Posts tagged ‘deficits’

USA Inc.: Buy, Hold or Sell?

If the U.S. was a company, would you buy, hold, or sell the stock? A voluminous report put out last year by Mary Meeker sought to answer that very question. Since we’re in the thick of the presidential elections, why not review the important financial state of our great nation.

For those of you who may not know who she is, Mary Meeker is the well-known partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who is also affectionately known as the “Queen of Internet.” Apparently, beyond her renowned expertise in analyzing and valuing tech companies and start-ups, she also has the knack of dissecting government statistics and distilling wonky numbers down to understandable terms for the masses. “Distilling” may be a generous term, given the massive size of her 460-page report, USA Inc., but nevertheless, I am going to attempt to synthesize this gargantuan report even further.

As a visual learner, I think some key cherry-picked slides from her report will help put our multi-trillion debts and deficits in context, so here goes…

The Scope of the Problem

If one spends a few hundred billion dollars here, and a few hundred billion dollars there, before you know it, a trillion dollars will have piled up. Currently our government has run $1 trillion+ budget deficits for three years, and the estimated deficit is for another trillion dollar deficit this fiscal year. If you have ever wondered how many football fields it takes to fill with a trillion dollars of cash, then today is your lucky day. The answer: 217 football fields.

Financial Statements: The Health Thermometer

In order to determine the relative health of USA Inc., Meeker created financial statements for our country, starting with the income statement. As you can see from the chart below, unfortunately USA Inc.’s expenses have been significantly larger than its revenues, creating a “discouraging” trend of negative cash flows (deficits). An entity that takes in $2.2 trillion in revenue and spends $3.5 trillion, cannot sustainably continue this trend for long, before significant financial problems arise. The largest contributing factor to our country’s losses (deficits) has been the exploding costs of entitlements, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

As the pie chart shows, the major categories of entitlements comprise a whopping 58% of USA Inc.’s 2010 total expenditures.

Trillion dollar deficits have been the norm over the last three years.

Why Entitlement Spending is a Problem

Why are entitlements such a massive problem? The plain and simple answer to why entitlements are a major issue is that government expenditures are growing too fast. You can’t have expenses growing significantly faster than revenues for 45 years and expect to be in happy financial place.

Another reason for the abysmal spending record is due to politicians horrendous forecasting abilities. Future promises are made by politicians to garner votes today, and when they make overly rosy estimates about the costs of those promises, future generations are left holding the underfunded bag. Meeker points out that when Medicare was instituted in 1966, total future spending  of $110 billion turned out to be about 10x more expensive (see chart below) than originally planned…ouch!

No Defense for Defense

Trillion dollar deficits and debts can’t be solely blamed on entitlements, but $700 billion in annual defense expenditures is not exactly chump change. The inopportune timing of the financial crisis in 2008-2009 didn’t help either, while two unfunded wars were being fought. Even if you strip out the wars, defense spending is still obscenely high. Given our poor state of financial affairs, we cannot afford to be the globe’s babysitter (see Impoverished Global Babysitter). Legacy Cold War spending on obsolete ground warfare needs to be reprioritized to 21st Century threats (i.e. focus on unmanned drones and coordinated intelligence). When a government spends more than the top 25 countries combined (see chart below), that country can certainly find some defense fat to trim.

Demographic Headwinds

The out-of-control gluttonous government spending is a threat to our national security, and although I wish I could say time alone will heal our fiscal wounds, unfortunately the opposite is true. Time is our enemy because the ticking demographic time bomb is about to explode, unless government acts to solve our spending problems. For starters, Americans are living longer, which means entitlement spending has accelerated faster than revenues collected, and life expectancy consistently continues to rise. As you can see below, life expectancy has outpaced Social Security age adjustments by +23% over a 74 year period.

Another self inflicted problem contributing to our colossal health care costs is the obesity epidemic. Over an 18 year period, the rate of obesity more than doubled to 32%. Individuals can and should shoulder more of the burden for these belt-busting costs, and government should spend more on prevention and education in this area. Bad drivers pay higher premiums for their auto insurance, so why not have bad eaters pay higher premiums? Genetics certainly can play a role in obesity, but so to do eating habits. The same accountability principle should be applied to smokers who overly burden our healthcare system too.

The USA spends more on healthcare than all OECD countries combined and 3x the OECD per capita average, yet as you can see from the chart below, the USA is not getting a life expectancy bang for its buck. The argument that the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world may be true in some instances, but the overall data doesn’t support that assertion.

