Posts filed under ‘Financial Markets’

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

Super Bowl Blitz – Dow 20,000

team

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (February 3, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

If you have been following the sports headlines, then you know the Super Bowl 51 NFL football championship game between the four-time champion New England Patriots and the zero-time champion Atlanta Falcons is upon us. It’s that time of the year when more than 100 million people will congregate in front of big screen TVs across our nation and stare at ludicrous commercials (costing $5 million each); watch a semi-entertaining halftime show; and gorge on thousands of calories until stomachs bloat painfully.

The other headlines blasting across the media airwaves relate to the new all-time record milestone of 20,000 achieved by the Dow Jones Industrials Average (a.k.a., “The Dow”). For those people who are not glued to CNBC business television all day, the Dow is a basket of 30 large company stocks subjectively selected by the editors of the Wall Street Journal with the intent of creating an index that can mimic the overall economy. A lot of dynamics in our economy have transformed over the Dow’s 132 year history (1885), so it should come as no surprise that the index’s stock components have changed 51 times since 1896 – the most recent change occurred in March 2015 when Apple Inc. (AAPL) was added to the Dow and AT&T Inc. (T) was dropped.

20,000 Big Deal?

The last time the Dow closed above 10,000 was on March 29, 1999, so it has taken almost 18 years to double to 20,000. Is the Dow reaching the 20,000 landmark level a big deal in the whole scheme of things? The short answer is “No”. It is true the Dow can act as a fairly good barometer of the economy over longer periods of time. Over the 1998 – 2017 timeframe, economic activity has almost doubled to about $18 trillion (as measured by Gross Domestic Product – GDP) with the added help of a declining interest rate tailwind.

In the short-run, stock indexes like the Dow have a spottier record in correlating with economic variables. At the root of short-term stock price distortions are human behavioral biases and emotions, such as fear and greed. Investor panic and euphoria ultimately have a way of causing wild stock price overreactions, which in turn leads to poor decisions and results. We saw this firsthand during the inflation and subsequent bursting of the 2000 technology bubble. If that volatility wasn’t painful enough, last decade’s housing collapse, which resulted in the 2008-2009 financial crisis, is a constant reminder of how extreme emotions can lead to poor decision-making. For professionals, short-term volatility and overreactions provide lucrative opportunities, but casual investors and novices left to their own devices generally destroy wealth.

As I have discussed on my Investing Caffeine blog on numerous occasions, the march towards 20,000 occurred in the middle of arguably the most hated bull market in a generation or two (see The Most Hated Bull Market). It wasn’t until recently that the media began fixating on this arbitrary new all-time record high of 20,000. My frustration with the coverage is that the impressive phenomenon of this multi-year bull market advance has been largely ignored, in favor of gloom and doom, which sells more advertising – Madison Avenue execs enthusiastically say, “Thank you.” While the media hypes these stock records as new, this phenomenon is actually old news. In fact, stocks have been hitting new highs over the last five years (see chart below).

dji-07-17

More specifically, the Dow has hit consecutive, new all-time record highs in each year since 2013. This ignored bull market (see Gallup survey) may not be good for the investment industry, but it can be good for shrewd long-term investors, who react patiently and opportunistically.

Political Football

In Washington, there’s a different game currently going on, and it’s a game of political football. With a hotly contentious 2016 election still fresh in the minds of many voters, a subset of unsatisfied Americans are closely scrutinizing every move of the new administration. Love him or hate him, it is difficult for observers to accuse President Trump of sitting on his hands. In the first 11 days of his presidential term alone, Trump has been very active in enacting almost 20 Executive Orders and Memoranda (see the definitional difference here), as he tries to make supporters whole with his many previous campaign trail promises. The persistently increasing number of policies is rising by the day (…and tweet), and here’s a summarizing list of Trump’s executive actions so far:

  • Refugee Travel Ban
  • Keystone & Dakota Pipelines
  • Border Wall
  • Deportations/Sanctuary Cities
  • Manufacturing Regulation Relief
  • American Steel
  • Environmental Reviews
  • Affordable Care Act Requirements
  • Border Wall
  • Exit TPP Trade Deal
  • Federal Hiring Freeze
  • Federal Abortion Freeze
  • Regulation Freeze
  • Military Review
  • ISIS Fight Plan
  • Reorganization of Security Councils
  • Lobbyist Bans
  • Deregulation for Small Businesses

President Trump has thrown another political football bomb with his recent nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch (age 49) to the Supreme Court in the hopes that no penalty flags will be thrown by the opposition. Gorsuch, the youngest nominee in 25 years, is a conservative federal appeals judge from Colorado who is looking to fill the seat left open by last year’s death of Justice Antonin Scalia at the age 79.

