Posts filed under ‘Financial Markets’

The Summer Heats Up

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

The temperature in the stock market heated up again this month. Like a hot day at the beach, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stock index burned +542 points higher this month (+2.5%), while scorching +2,129 points ahead in 2017 (or +10.8%).

Despite these impressive gains (see 2009-2017 chart below), overall, investors remain concerned. Rather than stock participants calmly enjoying the sun, breeze, and refreshingly cool waters of the current markets, many investors have been more concerned about getting sunburned to a geopolitical crisp; overwhelmed by an unexpected economic tsunami; and/or drowned by a global central bank-induced interest rate crisis.

Stock market concerns rise, but so do stock prices.

The most recent cautionary warnings have come to the forefront by noted value investor Howard Marks, who grabbed headlines with last week’s forewarning memo, “Here They Go Again…Again.” The thoughtful, 23-page document is definitely worth reading, but like any prediction, it should be taken with a pound of salt, as I point out in my recent article Predictions – A Fool’s Errand. The reality is nobody has been able to consistently predict the future.

If you don’t believe my skepticism about crystal balls and palm readers, just listen to the author of the cautionary article himself. Like many other market soothsayers, Marks is forced to provide a mea culpa on the first page in which he admits his predictions have been wrong for the last six years. His dour but provocative position also faces another uphill battle, given that Marks’s conclusion flies in the face of value investing god, Warren Buffett, who was quoted this year as saying:

“Measured against interest rates, stocks actually are on the cheap side compared to historic valuations.”

Rather than crucify him, Marks should not be singled out for this commonly cautious view. In fact, most value investors are born with the gloom gene in their DNA, given the value mandate to discover and exploit distressed assets. This value-based endeavor has become increasingly difficult as the economy gains steam in this slow but sustainably long economic recovery. As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, bull markets don’t die of old age, but rather they die from excesses. So far the key components of the economy, the banking system and consumers, have yet to participate in euphoric excesses like previous economic cycles due to risk aversion caused by the last financial crisis.

Making matters worse for value investors, the value style of investing has underperformed since 2006 alongside other apocalyptic predictions from revered value peers like Seth Klarman and Ray Dalio, who have also been proved wrong over recent years.

However, worth stating, is experienced, long-term investors like Marks, Klarman, and Dalio deserve much more attention than the empty predictions spewed from the endless number of non-investing strategists and economists who I specifically reference in A Fool’s Errand.

Beach Cleanup in Washington

While beach conditions may be sunny, and stock market geeks like me continue debating future market weather conditions, media broadcasters and bloggers have been focused elsewhere – primarily the nasty political mess littered broadly across our American shores.

Lack of Congressional legislation progress relating to healthcare, tax reform, and infrastructure, coupled with a nagging investigation into potential Russian interference into U.S. elections, have caused the White House to finally lose its patience. The end result? A swift cleanup of the political hierarchy. After deciding to tidy up the White House, President Trump’s first priority was to remove Sean Spicer, the former White House Press Secretary and add the controversial Wall Street executive Anthony Scaramucci as the new White House Communications Chief. Shortly thereafter, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was pushed to resign, and he was replaced by Secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly. If this was not enough drama, after Scaramucci conducted a vulgar-laced tirade against Priebus in a New Yorker magazine interview, newly minted Chief of Staff Kelly felt compelled to quickly fire Scaramucci.

While the political beach party and soap opera have been entertaining to watch from the sidelines, I continue to remind observers that politics have little, if any, impact on the long-term direction of the financial markets. There have been much more important factors contributing to the nine-year bull market advance other than politics. For example, interest rates, corporate profits, valuations, and investor sentiment have been much more impactful forces behind the new record stock market highs.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen may not wear a bikini at the beach, but nevertheless she has become quite the spectacle in Washington, as investors speculate on the future direction of interest rates and other Fed monetary policies (i.e., unwinding the $4.5 trillion Fed balance sheet). In the hopes of not exhausting your patience too heavily, let’s briefly review interest rates, so they can be placed in the proper context. Specifically, it’s worth noting the spotlighted Federal Funds Rate target is sitting at enormously depressed levels (1.00% – 1.25%), despite the fact the Fed has increased the target four times within the last two years. How low has the Fed Funds rate been historically? As you can see from the historical chart below (1970 – 2017), this key benchmark rate reached a level as high as 20.00% in the early 1980s – a far cry from today’s 1.00% – 1.25% rate.