The Rubber Hits the Road

The problem is easy to identify: Government spending going out the door is running faster than the revenues coming in via taxes. The solution is easy to identify too: Politicians need to cut spending, increase taxes, and/or do a combination of the two options. Like dieting, the solutions are easy to identify but difficult to execute.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit – Scott Grannis

Almost everyone wants the government to spend less, but at the same time nobody wants their benefits cut. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Citing two different studies, Meeker shows how 80% of Americans want a balanced budget as a national priority, but only 12% are willing to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security.

The rubber will hit the road in the next few months when politicians in a post-presidential election period will be forced to face these difficult “Fiscal Cliff” choices – $700 billion+ in tax hikes and spending increases that  jeopardize the current recovery and our fiscal future.

Source: PIMCO

As market maven Mary Meeker recognizes, our fiscal situation is quite “discouraging”. With that said, although USA Inc. may have earned a current “Sell” rating, Meeker acknowledges that our country can become a positive turnaround situation. If voters actively push politicians to making difficult but necessary financial decisions to lower deficits and debt, investors around the globe will be ready to “Buy” USA Inc.’s stock.

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 SCM had no direct positions 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.

 

 

 

October 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm 1 comment

Autumn, Elections and Replacement Refs

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary October 1, 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

As September has come to a close, the grand finale of our annual seasons has commenced… autumn. How do we know autumn is here? Well, for starters, the leaves are changing colors; the weather is about to cool; and the NFL replacement referees are watching Sunday football games from their couches.

While 2012 is split into quarters, football games and investment seasons are also divided into four quarters. Right now, the economic fourth quarter has just started and the home team is winning. As we can see from the stock market scoreboard, the S&P 500 index is up +15% this year (+6% in Q3) and the NASDAQ index has catapulted +20% through September (+6% also in Q3). The U.S. home team is winning, but a fumble, blocked kick, or interception could mean the difference between an exciting win and a devastating loss.

Another game divided into four parts is the game of presidential politics. However, presidential elections are divided into four years – not four quarters. Five weeks from now, we’ll find out if our Commander in Chief Obama will get to lead our team for another game lasting four years, or whether backup quarterback Mit Romney will be called into the game. The fans are getting restless due to anemic growth and lingering joblessness, but for now, the coach is keeping the president in the starting lineup. Both President Obama and Governor Romney will take some head-to-head practice snaps against each other in the first of three scheduled presidential debates beginning this week.

Bernanke Changes Rules

The New York Jets have Tim Tebow for their secret weapon (1 for 1 yesterday!), and the United States economy has Ben Bernanke. Although our home team may be winning, it has required some monetary rule-changing policies to be instituted by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to keep our team in the lead. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Bernake instituted QE3 (3rd round of quantitative easing), which is an open-ended mortgage buying program designed to lower home buying interest rates and stimulate the economy (see Helicopter Ben to QE3 Rescue). The short-term benefits of the $40 billion monthly bond buying binge are relatively clear (lower borrowing costs for homebuyers), but the longer-term costs of inflation are stewing patiently on the backburner.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

As you can see from the chart above, August median home prices are up +10% for existing single-family homes over the last year. Housing affordability is at extremely attractive levels, and although the bank loan purse strings are tight, a modest loosening is beginning to unfold.

Economy Playing Injured

Our starters may still be playing, but many are injured, just like the jobless are limping through the employment market. Encouragingly, although unemployment remains stubbornly high, the number of people collecting unemployment checks is a lot lower (-1.25 million fewer than a year ago). Not great news, but at least we are hobbling in the right direction (see chart below).

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Time for Fiscal Cliff Hail Mary?

If a team is losing at the end of a game, a “Hail Mary” pass might be necessary. We are quickly nearing this fiscal Armageddon situation as the approximately $700 billion “fiscal cliff” (a painful combo of spending cuts and tax hikes) kicks in at the end of the year (see PIMCO chart below via The Reformed Broker).

Running trillion dollar deficits in perpetuity is not a sustainable strategy, so for most people, a combination of spending cuts and/or tax hikes makes sense to narrow the gap (see chart below). Last year’s recommendations from the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission, which were ignored, are not a bad place to start. What happens in the lame-duck session of Congress (after the elections) will  dramatically impact the score of the current economic game, and decide who wins and who loses.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Heated debates continue on how the gap between expenses and revenues will be narrowed, but regardless, Democrats will continue to push for capital gains tax hikes on the rich (see tax chart below); and the Republicans will push to cut spending on entitlements, including untenable programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

The game is not quite over, but the fourth quarter promises to be a bloody battle. So while the replacement refs may be back at home, the experienced returning refs have been known to blow calls too. Let’s just hope that autumn, the season of bounteous fecundity, ends up being a continued trend of sweet market success, rather than a political period of botched opportunities.

