shift occurred.

Today, there are 28 member countries in the EU with Croatia being the newest member in 2013. Despite the Brexit outcome, there still is a backlog of countries wanting to join the EU club, including Turkey, Serbia, Albania, and Montenegro (and this excludes Scotland, which has voiced an interest in leaving the U.K. for the EU).

What Were Investors’ Reactions?

Financial markets around the world were caught off guard, given many pre-referendum polls were showing the Remain camp with a slight edge, along with British betting parlors that were handicapping an overwhelming victory for the Remain camp. Here’s a summary of stock market reactions around the globe from June 23rd to June 30th:

U.S. (S&P 500): -0.7%

U.K. (FTSE 100): +2.6%

Japan (Nikkei): -4.1%

Germany (DAX): -5.6%

Hong Kong (Hang Seng): +0.4%

China (Shanghai): +1.3%

India (BSE): -0.0%

Surprisingly, modest monthly gains achieved in the S&P 500 prior to the Brexit vote (up +0.8%) were quickly pared after the results came in but remained positive for the entire month (up +0.1%). For the year, U.S. stocks are up a limited +2.7%, which isn’t too bad considering investors’ current mood.

Stocks were not the only financial market disrupted after the Brexit announcement, foreign exchange currency rates were unstable as well. The British pound dived to a 30-year low shortly after the vote to a level of approximately $1.33/£, and was down more than -10% on the day of the announcement (see chart below). UK banks like Barclays PLC (BCS) and Lloyds Banking Group PLC (LYG) also saw their share prices significantly pressured as EU regulatory risks of losing access to European customers and negative global interest rates further squeeze the banks’ profit margins.

To put the currency picture into perspective, the value of the British pound ($2.64/£) peaked in March 1972 at a rate about double the U.S. dollar today. On the positive side of the ledger, a weaker British pound could help boost exports and vacation time to Stonehenge or London, but there is also a risk for a spike of inflation (or stagflation) on the country’s roughly $740 billion in imports (e.g., food, energy, and raw materials).

currency v ppp

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Why Did it Happen?

While economically prosperous regions like London and Scotland voted heavily for Remain, the message for change of the Leave camp resonated well with working class towns and rural areas of England (seen here). Besides a geographic split, there was also a demographic divide between voters. As you can see from the YouGov poll below, the majority of younger citizens overwhelmingly voted for Remain, and vice versa for older citizens as it relates to the Leave vote.

18-24: 75% Remain

25-49: 56% Remain

50-64: 44% Remain

65+: 39% Remain

While geography and demographics certainly played a key role in the outcome of the EU Leave referendum result, at the core of the movement also was a populist discontent with immigration and the negative economic consequences created by globalization. There are many reasons behind the sluggish economic global recovery, even if the U.S. is doing best out of the developed countries, but rightly or wrongly, immigration policies and protectionism played a prominent part in the Brexit.

At the heart of the populist sentiment of lost control to Brussels (EU) and immigration is the question of whether the benefits of globalization have outweighed the costs. The spread of globalization and expanded EU immigration has disenfranchised many lower skill level workers displaced by eastern European immigrants, Syrian refugees and innovative solutions like automated machinery, software, and electronic equipment. Economic history clearly shows the answer to the effectiveness of globalization is a resounding “yes”, but the post-financial crisis recovery has been disappointingly sluggish, so a component of the populist movement has felt an urgency to find a scapegoat. The benefits of globalization can be seen in the chart below, as evidenced by the increases in per capita GDP of the UK relative to Germany and France, after joining the EU in 1973. Many observers are quick to identify the visible consequences of globalization (i.e., lower-paying job losses), but fail to identify the invisible benefits (i.e., productivity, lower prices, investment in higher-paying job gains).

UK GDP Ratio

Source: The Wall Street Journal

What happens next?

While some EU leaders want to accelerate the Brexit transition, in actuality, this will require a long, drawn-out negotiation process between the still-unnamed new UK Prime Minister and EU officials. The complete EU-Brexit deal will take upwards of two-years to complete, once Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty has been triggered – likely in October.

In light of the unchartered nature of the Brexit Leave vote, nobody truly knows if this decision will ultimately compromise the existential reality of the EU. Time will tell whether Brexit will merely be a small bump on the long EU road, or the beginning of a scary European domino effect that causes the 28 EU country bloc to topple. If the U.K. is successful in negotiating EU trade agreements with separate European countries, the Brexit even has a longer-term potential of benefiting economic activity.  Regardless of the EU outcome, the long-term proliferation of capitalism and democracy is likely to prevail because citizens vote with their wallets and capital goes where it is treated best.

