Wiping Your Financial Slate Clean

slate

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

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

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

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

The Trump Bump

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

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

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

16-sp-sum

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

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

16-eps

Source: FactSet

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

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

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

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

Searching for the Growth Stock Holy Grail

Source: Photobucket

Remember Research in Motion (now Blackberry Limited – BBRY)? What about Krispy Kreme Doughnuts? How about Crocs (CROX)? Or maybe even Webvan, the online grocery delivery company that went bankrupt during the bursting of the dot-com bubble? These are all examples of once heralded growth companies that lost their mojo along their growth expansion ways.

Not every stock can grow to the $80+ billion market cap stratosphere like Apple Inc. (AAPL), Starbucks Corp. (SBUX), and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), so finding companies with the right mixture of growth characteristics can be challenging. Objective stock market observers can disagree on the ingredients of a successful growth stock recipe, but generally speaking, the real explosive appreciation in stock prices come from those companies that can compound earnings growth over longer periods of time.

But how can one discover the Holy Grail of compounding earnings? At Sidoxia Capital Management, there are a handful of key factors we look for in successful growth companies. In the hyper-competitive global marketplace, these are crucial questions we want adequately answered before we invest our clients’ money:

  • Does the company sell a product or service that cuts costs?
  • Does the company offer a product or service with unique entertainment value?
  • Does the company offer a superior product or service compared to its competitors?

Even if a target investment can affirmatively answer two or three of these questions, often the most important question is the following:

  • Does the company have a sustainable competitive advantage in providing a product or service?

If the company does not have some type of durable competitive advantage, then some other company can just copy the product or service, and sell it at a lower price. This sadly leads to margin and P/E (Price-Earnings) multiple compression – both negative outcomes.

The aforementioned factors are not the end-all, be-all for successful growth stocks, but rather the minimum price of admission. Even if the previous criteria boxes are sufficiently checked off, the company being researched must still be fairly or attractively priced. For example, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out Apple is a successful company with unique advantages. More specifically, the company has $240 billion in cash, $50 billion in profits, and $215 billion in revenue. The real question becomes, is the stock fairly or attractively priced?

Although Apple appears attractively valued at current prices, in many other instances that is not the case. Often, great companies have been discovered by a large swath of investors, and therefore trade at significant premiums, which increases the risk profile or reduces the upside potential of the investment.

Sucking the Last Puff

If a company’s product or service isn’t superior, cut costs, or entertain at a reasonable/attractive valuation, then investing is like taking the last puff or drag out of a cigarette butt. Some value investors are good at this craft, but often these managers get caught into so-called “value traps” – ask Bill Ackman about Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX). Many value investors thought they found a bargain when they bought Valeant shares after it fell -80% in price. The stock subsequently has fallen another -50%…ouch!.

It’s worth noting that growth can come from many different areas. Even mature industries can produce periods of cyclical growth, however identifying cyclical winners is challenging. The art for the investment manager is determining whether growth in a target investment is sustainable. In many instances, companies temporarily benefit from a rising tide that lifts all boats, before the tide goes out and sinks fundamentals down to lower levels.

Growth investing can be a dangerous hobby for short-term traders because the price volatility stemming from ever-changing earnings growth expectations creates excessive trading, taxes, and transaction costs. However, for long-term investors, the great growth manager, T. Rowe Price, summed it up best here:

“The growth stock theory of investing requires patience, but is less stressful than trading, generally has less risk, and reduces brokerage commissions and income taxes.”

 

Growth investing is both a science and an art, but does not require a degree in rocket science. If you can focus on the important growth criteria, and combine it with a long-term disciplined valuation process, you will be well on your way to discovering the growth stock Holy Grail.

Investment Questions Border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in AAPL and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in VRX, BBRY, SBUX, WMT, CROX, Krispy Kreme, Webvan, 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.