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 SCM had no direct positions 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.

 

October 1, 2012 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

Fiscal Cliff: Will a 1937 Repeat = 2013 Dead Meat?

Source: StockCharts.com

The presidential election is upon us and markets around the globe are beginning to factor in the results. More importantly, in my view, will be the post-election results of the “fiscal cliff” discussions, which will determine whether $600 billion in automated spending cuts and tax increases will be triggered. Similar dynamics in 1937 existed when President FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) felt pressure to balance the budget after his 1933 New Deal stimulus package began to rack up deficits and lose steam.

What’s Similar Today

Just as there is pressure to cut spending today by Republicans and “Tea-Party” Congressmen, so too there was pressure for FDR and the Federal Reserve in 1937 to unwind fiscal and monetary stimulus. At the time, FDR thought self-sustaining growth had been restored and there was a belief that the deficits would become a drag on expansion and a source of future inflation. What’s more, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, believed that continued economic growth was dependent on business confidence, which in turn was dependent on creating a balanced budget. History has a way of repeating itself, which explains why the issues faced in 1937 are eerily similar to today’s discussions.

The Results

FDR was successful in dramatically reducing spending and significantly increasing taxes. Specifically, federal spending was reduced by -17% over two years and FDR’s introduction of a Social Security payroll tax contributed to federal revenues increasing by a whopping +72% over a similar timeframe. The good news was the federal deficit fell from -5.5% of GDP to -0.5%. The bad news was the economy went into a tail-spinning recession; the Dow crashed approximately -50%; and the unemployment rate burst higher by about +3.3% to +12.5%.

Source: New York Times

Source: Blue Mass Group

What’s Different This Time?

For starters, one difference between 1937 and 2012 is the level of unemployment. In 1937, unemployment was +14.3%, and today it is +8.1%. Objectively, today there could be higher percentage of the population “under-employed,” but nonetheless the job market was in worse shape back then and labor unions had much more power.

Another major difference is the stance carried by the Fed. Today, Ben Bernanke and the Fed have made it crystal clear they are in no hurry to take away any of the monetary stimulus (see Hekicopter Ben QE3 article), until we have experienced a long-lasting, sustainable recovery. Back in early 1937, the Fed increased banks’ reserve requirements twice, doubling the requirement in less than a year, thereby contracting monetary supply drastically.

Furthermore, we live in a much more globalized world. Today, central banks and governments around the world are doing their part to keep growth alive. Emerging markets are large enough now to move the needle and impact the growth of developed markets. For example, China, the #2 global superpower, continues to cut interest rates and has recently implemented a $158 billion infrastructure spending program.

Net-Net

Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, everyone generally agrees that job creation is an important common objective, which is consistent with growing our economy. The disagreement between parties stems from the differing opinions on what are the best ways of creating jobs. From my perch, the frame of the debate should be premised on what policies and incentives should be structured to increase competitiveness. Without competitiveness there are no jobs. At the end of the day, money and capital are agnostic. Cold hard cash migrates to the countries in which it is treated best. And where the money goes is where the jobs go.

There is no single silver bullet to solve the competiveness concerns of the United States. Like baseball (since playoffs are quickly approaching), winning is not based solely on hitting, pitching, defense, or base-running. All of these facets and others are required to win. The same principles apply to our country’s competitiveness.

In order to be a competitive leader in the 21st century, here are few necessary areas in which we must excel:

Education: Chicago school unions have been in the news, and I have no problems with unions, if accountability can be structured in. Unfortunately, however, it is clear to me that for now our system is broken (a must see: Waiting for Superman). We cannot compete in the 21st century with an illiterate, uneducated workforce. Our colleges and universities are still top-notch, but as Bill Gates has stated, our elementary schools and high schools are “obsolete”.

Entitlements: Social safety nets like Social Security and Medicare are critical, but unsustainable promises that explode our debt and deficits will not make us more competitive. Politicians may gain votes by making promises in the short-run, but when those promises can’t be delivered in the medium-run or long-run, then those votes will disappear quickly. The sworn guarantees made to the 76 million Baby Boomers now entering retirement are a disaster waiting to happen. Benefits need to be reduced and or criteria need to be adjusted (i.e., means-testing, increase age requirements). The problems are clear as day, so Americans cannot walk away from this sobering reality.