What does Brexit Mean for Global Markets?

The short answer is not much economically, however there have been plenty of less substantial events that have roiled financial markets for relatively short periods of time. There are two basic questions to ask when looking at the economic impact of Brexit:

1) What is the Brexit impact on the U.S. economy?

If you objectively analyze the statistics, U.S. companies sold approximately $56 billion of goods to the U.K. last year   (our #7 trading partner). Even if you believe in the unlikely scenario of a severe U.K. economic meltdown, the U.K. trade figure is a rounding error in the whole global economic scheme of things. More specifically, $56 billion in trade with the U.K. equates to about .003 of the United States’ $18+ trillion GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

2) What is the Brexit impact on the global economy?

The U.K.’s GDP amounts to about $3 trillion dollars. Of that total, U.K. exports to the EU account for a reasonably insignificant $300 billion. As you can see from the chart below, $300 billion in UK exports to the EU are virtually meaningless and coincidentally equate to about .003 of the world’s $78 trillion estimated GDP.

global gdp

Source: The National Archives

What to Do Next?

Like many divorces, the U.K. Brexit may be messy and drawn out, until all the details are finalized over the next couple years. It’s important that you establish a strong foundation with your investments and do not divorce the sound, fundamental principles needed to grow and preserve your portfolio. As is usually the case, panicking or making an emotional decision relating to your investments during the heat of some geopolitical crisis rarely translates into an optimal decision over the long-run. As I repeatedly have advised over the years, these periods of volatility are nothing new (see also Series of Unfortunate Events).

If you catch your anxiety or blood pressure rising, do yourself a favor and turn off your TV, radio, or electronic device. A more productive use of time is to calmly review your asset allocation and follow a financial plan, with or without the assistance of a financial professional, so that you are able to achieve your long-term financial goals. This strategy will help you establish a more durable, long-lasting, and successful marriage with your investments.

investment-questions-border

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 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.

July 2, 2016 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

The New Abnormal: Living with Negative Rates

Crazy Lady

Pimco, the $1.5 trillion fixed-income manager located a stone’s throw distance from my office in Newport Beach, famously (or infamously) coined the phrase, “New Normal”. As former Pimco CEO (Mohamed El-Erian) described years ago, around the time of the Great Recession, the New Normal “reflects a growing realization that some of the recent abrupt changes to markets, households, institutions, and government policies are unlikely to be reversed in the next few years. Global growth will be subdued for a while and unemployment high.”

As it turns out, El-Erian was completely wrong in some respects and shrewdly prescient in others. For instance, although the job recovery has been one of the slowest in a generation, 14.5 million private sector jobs have been added since 2010, and the unemployment rate has been more than halved from 10% in early 2009, to below 5% today. However, the pace of global growth has been relatively weak since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which has forced central banks all over the world to lower interest rates in hope of stimulating growth. Monetary policies around the globe have been cut so much that almost 25% of global GDP is tied to countries with negative interest rates (see chart below).

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

The European central banks started the sub-zero trend in 2014, and the Bank of Japan recently joined the central banks of Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland in negative territory. The negative short-term rate virus has spread further to long-term bonds as well, as evidenced by the 10-Year German Bund (sovereign bond) yield, which crossed into negative territory last week (see chart below).

Source: TradingEconomics.com

Source: TradingEconomics.com

The New Abnormal

The unprecedented post-crisis move to a 0% Fed Funds rate target, along with the implementation of Quantitative Easing (QE) by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, was already pushing the envelope of “normal” stimulative monetary policy. Nevertheless, central banks pushing rates to a negative threshold takes the whole stimulus discussion to another level because investors are guaranteed to lose money if they hold these bonds until maturity.

As we enter this new submerged rate phase, this activity can only be described as abnormal…not normal. Preserving money at a 0% level and losing value to inflation (i.e., essentially stuffing money under the proverbial mattress) is a bitter enough pill to swallow. Paying somebody to lend them money gives “insanity” a good name.

The stimulative objectives of negative interest policies established by central bankers may be purely intentioned, however there can be plenty of unintentional consequences. For starters, negative rates can produce too much of a good thing, in the form of excess borrowing or leverage. In addition, retirees and savers across a broad spectrum of ages are getting crushed by the paltry rates, and bank profit margins (net interest margins) are getting squeezed to boot.