There are two crucial points to make here. First, even at 1.25%, interest rates are at extremely low levels, and this is significantly stimulative to our economy, even after considering the scenario of future interest rate hikes. The second main point is that that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has been exceedingly cautious about her careful, data-dependent intentions of increasing interest rates. As a matter of fact, the CME Fed Funds futures market currently indicates a 99% probability the Fed will maintain interest rates at this low level when the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets in September.

Responsibly Have Fun but Use Protection

It’s imperative to remain vigilantly prudent with your investments because weather conditions will not always remain calm in the financial markets. You do not want to get burned by overheated markets or caught off guard by an unexpected economic storm. Blindly buying tech stocks exclusively without a systematic disciplined approach to valuation is a sure-fire way to lose money over the long-run. Instead, protection must be implemented across multiple vectors.

From a broader perspective, at Sidoxia we believe it’s essential to follow a low-cost, diversified, tax-efficient, strategy with a long-term time horizon. Rebalancing your portfolio as markets continue to appreciate will keep your investment portfolio balanced as financial markets gyrate. These investment basics have produced a winning formula for many investors, including some very satisfying long-term results at Sidoxia, which is quickly approaching its 10-year anniversary. You can have fun at the beach, just remember to bring sunscreen and a windbreaker, in case conditions change.

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.

August 1, 2017 at 12:16 pm Leave a comment

A Recipe for Disaster

Justice does not always get served in the stock market because financial markets are not always efficient in the short-run (see Black-Eyes to Classic Economists). However, over the long-run, financial markets usually get it right. And when the laws of economics and physics are functioning properly, I must admit it, I do find it especially refreshing.

There can be numerous reasons for stocks to plummet in price, but common attributes to stock price declines often include profit losses and/or disproportionately high valuations (a.k.a. “bubbles”). Normally, your garden variety, recipe for disaster consists of one part highly valued company and one part money-losing operation (or deteriorating financials). The reverse holds true for a winning stock recipe. Flavorful results usually involve cheaply valued stocks paired with improving financial results.

Unfortunately, just because you have the proper recipe of investment ingredients, doesn’t mean you will immediately get to enjoy a satisfying feast. In other words, there isn’t a dinner bell rung to signal the timing of a crash or spike – sometimes there is a conspicuous catalyst and sometimes there is not. Frequently, investments require a longer expected bake time before the anticipated output is produced.

As I alluded to at the beginning of my post, justice is not always served immediately, but for some high profile IPOs, low-quality ingredients have indeed produced low-quality results.

Snap Inc. (SNAP): Let’s first start with the high-flying social media darling Snap, which priced its IPO at $17 per share in March, earlier this year. How can a beloved social media company that generates $515 million in annual revenue (up +286% in the recent quarter) see its stock plummet -48% from its high of $29.44 to $15.27 in just four short months? Well, one way of achieving these dismal results is to burn through more cash than you’re generating in revenue. Snap actually scorched through more than -$745 million dollars over the last year, as the company reported accounting losses of -$618 million (excluding -$2 billion of stock-based compensation expenses). We’ll find out if the financial bleeding will eventually stop, but even after this year’s stock price crash, investors are still giving the company the benefit of the doubt by valuing the company at $18 billion today.

Source: Barchart.com

Blue Apron Holdings Inc. (APRN): Online meal delivery favorite, Blue Apron, is another company suffering from the post-IPO blues. After initially targeting an opening IPO price of $15-$17 per share a few weeks ago, tepid demand forced Blue Apron executives to cut the price to $10. Fast forward to today, and the stock closed at $7.36, down -26% from the IPO price, and -57% below the high-end of the originally planned range. Although the company isn’t hemorrhaging losses at the same absolute level of Snap, it’s not a pretty picture. Blue Apron has still managed to burn -$83 million of cash on $795 million in annual sales. Unlike Snap (high margin advertising revenues), Blue Apron will become a low-profit margin business, even if the company has the fortune of reaching high volume scale. Even after considering Blue Apron’s $1 billion annual revenue run rate, which is 50% greater than Snap’s $600 million run-rate, Blue Apron’s $1.4 billion market value is sadly less than 10% of Snap’s market value.

