Posts filed under ‘Trading’
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.
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.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
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), 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
Investing comes in many shapes and sizes. And like religion (see Investing Religion article), most investment strategies are built on the essential belief that following certain rules and conventions will eventually lead to profit enlightenment. When it comes to technical analysis (TA), a discipline used with the principal aim of predicting future prices from past patterns, some consider it a necessity for making money in the market. Others, regard the practice of TA as a pseudoscience, much like astrology.
I feel there is a proper place for TA on selective basis, which I will describe later, but for the most part I agree with some of the legendary investors who have chimed in on the subject:
Warren Buffett: “I realized technical analysis didn’t work when I turned the charts upside down and didn’t get a different answer.”
Peter Lynch: “Charts are great for predicting the past.”
Technical Analysis Linguistics
Fundamental analysis, the antithesis of technical analysis, strives to predict future price direction by analyzing facts and data surrounding a company, industry, and/or economy. It too comes with its own syntax and versions, for example: value, growth, top-down, bottom-up, quantitative, etc.
I do not claim to be a TA expert, however in my many years of investing I have come across a smorgasbord of terms and flavors surrounding the discipline. Describing and explaining the density of material surrounding TA would encompass too large of a scope for this article, but here are some prevalent terms one should come to grips with if you want to become a technical analysis guru:
Technical Analysis Approaches
- Elliot Wave
- Relative strength / Momentum (see Momentum Investing article)
- MACD (Moving Average Convergence / Divergence)
- Fibonacci retracement
- Dow Theory
- Bollinger bands
- Head and shoulders
- Double bottom
- Cup and handle
- Pivot points
- Dead cat bounce (my personal favorite)
Each of these patterns are supposes to provide insight into the future direction of price. At best, I would say the academic research surrounding the subject is “inconclusive,” and at worst I’d say it’s considered a complete “sham.”
The Lob Wedge
As I’ve stated earlier, I fall in the skeptical camp when it comes to TA, since fundamental analysis is the main engine I use for generating and tracking my investment ideas. For illustrative purposes, you may consider fundamental analysis as my group of drivers and irons. I do, however, utilize selective facets of TA much like I use a lob wedge in golf for a limited number of specific situations (e.g., shots over high trees, downhill lies, and fast greens). When it comes to trading, I do believe there is some value in tracking the relationship of extreme trading volume (high or low), especially when it is coupled with extreme price movement (high or low). The economic laws of supply and demand hold true for stock trades just as they do for guns and butter, and sharp moves in these components can provide insights into the psychological mindset of investors with respect to a security (or broader market). Beyond trading volume, there are a few other indicators that I utilize as part of my trading strategies, but these tactics play a relatively minor role, since most of my core positions are held on a multi-year time horizon.
Overall, there is a stream of wasteful noise, volatility, and misinformation that permeates the financial markets on a daily basis. A major problem with technical analysis is the many false triggered signals, which in many cases lead to excessive trading, transaction costs, and ultimately subpar investment returns. Although I remain a skeptic on the subject of technical analysis and I may not read my horoscope today, I will continue to keep a lob wedge in my golf bag with the hopes of finding new, creative ways of using it to my advantage.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own exchange traded funds and various securities, including BRK.B, but at time of publishing had no direct position in BRK.A or any company mentioned 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.
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (June 1, 2016). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
Summer is quickly approaching, but it’s not too late to do some spring cleaning. This principle not only applies to your cluttered refrigerator with stale foods but also your investment portfolio with moldy investments. In both cases, you want to get rid of the spoiled goods. It’s never fun discovering a science experiment growing in your fridge.
Over the last three months, the stock market has been replenished after a rotten first two months of the year (S&P 500 index was down -5.5% January through February). The +1.5% increase in May added to a +6.6% and +0.3% increase in March and April (respectively), resulting in a three month total advance in stock prices of +8.5%. Not surprisingly, the advance in the stock market is mirroring the recovery we have seen in recent economic data.