December 24, 2016 at 11:20 am 1 comment

Time Arbitrage: Investing vs. Speculation

The clock is ticking, and for many investors that makes the allure of short-term speculation more appealing than long-term investing. Of course the definition of “long-term” is open for interpretation. For some traders, long-term can mean a week, a day, or an hour.  Fortunately, for those that understand the benefits of time arbitrage, the existence of short-term speculators creates volatility, and with volatility comes opportunity for long-term investors.

What is time arbitrage? The concept is not new and has been addressed by the likes of Louis Lowenstein, Ralph Wanger, Bill Miller, and Christopher Mayer. Essentially, time arbitrage is exploiting the benefits of moving against the herd and buying assets that are temporarily out of favor because of short-term fears, despite healthy long-term fundamentals. The reverse holds true as well. Short-term euphoria never lasts forever, and experienced investors understand that continually following the herd will eventually lead you to the slaughterhouse. Thinking independently, and going against the grain is ultimately what leads to long-term profits.

Successfully executing time arbitrage is easier said than done, but if you have a systematic, disciplined process in place that assists you in identifying panic and euphoria points, then you are well on your way to a lucrative investment career.

Winning via Long-Term Investing

Legg Mason has a relevant graphical representation of time arbitrage:

Source: Legg Mason Funds Management

The first key point to realize from the chart is that in the short-run, it is very difficult to distinguish between gambling/speculating and true investing. In the short-run (left side of graph), speculators can make nearly as much profits as long-term investors. As famed long-term investor Benjamin Graham astutely states:

“In the short-run, the market is a voting machine. In the long-run, it’s a weighing machine.”

 

Or in other words, speculative strategies can periodically outperform in the short run (above the horizontal mean return line), while thoughtful long-term investing can underperform. Like a gambler/speculator dumping money into a slot machine in Las Vegas, the gambler may win in the short-run, but over the long-run, the “house” always wins.

Financial Institutions are notorious for throwing up strategies on the wall like strands of spaghetti. If some short-term outperforming products randomly stick, then financial institutions often market the bejesus out of the funds to unsuspecting investors, until the strategies eventually fall off the wall.

Beware o’ Short-Termism

I believe Jack Gray of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo got it right when he said, “Excessive short-termism results in permanent destruction of wealth, or at least permanent transfer of wealth.” What’s led to the excessive short-termism in the financial markets (see Short-Termism article)? For starters, technology and information are spreading faster than ever with the proliferation of the internet, creating a sense of urgency (often a false sense) to react or trade on that information. With 3 billion people online and 5 billion people operating mobile phones globally, no wonder investors are getting overwhelmed with a massive amount of short-term data.

Next, trading costs have also declined dramatically in recent decades to the point where brokerage firms are offering free trades on various products. Lower trading costs mean less friction, which often leads to excessive and pointless, profit-reducing trading in reaction to meaningless news (i.e., “noise”).  Lastly, the genesis of ETFs (exchange traded funds) has induced a speculative fervor, among those investors dreaming to participate in the latest hot trend. Usually, by the time an ETF has been created, any exploitable trend has already been exploited. In other words, the low-hanging profit fruits have already been picked, making long-term excess returns tougher to achieve.

There is rarely a scarcity of short-term fears. Currently, concerns vary between Federal Reserve monetary policy, political legislation,  Middle East terrorism, foreign exchange rates, inflation, and other fear-induced issues du jour. Markets may be overbought in the short-run, and/or an unforeseen issue may derail the current bull market advance. However, for investors who can put on their long-term thinking caps and understand the concept of time arbitrage, opportunistically buying oversold ideas and selling over-hyped ones should lead to significant profits.

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

December 17, 2016 at 10:14 am Leave a comment

Betting Before the Race Starts

Horse Race 2

The spectators, myself included, are accumulating economic and political information as fast as it’s coming in and placing bets on different horses. Since Election Day, wagers on stocks have pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Average higher by more than 1,400 points (+7.8%) to almost 20,000. The current favorites have names like the banking sector, infrastructure, small caps, commodities, and other cyclical industries like the transports. The only problem…is the race has not even started.

