Posts tagged ‘eurozone’

Greece: The Slow Motion, Multi-Year Train Wreck

Train Wreck

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (July 1, 2015). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

Watching Greece fall apart over the last five years has been like watching a slow motion train wreck. To many, this small country of 11 million people that borders the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Ionian Seas is known more for its Greek culture (including Zeus, Parthenon, Olympics) and its food (calamari, gyros, and Ouzo) than it is known for financial bailouts. Nevertheless, ever since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, observers have repeatedly predicted the debt-laden country will default on its €323 billion mountain of obligations (see chart below – approximately $350 billion in dollars) and subsequently exit the 19-member eurozone currency membership (a.k.a.,”Grexit”).

Source: MoneyMorning.com and CNN

Source: MoneyMorning.com and CNN

Now that Greece has failed to repay less than 1% of its full €240 billion bailout obligation – the €1.5 billion payment due to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) by June 30th – the default train is coming closer to falling off the tracks. Whether Greece will ultimately crash itself out of the eurozone will be dependent on the outcome of this week’s surprise Greek referendum (general vote by citizens) mandated by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s left-wing Syriza party. By voting “No” on further bailout austerity measures recommended by the European Union Commission, including deeper tax increases and pension cuts, the Greek people would effectively be choosing a Grexit over additional painful tax increases and deeper pension cuts.

Ouch!

And who can blame the Greeks for being a little grouchy? You might not be too happy either if you witnessed your country experience an economic decline of greater than 25% (see Greece Gross Domestic Product chart below); 25% overall unemployment (and 50% youth unemployment); government worker cuts of greater than 20%; and stifling taxes to boot. Sure, Greeks should still shoulder much of the blame. After all, they are the ones who piled on $100s of billions of debt and overspent on the pensions of a bloated public workforce, and ran unsustainable fiscal deficits.

Source: TradingEconomics.com

Source: TradingEconomics.com

For any casual history observers, the current Greek financial crisis should come as no surprise, especially if you consider the Greeks have a longstanding habit of not paying their bills. Over the last two centuries or so, since the country became independent, the Greek government has spent about 90 years in default (almost 50% of the time). More specifically, the Greeks defaulted on external sovereign debt in 1826, 1843, 1860, 1894 and 1932.

The difference between now and past years can be explained by Greece now being a part of the European Union and the euro currency, which means the Greeks actually do have to pay their bills…if they want to remain a part of the common currency. During past defaults, the Greek central bank could easily devalue their currency (the drachma) and fire up the printing presses to create as much currency as needed to pay down debts. If the planned Greek referendum this week results in a “No” vote, there is a much higher probability that the Greek government will need to dust off those drachma printing presses.

“Perspective People”

Protest, riots, defaults, changing governments, and new currencies make for entertaining television viewing, but these events probably don’t hold much significance as it relates to the long-term outlook of your investments and the financial markets. In the case of Greece, I believe it is safe to say the economic bark is much worse than the bite. For starters, Greece accounts for less than 2% of Europe’s overall economy, and about 0.3% of the global economy.

Since I live out on the West Coast, the chart below caught my fancy because it also places the current Greek situation into proper proportion. Take the city of L.A. (Los Angeles – red bar) for example…this single city alone accounts for almost 3x the size of Greece’s total economy (far right on chart – blue bar).
Greek GDP Relative to Cities

Give Me My Money!

It hasn’t been a fun year for Greek banks. Depositors, who have been flocking to the banks, withdrew about $45 billion in cash from their accounts, over an eight month period (see chart below). Before the Greek government decided to mandatorily close the banks in recent days and implement capital controls limiting depositors to daily ATM withdrawals of only $66.

Source: The Financial Times

Source: The Financial Times

But once again, let’s put the situation into context. From an overall Greek banking sector perspective, the four largest Greek Banks (Bank of Greece, Piraeus Bank, Eurobank Ergasias, Alpha Bank) account for about 90% of all Greek banking assets. Combined, these banks currently have an equity market value of about $14 billion and assets on the balance sheets of $400 billion – these numbers are obviously in flux. For comparison purposes, Bank of America Corp. (BAC) alone has an equity market value of $179 billion and $2.1 trillion in assets.

Anxiety Remains High

Skeptical bears will occasionally acknowledge the miniscule-ness of Greece, but then quickly follow up with their conspiracy theory or domino effect hypothesis. In other words, the skeptics believe a contagion effect of an impending Grexit will ripple through larger economies, such as Italy and Spain, with crippling force. Thus far, as you can see from the chart below, Greece’s financial problems have been largely contained within its borders. In fact, weaker economies such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy have fared much better – and actually improving in most cases. In recent days, 10-year yields on government bonds in countries like Portugal, Italy, and Spain have hovered around or below 3% – nowhere near the peak levels seen during 2008 – 2011.