Another unintended consequence of negative rate policies could be a polar opposite outcome to the envisioned stimulative design. Scott Mather, a co-portfolio manager of the $86 billion PIMCO Total Return Fund (PTTRX) is making the case that these policies could be creating more economic contractionary effects than invigorating expansion. More specifically, Mather notes, “It seems that financial markets increasingly view these experimental moves as desperate and consequently damaging to financial and economic stability.”

Eventually, the cheap money deliberately created by central banks will result in a glut of risk-taking and defaults. However, despite all the cries from hawks protesting money printing policies, cautious bank lending behavior coupled with regulatory handcuffs have yet to create widespread debt bubbles. Certainly, oceans of cheap money can create pockets of problems, as I have identified and discussed in the private equity market (see also Dying Unicorns), but supply and demand rule the day at some point.

In the end, as I have repeatedly documented, money goes where it is treated best. Realizing guaranteed losses while trapped in negative rate bonds is no way to treat your investment portfolio over the long-run. In the short-run, the safety and stability of short duration bonds may sound appealing, but ultimately rational and efficient behavior prevails. Why settle for 0% or negative rates when yields of 2%, 4%, and 6% can be found in plenty of other responsible investment alternatives?

Arguably, in this post financial crisis world we live in, we have transitioned from the New Normal to a New Abnormal environment of negative rates. Pundits and prognosticators will continue spewing fear-filled cautionary advice, but experienced, long-term investors will continue taking advantage of these risk averse markets by investing in a quality, diversified portfolio of superior yielding investments. For now, there are plenty of opportunities to choose from, until the next phase of this economic cycle… when the New Abnormal transitions to the New Normalized.

investment-questions-border

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 , but at the time of publishing had no direct position in PTTRX, 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.

June 18, 2016 at 2:50 pm 1 comment

Cleaning Out Your Investment Fridge

moldy cheese

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (June 1, 2016). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

Summer is quickly approaching, but it’s not too late to do some spring cleaning. This principle not only applies to your cluttered refrigerator with stale foods but also your investment portfolio with moldy investments. In both cases, you want to get rid of the spoiled goods. It’s never fun discovering a science experiment growing in your fridge.

Over the last three months, the stock market has been replenished after a rotten first two months of the year (S&P 500 index was down -5.5% January through February). The +1.5% increase in May added to a +6.6% and +0.3% increase in March and April (respectively), resulting in a three month total advance in stock prices of +8.5%. Not surprisingly, the advance in the stock market is mirroring the recovery we have seen in recent economic data.

After digesting a foul 1st quarter economic Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reading of only +0.8%, activity has been smelling better in the 2nd quarter. A recent wholesome +3.4% increase in April durable goods orders, among other data points, has caused the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank to raise its 2nd quarter GDP estimate to a healthier +2.9% growth rate (from its prior +2.5% forecast).

Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70% of our country’s economic activity, has been on the rise as well. The improving employment picture (5.0% unemployment rate last month) means consumers are increasingly opening their wallets and purses. In addition to spending more on cars, clothing, movies, and vacations, consumers are also doling out a growing portion of their income on housing. Housing developers have cautiously kept a lid on expansion, which has translated into limited supply and higher home prices, as evidenced by the Case-Shiller indices charted below.

case shiller 2016

Source: Bespoke

Spoiling the Fun?

While the fridge may look like it’s fully stocked with fresh produce, meat, and dairy, it doesn’t take long for the strawberries to get moldy and the milk to sour. Investor moods can sour quickly too, especially as they fret over the impending “Brexit” (British Exit) referendum on June 23rd when British voters will decide whether they want to leave the European Union. A “yes” exit vote has the potential of roiling the financial markets and causing lots of upset stomachs.

Another financial area to monitor relates to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy and its decision when to further increase the Federal Funds interest rate target at its June 14th – 15th meeting. With the target currently set at an almost insignificantly small level of 0.25% – 0.50%, it really should not matter whether Chair Janet Yellen decides to increase rates in June, July, September and/or November. Considering interest rates are at/near generational lows (see chart below), a ¼ point or ½ point percentage increase in short-term interest rates should have no meaningfully negative impact on the economy. If your fridge was at record freezing levels, increasing the temperature by a ¼ or ½ degree wouldn’t have a major effect either. If and when short-term interest rates increase by 2.0%, 3.0%, or 4.0% in a relatively short period will be the time to be concerned.