After digesting a foul 1st quarter economic Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reading of only +0.8%, activity has been smelling better in the 2nd quarter. A recent wholesome +3.4% increase in April durable goods orders, among other data points, has caused the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank to raise its 2nd quarter GDP estimate to a healthier +2.9% growth rate (from its prior +2.5% forecast).
Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70% of our country’s economic activity, has been on the rise as well. The improving employment picture (5.0% unemployment rate last month) means consumers are increasingly opening their wallets and purses. In addition to spending more on cars, clothing, movies, and vacations, consumers are also doling out a growing portion of their income on housing. Housing developers have cautiously kept a lid on expansion, which has translated into limited supply and higher home prices, as evidenced by the Case-Shiller indices charted below.
Spoiling the Fun?
While the fridge may look like it’s fully stocked with fresh produce, meat, and dairy, it doesn’t take long for the strawberries to get moldy and the milk to sour. Investor moods can sour quickly too, especially as they fret over the impending “Brexit” (British Exit) referendum on June 23rd when British voters will decide whether they want to leave the European Union. A “yes” exit vote has the potential of roiling the financial markets and causing lots of upset stomachs.
Another financial area to monitor relates to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy and its decision when to further increase the Federal Funds interest rate target at its June 14th – 15th meeting. With the target currently set at an almost insignificantly small level of 0.25% – 0.50%, it really should not matter whether Chair Janet Yellen decides to increase rates in June, July, September and/or November. Considering interest rates are at/near generational lows (see chart below), a ¼ point or ½ point percentage increase in short-term interest rates should have no meaningfully negative impact on the economy. If your fridge was at record freezing levels, increasing the temperature by a ¼ or ½ degree wouldn’t have a major effect either. If and when short-term interest rates increase by 2.0%, 3.0%, or 4.0% in a relatively short period will be the time to be concerned.
Source: Scott Grannis
Keep a Fresh Financial Plan
As mentioned earlier, your investments can get stale too. Excess cash sitting idly earning next-to-nothing in checking, savings, CDs, or in traditional low-yielding bonds is only going to spoil rapidly to inflation as your savings get eaten away. In the short-run, stock prices will move up and down based on frightening but insignificant headlines. However, in the long-run, the more important issues are determining how you are going to reach your retirement goals and whether you are going to outlive your savings. This mindset requires you to properly assess your time horizon, risk tolerance, income needs, tax situation, estate plan, and other unique circumstances. Like a balanced diet of various food groups in your refrigerator, your key personal financial planning factors are dependent upon you maintaining a properly diversified asset allocation that is periodically rebalanced to meet your long-term financial goals.
Whether you are managing your life savings, or your life-sustaining food supply, it’s always best to act now and not be a couch potato. The consequences of sitting idle and letting your investments spoil away are a lot worse than letting the food in your refrigerator rot away.
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.
For some, casually dating can be fun and exciting. The same goes for trading and speculating – the freedom to make free- wheeling, non-committal purchases can be exhilarating. Unfortunately the costs (fiscally and emotionally) of short-term dating/investing often outweigh the benefits.
Fortunately, in the investment world, you can get to know an investment pretty well through fundamental research that is widely available (e.g., 10Ks, 10Qs, press releases, analyst days, quarterly conference calls, management interviews, trade rags, research reports). Unlike dating, researching stocks can be very cheap, and you do not need to worry about being rejected.
Dating is important early in adulthood because we make many mistakes choosing whom we date, but in the process we learn from our misjudgments and discover the important qualities we value in relationships. The same goes for stocks. Nothing beats experience, and in my long investment career, I can honestly say I’ve dated/traded a lot of pigs and gained valuable lessons that have improved my investing capabilities. Now, however, I don’t just casually date my investments – I factor in a rigorous, disciplined process that requires a serious commitment. I no longer enter positions lightly.
One of my investment heroes, Peter Lynch, appropriately stated, “In stocks as in romance, ease of divorce is not a sound basis for commitment. If you’ve chosen wisely to begin with, you won’t want a divorce.”