Source: Business Insider

Source: Business Insider

Other doubting Thomases compare Greece to situations like Lehman Brothers, Long Term Capital Management, and the subprime housing market, in which underestimated situations snowballed into much worse outcomes. As I explain in one of my newer articles (see Missing the Forest for the Trees), the difference between Greece and the other financial collapses is the duration of this situation. The Greek circumstance has been a 5-year long train wreck that has allowed everyone to prepare for a possible Grexit. Rather than agonize over every news headline, if you are committed to the practice of worrying, I would recommend you focus on an alternative disaster that cannot be found on the front page of all newspapers.

There is bound to be more volatility ahead for investors, and the referendum vote later this week could provide that volatility spark. Regardless of the news story du jour, any of your concerns should be occupied by other more important worrisome issues. So, unless you are an investor in a Greek bank or a gyro restaurant in Athens, you should focus your efforts on long-term financial goals and objectives. Ignoring the noisy news flow and constructing a diversified investment portfolio across a range of asset classes will allow you to avoid the harmful consequences of the slow motion, multi-year Greek train wreck.

Investment Questions Border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and BAC, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in Bank of Greece, Piraeus Bank, Eurobank Ergasias, Alpha Bank 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 ICContact page.

 

July 3, 2015 at 5:01 am Leave a comment

After 2014 Stock Party, Will Investors Have a 2015 Hangover?

Group of Young People at a Party Sitting on a Couch with Champagne

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (January 2, 2015). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

Investors in the U.S. stock market partied their way to a sixth consecutive year of gains during 2014 (S&P 500 +11.4%; Dow Jones Industrial Average +7.5%; and NASDAQ +13.4%). From early 2009, at the worst levels of the crisis, the S&P 500 has more than tripled – not too shabby. But similar to recent years, this year’s stock bubbly did not flow uninterrupted. Several times during the party, neighbors and other non-participants at the stock party complained about numerous concerns, including the Fed Tapering of bond purchases; the spread of the deadly Ebola virus; tensions in Ukraine; the rise of ISIS; continued economic weakness across the eurozone; the decline of “The Fragile Five” emerging markets (Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa), and other headline grabbing stories to name just a few. In fact, the S&P 500 briefly fell -10% from its mid-September level to mid-October before a Santa Claus rally pushed the index higher by +4% in the last quarter of the year.

Even though the U.S. was partying hardy in 2014, it was not all hats and horns across all segments of the market. Given all the geopolitical trepidation and sluggish economic growth abroad, international markets as measured by the Total World Stock ETF (VT) gained a paltry +1.2% for the year. This dramatic underperformance was also seen in small capitalization stocks (Russell 2000 Index ETF – IWM), which only rose +3.7% last year, and the Total Bond Market (BND), which increased +2.9%.

Despite these anxieties and the new Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen removing the Quantitative Easing (QE) punchbowl in 2014, there were still plenty of festive factors that contributed to gains last year, which should prevent any hangover for stocks going into 2015. As I wrote in Don’t Be a Fool, corporate profits are the lifeblood for stock prices. Fortunately for investors, the news on this front remains positive (see chart below). As strategist Dr. Ed Yardeni pointed out a few weeks ago, profit growth is still expected to accelerate to +9.3% in 2015, despite the recent drag from plummeting oil prices on the energy sector.

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

While a -50% decline in oil prices may depress profits for some energy companies, the extra discretionary spending earned by consumers from $2.24 per gallon gasoline at the pump has been a cheery surprise. This consumer spending tailwind, coupled with the flow-through effect to businesses, should provide added stimulative benefit to the economy in 2015 too. Let’s not forget, this economic energy boost comes on the heels of the best economic growth experienced in the U.S. in over a decade. More specifically, the recently reported third quarter U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) statistics showed growth accelerating to +5%, the highest rate seen since 2003.

Another point to remember about lower energy prices is how this phenomenon positively circulates into lower inflation and lower interest rate expectations. If energy prices remain low, this only provides additional flexibility to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy decisions. With the absence of any substantive inflation data, Chairwoman Yellen can remain “patient” in hitting the interest rate brakes (i.e., raising the Federal Funds rate) in 2015.

Geographically, our financial markets continue to highlight our country’s standing as one of the best houses in a sluggish global growth neighborhood. Not only do we see this trend in our outperforming stock indexes, relative to other countries, but we also see this in the rising value of the U.S. dollar. It is true that American exports become less competitive internationally in a strong dollar environment, but from an investment standpoint, a rising dollar makes U.S. stock markets that much more attractive to foreign investors. To place this dynamic into better perspective, I would note the U.S. Dollar index rose by approximately +13% in 2014 against a broad basket of currencies (including the basket case Russian Rouble). With the increasing likelihood of eurozone Quantitative Easing to take place, in conjunction with loose monetary policies in large developed markets like Japan, there is a good chance the dollar will continue its appreciation in the upcoming year.