Source: Barchart.com

Groupon Inc. (GRPN): Unlike Snap and Blue Apron, Groupon also has the flattering distinction of reporting an accounting profit, albeit a small one. However, on a cash-based analysis, Groupon looks a little better than the previous two companies mentioned, if you consider an annual -$7 million cash burn “better”. Competition in the online discounting space has been fierce, and as such, Groupon has experienced a competitive haircut in its share price. Groupon’s original IPO price was $20 in January 2011 before briefly spiking to $31. Today, the stock has languished to $4 (-87% from the 2011 peak).

Source: Barchart.com

Stock Market Recipe?

Similar ingredients (i.e., valuations and profit trajectory) that apply to stock performance also apply to stock market performance. Despite record corporate profits (growing double digits), low unemployment, low inflation, low-interest rates, and a recovering global economy, bears and even rational observers have been worried about a looming market crash. Not only have the broader masses been worried today, yesterday, last week, last month, and last year, but they have also been worried for the last nine years. As I have documented repeatedly (see also Market Champagne Sits on Ice), the market has more than tripled to new record highs since early 2009, despite the strong under-current of endless cynicism.

Historically market tops have been marked by a period of excesses, including excessive emotions (i.e., euphoria). It has been a long time since the last recession, but economic downturns are also often marked with excessive leverage (e.g., housing in the mid-2000s), excessive capital (e.g., technology IPOs [Initial Public Offerings] in the late-1990s), and excessive investment (e.g., construction / manufacturing in early-1990s).

To date, we have seen little evidence of these markers. Certainly there have been pockets of excesses, including overpriced billion dollar tech unicorns (see Dying Unicorns), exorbitant commercial real estate prices, and a bubble in global sovereign debt, but on a broad basis, I have consistently said stocks are reasonably priced in light of record-low interest rates, a view also held by Warren Buffett.

The key lessons to learn, whether you are investing in individual stocks or the stock market more broadly, are that prices will follow the direction of earnings over the long-run. This helps explain why stock prices always go down in recessions (and are volatile in anticipation of recessions).

If you are looking for a recipe for disaster, just find an overpriced investment with money-losing (or deteriorating) characteristics. Avoiding these investments and identifying investments with cheap growth qualities is much easier said than done. However, by mixing an objective, quantitative framework with more artistic fundamental analysis, you will be in a position of enjoying tastier returns.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in SNAP, APRN, GRPN, 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 the information to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

 

July 14, 2017 at 11:54 pm 3 comments

Hot Dogs, Political Fireworks, and Our Nation’s Birthday

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

The 4th of July has arrived once again as we celebrate our country’s 241st birthday of independence. Besides being a time to binge on hot dogs, apple pie, fireworks, and baseball, this national holiday allows Americans to also reflect on the greatness created by our nation’s separation from the British Empire.

As our Founding Fathers fought for freedom and believed in a more prosperous future, I’m not sure if the signers of our Declaration of Independence (Below [left to right]: Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Robert Livingston) envisioned a world with tweeting Presidents, driverless Uber taxis, internet dating, biotechnology medical breakthroughs, cloud storage, and countless other innovations that have raised the standard of living for billions of people around the world.

(These Founding Fathers may use different pictures for their Facebook profile, if they were alive today.)

I tend to agree with the wealthiest billionaire investor on the planet, Warren Buffett, that being born in the United States is the equivalent of winning the “Ovarian Lottery.” The opportunities for finding success are exponentially higher, if you were born in America vs. Bangladesh, for example. Surprisingly, the U.S. only accounts for about 4% of the global population (325 million out of 7.5 billion world total). However, even though we Americans make up such a small portion of the of the people on the planet, we still manage to generate over $18 trillion in goods and services, which makes us the world’s largest economy. As the #1 economy, we account for almost 25% of the world’s total economic output (see table & graphic below).