Charles Ellis shared these thoughts on relationships with mutual funds:
“If you invest in mutual funds and make mutual funds investment changes in less than 10 years…you’re really just ‘dating.’ Investing in mutual funds should be marital – for richer, for poorer, and so on; mutual fund decisions should be entered into soberly and advisedly and for the truly long term.”
No relationship comes without wild swings, and stocks are no different. If you want to survive the volatile ups and downs of a relationship (or stock ownership), you better do your homework before blindly jumping into bed. The consequences can be punishing.
Buy and Hold is Dead…Unless Stocks Go Up
If you are serious about your investments, I believe you must be mentally willing to commit to a relationship with your stock, not for a day, not for a week, or not for a month, but rather for years. Now, I know this is blasphemy in the age when “buy-and-hold” investing is considered dead, but I refute that basic premise whole-heartedly…with a few caveats.
Sure, buy-and-hold is a stupid strategy when stocks do nothing for a decade – like they have done in the 2000s, but buying and holding was an absolutely brilliant strategy in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, even in the miserable 2000s, there have been many buy-and-hold investments that have made owners a fortune (see Questioning Buy & Hold ). So, the moral of the story for me is “buy-and-hold” is good for stocks that go up in price, and bad for stocks that go flat or down in price. Wow, how deeply profound!
To measure my personal commitment to an investment prospect, a bachelorette investment I am courting must pass another test…a test from another one of my investment idols, Phil Fisher, called the three-year rule. This is what the late Mr. Fisher had to say about this topic:
“While I realized thoroughly that if I were to make the kinds of profits that are made possible by [my] process … it was vital that I have some sort of quantitative check… With this in mind, I established what I called my three-year rule.” Fisher adds, “I have repeated again and again to my clients that when I purchase something for them, not to judge the results in a matter of a month or a year, but allow me a three year period.”
Certainly, there will be situations where an investment thesis is wrong, valuation explodes, or there are superior investment opportunities that will trigger a sale before the three-year minimum expires. Nonetheless, I follow Fisher’s rule in principle in hopes of setting the bar high enough to only let the best ideas into both my client and personal portfolios.
As I have written in the past, there are always reasons of why you should not invest for the long-term and instead sell your position, such as: 1) new competition; 2) cost pressures; 3) slowing growth; 4) management change; 5) valuation; 6) change in industry regulation; 7) slowing economy; 8 ) loss of market share; 9) product obsolescence; 10) etc, etc, etc. You get the idea.
Don Hays summed it up best: “Long term is not a popular time-horizon for today’s hedge fund short-term mentality. Every wiggle is interpreted as a new secular trend.”
Peter Lynch shares similar sympathies when it comes to noise in the marketplace:
“Whatever method you use to pick stocks or stock mutual funds, your ultimate success or failure will depend on your ability to ignore the worries of the world long enough to allow your investments to succeed.”
Every once in a while there is validity to some of the concerns, but more often than not, the scare campaigns are merely Chicken Little calling for the world to come to an end.
Patience is a Virtue
In the instant gratification society we live in, patience is difficult to come by, and for many people ignoring the constant chatter of fear is challenging. Pundits spend every waking hour trying to explain each blip in the market, but in the short-run, prices often move up or down irrespective of the daily headlines. Explaining this randomness, Peter Lynch said the following:
“Often, there is no correlation between the success of a company’s operations and the success of its stock over a few months or even a few years. In the long term, there is a 100% correlation between the success of a company and the success of its stock. It pays to be patient, and to own successful companies.”
Long-term investing, like long-term relationships, is not a new concept. Investment time horizons have been shortening for decades, so talking about the long-term is generally considered heresy. Rather than casually date a stock position, perhaps you should commit to a long-term relationship and divorce your field-playing habits. Now that sounds like a sweet kiss of success.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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.