On the political front, despite the Republicans winning a clean sweep in the midterm elections, we should still continue to expect Washington gridlock, considering a Democrat president still holds the all-important veto power. But as I have written in the past (see Who Said Gridlock is Bad?), gridlock has resulted in our country sitting on a sounder financial footing (i.e., we have significantly lower deficits now), which in turn has contributed to the U.S. dollar’s strength. At the margin however, one can expect any legislation that does happen to get passed by the Republican majority led Congress will likely be advantageous for businesses and the stock market.

When Will the Party End?

What could cause the party to come to a screeching halt? While I can certainly point out some obvious potential negative scenarios (e.g., European financial mayhem, China economic speed bump, interest rate spike), history shows us it is usually unforeseen events (surprises) that cause significant downdrafts in stock market prices. The declines rarely come from factors you read in current newspaper headlines or hear on television.

Just like any party, this year is likely to include high points and low points in the financial markets – and of course some lull periods mixed in as well. However, with the economy improving and risk appetites increasing, we are bound to see more party poopers on the sidelines come join the celebration in 2015. It will be a while before the cops arrive and stop the party, so there should be plenty of time to prepare for any hypothetical hangover.

Investment Questions Border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own a range of positions, including positions in certain exchange traded funds positions (including BND), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in VT, IWM 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, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

The Pain of Diversification

Pressure

The oft-quoted tenet that diversification should be the cornerstone of any investment strategy has come under assault in the third quarter. As you can see from the chart below, investors could run, but they couldn’t hide. The Large Cap Growth category was the major exception, thanks in large part to Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) +8% appreciation. More specifically, seven out of the nine Russell Investments style boxes were in negative territory for the three month period. The benefits of diversification look even worse, if you consider other large asset classes and sectors such as the Gold/Gold Miners were down about -14% (GDX/GLD); Energy -9% (XLE); Europe-EAFE -6% (EFA); Utilities -5% (XLU); and Emerging Markets -4% (EEM).

*Results are for Q3 – 2014 (Source: Vanguard Group, Inc. & Russell Investments)

*Results are for Q3 – 2014 (Source: Vanguard Group, Inc. & Russell Investments)

On the surface, everything looks peachy keen with all three major indices posting positive Q3 appreciation of +1.3% for the Dow, +0.6% for S&P 500, and +1.9% for the NASDAQ. It’s true that over the long-run diversification acts like shock absorbers for economic potholes and speed bumps, but in the short-run, all investors can hit a stretch of rough road in which shock absorbers may seem like they are missing. Over the long-run, you can’t live without diversification shocks because your financial car will eventually breakdown and the ride will become unbearable.

What has caused all this underlying underperformance over the last month and a half? The headlines and concerns change daily, but the -5% to -6% pullback in the market has catapulted the Volatility Index (VIX or “Fear Gauge”) by +85%. The surge can be attributed to any or all of the following: a slowing Chinese economy, stagnant eurozone, ISIS in Iraq, bombings in Syria, end of Quantitative Easing (QE), impending interest rate hikes, mid-term elections, Hong Kong protests, proposed tax inversion changes, security hacks, rising U.S. dollar, PIMCO’s Bill Gross departure, and a half dozen other concerns.

In general, pullbacks and corrections are healthy because shares get transferred out of weak hands into stronger hands. However, one risk associated with these 100 day floods (see also 100-Year Flood ≠ 100-Day Flood) is that a chain reaction of perceptions can eventually become reality. Or in other words, due to the ever-changing laundry list of concerns, confidence in the recovery can get shaken, which in turn impacts CEO’s confidence in spending, and ultimately trickles down to employees, consumers, and the broader economy. In that same vein, George Soros, the legendary arbitrageur and hedge fund manager, has famously written about his law of reflexivity (see also Reflexivity Tail Wags Dog). Reflexivity is based on the premise that financial markets continually trend towards disequilibrium, which is evidenced by repeated boom and bust cycles.

While, at Sidoxia, we’re still finding more equity opportunities amidst these volatile markets, what this environment shows us is conventional wisdom is rarely correct. Going into this year, the consensus view regarding interest rates was the economy is improving, and the tapering of QE would cause interest rates to go significantly higher. Instead, the yield on the 10-Year Treasury Note has gone down significantly from 3.0% to 2.3%. The performance contrast can be especially seen with small cap stocks being down-10% for the year and the overall Bond Market (BND) is up +3.1% (and closer to +5% if you include interest payments). Despite interest rates fluctuating near generational lows with paltry yields, the power of diversification has proved its value.