Politics – Schmolitics

When it comes to the stock market and the economy, many people like to make the president the hero or the scapegoat. Like a quarterback on the football field, the president certainly has influence in shaping the political and economic game plan, but he is not the only player. There is an infinite number of other factors that can (and do) contribute to our country’s success (or lack thereof).

Those economic game-changing factors include, but are not limited to: Congress, the Federal Reserve, Supreme Court, consumer sentiment, trade policy, demographics, regulations, tax policy, business confidence, interest rates, technology proliferation, inflation, capital investment, geopolitics, terrorism, environmental disruptions, immigration, rate of productivity, fiscal policy, foreign relations, sanctions, entitlements, debt levels, bank lending, mergers and acquisitions, labor rules, IPOs (Initial Public Offerings), stock buybacks, foreign exchange rates, local/state/national elections, and many, many, many other factors.

Regardless to which political team you affiliate, if you periodically flip through your social media stream (e.g., Facebook), or turn on the nightly news, you too have likely suffered some sort of political fatigue injury. As Winston Churchill famously stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

When it comes to your finances, getting excited over Dow 20,000 or despondent over politics is not a useful or efficient strategy. Rather than becoming emotionally volatile, you will be better off by focusing on building (or executing) your long-term investment plan. Not much can be accomplished by yelling at a political charged Facebook rant or screaming at your TV during a football game, so why not calmly concentrate on ways to control your future (financial or otherwise). Actions, not fear, get results. Therefore, if this Super Bowl Sunday you’re not ready to review your asset allocation, budget your annual expenses, or contemplate your investment time horizon, then at least take control of your future by managing some nacho cheese dip and handling plenty of fried chicken.

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 AAPL, T, 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.

February 4, 2017 at 8:02 am Leave a comment

Dow 20,000 – Braking News or Breaking News?

Signature:2a0f6d0366f291694bd9cc422bff24b12e1d3afd88bc0ed09c9a8814df3c0837

Investors from around the globe excitedly witnessed the Dow Jones Industrial Average index break the much-anticipated 20,000 level and set a new all-time record high this week. The question now becomes, is this new threshold braking news (time to be concerned) or breaking news (time to be enthused)? The true answer is neither. While the record 20,000 achievement is a beautifully round number and is responsible for a bevy of headlines splashing around the world, the reality is this artificial 20,000 level is completely arbitrary.

Time will tell whether this random numeric value will trigger the animal spirits of dispirited investors, but given all the attention, it is likely to jolt the attention span of distracted, ill-prepared savers. Unfortunately, the median family has only saved a meager $5,000 for retirement. For some years now, I have highlighted that this is the most hated bull market (see The Most Hated Bull Market Ever), and Gallup’s 2016 survey shows record low stock ownership, which also supports my view (chart below). Trillions of dollars coming out of stock funds is additional evidence of investors’ sour mood (see fund outflow data).

gallup-poll-2016

While investors have been selling stocks for years, record corporate profits, trillions in share buybacks, and trillions of mergers and acquisitions (in the face of a weak IPO market) have continually grinded stock prices to new record highs.

Pessimism Sells

The maligned press (deservedly so in many instances) has been quick to highlight a perpetual list of dread du jour. The daily panic-related topics do however actually change. Some days it’s geopolitical concerns in the Middle East, Russia, South China Sea, North Korea, and Iran and other days there are economic cries of demise in China, Brazil, Venezuela, or collapse in the Euro. And even when the economy is doing fine (unemployment rate chopped in half from 10%, near full employment), the media and talking heads often supply plenty of airtime to impending spikes of crippling inflation or Fed-induced string of choking interest rate increases.

I fondly look back on my articles from 2009, and 2010 when I profiled schlocks like Peter Schiff (see Emperor Schiff Has No Clothes) who recklessly peddled catastrophe to the masses. I guess Schiff didn’t do so well when he called for the NASDAQ to collapse to 500 (5,660 today) and the Dow to reach 2,000 (20,000 today).

Or how about the great forecaster John Mauldin who also piled onto death and destruction near the bottom in 2009 (see The Man Who Cries Wolf ). Here’s what Mauldin had to say:

“All in all, the next few years are going to be a very difficult environment for corporate earnings. To think we are headed back to the halcyon years of 2004-06 is not very realistic. And if you expect a major bull market to develop in this climate, you are not paying attention.” … “We are going to pay for that with a likely dip back into a recession.”

 

At S&P 856 (2,295 today) Mauldin added:

“This rally has all the earmarks of a major short squeeze…When the short squeeze is over, the buying will stop and the market will drop. Remember, it takes buying and lot of it to move a market up but only a lack of buying to create a bear market.”

 

Nouriel Roubini a.k.a. “Dr Doom” was another talking head who plastered the airwaves with negativity after the 2008-2009 financial crisis that I also profiled (see Pinning Down Roubini). For example, in early 2009, here’s what Roubini said:

“We are still only in the early stages of this crisis. My predictions for the coming year, unfortunately, are even more dire: The bubbles, and there were many, have only begun to burst.”

