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The Invisible Benefits of Trade

Source: PhotoBucket

Before the Brexit, 28 countries joined the European Union since its inception in 1957, without a single country leaving. The story is similar if you look at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has witnessed more than 160 countries unite, without one country exiting since it began in 1948. Are the leaders of these countries idiots and blind to the benefits of trade and globalization? I think not.

For centuries, the advantages of free trade and globalization have lifted the standards of living for billions of people. However, pinpointing the timing or attributing the precise actions leading to these tremendous economic advantages is difficult to do because most trade benefits are often invisible to the naked eye.

Today, populist sentiment on both sides of the political aisle has demonized trade, whether referring to TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement), trade with China, or announcements by corporations to manufacture goods internationally.

Although it would be naïve to adopt a stance that there are no negative consequences to globalization (e.g., lost American jobs due to offshoring), myopically focusing on job displacement is only half the equation.

While I can attempt to articulate the economic costs and benefits of free trade, and I’ve tried (see Productivity & Trade), Dan Ikenson of the Cato Institute explains it much better than I can. Here is a more eloquent synopsis of free trade (hat-tip: Scott Grannis):

“The case for free trade is not obvious. The benefits of trade are dispersed and accrue over time, while the adjustment costs tend to be concentrated and immediate. To synthesize Schumpeter and Bastiat, the “destruction” caused by trade is “seen,” while the “creation” of its benefits goes “unseen.” We note and lament the effects of the clothing factory that shutters because it couldn’t compete with lower-priced imports. The lost factory jobs, the nearby businesses on Main Street that fail, and the blighted landscape are all obvious. What is not so easily noticed is the increased spending power of the divorced mother who has to feed and clothe her three children. Not only can she buy cheaper clothing, but she has more resources to save or spend on other goods and services, which undergirds growth elsewhere in the economy.

Consider Apple. By availing itself of lowskilled, low-wage labor in China to produce small plastic components and to assemble its products, Apple may have deprived U.S. workers of the opportunity to perform that low-end function in the supply chain. But at the same time, that decision enabled iPods and then iPhones and then iPads to be priced within the budgets of a large swath of consumers. Had all of the components been produced and all of the assembly performed in the United States — as President Obama once requested of Steve Jobs — the higher prices would have prevented those devices from becoming quite so ubiquitous, and the incentives for the emergence of spin-off industries, such as apps, accessories, Uber, and AirBnb, would have been muted or absent.

But these kinds of examples don’t lend themselves to the political stump, especially when the campaigns put a premium on simple messages. This is the burden of free traders: Making the unseen seen. It is this asymmetry that explains much of the popular skepticism about trade, as well as the persistence of often repeated fallacies.

The benefits of trade come from imports, which deliver more competition, greater variety, lower prices, better quality, and new incentives for innovation. Arguably, opening foreign markets should be an aim of trade policy because larger markets allow for greater specialization and economies of scale, but real free trade requires liberalization at home. The real benefits of trade are measured by the value of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports — our purchasing power or the so-called terms of trade. Trade barriers at home raise the costs and reduce the amount of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports.

Protectionism benefits producers over consumers; it favors big business over small business because the cost of protectionism is relatively small to a bigger company; and, it hurts lower-income more than higher-income Americans because the former spend a higher proportion of their resources on imported goods.

…Even if there were a President Trump or President Sanders, rest assured that the Congress still has authority over the nuts and bolts of trade policy. The scope for presidential mischief, such as unilaterally raising tariffs, or suspending or amending the terms of trade agreements, is limited. But it would be more reassuring still if the intellectual consensus for free trade were also the popular consensus.”

 

Fortunately, Ikenson supports the case I’ve made repeatedly. The power of presidential politics is limited by the Congress (see Politics and Your Money). Frustration with politics has never been higher, but in many cases, gridlock is a good thing.

The destructive impacts of protectionist, anti-trade policies is unambiguous – just consider what happened from the implementation of Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930 around the time of the Great Depression. U.S. imports decreased 66% from $4.4 billion (1929) to $1.5 billion (1933), and exports decreased 61% from $5.4 billion to $2.1 billion. GNP fell from $103.1 billion in 1929 to $75.8 billion in 1931 and bottomed out at $55.6 billion in 1933.