While there are multiple dynamics transpiring around the financial markets, the losses across most equity categories and asset classes during Q3 have been bloody. Nonetheless, investing across the broad bond market and certain large cap stock segments is evidence that diversification is a valuable time-tested principle. Times like these highlight the necessity of diversification gain to offset the current equity pain.

Investment Questions Border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

October 11, 2014 at 8:55 am Leave a comment

Nail Not in Emerging Market Coffin Yet

Coffin

 

I wouldn’t say the nail is in the emerging market coffin quite yet. During the financial crisis, the EMSCI Emerging Market Index (EEM) was left for dead (down -50% in 2008) before resurrection in 2009 and 2010 (up +74% and +16%, respectively). For the last two years however, the EMSCI index has underperformed the S&P 500 Index massively by more than -30%. Included in this international index are holdings from China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Korea, and South Africa, among others.

The question now becomes, can the emerging markets resurrect themselves from the dead again?   Recent signs are flashing “yes”. Over the last three months, the emerging markets have outperformed the S&P 500 by more than +8%, but these stocks still have a lot of ground to make up before reaching the peak levels of 2007. Last year’s slowing growth in China and a European recession, coupled with talks of the Federal Reserve’s “tapering” of monetary stimulus, didn’t provide the EMSCI index any help over the last few years.

With all the distracting drama currently taking place in Washington D.C., it’s a relief to see some other indications of improvement. For starters, China’s most recent PMI manufacturing index results showed continued improvement, reaching a level of 51.1  – up from August and signaling a reversal from contraction earlier this year (levels above 50 point to expansion). Chinese government leaders are continuing their migration from an externally export-driven economy to an internally consumer-driven economy. Despite the shift, China is still targeting a respectable +7.5% GDP economic growth target, albeit a slower level than achieved in the past.

Adding to emerging market optimism is Europe’s apparent economic turnaround (or stabilization). As you can see from the chart below, the European Institute for Supply Management (ISM) service sector index has lately shown marked improvement. If the European and Chinese markets can sustain these recovering trends, these factors bode well for emerging market financial returns.  

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

While it is clear these developments are helping the rebound in emerging market indices, it is also clear the supply-demand relationship in commodities will coincide with the next big up or down move in developing markets. Ed Yardeni, strategist and editor of Dr. Ed’s Blog, recently wrote a piece showing the tight correlation between emerging market stock prices and commodity prices (CRB Index). His conclusions come as no surprise to me given these resource-rich markets and their dependence on Chinese demand along with commodity needs from other developed countries. Expanding populations and rising standards of living in emerging market countries have and will likely continue to position these countries well for long-term commodity price appreciation. The development of new, higher-value service and manufacturing sectors should also lead to sustainably improved growth in these emerging markets relative to developed economies.

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Adding fuel to the improving emerging market case is the advancement in the Baltic Dry Index (see chart below). The recent upward trajectory of the index is an indication that the price for moving major raw materials like coal, iron ore, and grains by sea is rising. This statistical movement is encouraging, but as you can see it is also very volatile.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

While the emerging markets are quite unpredictable and have been out-of-favor over the last few years, a truly diversified portfolio needs a healthy dosage of this international exposure. You better check a pulse before you put a nail in the coffin – the emerging markets are not dead yet.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

October 13, 2013 at 11:47 am Leave a comment

Markets Soar and Investors Snore

Sleep-Relax

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (August 1, 2013). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

If you haven’t been paying close attention, or perhaps if you were taking a long nap, you may not have noticed that the stock market was up an astounding +5% in July (+78% if compounded annualized), pushing the S&P 500 index up +18% for the year to near all-time record highs. Wait a second…how can that be when that bald and grey-bearded man at the Federal Reserve has hinted at bond purchase “tapering” (see also Fed Fatigue)? What’s more, I thought the moronic politicians were clueless about our debt and deficit-laden economy, jobless recovery, imploding eurozone, Chinese real estate bubble, and impending explosion of inflation – all of which are expected to sink our grandchildren’s grandchildren into a standard of living not seen since the Great Depression. Okay, well a dash of hyperbole and sarcasm never hurt anybody.

This incessant stream of doom-and-gloom pouring over our TVs, newspapers, and internet devices has numbed Americans’ psyches. To prove my point, the next time you are talking to somebody at the water cooler, church, soccer game, or happy hour, gauge how excited your co-worker, friend, or acquaintance gets when you bring up the subject of the stock market. If my suspicions are correct, they are more likely to yawn or pass out from boredom than to scream in excitement or do cartwheels.