 

For long-term investors, they understand the never-ending doom and gloom headlines are meaningless noise. Legendary investor Peter Lynch pointed on on numerous occasions:

“If you spend more than 13 minutes analyzing economic and market forecasts, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.”

 

(see also Peter Lynch video)

The good news is all the media pessimism and investor skepticism creates opportunities for shrewd investors focusing on key drivers of stock price appreciation (corporate earnings, interest rates, valuations, and sentiment).

While the eternally, half-glass full media is quick to highlight the negatives, it’s interesting that it takes an irrelevant, arbitrary level to finally create a positive headline for a new all-time record high of Dow 20,000. Frustratingly, the new all-time record highs reached by the Dow in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 were almost completely ignored (see chart below):

Source: Barchart.com

Source: Barchart.com

What happens next? Nobody knows for certain. What is certain however is that using the breaking news headlines of Dow 20,000 to make critical investment decisions is not an intelligent long-term strategy. If you, like many investors, have difficulty in sticking to a long-term strategy, then find a trusted professional to help you create a systematic, disciplined investment strategy. Now, that is some real breaking news.

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 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.

January 29, 2017 at 2:34 am Leave a comment

Wiping Your Financial Slate Clean

slate

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (January 3, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

The page on the calendar has turned, and we now have a new year, and will shortly have a new president, and new economic policies. Although there is nothing magical about starting a fresh, new year, the annual rites of passage also allow investors to start with a clean slate again and reflect on their personal financial situation. Before you reach a desired destination (i.e., retirement), it is always helpful to know where you have been and where are you currently. Achieving this goal requires filtering through a never-ending avalanche of real-time data flooding through our cell phones, computers, TVs, radios, and Facebook accounts. This may seem like a daunting challenge, but that’s where I come in!

Distinguishing the signals from the noise is tough and there was plenty of noise in 2016 – just like there is every year. Before the S&P 500 stock index registered a +9.5% return in 2016, fears of a China slowdown blanketed headlines last January (the S&P 500 fell -15% from its highs and small cap stocks dropped -26%), and the Brexit (British exit) referendum caused a brief 48-hour -6% hiccup in June. Oil was also in the news as prices hit a low of $26 a barrel early in the year, before more than doubling by year-end to $54 per barrel (still well below the high exceeding $100 in 2014). On the interest rate front, 10-Year Treasury rates bottomed at 1.34% in July, while trillions of dollars in global bonds were incomprehensibly paying negative interest rates. However, fears of inflation rocked bond prices lower (prices move inversely to yields) and pushed bond yields up to 2.45% today. Along these lines, the Federal Reserve has turned the tide on its near-0% interest rate policy as evidenced by its second rate hike in December.

Despite the abbreviated volatility caused by the aforementioned factors, it was the U.S. elections and surprise victory of President-elect Donald Trump that dominated the media airwaves for most of 2016, and is likely to continue as we enter 2017. In hindsight, the amazing Twitter-led, Trump triumph was confirmation of the sweeping global populism trend that has also replaced establishment leaders in the U.K., France, and Italy. There are many explanations for the pervasive rise in populism, but meager global economic growth, globalization, and automation via technology are all contributing factors.

The Trump Bump

Even though Trump has yet to accept the oath of Commander-in-Chief, recent investor optimism has been fueled by expectations of a Republican president passing numerous pro-growth policies and legislation through a Republican majority-controlled Congress. Here are some of the expected changes:

  • Corporate/individual tax cuts and reform
  • Healthcare reform (i.e., Obamacare)
  • Proposed $1 trillion in infrastructure spending
  • Repatriation tax holiday for multinational corporate profits
  • Regulatory relief (e.g., Dodd-Frank banking and EPA environmental reform)

The chart below summarizes the major events of 2016, including the year-end “Trump Bump”:

16-sp-sum

While I too remain optimistic, I understand there is no free lunch as it relates to financial markets (see also Half Trump Full). While tax cuts, infrastructure spending, and regulatory relief should positively contribute to economic growth, these benefits will have to be weighed against the likely costs of higher inflation, debt, and deficits.

Over the 25+ years I have been investing, the nature of the stock market and economy hasn’t changed. The emotions of fear and greed rule the day just as much today as they did a century ago. What has changed today is the pace, quality, and sheer volume of news. In the end, my experience has taught me that 99% of what you read, see or hear at the office is irrelevant as it relates to your retirement and investments. What ultimately drives asset prices higher or lower are the four key factors of corporate profits, interest rates, valuations, and sentiment (contrarian indicator) . As you can see from the chart below, corporate profits are at record levels and forecast to accelerate in 2017 (up +11.9%). In addition, valuations remain very reasonable, given how low interest rates are (albeit less low), and skeptical investor sentiment augurs well in the short-run.