It’s important to remember, any harmful downside to trade is overwhelmed by the upside of growth. Greg Ip of the WSJ used Doug Irwin, a trade historian at Dartmouth College, to make this pro-growth point:

“If two million American workers lose $15,000 in annual income forever—an extreme estimate of the impact of trade with China—while 320 million American consumers gain just $100 from trade, the benefits to all of society still exceed the costs.”

 

The benefits of free trade may be invisible in the short run, but over the long-run, the growth advantages of free trade are perfectly visible, despite protectionist, anti-trade rhetoric and propaganda dominating the presidential election conversation.

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

www.Sidoxia.com

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), and AAPL, 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 13, 2016 at 2:51 pm Leave a comment

Brexit-Schmexit

British Flag FreeImage1

Do you remember the panic-inducing headlines related to PIIGS, Crimea, Ebola, Cyprus, and the Flash Crash? Probably not. But if you do remember, these false alarms have likely been relegated to the financial memory graveyard, along with the many other sensationalist news events that have been killed off in the post-financial crisis era. Time will tell whether Brexit dies off or becomes a resurrected concern, like the repeating fears of a China slowdown or Greek collapse. Regardless, as the S&P 500 stock index reaches new all-time record highs, investors are currently shrug off the noise while muttering, “Brexit-Schmexit.”

Individuals have tried to use scary headlines as a timing tool to consistently time market corrections for all of recorded history. Unfortunately, emotional, knee-jerk reactions to alarming news stories rarely is the best strategy. Famed fund manager Peter Lynch said it best when he noted,

“Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.”

 

Having invested for some 25 years, experience has taught me not only is conventional wisdom often wrong, but it also is frequently an accurate contrarian indicator. In other words, frightening news often should be an indicator to buy…not sell. Case in point is the U.K. European Union referendum. The Brexit referendum “Leave” vote caught virtually everyone by surprise, but the rebound in stock prices to new record highs may be even more surprising to most observers. However, for investors following the key factors of interest rates, profits, valuation, and sentiment (see also Don’t Be a Fool, Follow the Stool), may not be shocked by the positive price action.

  • Interest Rates: For starters, you don’t have to be a genius to realize that stocks become more attractive when there is a scarcity of investment alternatives. When there are an estimated $13 trillion of negative interest rate bonds, a layman can quickly understand a 2%, 3%, or 4% dividend yield offered on certain stocks (and funds) can represent a much more attractive opportunity. With interest rates at record lows (see chart below), the overall dividend yield of stocks has provided a floor for stock prices and has limited the depth and duration of sell-offs and corrections.
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

  • Profits: Corporate profits are near record highs but have been sluggish due to several factors, including the negative impact of the strong dollar on multinational exports; the depressing effect of declining interest rates on the banking sector’s net interest profit margins; the general decline in oil and commodity prices; and general lethargic economic growth overall in international markets (emerging and developed economies). Encouragingly, a stabilization in the value of the U.S. dollar, along with a rebound in energy prices augurs well for a potential shift back to earnings growth in the coming quarters.
  • Valuation: On a valuation basis, the Price/Earnings ratio of the stock market is about 10-15% above historical averages (see chart below). The average S&P 500 stock price trades around 19x’s the value of trailing twelve-month earnings. However, in the context of all-time record low-interest rates, a premium valuation is well deserved, especially for those companies paying a dividend and growing their bottom line.
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

  • Sentiment: Since the Great Financial Crisis / Recession, there has been about $1.5 trillion in equity investments that have been pulled out of U.S. equity mutual funds. This statistic is a clear sign of the extreme risk aversion and pervasive pessimism. Despite money flowing out of equity funds, corporations have bolstered the upward trajectory in stock prices with hundreds of billions in corporate stock buybacks and trillions in mergers & acquisition transactions. With all the universal jitteriness, I like to remind investors of Warren Buffett’s credo, “Buy fear, and sell greed.”