Rank Country GDP (Nominal, 2015) Share of Global Economy (%)
#1 United States $18.0 trillion 24.3%
#2 China $11.0 trillion 14.8%
#3 Japan $4.4 trillion 5.9%
#4 Germany $3.4 trillion 4.5%
#5 United Kingdom $2.9 trillion 3.9%

Source: Visual Capitalist

How do we create six times the output of our population (i.e., 4% of world’s population producing 25% of the world’s output)? Despite the nasty, imperfect, mudslinging politics we live through daily, the U.S. has perfected the art of capitalism, which has landed us on top of the economic Mt. Everest. Although, there is always room for improvement, culturally, the winning “entrepreneurial” strain is born into our American DNA. The recent merger announcement between Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) and Whole Foods (WFM), the leading natural and organic foods supermarket, is evidence of this entrepreneurial strain. Amazon has come a long way and gained significant steam since its founding in July 1994 by CEO Jeff Bezos. Consequently, the momentum of this internet giant has it steamrolling the entire retail industry, which has led to a flood of store closings, including department store chains, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears and Kmart. The Amazon-Whole Foods merger announcement was not a huge surprise to my family because we actually order more than half of our groceries from AmazonFresh (Amazon’s food delivery program). What’s more, since I despise shopping, I continually find myself taking advantage of Amazon’s “Prime Now” 2-hour delivery option to my office, which is free to all Prime subscribers. It won’t be long before Amazon’s multi-channel strategy will allow me to make same-day orders for groceries, electronics, and general merchandise from my office, then pick up those items on my way home from work at the local Whole Foods store.

Leading the Pack

Replicating this competitive advantage around the world is a challenge for competing countries, and our nation remains leap years ahead of others, regardless of their efforts. However, the United States does not have a monopoly on capitalism. We are slowly exporting our entrepreneurial secret sauce abroad with the help of technology and globalization. Just consider these three Chinese companies alone are valued at almost $1 trillion (Alibaba Group $360B [BABA]; Tencent Holdings $340B [TCEHY]; and China Mobile $220B [CHL]), and the largest expected IPO (Initial Public Offering) in the world could be a Saudi Arabian company valued at $2 trillion (Saudi Aramco). When 96% of the world’s population lies outside of the U.S., this reality helps explain why exporting our advancements should not be considered a bad thing. In fact, a growing international pie means more American jobs and more dollars will flow back to the U.S., as we export more value-added products and services abroad.

Even if other countries are narrowing the entrepreneurial competitive gap with the United States, we still remain a beacon of light for others to follow. Despite what you may read in the newspaper or hear on the TV, Americans are dramatically better off financially over the last 20 years. Not only has net worth increased spectacularly, but consumers have also responsibly reduced debt leverage ratios (see chart below).

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

If you were a bright CEO working for an innovative new start-up company, would you choose to launch your company in a closed, censored society like China? How about a fractured Britain that is pushing to break away from the European Union? Better yet, how about Japan with its exploding debt levels, a declining population, and a stock market that is about half the level it peaked at 28 years ago? Do emerging markets like Brazil with widespread corruption scandals blanketing a new president (after a recently impeached president) seem like the best location for a hot new venture? The answer to all these questions is a resounding “no”, even when compared to the warts and flaws that come with our durable democracy.

Political Pyrotechnics

Besides the bombs bursting in air during the 4th of July celebration, there were plenty of political fireworks blasting in our nation’s capital last month. No matter what side of the political fence you stand on, last month was explosive. Consider ousted FBI Director Jim Comey’s impassioned testimony relating to his firing by President Donald Trump; the contentious Attorney General Jeff Sessions Senate Intelligence Committee interview; the politically driven Republican baseball shooting; and the Special Counsel leader Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and potential Trump administration collusion into the 2016 elections.

Despite the combative atmosphere in Washington D.C., the stock market managed to notch another record high last month, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average index advancing another 340.98 points (+1.6%) for the month, and +8.0% for the first half of 2017. As I have written numerous times, the scary headlines accumulating since 2009 have prevented investors, strategists, economists, and even professionals from adequately participating in the almost quadrupling in stock prices since early 2009. Unfortunately, to the detriment of many, large swaths of investors who were burned by the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis have been scarred to almost permanent risk aversion. The fact of the matter is stock prices care more about economic factors than political / news headlines (see Moving on Beyond Politics).