Strategic Government Investment: – Government played a role in building our country’s railways, highways, and our military – a few strategic areas of our economy that have made our nation great. Thoughtful investments into areas like energy infrastructure (e.g., smart grid), internet infrastructure (e.g., higher speed super highway), and healthcare (e.g., human genome research) are a few examples of how jobs can be created while simultaneously increasing our global competitiveness. The great thing about strategic government investments is that government does NOT have to do all the heavy lifting. Rather than write all the checks and do all the job creation from Washington, government can implement these investments and create these jobs by providing incentives for the private sector. Strategic public-private partnerships can generate win-win results for government, businesses, and job seekers. If, however, you’re convinced that our government is more efficient than the private sector, then I highly encourage you to go visit your local DMV, post office, or VA to better appreciate the growth-sucking bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Taxes / Regulations / Laws: Taxes come from profits, and businesses create profits. In order to have a strong and competitive government, we need strong and competitive businesses. Higher taxes, excessive regulations, and burdensome laws will not create stronger and more competitive businesses. I acknowledge that reckless neglect and consumer exploitation will not work either, but reasonable protections for consumers and businesses can be instituted without multi-thousand page regulations. Reducing ridiculous subsidies and loopholes, while tightening tax collection processes and punishing tax dodgers makes perfect sense…so why not do it?

Politics are sharply polarized at both ends of the spectrum, but no matter who wins, our problems are not going away. We may or may not have a new president of the United States this November, but perhaps more important than the elections themselves will be the outcome of the “fiscal cliff” legislation (or lack thereof). If we want to maintain our economic power as the strongest in the world, solving this “fiscal cliff” is the key to improving our competiveness. Avoiding a messy 1937 (and 2011) political repeat will prevent us from becoming dead meat.

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 SCM had no direct positions 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.

 

September 23, 2012 at 10:55 pm Leave a comment

Digesting the Anchovy Pizza Market

Source: Photobucket

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary July 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

I love pizza, and most fellow connoisseurs have difficulty refusing a hot, fresh slice of heaven too. Pizza is so universally appreciated that people consider pizza like ice cream – it’s good even when it’s bad (I agree). However, even the biggest, diehard pizza-lover will sheepishly admit their fondness for the flat and circular cheesy delight changes when you integrate anchovies into the mix. Not many people enjoy salty, slimy, marine creatures layered onto their doughy mozzarella and marinara pizza paradise.

With all the turmoil and uncertainty going on in the global financial markets, prudently investing in a widely diversified portfolio, including a broad range of equity securities, is viewed as palatable as participating in an all-you-can-eat anchovy pizza contest. Why are investors’ appetites so salty now? Hmmm, let me think. Oh yes, here are a few things that come to mind:

  • Presidential Election Uncertainty
  • European Financial Crisis
  • Impending Fiscal Cliff (tax cut expirations, automatic spending cuts, termination of stimulus, etc.)
  • Unsustainable Fiscal Debt & Deficits
  • Slowing Subpar Domestic Economic Growth
  • Partisan Politics and Gridlock in Washington
  • High Unemployment
  • Fears of a Hard Economic Landing in China

Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? So, what are most investors doing in this unclear market? Rather than feasting on a pungent pie of anchovies, investors are flocking to the perceived safety of low yielding asset classes, no matter the price. In other words, the short-term warmth and comfort of CDs, money market, checking, and fixed income assets are being gobbled up like nicotine-laced pepperoni pizzas selling for $29.95/each + tax. The anchovy alternative, like stocks, is much more attractively priced now. After accounting for dividends, earnings, and cash flows, the anchovy/stock option is currently offering a 2-for-1 special with breadsticks and a salad…quite the bargain!

Nonetheless, the plain and expensive pepperoni/bond option remains the choice du jour and there are no immediate signs of a pepperoni hangover just quite yet. However, this risk aversion addiction cannot last forever. The bond gorging buffet has gone on relatively unabated for the last three decades, as you can see from the chart below. In spite of this, the bond binging game is quickly approaching a mathematical terminal end-game, as interest rates cannot logically go below zero.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit with Sidoxia comments

Since my firm (Sidoxia Capital Management) is based in Newport Beach, next to PIMCO’s global headquarters, we get to follow the progression of the bond binging game firsthand. I’ve personally learned that if I manage close to $2 trillion in assets under management, I too can construct a 23-story Taj Mahal-esque headquarters that overlooks the Pacific Ocean from a stones-throw away.