16-eps

Source: FactSet

Regardless of your economic or political views, this year is bound to have plenty of ups and downs, as is always the case. With a clean slate and fresh turn to the calendar, now is a perfect time to organize your finances and position yourself for a better retirement and 2017.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

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 TWTR 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 3, 2017 at 12:17 pm Leave a comment

Half Trump Empty, or Half Trump Full?

glass

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

It was a bitter U.S. presidential election, but fortunately, the nastiest election mudslinging has come to an end…at least until the next political contest. Unfortunately, like most elections, even after the president-elect has been selected, almost half the country remains divided and the challenges facing the president-elect have not disappeared.

While some non-Trump voters have looked at the glass as half empty, since the national elections, the stock market glass has been overflowing to new record highs. Similar to the unforeseen British Brexit outcome in which virtually all pollsters and pundits got the results wrong, U.S. experts and investors also initially took a brief half-glass full view of the populist victory of Donald Trump. More specifically, for a few hours on Election Day, stock values tied to the Dow Jones Industrial Average index collapsed by approximately -5%.

It didn’t take long for stock prices to quickly reverse course, and when all was said and done, the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished the month higher by almost +1,000 points (+5.4%) to finish at 19,124 – a new all-time record high (see chart below). Worth noting, stocks have registered a very respectable +10% return during 2016, and the year still isn’t over.

dji-2016

Source: Investors.com (IBD)

Drinking the Trump Egg Nog

Why are investors so cheery? The proof will be in the pudding, but current optimism is stemming from a fairly broad list of anticipated pro-growth policies.

At the heart of the reform is the largest expected tax reform since Ronald Reagan’s landmark legislation three decades ago. Not only is Trump proposing stimulative tax cuts for corporations, but also individual tax reductions targeted at low-to-middle income taxpayers. Other facets of the tax plan include simplification of the tax code; removal of tax loopholes; and repatriation of foreign cash parked abroad. Combined, these measures are designed to increase profits, wages, investment spending, productivity, and jobs.

On the regulatory front, the President-elect has promised to repeal the Obamacare healthcare system and also overhaul the Dodd-Frank financial legislation. These initiatives, along with talk of dialing back other regulatory burdensome laws and agencies have many onlookers hopeful such policies could aid economic growth.

Fueling further optimism is the prospect of a trillion dollar infrastructure spending program created to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, while simultaneously increasing jobs.

No Free Lunch

As is the case with any economic plan, there is never a free lunch. Every cost has a benefit, and every benefit has a cost. The cost of the 2008-2009 Financial crisis is reflected in the sluggish economic growth seen in the weak GDP (Gross Domestic Product) statistics, which have averaged a modest +1.6% growth rate over the last year. Scott Grannis points out how the slowest recovery since World War II has resulted in a $3 trillion economic gap (see chart below).

us-real-gdp

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

The silver lining benefit to weak growth has been tame inflation and the lowest interest rate levels experienced in a generation. Notwithstanding the recent rate rise, this low rate phenomenon has spurred borrowing, and improved housing affordability. The sub-par inflation trends have also better preserved the spending power of American consumers on fixed incomes.

If executed properly, the benefits of pro-growth policies are obvious. Lower taxes should mean more money in the pockets of individuals and businesses to spend and invest on the economy. This in turn should create more jobs and growth. Regulatory reform and infrastructure spending should have similarly positive effects. However, there are some potential downside costs to the benefits of faster growth, including the following:

  • Higher interest rates
  • Rising inflation
  • Stronger dollar
  • Greater amount of debt
  • Larger deficits (see chart below)

trumpdeficit

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Even though President-elect Trump has not even stepped foot into the Oval Office yet, signs are already emerging that we could face some or all of the previously mentioned headwinds. For example, just since the election, the yield on 10-Year Treasury Notes have spiked +0.5% to 2.37%, and 30-Year Fixed Rate mortgages are flirting with 4.0%. Social and economic issues relating to immigration legislation and Supreme Court nominations are likely to raise additional uncertainties in the coming months and years.

Attempting to anticipate and forecast pending changes makes perfect sense, but before you turn your whole investment portfolio upside down, it’s important to realize that actions speak louder than words. Even though Republicans have control over the three branches of government (Executive, Legislative, Judicial), the amount of control is narrow (i.e., the Senate), and the nature of control is splintered. In other words, Trump will still have to institute the “art of the deal” to persuade all factions of the Republicans (including establishment, Tea-Party, and rural) and Democrats to follow along and pass his pro-growth policies.

Although I do not agree with all of Trump’s policies, including his rhetoric on trade (see Free Trade Boogeyman), I will continue paying closer attention to his current actions rather than his past words. Until proven otherwise, I will keep on my rose colored glasses and remain optimistic that the Trump glass is half full, not half empty.

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.