The bitter, vitriolic political discourse is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, so do yourself a favor, and focus on the more important factors driving financial markets to new record highs – mainly corporate profits, interest rates, valuations, and sentiment (see Don’t Be a Fool). During this year’s 4th of July, partaking in hot dogs, apple pie, fireworks, and baseball are wholly encouraged, but please also take the time to celebrate and acknowledge the magnitude of our country’s greatness. That’s a birthday wish, I think we can all agree upon.

 

 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in AMZN and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in WFM, BABA, TCEHY, CHL, 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.

July 3, 2017 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment

Managing the Chaos – Investing vs. Gambling

How does one invest amid the slew of palm sweating, teeth grinding headlines of Syria, North Korea, Brexit, expanding populism, Trumpcare, French candidate Marine Le Pen, and a potential government shutdown? Facing a persistent mountain of worries can seem daunting to many. With so many seemingly uncontrollable factors impacting short-term interest rates, foreign exchange rates, and equity markets, it begs the question of whether investing is a game of luck (gambling) or a game of skill?

The short answer is…it depends. Professional gambler Alvin “Titanic” Thompson captured the essence when someone asked him whether poker was a game of chance. Thompson responded by stating, “Not the way I play it.”

If you go to Las Vegas and gamble, most games are generally a zero sum-game, meaning there are an equal number of winners and losers with the house (casino) locking in a guaranteed spread (profit). For example, consider a game like roulette – there are 18 red slots, 18 black slots, and 2 green slots (0 & 00), so if you are betting on red vs. black, then the casino has a 5.26% advantage. If you bet long enough, the casino will get all your money – there’s a reason Lost Wages Las Vegas can build those extravagantly large casinos.

The same principles of money-losing bets apply to speculative short-term trading. Sure, there are examples of speculators hitting it big in the short-run, but most day traders lose money (see Day Trading Your House) because the odds are stacked against them. In order to make an accretive, profitable trade, not only does the trader have to be right on the security they’re selling (i.e. that security must underperform in the future), but they also have to be right on the security they are buying (i.e. that security must outperform in the future). But the odds for the speculator get worse once you also account for the trading fees, taxes, bid-ask spreads, impact costs (i.e., liquidity), and informational costs (i.e., front running, high frequency traders, algorithms, etc.).

The key to winning at investing is to have an edge, and the easiest way to have an investing edge is to invest for the long-run – renowned Professor Jeremy Siegel agrees (see Stocks for the Long Run). It’s common knowledge the stock market is up about two-thirds of the time, meaning the odds and wind are behind the backs of long-term investors. Short-term trading is the equivalent of going fishing, and then continually pulling your fishing line out of the water (you’re never going to catch anything). The fisherman is better off by researching a good location and then maintaining the lure in the water for a longer period until success is achieved.

Although most casino games are based on pure luck, there are some games of skill, like poker, that can produce consistent long-term positive results, if you are a patient professional with an advantage or edge (see Dan Harrington article ).  Having an edge in investing is crucial, but an edge is not the only aspect of successful investing. How you structure a portfolio to control risk (i.e., money management), and reducing your personal behavioral biases are additional components to a winning investment strategy. Professional poker player Walter Clyde “Puggy” Pearson summed it up best when he described the three critical components to winning:

“Knowing the 60-40 end of a proposition, money management, and knowing yourself.”

 

At Sidoxia Capital Management, we have also achieved long-term success by following a systematic, disciplined process. A large portion of our investment strategy is focused on identifying market leading franchises with a long runway of growth, and combining those dynamics with positions trading at attractive or fair values. As part of this process, we rank our stocks based on multiple factors, primarily using data from our proprietary SHGR ranking (see Investing Holy Grail) and free cash flow yield analysis, among other important considerations. Based on the risk-reward profiles of our existing holdings and the pool of targeted investments, we can appropriately size our positions accordingly (i.e., money management). As valuations rise, or risk profiles deteriorate, we can make the corresponding portfolio positions cuts, especially if we find more attractive alternative investments. Having a proven, systematic, unbiased process has helped us tremendously in minimizing behavioral pitfalls (i.e., knowing yourself) when we construct client portfolios.