Brexit-Schmexit NOT Brexit-Panic

Despite the risk aversion in the marketplace, stock prices in the U.S. continue to grind higher to record levels. The stock market is currently communicating interest rates, profits, valuation, and sentiment are more important factors to price direction than are Brexit and other geopolitical concerns.

The silver lining behind severe investor skepticism is the creation of additional investment opportunities. As famous investor Sir John Templeton stated regarding stock market cycles, “Bull markets are born on pessimism and they grow on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria.” Even the most objective observers have difficulty pointing to a broad set of indicators signaling euphoria, and the recent Turkish military coup attempt and domestic gun violence incidents will not squash out the negativity. Until optimism and elation rule the day, there’s no need to worry-schworry.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds , but at the time of publishing had no direct position in 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 17, 2016 at 9:54 pm Leave a comment

Brexit Briefing

Pair of British Briefs

Pair of British Briefs

There is no shortage of Brexit articles, but as I compile information for my monthly newsletter later this week (subscribe at Investing Caffeine – right column), here are some of my favorite links:

1) How to Make Sense of the Brexit Turmoil (FiveThirtyEight)

2) Brexit Meltdown Charts (Ritholtz)

3) House of Commons UK-EU Economic Relations Report (Parliament Research Briefings)

4) What is article 50 and why is it so central to the Brexit debate? (The Guardian)

5) The Difference Between the EU and Euro Zone (Moody’s)

6) Brexit’s First 100 Days (Bloomberg)

7) Brexit Impact on Wimbledon Paychecks (Fox Sports)

8) Relationship Between the U.K., Britain, England, Great Britain, Ireland, Northern Island, Wales, and British Isles (Project Britain)

9) Brexit Voting Results by Age (Ben Riley-Smith – Twitter)

10) Brexit Impact on Global Economy (Wall Street Journal)

11) Brexit is Not the End of the World (Calafia Beach Pundit)

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

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

June 26, 2016 at 12:25 pm Leave a comment

Cleaning Out Your Investment Fridge

moldy cheese

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

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

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

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

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

case shiller 2016

Source: Bespoke

Spoiling the Fun?

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

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

10 yr

Source: Scott Grannis

Keep a Fresh Financial Plan

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

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

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

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

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

Energizer Market… Keeps Going and Going

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (May 2, 2016). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

Boom, boom, boom…it keeps going…and going…and going…

You’ve seen the commercials: A device operating on inferior batteries dies just as a drum-beating, battery operated Energizer bunny comes speeding and spiraling across the television screen. Onlookers waiting for the battery operated toy to run out of juice, instead gaze in amazement as they watch the energized bunny keep going and going. The same phenomenon is occurring in the stock market, as many observers eagerly await for stock prices to die. The obituary of the stock market has been written many times over the last eight years (see Series of Unfortunate Events). Mark Twain summed up this sentiment well, when after a premature obituary was written about him, he quipped, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

With fears abound, stocks added to their annual gains by finishing their third consecutive positive month with the S&P 500 indexes and Dow Jones Industrial Average advancing +0.5% and +0.3%, respectively. Skeptics and worry-warts have been concerned about stocks plummeting ever since the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. We experienced a 100 year flood then, and as a consequence, scarred investors now expect the 100 year flood to repeat every 100 days (see also 100 Year Flood). Given the damage created in the wake of the “Great Recession,” many individuals have become afraid of their own shadow. The shadows currently scaring investors include the following:

  • Negative Interest Rates: The unknown consequences of negative interest rate policies by central banks (see chart below).
  • U.S. Monetary Policy: The potential continuation of the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates.
  • Sluggish Economic Growth: With a GDP growth figure up only +0.5% during the first quarter many people are worried about the vulnerability of slipping into recession.
  • Brexit Fears: Risk of Britain exiting the European Union (a.k.a. “Brexit”) will blanket the airwaves as the referendum approaches next month

For these reasons, and others, the U.S. central bank is likely to remain accommodative in its stance (i.e., Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen is expected to be slow in hitting the economic brakes via interest rate hikes).

c bank rates

Source: Financial Times. Central banks continue with attempts to stimulate with zero/negative rates.