10 yr

Source: Scott Grannis

Keep a Fresh Financial Plan

As mentioned earlier, your investments can get stale too. Excess cash sitting idly earning next-to-nothing in checking, savings, CDs, or in traditional low-yielding bonds is only going to spoil rapidly to inflation as your savings get eaten away. In the short-run, stock prices will move up and down based on frightening but insignificant headlines. However, in the long-run, the more important issues are determining how you are going to reach your retirement goals and whether you are going to outlive your savings. This mindset requires you to properly assess your time horizon, risk tolerance, income needs, tax situation, estate plan, and other unique circumstances. Like a balanced diet of various food groups in your refrigerator, your key personal financial planning factors are dependent upon you maintaining a properly diversified asset allocation that is periodically rebalanced to meet your long-term financial goals.

Whether you are managing your life savings, or your life-sustaining food supply, it’s always best to act now and not be a couch potato. The consequences of sitting idle and letting your investments spoil away are a lot worse than letting the food in your refrigerator rot away.

investment-questions-border

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 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.

June 4, 2016 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Market Inefficiencies Give Black-Eyes 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, were left sifting through the rubble in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis because common beliefs were thrown out the window. 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, monetarists, libertarians, behavioral finance economists, etc.).  Debates and disagreements across the rainbow of religions and economic schools have been going on for centuries, and the arrival and departure of the 2008-09 financial crisis 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 economists fail to account for are the emotional and behavioral flaws made by individuals.

Claiming financial market decisions are not impacted by emotions becomes more challenging to defend, if you consider the countless irrational anomalies occurring 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 and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) temporarily plummet -99% in minutes is not exactly the sign of an efficient market. 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 Interest Rates: Plenty of so-called pundits are arguing that equity markets are expensive, but what about the $8 trillion in negative interest rate bonds? Prices for many of these bonds are astronomical. Paying someone to take my money doesn’t make a lot of sense, but trillions in speculative investments are still being made today.
  • 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 ever-growing list of nonsensical anomalies only makes the rationalists’ jobs that much tougher in refuting the illogical behavior. Risk aversion has been alive and well in the post financial crisis environment as wild swings have resulted from a wide range of concerns, including: the U.S. debt downgrade; Arab Spring; potential Greek exit from the EU; Sequestration; Fed Taper Tantrum; Obamacare implementation; Russian invasion of Ukraine; Gaza conflict; Fukashima disaster; Ebola outbreak; Ferguson tensions; Paris/San Bernardino/Brussels terrorist attacks; China recessionary fears; oil price volatility; Mideast turmoil – ISIS expansion; Federal Reserve rate increases; and many other worries. Often, the human lizard brain is what leads to sub-optimal decision making. 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 growing list of market inefficiencies has given the rationalists 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 American Idol judge Simon Cowell, “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, acknowledged the blind-siding of the 2008-2009 financial crisis when he  admitted, “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 I 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 recurring market inefficiencies, including 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

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Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in PG 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.

May 28, 2016 at 10:16 am 3 comments

Pulling the Band-Aid Off Slowly

Bandaid

Federal Reserve monetary policy once again came to the forefront as the Fed released its April minutes this week. After living through years of a ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy) coupled with QE (Quantitative Easing), many market participants and commentators are begging for a swifter move back to “normalization” (a Federal Funds Rate target set closer to historical averages). The economic wounds from the financial crisis may be healing, as seen in the improving employment data, but rather than ripping off the interest rate Band-Aid quickly and putting the pain behind investors, the dovish Fed Chair Janet Yellen has been signaling for months the Fed will increase rates at a “gradual” pace.

Despite the more hawkish tone regarding the possibility of an additional rate hike in June, Fed interest rate futures are currently still only factoring in about a 26% probability of a rate increase in June. As I have been saying for years (see “Fed Fatigue”), there has, and will likely continue to be, an overly, hyper-sensitive focus on monetary policy and language disseminated by members of the Feral Reserve Open Market Committee.

For example, in 1994, despite the Fed increasing target rates by +2.5% in a single year (from 3.0% to 5.5%), stock prices finished roughly flat for the year, and the market resumed its decade-long bull market run the subsequent year. Today, the higher bound of Fed Funds sits at a mere 0.5%, and the Fed has announced only one target increase this cycle (equaling a fraction of the ’94 pace). Even if investors are panicking over another potential quarter point in June or July, can you say, “overkill?”