Rather than place all your wagers before the race, when it comes to the stock market, you can still place your bets after the race begins (i.e., the presidency begins). So far, many bets have been made based on rhetoric emanating from the presidential election. Nobody has ever accused President-elect Trump of being short on words, and ever since the campaign process started a few years ago, his gift of the gab has led to many provocative claims and campaign promises. But as we have already learned, actions speak much louder than promises.

The walls of Trump’s pledges are already beginning to collapse, whether you interpret the shifts in his positions as softened stances or pure reversals. Examples of his position adjustments include recent comments regarding the maintenance of Obamacare’s preexisting conditions and universal care access components; immigration policies for illegal immigrants and his protective wall; or promises to lock up Hillary Clinton over her email scandal. The main point is that words are only words, and campaign promises often do not come to fruition.

The President-elect’s definitely has a full plate before his January 20th Inauguration Day, especially if you consider he is responsible for naming his White House and the heads of 100 federal agencies before his swearing in. But this only scratches the surface. When all is said and done, Trump will be making roughly 4,100 appointments, with 1,000 of those needing Senate confirmation.

While we sit here only one month after Trump won the presidential election, he has not sat on his hands. Trump has already made a significant number of his Cabinet announcements (click here for a current tally), with the much anticipated Secretary of State announcement expected to officially come next week.

From an investment standpoint, it makes perfect sense to make some adjustments to your portfolio based on the president-elect’s economic platform and political appointments. However, any shifts to your portfolio should be measured. For example, Hillary’s tweet heard around the world regarding skyrocketing pharmaceutical prices had a significant negative impact on the pharmaceutical/biotech sectors for many months. Expectations were for a more lenient and pharma-supportive administration to take place under Trump until excerpts from his Time magazine interview leaked out, “I’m going to bring down drug prices. I don’t like what has happened with drug prices.” Subsequent to his comments, the sector swiftly came crashing down.

As I have also pointed out previously, although Trump and the Republican Party have control of Congress (House & Senate), the make-up of the Republican majority is limited and quite diverse. I need not remind you that many of Trump’s Republican colleagues either campaigned against him or remained silent through the election process. What’s more, many fiscally conservative Tea Party members are not fully on board with a massive infrastructure bill, coupled with significant tax cuts, which could explode our already elevated deficits and debt loads.

Suffice it to say, there remains a lot of uncertainty ahead, so before you risk making wholesale changes to your portfolio, why not wait for the President-elect’s actions to take shape rather than overreact to fangless rhetoric. In other words, you can save money if you wait for the race to begin before placing all your bets.

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

www.Sidoxia.com

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

December 11, 2016 at 4:15 pm Leave a comment

Half Trump Empty, or Half Trump Full?

glass

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

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

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

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

dji-2016

Source: Investors.com (IBD)

Drinking the Trump Egg Nog

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

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

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

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

No Free Lunch

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

us-real-gdp

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

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

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

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

trumpdeficit

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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

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

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

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

www.Sidoxia.com

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

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

Sleeping and Napping Through Bubbles

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

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

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

Bubbles, Bubbles, Everywhere

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

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

 

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

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

Source: The Stock Market Crash.net

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

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

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

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

Source: Thechartstore.com

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

Source: Wall Street Journal – March 14, 2000

The Next Bubble

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

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

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

November 26, 2016 at 9:09 am 2 comments

When Genius Failed

when-genius-failed-book-cover

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

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

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

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

Key Characters

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

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

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

The History:

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

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

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

 

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

The Timeline

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

The End of LTCM

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

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

Source: The Personal Finance Engineer

 

Source: The Personal Finance Engineer

Source: The Personal Finance Engineer

Lessons Learned:

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

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

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

www.Sidoxia.com

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

November 21, 2016 at 1:44 am 2 comments

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