Beyond glorified headquarters, there is evidence of other low-risk appetite examples. Here are some reinforcing pictures:

The Bond Binge

Source (The Financial Times): Bond purchases have exploded in the last three years.

Cash Hoarding

Source (Calafia Beach Pundit): Stuffing money under the mattress has accelerated in recent years as fear, uncertainty, and doubt have reigned supreme.

The Anchovy Special

Even though anchovy pizza, or a broadly diversified portfolio across asset class, size, geography, and style may not sound appealing, there are plenty of reasons to fight the urges of caving to fear and skepticism. Here are a few:

1) Growth Rolls On: Despite the aforementioned challenges occurring domestically and abroad, growth has continued unabated for 11 consecutive quarters, albeit at a rate less than desired. We are not immune to global recessionary forces, but regardless of European forces, the U.S. has been resilient in its expansion.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

2) Jobs and Housing on the Upswing: Unemployment remains high, but our country has experienced 27 consecutive months of private creation, leading to more than 4 million new jobs being added to our workforce. As you can see from the clear longer-term downward trend in unemployment claims, we are moving in the right direction.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

3) Eurozone Slowly Healing its Wounds: The Greek political and fiscal soap opera is grabbing all the headlines, but quietly in the background there are signs that the eurozone is slowly healing the wounds of the financial crisis. If you look at the 2-year borrowing costs of Europe’s troubled countries (ex-Greece), there is an unambiguous and beneficial decline. There is no doubt that Spain and Italy play a larger role than Portugal and Ireland, but at least some seeds of change have been planted for optimism.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

4) Record Corporate Profits: Investors are not the only people reading uncertain newspaper headlines and watching CNBC business television. CEOs are reading the same gloomy sensationalistic stories, and as a result, corporations have been cautious about dipping their short arms into their deep pockets. Significant expense reductions and a reluctance to hire have led to record profits and cash hoards. As evidenced by the chart below, profits continue to rise, and these earnings are being applied to shareholder friendly uses like dividends, share buybacks, and accretive acquisitions.

Source: Yardeni.com

5) Attractive Valuations (Pricing): We have already explored the lofty prices surrounding bonds and $30 pepperoni pizzas, but counter-intuitively, stock prices are trading at a discount to historical norms, despite record low interest rates. All else equal, an investor should pay higher prices for stocks when interest rates are at a record low (and vice versa), but currently we are seeing the opposite dynamic occur.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Even though the financial markets may look, smell, and taste like an anchovy pizza, the price, value, and return benefits may outweigh the fishy odor. And guess what…anchovies are versatile. If you don’t like them on your pizza, you can always take them off and put them on your Caesar salad or use them for bait the next time you go fishing. The gloom-filled headlines haven’t been spectacular, but if they were, the return opportunities would be drastically reduced. Therefore you are much better off by following investor legend Warren Buffett’s advice, which is to “buy fear and sell greed.”

Investing has never been more difficult with record low interest rates, and it has also never been more important. Excluding a small minority of late retirees and wealthy individuals, efficiently investing your retirement dollars has become even more critical. The safety nets of Social Security and Medicare are likely to be crippled, which will require better and more prudent investing by individuals. Inflation relating to food, energy, healthcare, gasoline, and entertainment is dramatically eroding peoples’ nest eggs.

Digesting a pepperoni pizza may sound like the most popular and best option given the gloomy headlines and uncertain outlook, but if you do not want financial heartburn you may consider alternative choices. Like the healthier and less loved anchovy pizza, a more attractively valued strategy based on a broadly diversified portfolio across asset class, size, geography, and style may be the best financial choice to satiate your long-term financial goals.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

July 2, 2012 at 10:08 am 1 comment

The European Dog Ate My Homework

I never thought my daily routine would be dominated by checking European markets before our domestic open, but these days it is appearing like the European tail is wagging the global dog. Tracking Spanish bond yields from the Tesoro Publico and the Italia Borsa index is currently having a larger bearing on my portfolio than U.S. fundamentals. When explaining short term performance to others, I feel a little like an elementary school student making an excuse that my dog ate my homework.

Although the multi-year European saga has gone on for years, this too shall pass. What’s more, despite the bailouts of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece in recent years, the resilient U.S. economy has recorded 11 consecutive quarters of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and added more than 4 million jobs, albeit at a less than desirable pace.