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (June 1, 2015). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
Despite calls for “Sell in May, and go away,” the stock market as measured by both the Dow Jones Industrial and S&P 500 indexes grinded out a +1% gain during the month of May. For the year, the picture looks much the same…the Dow is up around +1% and the S&P 500 +2%. After gorging on gains of +30% in 2013 and +11% in 2014, it comes as no surprise to me that the S&P 500 is taking time to digest the gains. After eating any large pleasurable meal, there’s always a chance for some indigestion – just like last month. More specifically, the month of May ended as it did the previous six months…with a loss on the last trading day (-115 points). Providing some extra heartburn over the last 30 days were four separate 100+ point decline days. Realized fears of a Greek exit from the eurozone would no doubt have short-term traders reaching for some Tums antacid. Nevertheless, veteran investors understand this is par for the course, especially considering the outsized profits devoured in recent years.
The profits have been sweet, but not everyone has been at the table gobbling up the gains. And with success, always comes the skeptics, many of whom have been calling for a decline for years. This begs the question, “Are we in a stock bubble?” I think not.
Most asset bubbles are characterized by extreme investor/speculator euphoria. There are certainly small pockets of excitement percolating up in the stock market, but nothing like we experienced in the most recent burstings of the 2000 technology and 2006-07 housing bubbles. Yes, housing has steadily improved post the housing crash, but does this look like a housing bubble? (see New Home Sales chart)
Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog
Another characteristic of a typical asset bubble is rabid buying. However, when it comes to the investor fund flows into the U.S. stock market, we are seeing the exact opposite…money is getting sucked out of stocks like a Hoover vacuum cleaner. Over the last eight or so years, there has been almost -$700 billion that has hemorrhaged out of domestic equity funds – actions tend to speak louder than words (see chart below):
Source: Investment Company Institute (ICI)
The shift to Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) offered by the likes of iShares and Vanguard doesn’t explain the exodus of cash because ETFs such as S&P 500 SPDR ETF (SPY) are suffering dramatically too. SPY has drained about -$17 billion alone over the last year and a half.
With money flooding out of these stock funds, how can stock prices move higher? Well, one short answer is that hundreds of billions of dollars in share buybacks and trillions in mergers and acquisitions activity (M&A) is contributing to the tide lifting all stock boats. Low interest rates and stimulative monetary policies by central banks around the globe are no doubt contributing to this positive trend. While the U.S. Federal Reserve has already begun reversing its loose monetary policies and has threatened to increase short-term interest rates, by any objective standard, interest rates should remain at very supportive levels relative to historical benchmarks.
Besides housing and fund flows data, there are other unbiased sentiment indicators that indicate investors have not become universally Pollyannaish. Take for example the weekly AAII Sentiment Survey, which shows 73% of investors are currently Bearish and/or Neutral – significantly higher than historical averages.
The Consumer Confidence dataset also shows that not everyone is wearing rose-colored glasses. Looking back over the last five decades, you can see the current readings are hovering around the historical averages – nowhere near the bubblicious 2000 peak (~50% below).
Even if you’re convinced there is no imminent stock market bubble bursting, many of the same skeptics (and others) feel we’re on the verge of a recession – I’ve been writing about many of them since 2009. You could choke on an endless number of economic indicators, but on the common sense side of the economic equation, typically rising unemployment is a good barometer for any potentially looming recession. Here’s the unemployment rate we’re looking at now (with shaded periods indicating prior recessions):
As you can see, the recent 5.4% unemployment rate is still moving on a downward, positive trajectory. By most peoples’ estimation, because this has been the slowest recovery since World War II, there is still plenty of labor slack in the market to keep hiring going.
An even better leading indicator for future recessions has been the slope of the yield curve. A yield curve plots interest rate yields of similar bonds across a range of periods (e.g., three-month bill, six-month bill, one-year bill, two-year note, five-year note, 10-year note and 30-year bond). Traditionally, as short-term interest rates move higher, this phenomenon tends to flatten the yield curve, and eventually inverts the yield curve (i.e., short-term interest rates are higher than long-term interest rates). Over the last few decades, when the yield curve became inverted, it was an excellent leading indicator of a pending recession (click here and select “Animate” to see amazing interactive yield curve graph). Fortunately for the bulls, there is no sign of an inverted yield curve – 30-year rates remain significantly higher than short-term rates (see chart below).