The world is under assault…but that has always been the case. Throughout investment history, there have been wars, assassinations, unexpected election outcomes, banking crises, currency crises, natural disasters, health epidemics, and more. Unfortunately, millions have gambled and bet their money away based on these frivolous, ever-changing, short-term headlines. On the other hand, those investors who understand the 60-40 end of a proposition, coupled with the importance of money management and controlling personal biases, will be the skillful winners to prosper over the long-run.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

April 23, 2017 at 10:53 am Leave a comment

Investing in a World of Black Swans

In the world of modern finance, there has always been the search for the Holy Grail. Ever since the advent of computers, practitioners have looked to harness the power of computing and direct it towards the goal of producing endless profits. Today the buzz words being used  across industries include, “AI – Artificial Intelligence,” “Machine Learning,” “Neural Networks,” and “Deep Learning.” Regrettably, nobody has found a silver bullet, but that hasn’t slowed down people from trying. Wall Street has an innate desire to try to turn the ultra-complex field of finance into a science, just as they do in the field of physics. Even banking stalwart JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and its renowned CEO/Chairman Jamie Dimon suffered billions in losses in the quest for infinite income, due in large part to their over-reliance on pseudo-science trading models.

Preceding JPM’s losses, James Montier of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo’s asset allocation team gave a keynote speech at a CFA Institute Annual Conference in Chicago, where he gave a prescient talk explaining why bad models were the root cause of the financial crisis. Montier noted these computer algorithms essentially underappreciate the number and severity of Black Swan events (low probability negative outcomes) and the models’ inability to accurately identify predictable surprises.

What are predictable surprises? Here’s what Montier had to say on the topic:

“Predictable surprises are really about situations where some people are aware of the problem. The problem gets worse over time and eventually explodes into crisis.”

 

When Dimon was made aware of the 2012 rogue trading activities, he strenuously denied the problem before reversing course and admitting to the dilemma. Unfortunately, many of these Wall Street firms and financial institutions use value-at-risk (VaR) models that are falsely based on the belief that past results will repeat themselves, and financial market returns are normally distributed. Those suppositions are not always true.

Another perfect example of a Black Swan created by a bad financial model is Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) – see also When Genius Failed. Robert Merton and Myron Scholes were world renowned Nobel Prize winners who single-handedly brought the global financial market to its knees in 1998 when LTCM lost $500 million in one day and required a $3.6 billion bailout from a consortium of banks. Their mathematical models worked for a while but did not fully account for trading environments with low liquidity (i.e., traders fleeing in panic) and outcomes that defied the historical correlations embedded in their computer algorithms. The “Flash Crash” of 2010, in which liquidity evaporated due to high-frequency traders temporarily jumping ship, is another illustration of computers wreaking havoc on the financial markets.

The problem with many of these models, even for the ones that work in the short-run, is that behavior and correlations are constantly changing. Therefore any strategy successfully reaping outsized profits in the near-term will eventually be discovered by other financial vultures and exploited away.

Another pundit with a firm hold on Wall Street financial models is David Leinweber, author of Nerds on Wall Street.  As Leinweber points out, financial models become meaningless if the data is sliced and diced to form manipulated and nonsensical relationships. The data coming out can only be as good as the data going in – “garbage in, garbage out.”

In searching for the most absurd data possible to explain the returns of the S&P 500 index, Leinweiber discovered that butter production in Bangladesh was an excellent predictor of stock market returns, explaining 75% of the variation of historical returns. By tossing in U.S. cheese production and the total population of sheep in Bangladesh, Leinweber was able to mathematically “predict” past U.S. stock returns with 99% accuracy. To read more about other financial modeling absurdities, check out a previous Investing Caffeine article, Butter in Bangladesh.

Generally, investors want precision through math, but as famed investor Benjamin Graham noted more than 50 years ago, “Mathematics is ordinarily considered as producing precise, dependable results. But in the stock market, the more elaborate and obtuse the mathematics, the more uncertain and speculative the conclusions we draw therefrom. Whenever calculus is brought in, or higher algebra, you can take it as a warning signal that the operator is trying to substitute theory for experience.”

If these models are so bad, then why do so many people use them? Montier points to “intentional blindness,” the tendency to see what one expects to see, and “distorted incentives” (i.e., compensation structures rewarding improper or risky behavior).