Could it get worse? Certainly. Will it get worse before it gets better? Probably. Is worsening European fundamentals and a potential Greek eurozone exit already factored into current stock prices? Possibly. The truth of the matter is that nobody knows the answers to these questions with certainty. At this point, the probability of an unknown or unexpected event in a different geography is more likely to be the cause of our economic downfall than a worsening European crisis. As sage investor and strategist Don Hays aptly points out, “When everyone is concerned about a problem, that problem is solved.” That may be overstating the truth a bit, but I do believe the issues absent from current headlines are the matters we should be most concerned about.

The European financial crisis may drag on for a while longer, but nothing lasts forever. Years from now, worries about the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) will switch to others, like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or other worry geography du jour. The issues of greatest damage in 2008-2009, like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, CDS (credit default swaps), and subprime mortgages, didn’t dominate the headlines for years like the European crisis stories of today. As compared to Europe’s problems, these prior pains felt like Band Aids being quickly ripped off.

Correlation Conundrum

Eventually European worries will be put on the backburner, but until some other boogeyman dominates the daily headlines, our financial markets will continue to correlate tightly with European security prices. How does one fight these tight correlations? For starters, the correlations will not stay tight forever. If an investor can survive through the valley of strong security association, then the benefits will eventually accrue.

Although the benefits from diversification may disappear in the short-run, they should not be fully forgotten. Bonds, cash, and precious metals (i.e., gold) proved to be great portfolio diversifiers in 2008 and early 2009. Commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, and alternative investments, are a few asset classes that will help diversify portfolios. Risk is defined in many circles as volatility (i.e., standard deviation) and combining disparate asset classes can lower volatility. But risk, defined as the potential of experiencing permanent losses, can also be controlled by focusing on valuation. By in large, large cap dividend paying stocks have struggled for more than a decade, despite equity dividend yields for the S&P 500 exceeding 10-year Treasury yields (the first time in more than 50 years). Investing in large companies with strong balance sheets and attractive growth prospects is another strategy of lowering portfolio risk.

Politics & Winston Churchill

Some factors however are out of shareholders hands, such as politics. As we know from last year’s debt ceiling melee and credit downgrade debacle, getting things done in Washington is very challenging. If you think achieving consensus in one country is difficult, imagine what it’s like in herding 17 countries? That’s the facts of life we are dealing with in the eurozone right now.

Although I am optimistic something will eventually get done, I consider myself a frustrated optimist. I am frustrated because of the gridlock, but optimistic because these problems are not rocket science.  Rather these challenges are concepts my first grade child could understand:

• Expenses are running higher than revenues. You must cut expenses, increase revenues, or a combination thereof.

• Adding debt can support growth, but can lead to inflation. Cutting debt can hinder growth, but leads to a more sustainable fiscal state of wellbeing.

Relieving all the excess global leverage is a long, tortuous process. We saw firsthand here in the U.S. what happened to the U.S. real estate market and associated financial institutions when irresponsible debt consumption took place. Fortunately, corporations and consumers adjusted their all-you-can-eat debt buffet habits by going on a diet. As a matter of fact, corporations today are holding records amounts of cash and debt service loads for consumers has been reduced to levels not seen in decades (see chart below). Unlike governments, luckily CEOs and individuals do not need Congressional approval to adapt to a world of reality – they can simply adjust spending habits.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Governments, on the other hand, generally do need legislative approval to adjust spending habits. Regrettably, cutting the benefits of your constituents is not a real popular political strategy for accumulating votes or brownie points. If you don’t believe me, see what voters are doing to their leaders in Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest European leader to be booted from office due to austerity backlash and economic frustration. No less than nine European leaders have been cast aside since the financial crisis began.

The fate for U.S. politicians is less clear as we enter into a heated presidential election over the next six months. We do however know how the mid-term Congressional elections fared for the incumbents…not all sunshine and roses. Until elections are completed, we are resigned to the continued mind-numbing political gridlock, with no tangible resolutions to the trillion dollar deficits and gargantuan debt load. Obviously, most citizens would prefer a forward looking strategic plan from politicians (rather than a reactive one), but there are no signs that this will happen anytime soon…in either party.