You don’t believe me? Reality dictates the wounds from the 2008-2009 financial crisis are still healing. Panic and fear may have disappeared, but skepticism remains in full gear, even though stocks have more than doubled in price in recent years. Here is some data to support my case there are more stock detractors than defenders:

Record Savings Deposits

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Although there are no signs of an impending recession, defensive cash hoarded in savings deposits has almost increased by $3 trillion since the end of the financial crisis.

Blah Consumer Confidence

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

As you can see from the chart above, Consumer Confidence has bounced around quite a bit over the last 30+ years, but there is no sign that consumer sentiment has turned euphoric.

15-Year Low Stock Market Participation 

Source: Gallup Poll

There has been a trickling of funds into stocks in 2013, yet participation in the stock market is at a 15-year low. Investors remain nervous. 

Lack of Equity Fund Buying

Source: ICI & Calafia Beach Pundit

After a short lived tax-driven purchase spike in January, the buying trend quickly turned negative in the ensuing months. Modest inflows resumed into equity funds during the first few weeks of July (source: ICI), but the meager stock fund investments represent < 95% of 2012 positive bond flows ($15 billion < $304 billion, respectively). Moreover, these modest stock inflows pale in comparison to the hundreds of billions in investor withdrawals since 2008. See also Fund Flows Paradox – Investing Caffeine.

Decline in CNBC Viewership

In spite of the stock market more than doubling in value from the lows of 2009, CNBC viewer ratings are the weakest in about 20 years (source: Value Walk). Stock investing apparently isn’t very exciting when prices go up.

The Hater’s Index:

And if that is not enough, you can take a field trip to the hater’s comment section of my most recent written Seeking Alpha article, The Most Hated Bull Market Ever. Apparently the stock market more than doubling creates some hostile feelings.

JOLLY & JOVIAL MEMO

Keeping the previous objective and subjective data points in mind, it’s clear to me the doom-and-gloom memo has been adequately distributed to the masses. Less clear, however, is the dissemination success of the jolly-and-jovial memo. I think Ron Bailey, an author and science journalist at Reason.com (VIDEO), said it best, “News is always bad news. Good news is simply not news…that is our [human] bias.” If you turn on your local TV news, I think you may agree with Ron. Nevertheless, there are actually plenty of happier news items to report, so here are some positive bullet points to my economic and stock market memo:

16th Consecutive Positive GDP Quarter* 

Source: Quartz.com

The broadest measure of economic activity, GDP (Gross Domestic Product), was reported yesterday and came in better than expected in Q2 (+1.7%) for the 16th straight positive reported quarter (*Q1-2011 was just revised to fractionally negative). Obviously, the economists and dooms-dayers who repeatedly called for a double-dip recession were wrong.

40 Consecutive Months & 7 Million Jobs

Source: Calculated Risk

The economic recovery has been painfully slow, but nevertheless, the U.S. has experienced 40 consecutive months of private sector job additions, representing +7.2 million jobs created. With about -9 million jobs lost during the most recent recession, there is still plenty of room for improvement. We will find out if the positive job creation streak will continue this Friday when the July total non-farm payroll report is released.

Housing on the Mend

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

New home sales are up significantly from the lows; housing starts have risen about 40% over the last two years; and Case Shiller home prices rose by +12.2% in the latest reported numbers. The housing market foundation is firming.

Auto Sales Rebound

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Auto sales remain on a tear, reaching an annualized level of 15.9 million vehicles, the highest since November 2007, and up +12% from June 2012. Car sales have almost reached pre-recessionary levels.

Record Corporate Profits

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Optimistic forecasts have been ratcheted down, nonetheless corporate profits continue to grind to all-time record highs. As you can see, operating earnings have more than doubled since 2003. Given reasonable historical valuations in stocks, as measured by the P/E (Price Earnings) ratio, persistent profit growth should augur well for stock prices.

Bad Banks Bounce Back

As banks around the country have repaired their debt-burdened balance sheets and sharpened their loan requirements, bank stock prices have rebounded significantly (the XLF SPDR Financial index is up +25% in 2013). Bill McBride at Calculated Risk has compiled an unofficial list of 729 problem banks, which is down significantly from the peak of 1,002 institutions in June 2011 (down -27%). There has been a significant reduction in problem banks, but the number is still elevated compared to the initial listing of 389 institutions in August 2009.

Europe on the Comeback Trail

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

There are signs of improvement in the Eurozone after years of recession. Talks of a European Armageddon have recently abated, in part because of Markit manufacturing manager purchasing statistics that are signaling expansion for the first time in two years.