Climbing the Wall of Worry

Despite all these concerns, stock prices continue climbing the proverbial “wall of worry” while approaching record levels. As famed investor Sir John Templeton stated on multiple occasions, “Bull markets are born on pessimism, and they grow on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria.” It’s obvious to me there currently is no euphoria in the overall market, if you consider investors have withdrawn $2 trillion in stock investments since 2007. The phenomenon of stocks moving higher in the face of bad news is nothing new. A recent study conducted by the Financial Times newspaper shows the current buoyant bull market entering the second longest advancing period since World War II (see chart below).

bull markt cal days

Source: Financial Times

There will never be a shortage of concerns or bad things occurring in a world of 7.4 billion people, but the Energizer bunny U.S. economy has proven resilient. Our economy is entering its seventh consecutive year of expansion, and as I recently pointed out the job market keeps plodding along in the right direction – unemployment claims are at a 43-year low (see Spring Has Sprung). Over the last few years, these job gains have come despite corporate profits being challenged by the headwinds of a stronger U.S. dollar (hurts our country’s exports) and tumbling energy profits. Fortunately, the negative factors of the dollar and oil prices have stabilized lately, and these dynamics are in the process of shifting into tailwinds for company earnings. The -5.7% year-to-date decline in the Dollar Index coupled with the recent rebound in oil prices are proof that the economic laws of supply-demand eventually respond to large currency and commodity swings. With the number of rigs drilling for oil down by approximately -80% over the last two years, it comes as no surprise to me that a drop in oil supply has steadied prices.

The volatility in oil prices has been amazing. Energy companies have been reeling as oil prices dropped -76% from a 2014-high of $108 per barrel to a 2016-low of $26 per barrel. Since then, the picture has improved significantly. Crude oil prices are now hovering around $46 per barrel, up +76%.

Energy Bankruptcy & Recessionary Fears Abate

If you take a look at the borrowing costs of high-yield companies in the chart below (Calafia Beach Pundit), you can see that prior spikes in the red line (all high-yield borrowing costs) were correlated with recessions – represented by the gray periods occurring in 2001 and 2008-09. During 2016, you can see from the soaring blue line, investors were factoring in a recession for high-yield energy companies (until the oil price recovery), but the non-energy companies (red-green lines) were not anticipating a recession for the other sectors of the economy. Bottom-line, this chart is telling you the knee-jerk panic of recessionary fears during the January-February period of this year has quickly abated, which helps explain the sharp rebound in stock prices.

hy crdt yields

After a jittery start to 2016 when economic expectations were for a dying halt, investors have watched stocks recharge their batteries in March and April. There are bound to be more fits and starts in the future, as there always are, but for the time being this Energizer bunny stock market and economy keeps going…and going…and going…

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

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

May 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm Leave a comment

Extrapolation: Dangers of the Reckless Ruler

Ruler - Pencil

The game of investing would be rather simple if everything moved in a straight line and economic data points could be could be connected with a level ruler. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t operate that way – data points are actually scattered continuously. In the short-run, inflation, GDP, exchange rates, interest rates, corporate earnings, profit margins, geopolitics, natural disasters, financial crises, and an infinite number of other factors are very difficult to predict with any accurate consistency. The true way to make money is to correctly identify long-term trends and then opportunistically take advantage of the chaos by using the power of mean reversion. Let me explain.

Take for example the just-released October employment figures, which on the surface showed a blowout creation of +271,000 new jobs during the month (unemployment rate decline to 5.0%) versus the Wall Street consensus forecast of +180,000 (flat unemployment rate of 5.1%). The rise in new workers was a marked acceleration from the +137,000 additions in September and the +136,000 in August. The better-than-expected jobs numbers, the highest monthly addition since late 2014, was paraded across television broadcasts and web headlines as a blowout number, which gives the Federal Reserve and Chairwoman Janet Yellen more ammunition to raise interest rates next month at the Federal Open Market Committee meeting. Investors are now factoring in roughly a 70% probability of a +0.25% interest rate hike next month compared to an approximately 30% chance of an increase a few weeks ago.