December 3, 2016 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Sleeping and Napping Through Bubbles

We have lived through many investment bubbles in our history, and unfortunately, most investors sleep through the early wealth-creating inflation stages. Typically, the average investor wakes up later to a hot idea once every man, woman, and child have identified the clear trend…right as the bubble is about burst. Sadly, the masses do a great job of identifying financial bubbles at the end of a cycle, but have a tougher time realizing the catastrophic consequences of exiting a tired winner. Or as strategist Jim Stack states, “Bubbles, for the most part, are invisible to those trapped inside the bubble.” The challenge of recognizing bubbles explains why they are more easily classified as bubbles after a colossal collapse occurs. For those speculators chasing a precise exit point on a bubblicious investment, they may be better served by waiting for the prick of the bubble, then take a decade long nap before revisiting the fallen angel investment idea.

Even for the minority of pundits and investors who are able to accurately identify these financial bubbles in advance, a much smaller number of these professionals are actually able to pinpoint when the bubble will burst. Take for example Alan Greenspan, the ex-Federal Reserve Chairman from 1987 to 2006. He managed to correctly identify the technology bubble in late-1996 when he delivered his infamous “irrational exuberance” speech, which questioned the high valuation of the frothy, tech-driven stock market. The only problem with Greenspan’s speech was his timing was massively off. Stated differently, Greenspan was three years premature in calling out the pricking of the bubble, as the NASDAQ index subsequently proceeded to more than triple from early 1997 to early 2000 (the index exploded from about 1,300 to over 5,000).

One of the reasons bubbles are so difficult to time during their later stages is because the deflation period occurs so quickly. As renowned value investor Howard Marks fittingly notes, “The air always goes out a lot faster than it went in.”

Bubbles, Bubbles, Everywhere

Financial bubbles do not occur every day, but thanks to the psychological forces of investor greed and fear, bubbles do occur more often than one might think. As a matter of fact, famed investor Jeremy Grantham claims to have identified 28 bubbles in various global markets since 1920. Definitions vary, but Webster’s Dictionary defines a financial bubble as the following:

A state of booming economic activity (as in a stock market) that often ends in a sudden collapse.

 

Although there is no numerical definition of what defines a bubble or collapse, the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009, which was fueled by a housing and real estate bubble, is the freshest example in most people minds.  However, bubbles go back much further in time – here are a few memorable ones:

Dutch Tulip-Mania: Fear and greed have been ubiquitous since the dawn of mankind, and those emotions even translate over to the buying and selling of tulips. Believe it or not, some 400 years ago in the 1630s, individual Dutch tulip bulbs were selling for the same prices as homes ($61,700 on an inflation-adjusted basis). This bubble ended like all bubbles, as you can see from the chart below.

Source: The Stock Market Crash.net

British Railroad Mania: In the mid-1840s, hundreds of companies applied to build railways in Britain. Like all bubbles, speculators entered the arena, and the majority of companies went under or got gobbled up by larger railway companies.

Roaring 20s: Here in the U.S., the Roaring 1920s eventually led to the great Wall Street Crash of 1929, which finally led to a nearly -90% plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial stock index over a relatively short timeframe. Leverage and speculation were contributors to this bust, which resulted in the Great Depression.

Nifty Fifty: The so-called Nifty Fifty stocks were a concentrated set of glamor stocks or “Blue Chips” that investors and traders piled into. The group of stocks included household names like Avon (AVP), McDonald’s (MCD), Polaroid, Xerox (XRX), IBM and Disney (DIS). At the time, the Nifty Fifty were considered “one-decision” stocks that investors could buy and hold forever. Regrettably, numerous of these hefty priced stocks (many above a 50 P/E) came crashing down about 90% during the 1973-74 period.

Japan’s Nikkei: The Japanese Nikkei 225 index traded at an eye popping Price-Earnings (P/E) ratio of about 60x right before the eventual collapse. The value of the Nikkei index increased over 450% in the eight years leading up to the peak in 1989 (from 6,850 in October 1982 to a peak of 38,957 in December 1989).

Source: Thechartstore.com

The Tech Bubble: We all know how the technology bubble of the late 1990s ended, and it wasn’t pretty. PE ratios above 100 for tech stocks was the norm (see table below), as compared to an overall PE of the S&P 500 index today of about 14x.

Source: Wall Street Journal – March 14, 2000

The Next Bubble

What is/are the next investment bubble(s)? Nobody knows for sure, but readers of Investing Caffeine know that long-term bonds are one fertile area. Given the generational low in yields and rates, and the 35-year bull run in bond prices, it can be difficult to justify heavy allocations of inflation losing bonds for long time-horizon investors. Commercial real estate and Silicon Valley unicorns could be other potential over-heated areas. However, as we discussed earlier, identifying and timing bubble bursts is extremely challenging. Nevertheless, the great thing about long-term investing is that probabilities and valuations ultimately do matter, and therefore a diversified portfolio skewed away from extreme valuations and speculative sectors will pay handsome dividends over the long-run.