Montier’s solution to dealing with these models is not to completely eradicate them, but rather recognize the numerous shortcomings of them and instead focus on the robustness of these models. Or in other words, be skeptical, know the limits of the models, and build portfolios to survive multiple different environments.

Investors seem to be discovering more financial Black Swans over the last few years in the form of events like the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, Flash Crash, and Greek sovereign debt default. Rather than putting too much faith or dependence on bad financial models to identify or exploit Black Swan events, the over-reliance on these models may turn this rare breed of swans into a large bevy.

See Full Article on Montier: Failures of Modern Finance

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own JPM and certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Lehman Brothers, 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.

April 15, 2017 at 10:25 am Leave a comment

No April Fool’s Joke – Another Record

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

Having children is great, but a disadvantage to having younger kids are the April Fool’s jokes they like to play on parents. Fortunately, this year was fairly benign as I only suffered a nail-polish covered bar of soap in the shower. However, what has not been a joke has been the serious series of new record highs achieved in the stock market. While it is true the S&P 500 index finished roughly flat for the month (-0.0%) after hitting new highs earlier in March, the technology-laden NASDAQ index continued its dominating run, advancing +1.5% in March contributing to the impressive +10% jump in the first quarter. For 2017, the NASDAQ supremacy has been aided by the stalwart gains realized by leaders like Apple Inc. (up +24%), Facebook Inc. (up +23%), and Amazon.com Inc. (up +18%). The surprising fact to many is that these records have come in the face of immense political turmoil – most recently President Trump’s failure to deliver on a campaign promise to repeal and replace the Obamacare healthcare system.

Like a broken record, I’ve repeated there are much more important factors impacting investment portfolios and the stock market other than politics (see also Politics Schmolitics). In fact, many casual observers of the stock market don’t realize we have been in the midst of a synchronized, global economic expansion, helped in part by the stabilization in the value of the U.S. dollar over the last couple of years.

Source: Investing.com

As you can see above, there was an approximate +25% appreciation in the value of the dollar in late-2014, early-2015. This spike in the value of the dollar suddenly made U.S. goods sold abroad +25% more expensive, resulting in U.S. multinational companies experiencing a dramatic profitability squeeze over a short period of time. The good news is that over the last two years the dollar has stabilized around an index value of 100. What does this mean? In short, this has provided U.S. multinational companies time to adjust operations, thereby neutralizing the currency headwinds and allowing the companies to return to profitability growth.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

And profits are back on the rise indeed. The six decade long chart above shows there is a significant correlation between the stock market (red line – S&P 500) and corporate profits (blue line). The skeptics and naysayers have been out in full force ever since the 2008-2009 financial crisis – I profiled these so-called “sideliners” in Get out of Stocks!.

As the stock market continues to hit new record highs, the doubters continue to scream danger. There will always be volatility, but when the richest investor of all-time, Warren Buffett, continues to say that stocks are still attractively priced, given the current interest rate environment, that goes a long way to assuage investor concerns.

Politically, a lot could still go wrong as it relates to healthcare, tax reform, and infrastructure spending, to name a few issues. However, it’s still early, and it’s possible positive surprises could also occur. More importantly, as I’ve noted before, corporate profits, interest rates, valuations, and investor sentiment are much more important factors than politics, and on balance these factors are on the favorable side of the ledger. These factors will have a larger impact on the long-term direction of stock prices.

With approval ratings of Congress and the President at low levels, investors have had trouble finding humor in politics, even on April Fool’s Day. Another significant factor more important than politics is the issue of retirement savings by Americans, which is no joke. As you finalize your tax returns in the coming weeks, it behooves you to revisit your retirement plan and investment portfolio. Inefficiently investing your money or outliving your savings is no laughing matter. I’ll continue with my disciplined financial plan and leave the laughing to my kids, as they enjoy planning their next April Fool’s Day prank.

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, FB, AMZN, 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.

April 3, 2017 at 12:03 pm Leave a comment

March Madness or Retirement Sadness?

bball

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

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

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

dem-v-rep

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

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

eld-pop-growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

record-highs

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

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in FB and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

March 4, 2017 at 11:04 am 1 comment

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