Overall, corporations are achieving record profits and sitting on mountains of cash. The economy is continuing on a broad, steady recovery, however investors remain skeptical. Domestic stocks are at historic levels, but buying stocks solely because they are going up is never the right reason to invest.  Alternatively, bunkering away excessive cash in useless, inflation depreciating assets is not the best strategy either. If nervousness and/or anxiety are driving your investment strategy, then perhaps now is the time to create a long-term plan to secure your financial future. However, if your goal is to soak up the endless doom-and-gloom and watch your money melt away to inflation, then perhaps you are better off just taking another nap.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

August 4, 2013 at 10:41 am 1 comment

Financial Olympics: Chasing Gold, Siver & Bronze

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

As a record number of 204 nations compete at the XXX Olympic Games in London, and millions of couch-watchers root on their favorite athletes, a different simultaneous competition is occurring…the 2012 Financial Olympics. So far, both Olympics have provided memorable moments for all. While the 2012 London Olympic viewers watched James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II parachute into a stadium filled with 80,000 cheering fans, investors cheered the Dow Jones Industrial Average above the 13,000 level on the same day of the opening ceremony. We have already witnessed a wide range of emotions displayed by thousands of athletes chasing gold, silver, and bronze, and the same array of sentiments associated with glory and defeat have been observed in the 2012 Financial Olympics. There is still a way to go, but despite all the volatility, the stock market is still up a surprising +10% in 2012.

Here were some of the key Financial Olympic events last month:

Draghi Promises Gold for Euro: Some confident people promise gold medals while others promise the preservation of a currency – European Central Bank President (ECB) Mario Draghi personifies the latter. Draghi triggered the controversy with comments he made at the recent Global Investment Conference in London. In the hopes of restoring investor confidence Draghi emphatically proclaimed, “The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.” To view this excerpt, click video link here.

U.S. Economy Wins Bronze: Whereas Europe has been disqualified from the Financial Olympics due to recessionary economic conditions (Markit predicts a -0.6% contraction in Q3 eurozone GDP), the U.S. posted respectable Q2 GDP results of +1.5%. This surely is an effort worthy of a bronze medal given the overall sluggish, global demand. Fears over a European financial crisis contagion; undecided U.S. Presidential election; and uncertain “fiscal cliff” (automatic tax hikes and spending cuts) are factors contributing to the modest growth. Nevertheless, the US of A has posted 12 consecutive quarters of economic growth (see chart below) and if some clarity creeps back into the picture, growth could reaccelerate.

Source (Calafia Beach Pundit)

No Podium for Spain: Spain’s recent economic achievements closely mirror those of the athletic team, which thus far has failed to secure a sporting medal of any color. Why no Spanish glory? Recently, the Bank of Spain announced the country’s economy was declining at a -1.6% annual rate. Shortly thereafter, Spain estimated its economy would contract by -0.5% in 2013 instead of expanding +0.2%, as previously expected. Adding insult to injury, Valencia (Spain’s most indebted region) said central government support would be needed to repay its debts. These factors, and others, have forced the Spanish government to adopt severe austerity measures to cut its budget deficit by $80 billion through 2015. Spanish banks have negotiated a multi-billion-euro bailout, but they will have to hand control over to European institutions as a concession. Considering these facts, combined with an unemployment rate near 25%, one can appreciate the dominant and pervading losing spirit.

Global Central Banks Inject Financial Steroids: The challenging and competitive global growth environment is not new news to central bankers around the world. As a result, finance leaders around the world are injecting financial steroids into their countries via monetary stimulus (mostly rate cuts and bond buying). Like steroids, these actions may have short-term invigorating effects, but these measures can also have longer-term negative consequences (i.e., inflation). Here are some of the latest country-specific examples (also see chart below):

  • U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has already shot a couple “Operation Twist” and “QE” (Quantitative Easing) bullets, but as global growth continues to slow, he has openly acknowledged his willingness to dig into his toolbox for additional measures under the right circumstances, including QE3.
  • The PBOC (People’s Bank of China) surprised many observers by employing its second rate cut in less than a month. The PBOC lowered its one-year lending rate by 0.31% to 6%.
  • The ECB (European Central Bank) lowered its key lending rate by 0.25% to an all-time low of 0.75% and also cut its overnight deposit rate (the equivalent of our Federal Funds rate) by 0.25% to 0%.
  • Brazil’s central bank recently cut its benchmark Selic rate for the 8th time in a year to an all-time low of 8% from 12.5%.
  • South Korea’s central bank lowered its key interest rates by 0.25% to 3%, its first such action in three years.
  • The BOE (Bank of England) raised its quantitative easing goal by 50 billion pounds (~$78 billion).