Realistically though, tough decisions made by politicians only occur during crises, and if this slow-motion train wreck continues along this same path, then at least we have something to look forward to – forced resolution. We are seeing this firsthand in Greece. The “bond vigilantes” (see Plumbers & Cops) and responsible parents (i.e., Germany) have given Greece two options:

1.) Fix your financial problems and receive assistance; or

2.) Leave the EU (return to the Drachma currency) and figure your problems out yourself.

Panic has a way of forcing action, and we are approaching that “when push comes to shove” moment very quickly. I believe the Europeans are currently taking a note from our strategic playbook, which basically is the spaghetti approach – throw lots of things up on the wall and see what sticks. Or as Winston Churchill stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

There is no question, the European sovereign debt issue is a complete mess, and there are no clear paths to a quick solution. Until voters force politicians into making tough unpopular decisions, or leaders come together with forward looking answers, the default position will be to keep kicking the fiscal can issues down the road. In the absence of political leadership, eventually the crisis will naturally force tough decisions to be made. Until then, I will go on explaining to others how the European dog ate my homework.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, dividend, and alternative investment ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in AIG, JNJ, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm 1 comment

Rating Agencies to Government: Go Back to College!

Remember those days as a young adult, when you were a starving student in college, doing everything you possible could in your power to not run out of money (OK, if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, just play along).  You know what I’m talking about… Corn Flakes for breakfast, PB&J for lunch, and maybe splurge with a little Mac & Cheese or Top Ramen for dinner. Well, the rating agencies, especially Standard & Poor’s (S&P) with their long-term sovereign credit rating downgrade on the U.S. from AAA rated to AA+ rated, are signaling our U.S. government to cut back on the champagne and caviar spending and go back to living like a college student.

Rent-A-Cops Assert Power

The rating agencies may have been asleep at the switch during the tech bubble (Enron & WorldCom) and the financial crisis of 2008-2009 (i.e., ratings of toxic mortgage backed securities), but they are doing their best to reassert themselves as credible security rating entities. By the way, as long as S&P has some wise critical advice for the U.S. government regarding fiscal responsibility, I have a suggestion for S&P: When providing a fresh ratings downgrade, please limit error estimations to less than $2,000,000,000,000.00 – this is exactly what S&P did in its ratings downgrade. Time will tell whether S&P can maintain its role as credit market policeman or will be mocked like those unarmed, overweight rent-a-cops you see at the shopping mall.

In reality, S&P’s moves represent little fundamental change, especially since these moves have been signaled for months (S&P initially lowered its outlook on the U.S. to negative on 4/18/11). I know there will be some that panic at this announcement (won’t be the first or last time), but should anyone really be shocked by an independent entity telling the U.S. government they are spending too much money and hold too much debt? If my memory serves me correctly, Americans have been screaming S&P’s same message for years – I think the rise of the Tea-Party, the results of the mid-term elections, and the tone of the debt ceiling debate may indicate a few people have caught onto this unsustainable fiscal disaster.

Two Simple Choices

As I have said for some time, these horrendously difficult issues will get resolved. The only question is who will resolve this negligent fiscal behavior? There are only two simple answers: 1) Politicians can proactively chip away at the problem with solutions my first grader has already identified (spend less and/or increase revenue); or 2) Financial Market Vigilantes can rip apart financial markets and force borrowing costs to the stratosphere. Option number one is preferable for everyone, and for those that don’t understand option number two, I refer you to Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

If you’re getting sick of listening to debt and spending issues now, I will gently remind you this is an election year, so the nauseating debates are only going to get worse from here. I encourage everyone to make a game of this fiscal discussion, and do enough homework to the point you have informed, convicted opinions about our country’s fiscal situation. Unlike in periods past, when Americans could take a nap and ride the U.S. gravy train to prosperity, the ultra-competitive globalized game no longer allows us to rest on our laurels of being the world’s strongest superpower. There are a lot more people playing in our game outside our borders, and many of them are stronger, faster, smarter, and more efficient. Decisions being made today, tomorrow, and over the next year will have profound effects on millions of Americans, myself included. So as the government prioritizes spending programs and debates methods of raising revenue, I advise you to go back to your college days and decide whether you prefer Corn Flakes, PB&J, and Mac & Cheese. If voters don’t pressure politicians into doing the right thing, then we’ll all be collecting food stamps from the Financial Market Vigilantes.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

August 6, 2011 at 11:19 am 1 comment

Inflation and the Debt Default Paradox

With the federal government anchored down with over $14 trillion in debt and trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, somehow people are shocked that Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook on U.S. government debt to “Negative” from “Stable.” This is about as surprising as learning that Fat Albert is overweight or that Charlie Sheen has a substance abuse problem.