As is often the case, speculators, traders, and the media rely heavily on their trusty ruler to connect two data points to create a trend, and then subsequently extrapolate that trend out into infinity, whether the trend is moving upwards or downwards. I went back in time to explore the media’s infatuation with limitless extrapolation in my Back to the Future series (see Part I; Part II; and Part III). More recently, weakening data in China caused traders to extrapolate that weakness into perpetuity and pushed Chinese stocks down in August by more than -20% and U.S. stocks down more than -10%, over the same timeframe.

While most of the media coverage blew the recent jobs number out of proportion (see BOOM! Big Rebound in Job Creation), some shrewd investors understand mean reversion is one of the most powerful dynamics in economics and often overrides the limited utility of extrapolation. Case in point is blogger-extraordinaire Scott Grannis (Calafia Beach Pundit) who displayed this judgment when he handicapped the October jobs data a day before the statistics were released. Here’s what Grannis said:

The BLS’s estimate of private sector employment tends to be more volatile than ADP’s, and both tend to track each other over time. That further suggests that the BLS jobs number—to be released early tomorrow—has a decent chance of beating expectations.

 

Now, Grannis may not have guaranteed a specific number, but comparing the volatile government BLS and private sector ADP jobs data (always released before BLS) only bolsters the supremacy of mean reversion. As you can see from the chart below, both sets of data have been highly correlated and the monthly statistics have reliably varied between a range of +100k to +300k job additions over the last six years. So, although the number came in higher than expected for October, the result is perfectly consistent with the “slowly-but-surely” growing U.S. economy.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

While I spend much more time picking stocks than picking the direction of economic statistics, even I will agree there is a high probability the Fed moves interest rates next month. But even if Yellen acts in December, she has been very clear that this rate hike cycle will be slower than previous periods due to the weak pace of economic expansion. I agree with Grannis, who noted, “Higher rates would be a confirmation of growth, not a threat to growth.” Whatever happens next month, do yourself a favor and keep the urge of extrapolation at bay by keeping your pencil and ruler in your drawer.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) , but at the time of publishing, 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.

November 7, 2015 at 7:07 pm 1 comment

The Fallibility of Tangibility

touching-the-water-wall-1435501

Why do so many star athletes end up going bankrupt? Rather than building a low-cost, tax-efficient, diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that could help generate significant income and compounded wealth over the long-term (yawn…boring), many investors succumb to the allure of over-exposing themselves to costly, illiquid, tangible assets, while assuming disproportionate risk.

After all, it’s much more exciting to brag about the purchase of a car wash, apartment building or luxury condo than it is to whip out a brokerage statement and show a friend a bond fund earning a respectable 4% yield.

Many real estate investors in my Southern California backyard (epicenter of the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis) have experienced both ruin and riches over the last few decades. The appeal and pitfalls associated with owning tangible assets like real estate are particularly exemplified with professional athletes (see also Hidden Train Wreck). Consider the fate suffered by these following individuals:

  • Mike TysonFamous boxer Mike Tyson tore through $300 million on multiple homes, cars, jewels and pet tigers before filing for bankruptcy in 2003.
  • Julius ErvingHall of Fame NBA player Julius “Dr. J” Erving went financially belly-up in 2010 after his Celebrity Golf Club International was pushed into foreclosure. Dr. J. was also forced to auction off coveted NBA memorabilia (including championship uniforms, trophies, and rings) along with foreclosing on his personal $2 million, 6,600-square foot Utah home.
  • Mark BrunellPro Bowl quarterback Mark Brunell was estimated to have earned over $50 million during his career. Due to failed real estate ventures and business loans, Brunell filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
  • Evander Holyfield: Heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield burned through a mountain of money estimated at $230 million, including a 235-acre Utah estate, which had 109 rooms and included at least one monthly electric bill of $17,000.