 Source (Calafia Beach Pundit)

Banks Disqualified from Libor Games: As a result of the Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) rigging scandal, Barclays CEO Robert Diamond resigned from the bank and agreed to forfeit $31 million in bonus money. Libor is a measure of what banks pay to borrow from each other and, perhaps more importantly, it acts as a measuring stick for determining rates on mortgages and other financial contracts. In an attempt to boost the perceived financial strength of their financial condition, multiple banks artificially manipulated the calculation of the Libor rate. Ironically, this scandal likely helped consumers with lower mortgage and credit card rates.

Rates Running Backwards: Sports betting on teams and events is measured by point spreads and numerical odds. In the global debt markets, betting is measured by interest rates. So while losing, debt-laden countries like Greece and Spain have seen their interest rates explode upwards, winning, fiscally responsible countries (including Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, and Finland) have seen their bond yields turn NEGATIVE. That’s right, investors are earning a negative return. Rather than making a bet on higher yielding bonds, many investors are flocking to the perceived safety of these interest-losing bonds (see chart below). This game cannot last forever, especially for individual and institutional investors who require income to meet liquidity and return requirements.

Source (The Financial Times)

China Wins GDP Gold Medal but No World Record: China currently leads in both the Olympic Games gold medal count (China 13 vs. U.S. 9 through July 31st) and GDP competition. Given the fiscal and monetary stimulus measures the government has implemented, it appears their economy is bottoming. Despite the tremendous anxiety over China’s growth, China’s National Bureau of Statistics just announced a +7.6% Q2 GDP growth rate (see chart below), down from +8.1% in Q1. Although this is the slowest growth since the global financial crisis, Even though this was the slowest GDP growth rate in over three years, most countries would die for this level of growth. Adding evidence to the bottoming storyline, HSBC recently reported the preliminary Chinese PMI manufacturing index rose to 49.5 in July, up from 48.2 in June – the highest reading since early this year (February).

Source (Calafia Beach Pundit)

Higgs Wins God Particle Gold: Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin are not the only people to win gold medals in their fields. Peter Higgs and fellow scientists had 50-years of their physics research validated when the Large Hadron Collider discovered the long-sought Higgs boson (a.k.a., the “god particle”). The collider, located on the Franco-Swiss border, measured approximately 17 miles in length, took years to build, and cost about $8 billion to finish. Pundits are declaring the unearthing of Higgs boson as the greatest scientific discovery since the sequencing of the human genome. Higgs’s gold medal may just come in the form of a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Source (The Financial Times)

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 Barclays 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 4, 2012 at 8:22 am 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

Rates Dance their Way to a Floor

The globe is awash in debt, deficits are exploding, and the Euro is about to collapse…right? Well, then why in the heck are six countries out of the G-7 seeing their 10-year sovereign debt trade at 2.5% or lower on a consistent downward long-term trajectory? What’s more, three of the six countries witnessing their rates plummet are from Europe, despite pundits continually calling for the demise of the eurozone.

Here is a snapshot of 10-year sovereign debt yields for the majority of the G-7 countries over the last few decades:

Source: TradingEconomics.com

The sole G-7 member missing from the bond yield charts above? Italy. Although Italy’s deficits are not massive (Italy actually has a smaller deficit than U.S. as % of GDP: 3.9% in 2011), its Debt/GDP ratio has been large and rising (see chart below):

Source: TradingEconomics.com

As the globe has plodded through the financial crisis of 2008-2009, investors have flocked to the perceived stability of these larger developed countries’ bonds, even if they are merely better homes in a bad neighborhood right now. PIMCO likes to call these popular sovereign bonds, “cleaner dirty shirts.” Buying sovereign debt from these less dirty shirt countries, without sensitivity to price or yield, has been a lucrative trade that has worked consistently for quite some time. Now, however, with sovereign bond yields rapidly approaching 0%, it becomes mathematically impossible to fall lower than the bottom rate floor that developed countries are standing on.

Bond bears have been wrong about the timing of the inevitable bond price reversal, myself included, but the bulls are skating on thinner and thinner ice as rates continue moving lower. The bears may prolong their bragging rights if interest rates continue downward, or persist at these lower levels for extended periods of time. Eventually the “buy the dips” mentality dies, as we so poignantly experienced in 2000 when the technology dips turned into outright collapse.

The Flies in the Bond Binging Ointment

As long as equities remain in a trading range, the “risk-off” bond binging arguments will continue holding water. If corporate earnings remain elevated and stock buybacks carry on, the pain of deflating real returns will eventually become too unbearable for investors. As the insidious rising prices of energy, healthcare, food, leisure, and general costs keep eating away everyone’s purchasing power, even the skeptics will become more impatient with the paltry returns they are currently earning. Earning negative real returns in Treasuries, CDs, money market accounts, and other conservative investments, is not going to help millions of Americans meet their future financial goals. Due to the laundry list of global economic concerns, large swaths of investors are still running and hiding, but this is not a sustainable strategy longer term. The danger from these so-called “safe,” low-yielding asset classes is actually riskier than the perceived risk, in my view.