Stock market skeptics continue to rationalize the record high stock prices by pointing to the artificially induced Federal Reserve money printing buying binge. It is true that the buffet of gains is not sustainable at the same pace as has been experienced over the last six years. As we continue to move closer to full employment in this economic cycle, the rapid accumulated wealth will need to be digested at a more responsible rate. An unexpected Greek exit from the EU or spike in interest rates could cause a short-term stomach ache, but until many of the previously mentioned indicators reach dangerous levels, please pass the gravy.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in SPY and other certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
#2. Don’t waste your time listening to the media.
Like dieting, the framework is simple to understand, but difficult to execute. Theoretically, if you follow Rule #1, you don’t have worry about Rule #2. Unfortunately, many people have no rules or discipline in place, and instead let their emotions drive all investing decisions. When it comes to following the media, Mark Twain stated it best:
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”
It’s fine to be informed, as long as the deluge of data doesn’t enslave you into bad, knee-jerk decision-making. You’ve seen those friends, family members and co-workers who are glued to their cell phones or TVs while insatiably devouring real-time data from CNBC, CNN, or their favorite internet blog. The grinding teeth and sweaty palms should be a dead giveaway that these habits are not healthy for investment account balances or blood pressure.
Thanks to the endless scary headlines and stream of geopolitical turmoil (fear sells), millions of investors have missed out on one of the most staggering bull market rallies in history. More specifically, the S&P 500 index (large capitalization companies) has almost tripled in value from early 2009 (666 to 1,931) and the S&P 600 index (small capitalization companies) almost quadrupled from 181 to 645.
Becoming a member of the Successful Investors Club (SIC) is no easy feat. As I’ve written in the past, the human brain has evolved dramatically over tens of thousands of years, but the troubling, emotionally-driven amygdala tissue mass at the end of the brain stem (a.k.a., “Lizard Brain“) still remains. The “Lizard Brain” automatically produces a genetic flight response to perceived worrisome stimuli surrounding us. In other words, our “Lizard Brain” often interprets excessively sensationalized current events as a threat to our financial security and well-being.
It’s no wonder amateur investors have trouble dealing with the incessantly changing headlines. Yesterday, investors were panicked over the P.I.I.G.S (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain), the Arab Spring (Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, etc.), and Cyprus. Today, it’s Ukraine, Argentina, Israel, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. Tomorrow…who knows? It’s bound to be another fiscally irresponsible country, terrorist group, or autocratic leader wreaking havoc upon their people or enemies.
During the pre-internet or pre-smartphone era, the average person couldn’t even find Ukraine, Syria, or the Gaza Strip on a map. Today, we are bombarded 24/7 with frightening stories over these remote regions that have dubious economic impact on the global economy.
Take the Ukraine for example, which if you think about it is a fiscal pimple on the global economy. Ukraine’s troubled $177 billion economy, represents a mere 0.29% of the $76 trillion global GDP. Could an extended or heightened conflict in the region hinder the energy supply to a much larger and significant European region? Certainly, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want the Ukrainian skirmish to blow up out of control. Russia has its own economic problems, and recent U.S. and European sanctions haven’t made Putin’s life any easier. The Russian leader has a vested economic interest to keep its power hungry European customers happy. If not, the U.S.’s new found resurgence in petroleum supplies from fracking will allow our country to happily create jobs and export excess reserves to a newly alienated EU energy buyer.
Rather than be hostage to the roller coaster ride of rising and falling economic data points, it’s better to follow the sage advice of investing greats like Peter Lynch, who averaged a +29% return per year from 1977 – 1990.
Here’s what he had to say about news consumption:
“If you spend more than 13 minutes analyzing economic and market forecasts, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.”
“Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.”
Rather than fret about the direction of the market, at Sidoxia Capital Management we are focused on identifying the best available opportunities, given any prevailing economic environment (positive or negative). We assume the market will go nowhere and invest our client assets (and personal assets) accordingly by focusing on those areas we see providing the most attractive risk-adjusted returns. Investors who try to time the market, fail miserably over the long-run. If timing the market were easy, you would see countless people’s names at the tops of the Forbes billionaire list – regrettably that simply is not the case.
Since “fear” sells in the media world, it’s always important to sift through the deluge of data to gain a balanced perspective. During panic periods, it’s important to find the silver linings. When everyone is euphoric, it’s vital to discover reasons for caution.
While a significant amount of geopolitical turmoil occurred last month, it’s essential to remember the underlying positive fundamentals propelling the stock market to record highs. The skeptics of the recovery and record stock market point to the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented, multi-trillion dollar money printing scheme (Quantitative Easing – QE) and the inferior quality of the jobs created. Regarding the former point, if QE has been so disastrous, I ask where is the run-away inflation (see chart below)? While the July jobs report may show some wage pressure, you can see we’re still a long ways away from the elevated pricing levels experienced during the 1970s-1980s.
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit
A final point worth contemplating as it relates to the unparalleled Fed Policy actions was highlighted by strategist Scott Grannis. If achieving real economic growth through money printing was so easy, how come Zimbabwe and Argentina haven’t become economic powerhouses? The naysayers also fail to acknowledge that the Fed has already reversed the majority of its stimulative $85 billion monthly bond buying program (currently at $25 billion per month). What’s more, the Federal Open Market Committee has already signaled a rate hike to 1.13% in 2015 and 2.50% in 2016 (see chart below).
Source: Financial Times
The rise in interest rates from generationally low levels, especially given the current status of our improving economy, as evidenced by the recent robust +4.0% Q2-GDP report, is inevitable. It’s not a matter of “if”, but rather a matter of “when”.
On the latter topic of job quality, previously mentioned, I can’t defend the part-time, underemployed nature of the employment picture, nor can I defend the weak job participation rate. In fact, this economic recovery has been the slowest since World War II. With that said, about 10 million private sector jobs have been added since the end of the Great Recession and the unemployment rate has dropped from 10% to 6.1%. However you choose to look at the situation, more paychecks mean more discretionary dollars in the wallets and purses of U.S. workers. This reality is important because consumer spending accounts for 70% of our country’s economic activity.
While there is a correlation between jobs, interest rates, and the stock market, less obvious to casual observers is the other major factor that drives stock prices…record corporate profits. That’s precisely what you see in the chart below. Not only are trailing earnings at record levels, but forecasted profits are also at record levels. Contrary to all the hyped QE Fed talk, the record profits have been bolstered by important factors such as record manufacturing, record exports, and soaring oil production …not QE.
Join the Club
Those who have been around the investing block a few times realize how challenging investing is. The deafening information noise instantaneously accessed via the internet has only made the endeavor of investing that much more challenging. But the cause is not completely lost. If you want to join the bull market and the SIC (Successful Investors Club), all you need to do is follow the two top secret rules. Creating a plan and sticking to it, while ignoring the mass media should be easy enough, otherwise find an experienced, independent investment advisor like Sidoxia Capital Management to help you join the club.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds ans securities, 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.
By several measures, this economic recovery has been the slowest, most-challenging expansion since World War II. Offsetting the painfully slow recovery has been a massive bull market in stocks, now hovering near all-time record highs, after about tripling in value since early 2009. Unfortunately, many investors have missed the boat (see Markets Soar – Investors Snore and Gallup Survey) with stock ownership near a 15-year low.