Caveat Emptor

Inclusion of real estate as part of a diversified portfolio makes all the sense in the world – this is exactly what we do for clients at Sidoxia. But unfortunately, many investors mistake the tangibility of real estate with “lower risk,” even though levered real estate is arguably more volatile than the stock market – evidenced by the volatility in publicly traded REIT share prices. For example, the Dow Jones SPDR REIT (RWR) declined by -78% from its 2007 high to its 2009 low versus the S&P 500 SPDR (SPY) drop of -57% over the comparable period. Private real estate investors are generally immune from the heart-pumping price volatility rampant in the public markets because they are not bombarded with daily, real-time, second-by-second pricing data over flashing red and green colored screens.

Without experiencing the emotional daily price swings, many real estate investors ignore the risks and costs associated with real estate, even when those risks often exceed those of traditional investments (e.g., stocks and bonds). Here are some of the important factors these real estate investors overlook:

Leverage: Many real estate investors don’t appreciate that the fact that 100% of a 10% investment (90% borrowed) can be wiped out completely (i.e., lose -100%), if the value of a property drops a mere -10%. Real estate owners found this lesson out the hard way during the last housing downturn and recession.

Illiquidity: Unlike a stock and bond, which merely takes a click of a mouse, buying/selling real estate can take weeks, if not months, to complete. If a seller needs access to liquidity, they may be forced to sell at unattractively low, fire-sale prices. Pricing transparency is opaque due to the variability and volume of transactions, although online services offered by Zillow Group Inc. (Z).

Costs: For real estate buyer, the list of costs can be long: appraisal fee, origination fee, pre-paid interest, pre-paid insurance, flood certification fee, tax servicing fee, credit report fee, bank processing fee, recording fee, notary fee, and title insurance. And once an investment property is officially purchased, there are costs such as property management fees, property taxes, association dues, landscaping fees and the opportunity costs of filling vacancies when there is tenant turnover. And this analysis neglects the hefty commission expenses, which generally run 5-6% and split between the buying and selling agent. Add all these costs up, and you can understand the dollars can become significant.

Concentration Risk: It’s perfectly fine to own a levered, cyclical asset in a broadly diversified portfolio for long-term investors, but owning $1.3 million of real estate in a $1.5 million total portfolio does not qualify as diversified. If a portfolio is real estate heavy, hopefully the real estate assets are at least diversified across geographies and real estate type (e.g., residential / commercial / multi-family / industrial / retail mall / mortgages / etc).

Stocks Abhorred, Gold & Real Estate Adored

With the downdraft in the stock market that started in late August, a recent survey conducted by CNBC showed how increased volatility has caused wealthy investors to sour on the stock market. More specifically, the All-America Survey, conducted by Hart-McInturff, polled 800 wealthy Americans at the beginning of October. Unsurprisingly, many investors automatically correlate temporary weakness in stocks to a lagging economy. In fact, 32% of respondents believed the U.S. economy would get worse, a 6% increase from the last poll in June, and the highest level of economic pessimism since the government shutdown in 2013 (as it turned out, this was a very good time to buy stocks). These gloom and doom views manifested themselves in skeptical views of stocks as well. Overall, 46% of the public felt it is a bad time to invest in stocks, representing a 12% gain from the last survey.

With investor appetites tainted for stocks, hunger for real state has risen. Actually, real estate was the top investment choice by a large margin, selected by 39% percent of the investors polled. Real estate has steadily gained in popularity since the depths of the recession in 2008. Jockeying for second place have been stocks and gold with the shiny metal edging out stocks by a score of 25% to 21%, respectively.

Successful long-term investors like Warren Buffett understand the best returns are earned by going against the grain. As Buffett said, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful,” and we know stock investors are fearful. Along those same lines, Bill Miller, the man who beat the S&P 500 index for 15 consecutive years (1991 – 2005), believes now is a perfect time to buy stocks. Investing in real estate is not a bad idea in the context of a diversified portfolio, but investors should not forget the fallibility of tangibility.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) including SPY, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in Z, RWR,  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.

October 17, 2015 at 9:59 pm Leave a comment

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