Many traders continue to daydream as they chase performance through speculative investment bubbles, looking to squeeze the last ounce of an easily identifiable trend.  As the lead investment manager at Sidoxia Capital Management, I spend less time sucking the last puff out of a cigarette, and spend more time opportunistically devoting resources to valuation-sensitive growth trends.  As demonstrated with historical examples, following the popular trend du jour eventually leads to financial ruin and nightmares. Avoiding bubbles and pursuing fairly priced growth prospects is the way to achieve investment prosperity…and provide sweet dreams.

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 certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), MCD, DIS and are short TLT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in AVP, XRX, IBM,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.

November 26, 2016 at 9:09 am 2 comments

When Genius Failed

when-genius-failed-book-cover

It has been a busy year between work, play, family, and of course the recent elections. My work responsibilities contain a wide-ranging number of facets, but in addition to research, client meetings, conference calls, conferences, trading, and other activities, I also attempt to squeeze in some leisure reading as well. While it’s sad but true that I find pleasure in reading SEC documents (10Ks and 10Qs), press releases, transcripts, corporate presentations, financial periodicals, and blogs, I finally did manage to also scratch When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstein from my financial reading bucket list.

When Genius Failed chronicles the rise and fall of what was considered the best and largest global hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). The irony behind the collapse makes the story especially intriguing. Despite melding the brightest minds in finance, including two Nobel Prize winners, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, the Greenwich, Connecticut hedge fund that started with $1.3 billion in early 1994 managed to peak at around $140 billion before eventually crumbling to ruin.

With the help of confidential internal memos, interviews with former partners and employees of LTCM, discussions with the Federal Reserve, and consultations with the six major banks involved in the rescue, Lowenstein provides the reader with a unique fly-on-the-wall perspective to this grand financial crisis.

There have certainly been plenty of well-written books recounting the 2008-2009 financial crisis (see my review on Too Big to Fail), but the sheer volume has burnt me out on the subject. With that in mind, I decided to go back in time to the period of 1993 – 1998, a point at the beginning of my professional career. Until LTCM’s walls began figuratively caving in and global markets declined by more than $1 trillion in value, LTCM was successful at maintaining a relatively low profile. The vast majority of Americans (99%) had never heard of the small group of bright individuals who started LTCM, until the fund’s ultimate collapse blanketed every newspaper headline and media outlet.

Key Characters

Meriwether: John W. Meriwether was a legendary trader at Salomon Brothers, where he started the Arbitrage Group in 1977 and built up a successful team during the 1980s. His illustrious career is profiled in Michael Lewis’s famed book, Liar’s Poker. Meriwether built his trading philosophy upon the idea that mispricings would eventually revert back to the mean or converge, and therefore shrewd opportunistic trading will result in gains, if patience is used. Another name for this strategy is called “arbitrage”. In sports terms, the traders of the LTCM fund were looking for inaccurate point spreads, which could then be exploited for profit opportunity. Prior to the launch of LTCM, in 1991 Meriwether was embroiled in the middle of a U.S. Treasury bid-rigging scheme when one of his traders Paul Mozer admitted to submitting false bids to gain unauthorized advantages in government-bond auctions. John Gutfreund, Salomon Brothers’ CEO was eventually forced to quit, and Salomon’s largest, famed shareholder Warren Buffett became interim CEO. Meriwether was slapped on the wrist with a suspension and fine, and although Buffett eventually took back Meriwether in a demoted role, ultimately the trader was viewed as tainted goods so he left to start LTCM in 1993.

LTCM Team: During 1993 Meriwether built his professional team at LTCM and he began this process by recruiting several key Salomon Brothers bond traders. Larry Hilibrand and Victor Haghani were two of the central players at the firm. Other important principals included Eric Rosenfeld, William Krasker, Greg Hawkins, Dick Leahy, Robert Shustak, James McEntee, and David W. Mullins Jr.

Nobel Prize Winners (Merton & Scholes): While Robert C. Merton was teaching at Harvard University and Myron S. Scholes at Stanford University, they decided to put their academic theory to the real-world test by instituting their financial equations with the other investing veterans at LTCM. Scholes and Merton were effectively godfathers of quantitative theory. If there ever were a Financial Engineering Hall of Fame, Merton and Scholes would be initial inductees. Author Lowenstein described the situation by saying, “Long-Term had the equivalent of Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali on the same team.” Paradoxically, in 1997, right before the collapse of LTCM, Merton and Scholes would become Nobel Prize laureates in Economic Sciences for their work in developing the theory of how to price options.

The History:

Founded in 1993, Long-Term  Management Capital was hailed as the most impressive hedge fund created in history. Near its peak, LTCM managed money for about 100 investors and employed 200 employees. LTCM’s primary strategy was to identify mispriced bonds and profit from a mean reversion strategy. In other words, as long as the overall security mispricings narrowed, rather than widened, then LTCM would stand to profit handsomely.