But it’s not too late for the “sideliners” to get in…is it? (see Get out of Stocks!*). Milfred and Buford are asking themselves that same question (see Investor Wake-Up Call). Milfred and Buford are like many other individuals searching for the American Dream and are looking for ways to pad their retirement nest egg. The seasoned couple has been around the block a few times and are somewhat familiar with one get-rich-quick strategy…day trading stocks. Thankfully, they learned that day trading stocks didn’t work out too well once the technology boom music ended in the late 1990s. Here’s what the SEC has to say about day trading on their government site:
Be prepared to suffer severe financial losses. Day traders typically suffer severe financial losses in their first months of trading, and many never graduate to profit-making status. Given these outcomes, it’s clear: day traders should only risk money they can afford to lose. They should never use money they will need for daily living expenses, retirement, take out a second mortgage, or use their student loan money for day trading.
Milfred & Buford Day Trade House
Milfred: “Now, Buford, I know we lost of our IRA retirement money day trading tech stocks, but if technical analysis works and all the financial news shows and talking babies on TV say it will make us a lot of cabbage, maybe we should try day trading our house?”
Buford: “Now I know why I married you 60 years ago – it’s that brilliant mind of yours that complements that sexy figure!”
Veteran readers of Investing Caffeine know I’ve been a skeptic of technical analysis (see Technical Analysis: Astrology or Lob Wedge), but a successful investor has to be open to new ideas, correct? So, if technical analysis works for stocks, then why not for houses? The recovery in housing prices hasn’t been nearly as robust as we’ve seen in stocks, so perhaps there’s more upside in housing. If I can get free stock charting technicals from my brokerage firm or online, there’s no reason I couldn’t access free charting technicals from Zillow (or Trulia) to make my fortunes. Case in point, I think I see a double-bottom and reverse head-and-shoulders pattern on the home price chart of Kim Kardashian’s house:
Of course, day trading isn’t solely dependent on random chart part patterns. Pundits, bloggers, and brokerage firms would also have you believe instant profits are attainable by trading based on the flow of news headlines. This is how Milfred and Buford would make their millions:
Milfred: “Snookums, it’s time for you to pack up all our stuff.”
Buford: “Huh? What are you talking about honey buns?”
Milfred: “Didn’t you see?! The University of Michigan consumer confidence index fell to a level of 81.3 vs. Wall street estimates of 83.0, bringing this measure to a new 4-month low.”
Buford: “I can’t believe I missed that. Nice catch ‘hun’. I’ll start packing, but where will we stay after we sell the house?”
Milfred: “We can hang out at the Motel 6, but it shouldn’t be long. I’m expecting the Philly Fed Manufacturing index to come in above 23 and I also expect a cease fire in Ukraine and Gaza. We can buy a new house then.”
I obviously frame this example very tongue-in-cheek, but buying and selling a house based on squiggly lines and ever-changing news headlines is as ridiculous as it sounds for trading stocks. The basis for any asset purchase or sale should be primarily based on the cash flow dynamics (e.g., rent, dividends, interest, etc., if there are any) of the asset, coupled with the appreciation/depreciation expectations based on a rigorous long-term analysis.
When Day Trading Works
Obviously there are some differences between real estate and stocks (see Stocks & Real Estate), including the practical utility of real estate and other subjective factors (i.e., proximity to family, schools, restaurants, beach, crime rates, etc.). Real estate is also a relatively illiquid and expensive asset to buy or sell compared to stocks. – However, that dynamic is rapidly changing. Like we witness in stocks, technology and the internet is making real estate cheaper and easier to match buyers and sellers.
Does day trading a stock ever work? Sure, even after excluding the factor of luck, having a fundamental information advantage can lead to immediate profits, but one must be careful how they capture the information. Raj Rajaratnam used this strategy but suffered the consequences of his insider trading conviction. Furthermore, the information advantage game can be expensive, as proven by Steven Cohen’s agreement to pay $1.2 billion to settle criminal charges. While I remain a day trading and technical analysis skeptic, I have noted a few instances when I use it.
Whatever your views are on the topics of day trading and technical analysis, do Milfred and Buford a favor by leading by example…invest for the long-term.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Z, TRLA, 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.