While the Fed is approaching the lower-end of the range for its employment mandate (unemployment currently sitting at 5%), despite the recent bounce in oil prices, core inflation remains in check (see Calafia Pundit chart below). This long-term benign pricing trend gives the Fed a longer leash as it relates to the pace of future rate hikes.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Sure, ripping off the Fed Band-Aid with a small handful of +0.5% (50 bps) hikes might appease hawkish investors, but Janet Yellen, the “Fed Fairy Godmother,” has made it abundantly clear she is in no hurry to raise rates. Whether there is zero, one, or two additional rate hikes this year is much less important than other fundamental factors. Adding fuel to the Fed-speak fire in the short-run will be Yellen speeches on May 27th at Harvard University and on June 6th at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. And then following that, we will have the “Brexit” referendum (i.e., the vote on whether Britain should exit the EU); a steady stream of election noise; and many other unanticipated economic/geopolitical headlines.

As I continually state, the key factors driving the direction of long-term stock prices are profits, interest rates, valuations, and sentiment (see Follow the Stool). Profits (ex-energy) are growing near record levels; interest rates are near record lows (even with potential 2016 hikes); valuations remain near historical averages; and sentiment regarding stock ownership is firing strongly as a positive contrarian indicator.

While many pundits have been calling for and predicting the Fed to rip the Band-Aid off with a swift string of rate increases, persistently low inflation, coupled with a consistently dovish Fed Chair are likely to lead to a slow peeling of the monetary policy Band-Aid. Unfortunately, the endless flow of irrelevant monetary policy guesswork regarding the timing of future rate hikes will be more painful than the actual hikes themselves. In the end, any future hikes should be justified with a stronger economic foundation, which should represent future strength, rather than future weakness.

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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 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.

May 21, 2016 at 10:21 pm Leave a comment

Yield Starving Foreigners Go Muni Hunting

hunter pointing rifle in blaze orange gear

In the current cold, barren, negative interest rate environment, foreign investors are getting hungry and desperate as they hunt for yield. In the hopes of kick-starting economic activity around the globe, central bankers are taking the drastic measure of establishing negative interest rate policies. This unusual endeavor is pressing international investors to chase yield, no matter how small, wherever they can find it.

One of those areas in which foreigners are hunting for yield is the U.S. municipal bond market (see FT article). On the surface, this sounds ludicrous. Why would an outsider living in Germany or Japan invest in a U.S. municipal bond that yields a paltry rate that’s less than 1.7%, especially considering those investors will not benefit from the tax-free income advantages offered to Americans?

As strange as it sounds, Natalie Cohen, Wells Fargo’s head of municipal research correctly pointed out this pursuit for municipal bond yield across continents boils down to simple math. “Even if [foreign investors] are not subject to the US tax code, a plus two is better than a minus one,” Cohen notes.

Although foreign investment in the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market is relatively small, the rapidly rising appetite for munis is clearly evident, as shown in the chart below.

Source: The Financial Times

Source: The Financial Times

With our country’s crumbling roads and bridges, these ever-increasing piles of foreign cash pouring into our municipal bonds are helping fund a broad array of U.S. infrastructure projects. Given the election season is upon us, this issue may gain heightened attention. Both likely-presidential candidates are highlighting the need for infrastructure investment as part of their platforms, and the NIRP (negative interest rate policies) agenda of international central banks may make these municipal infrastructure dreams a reality.

We Americans are no stranger to the idea of borrowing money from foreigners. In fact, the Chinese own about $1.3 trillion of our Treasury bonds. This is all fine and dandy as long as the international appetite for lending us money remains healthy. If our city, state, and federal governments become too addicted to the Chinese, Europeans, and Japanese loans, financial risks can/will grow to unmanageable levels. Guess what happens once our borrowings swell to a level that forces foreigners to question our ability of repaying their debt? Interest rates will accelerate upwards, our interest payments will balloon, and our deficits will widen. The consequences of these unfavorable outcomes will be devastating budget cuts and/or tax increases.

For the time being, we will gladly accept the charitable donations of foreign investors to help lower funding costs for our sorely needed infrastructure projects. Fortunately, for now fiscal sanity is prevailing. The post financial crisis political environment has scared municipalities from borrowing too much, as explained here by the FT:

“For local and state politicians grappling with pension reforms, new healthcare programs and — in Alaska, Texas and Oklahoma — a drag on finances from lower energy prices, the looming presidential election is also diminishing the appeal of [municipal debt] issuance.”

 

In a near-zero/negative rate environment, there certainly will be incentives for irresponsible governments and corporations to extend themselves too far with cheap debt. However, in the short-run, as starving foreigners hunt for yield in the U.S. municipal bond market, Americans have the opportunity of exploiting this foreign generosity for the benefit our country’s long-term infrastructure.

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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 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.

May 14, 2016 at 3:30 pm Leave a comment

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