On an individual trade basis, profits from LTCM’s trades were relatively small, but the fund implemented thousands of trades and used vast amounts of leverage (borrowings) to expand the overall profits of the fund. Lowenstein ascribed the fund’s success to the following process:

“Leveraging its tiny margins like a high-volume grocer, sucking up nickel after nickel and multiplying the process a thousand times.”

 

Although LTCM implemented this strategy successfully in the early years of the fund, this premise finally collapsed like a house of falling cards in 1998. As is generally the case, hedge funds and other banking competitors came to understand and copy LTCM’s successful trading strategies. Towards the end of the fund’s life, Meriwether and the other fund partners were forced to experiment with less familiar strategies like merger arbitrage, pair trades, emerging markets, and equity investing. This diversification strategy was well intentioned, however by venturing into uncharted waters, the traders were taking on excessive risk (i.e., they were increasing the probability of permanent capital losses).

The Timeline

  • 1994 (28% return, 20% after fees): After attempting to raise capital funding in 1993, LTCM opened its doors for business in February 1994 with $1.25 billion in equity. Financial markets were notably volatile during 1994 in part due to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan leading the first interest rate hike in five years. The instability caused famed fund managers Michael Steinhardt and George Soros to lose -$800 million and $650 million, respectively, all within a timespan of less than a week. The so-called “Mexican Tequila Crisis” that occurred at the end of the year also resulted in a devaluation of the Mexican peso and crumbling of the Mexican stock market.
  • 1995 (59% return, 43% after fees): By the end of 1995, the fund had tripled its equity capital and total assets had grown to $102 billion. Total leverage, or the ratio of debt to equity, stood around 28 to 1. LTCM’s derivative contract portfolio was like a powder keg, covering positions worth approximately $650 billion.
  • 1996 (57% return, 41% after fees): By the spring of 1996, the fund was holding $140 billion in assets, making it two and a half times as big as Fidelity Magellan, the largest mutual fund on the planet. The fund also carried derivatives valued at more than $1 trillion, all financed off a relatively smaller $4 billion equity base. Investors were loving the returns and financial institutions were clamoring to gain some of LTCM’s business. During this period, as many as 55 banks were providing LTCM financing. The mega-returns earned in 1996 came in large part due to profitable leveraged spread trades on Japanese convertible bonds, Italian bonds, junk bonds, and interest rate swaps. Total profits for the year reached an extraordinary level of around $2.1 billion. To put that number in perspective, that figure was more money generated than the profits earned by McDonalds, Disney, American Express, Nike, Xerox, and many more Fortune 500 companies.
  • 1997 (25% return, 17% after fees): The Asia Crisis came into full focus during October 1997. Thailand’s baht currency fell by -20% after the government decided to let the currency float freely. Currency weakness then spread to the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, and Singapore. As Russian bond spreads (prices) began to widen, massive trading losses for LTCM were beginning to compound. Returns remained positive for the year and the fund grew its equity capital to $5 billion. As the losses were mounting and the writing on the wall was revealing itself, professors Merton and Scholes were recognized with their Nobel Prize announcement. Ironically, LTCM was in the process of losing control. LTCM’s bloated number of 7,600 positions wasn’t making the fund any easier to manage. During 1997, the partners realized the fund’s foundation was shaky, so they returned $2.7 billion in capital to investors. Unfortunately, the risk profile of the fund worsened – not improved. More specifically, the fund’s leverage ratio skyrocketed from 18:1 to 28:1.
  • 1998 (-92% return – loss): The Asian Crisis losses from the previous year began to bleed into added losses in 1998. In fact, losses during May and June alone ended up reducing LTCM’s capital by $461 million. As the losses racked up, LTCM was left in the unenviable position of unwinding a mind-boggling 60,000 individual positions. It goes almost without saying that selling is extraordinarily difficult during a panic. As Lowenstein put it, “Wall Street traders were running from Long-Term’s trades like rats from a sinking ship.” A few months later in September, LTCM’s capital shrunk to less than $1 billion, meaning about $100 billion in debt (leverage ratio greater than 100:1) was supporting the more than $100 billion in LTCM assets. It was just weeks later the fund collapsed abruptly. Russia defaulted on its ruble debt, and the collapsing currency contagion spread to global markets outside Russia, including Eastern Asia, and South America.