Let’s use an example. Suppose I received a pay demotion and then I went on an irresponsible around-the-world spending rampage while racking up over $1,000,000.00 in credit card debt. Should I be surprised if my 850 FICO score would be reviewed for a possible downgrade, or if credit card lenders became slightly concerned about the possibility of collecting my debt? I guess I wouldn’t be flabbergasted by their anxiety.

Debt Default Paradox?

With the recent S&P rating adjustment, pundits over the airwaves (see CNBC video) make the case that the U.S. cannot default on its debt, because the U.S. is a sovereign nation that can indefinitely issue bonds in its own currency (i.e., print money likes it’s going out of style). There is some basis to this argument if you consider the last major developed country to default was the U.S. government in 1933 when it went off the gold standard.

On the other hand, non-sovereign nations issuing foreign currencies do not have the luxury of whipping out the printing presses to save the day. The Latin America debt defaults in the 1980s and Asian Financial crisis in the late 1990s are examples of foreign countries over-extending themselves with U.S. dollar-denominated debt, which subsequently led to collapsing currencies. The irresponsible fiscal policies eventually destroyed the debtors’ ability to issue bonds and ultimately repay their obligations (i.e., default).

Regardless of a country’s strength of currency or central bank, if reckless fiscal policies are instituted, governments will eventually be left to pick their own poison…default or hyperinflation. One can think of these options as a favorite dental procedure – a root canal or wisdom teeth pulled. Whether debtors get paid 50 cents on the dollar in the event of a default, or debtors receive 100 cents in hyper-inflated dollars (worth 50% less), the resulting pain feels the same – purchasing power has been dramatically reduced in either case (default or hyperinflation).

Of course, Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Bank would like investors to believe a Goldilocks scenario is possible, which is the creation of enough liquidity to stimulate the economy while maintaining low interest rates and low inflation. At the end of the day, the inflation picture boils down to simple supply and demand for money. Fervent critics of the Fed and Bernanke would have you believe the money supply is exploding, and hyperinflation is just around the corner. It’s difficult to quarrel with the printing press arguments, given the size and scale of QE1 & QE2 (Quantitative Easing), but the fact of the matter is that money supply growth has not exploded because all the liquidity created and supplied into the banking system has been sitting idle in bank vaults – financial institutions simply are not lending. Eventually this phenomenon will change as the economy continues to recover; banks adequately build their capital ratios; the housing market sustainably recovers; and confidence regarding borrower creditworthiness improves.

Scott Grannis at the California Beach Pundit makes the point that money supply as measured by M2 has shown a steady 6% increase since 1995, with no serious side-effects from QE1/QE2 yet:

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

In fact, Grannis states that money supply growth (+6%) has actually grown less than nominal GDP over the period (+6.7%). Money supply growth relative to GDP growth (money demand) in the end is what really matters. Take for instance an economy producing 10 widgets for $10 dollars, would have a CPI (Consumer Price Index) of $1 per widget and a money supply of $10. If the widget GDP increased by 10% to 11 widgets (10 widgets X 1.1) and the Federal Reserve increased money supply by 10% to $11, then the CPI index would remain constant at $1 per widget ($11/11 widgets). This is obviously grossly oversimplified, but it makes my point.

Gold Bugs Banking on Inflation or Collapse

Gold prices have been on a tear over the last 10 years and current fiscal and monetary policies have “gold bugs” frothing at the mouth. These irresponsible policies will no doubt have an impact on gold demand and gold prices, but many gold investors fail to acknowledge a gold supply response. Take for example Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX), which just reported stellar quarterly sales and earnings growth today (up 31% and 57%, respectively). FCX more than doubled their capital expenditures to more than $500 million in the quarter, and they are planning to double their exploration spending in fiscal 2011. Is Freeport alone in their supply expansion plans? No, and like any commodity with exploding prices, eventually higher prices get greedy capitalists to create enough supply to put a lid on price appreciation. For prior bubbles you can reference the recent housing collapse or older burstings such as the Tulip Mania of the 1600s. One of the richest billionaires on the planet, Warren Buffett, also has a few thoughts on the prospects of gold.

The recent Standard & Poor’s outlook downgrade on U.S. government debt has caught a lot of press headlines. Fears about a technical default may be overblown, but if fiscal constraint cannot be agreed upon in Congress, the alternative path to hyperinflation will feel just as painful.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

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

April 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm Leave a comment

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