The End of LTCM

On September 23, 1998, after failed investment attempts by Warren Buffett and others to inject capital into LTCM, the heads of Bankers Trust, Bear Stearns, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and Salomon Brothers all gathered at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the heart of Wall Street. Presiding over this historical get-together was Fed President, William J. McDonough. International markets were grinding to a halt during this period and the Fed was running out of time before an all-out meltdown was potentially about to occur. Ultimately, McDonough was able to get 14 banks to wire $3.65 billion in bailout funds to LTCM. While all LTCM partners were financially wiped out completely, initial investors managed to recoup a small portion of their original investment (23 cents on the dollar after factoring in fees), even though the tally of total losses reached approximately $4.6 billion. Once the bailout was complete, it took a few years for the fund to liquidate its gargantuan number of positions and for the banks to get their multi-billion dollar bailout paid back in full.

  • 1999 – 2009 (Epilogue): Meriwether didn’t waste much time moping around after the LTCM collapse, so he started a new hedge fund, JWM Partners, with $250 million in seed capital primarily from legacy LTCM investors. Regrettably, the fund was hit with significant losses during the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis and was subsequently forced to close its doors in July 2009.
Source: The Personal Finance Engineer

Source: The Personal Finance Engineer

 

Source: The Personal Finance Engineer

Source: The Personal Finance Engineer

Lessons Learned:

  • The Risks of Excessive Leverage: Although the fund grew to peak value of approximately $140 billion in assets, most of this growth was achieved with added debt. When all was said and done, LTCM borrowed more than 30 times the value of its equity. As Lowenstein put it, LTCM was “adding leverage to leverage, as if coating a flammable tinderbox with kerosene.” In home purchase terms, if LTCM wanted to buy a house using the same amount of debt as their fund, they would lose all of their investment, if the house value declined a mere 3-4%. The benefit of leverage is it multiplies gains. The downside to leverage is that it also multiplies losses. If you carry too much leverage in a declining market, the chance of bankruptcy rises…as the partners and investors of LTCM learned all too well. Adding fuel to the LTCM flames were the thousands of derivative contracts, valued at more than $1 trillion. Warren Buffett calls derivatives: “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
  • Past is Not Always Prologue for the Future: Just because a strategy works now or in the past, does not mean that same strategy will work in the future. As it relates to LTCM, Nobel Prize winning economist Merton Miller stated, “In a strict sense, there wasn’t any risk – if the world had behaved as it did in the past.” LTCM’s models worked for a while, then failed miserably. There is no Holy Grail investment strategy that works always. If an investment strategy sounds too good to be true, then it probably is too good to be true.
  • Winning Strategies Eventually Get Competed Away: The spreads that LTCM looked to exploit became narrower over time. As the fund achieved significant excess returns, competitors copied the strategies. As spreads began to tighten even further, the only way LTCM could maintain their profits was by adding additional leverage (i.e., debt). High-frequency trading (HFT) is a modern example of this phenomenon, in which early players exploited a new technology-driven strategy, until copycats joined the fray to minimize the appeal by squeezing the pool of exploitable profits.
  • Academics are Not Practitioners: Theory does not always translate into reality, and academics rarely perform as well as professional practitioners. Merton and Scholes figured this out the hard way. As Merton admitted after winning the Nobel Prize, “It’s a wrong perception to believe that you can eliminate risk just because you can measure it.”
  • Size Matters: As new investors poured massive amounts of capital into the fund, the job of generating excess returns for LTCM managers became that much more difficult. I appreciate this lesson firsthand, given my professional experience in managing a $20 billion fund (see also Managing $20 Billion). Managing a massive fund is like maneuvering a supertanker – the larger a fund gets, the more difficult it becomes to react and anticipate market changes.
  • Stick to Your Knitting: Because competitors caught onto their strategies, LTCM felt compelled to branch out. Meriwether and LTCM had an edge trading bonds but not in stocks. In the later innings of LTCM’s game, the firm became a big player in stocks. Not only did the firm place huge bets on merger arbitrage, but LTCM dabbled significantly in various long-short pair trades, including a $2.3 billion pair trade bet on Royal Dutch and Shell. Often the firm used derivative securities called equity swaps to make these trades without having to put up any significant capital. As LTCM experimented in the new world of equities, the firm was obviously playing in an area in which it had absolutely no expertise.

As philosopher George Santayana states, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” For those who take investing seriously, When Genius Failed is an important cautionary tale that provides many important lessons about financial markets and highlights the dangers of excessive leverage. You may not be a genius Nobel Prize winner in economics, but learning from Long-Term Capital Management’s failings will place you firmly on the path to becoming an investing genius.

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), DIS, JPM, and MCD, but at the time of publishing had no direct position in AXP, NKE, XRX, RD, GS, MS, Shell, 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

November 21, 2016 at 1:44 am 2 comments

Older Posts


Receive Investing Caffeine blog posts by email.

Join 1,455 other followers

Meet Wade Slome, CFA, CFP®

More on Sidoxia Services

Recognition

Top Financial Advisor Blogs And Bloggers – Rankings From Nerd’s Eye View | Kitces.com

Wade on Twitter…

Like us on Facebook

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share

Subscribe to Blog RSS

Monthly Archives