With that said, I’ve consistently held there are a subset of investors, including a significant number of my Sidoxia Capital Management clients, who are in the later stage of retirement and have a rational need for capital preservation and income generating assets (albeit low yielding). For this investor segment, portfolio construction is not executed due to an opportunistic urge of chasing potential outsized rates of return, but more-so out of necessity. Shorter time horizons eliminate the prudence of additional equity exposure because of the extra associated volatility. Unfortunately, many of the 76 million Baby Boomers will statistically live another 20 – 30 years based on actuarial life expectations and under-save, so the risks of being too conservative can dramatically outweigh the risks of increasing equity exposure. This is all stated in the context of stocks paying a higher yield than long-term Treasuries – the first time in a generation.

Short-term risks and uncertainties remain high, with Greek election outcomes unknown; a U.S. Presidential election in flux; and an impending domestic fiscal cliff that needs to be addressed. But with interest rates accelerating towards 0% and investors’ fright-filled buying of pricey, low-yielding asset classes, many of these risks are already factored into current valuations. As it turns out, the pain of panic can be more detrimental than being stuck in over-priced assets, driven by rates dancing near an absolute floor.

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.

June 10, 2012 at 9:25 pm 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

Markets Race Out of 2012 Gate

Article includes excerpts from Sidoxia Capital Management’s 2/1/2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

Equity markets largely remained caged in during 2011, but U.S. stocks came racing out of the gate at the beginning of 2012. The S&P 500 index rose +4.4% in January; the Dow Jones Industrials climbed +3.4%; and the NASDAQ index sprinted out to a +8.0% return. Broader concerns have not disappeared over a European financial meltdown, high U.S. unemployment, and large unsustainable debts and deficits, but several key factors are providing firmer footing for financial race horses in 2012:

•  Record Corporate Profits: 2012 S&P operating profits were recently forecasted to reach a record level of $106, or +9% versus a year ago. Accelerating GDP (Gross Domestic Product Growth) to +2.8% in the fourth quarter also provided a tailwind to corporations.

•   Mountains of Cash: Companies are sitting on record levels of cash. In late 2011, U.S. non-financial corporations were sitting on $1.73 trillion in cash, which was +50% higher as a percentage of assets relative to 2007 when the credit crunch began in earnest.

•  Employment Trends Improving: It’s difficult to fall off the floor, but since the unemployment rate peaked at 10.2% in October 2009, the rate has slowly improved to 8.5% today. Data junkies need not fret – we have fresh new employment numbers to look at this Friday.

•   Consumer Optimism on Rise: The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index showed optimism improved in January to the highest level in almost a year, increasing to 75.0 from 69.9 in December.

•   Federal Reserve to the Rescue: Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, and the Fed recently announced the extension of their 0% interest rate policy, designed to assist economic expansion, through the end of 2014. In addition, Bernanke did not rule out further stimulative asset purchases (a.k.a., QE3 or quantitative easing) if necessary. If executed as planned, this dovish stance will extend for an unprecedented six year period (2008 -2014).

Europe on the Comeback Trail?

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Europe is by no means out of the woods and tracking the day to day volatility of the happenings overseas can be a difficult chore. One fairly easy way to track the European progress (or lack thereof) is by following the interest rate trends in the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). Quite simply, higher interest rates generally mean more uncertainty and risk, while lower interest rates mean more confidence and certainty. The bad news is that Greece is still in the midst of a very complex restructuring of its debt, which means Greek interest rates have been exploding upwards and investors are bracing for significant losses on their sovereign debt investments. Portugal is not in as bad shape as Greece, but the trends have been moving in a negative direction. The good news, as you can see from the chart above (Calafia Beach Pundit), is that interest rates in Ireland, Italy and Spain have been constructively moving lower thanks to austerity measures, European Central Bank (ECB) actions, and coordination of eurozone policies to create more unity and fiscal accountability.

Political Horse Race

Source: Real Clear Politics via The Financial Times

The other horse race going on now is the battle for the Republican presidential nomination between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich. Some increased feistiness mixed with a little Super-Pac TV smear campaigns helped whip Romney’s horse to a decisive victory in Florida – Gingrich ended up losing by a whopping 14%. Unlike traditional horse races, we don’t know how long this Republican primary race will last, but chances are this thing should be wrapped up by “Super Tuesday” on March 6th when there will be 10 simultaneous primaries and caucuses. Romney may be the lead horse now, but we are likely to see a few more horses drop out before all is said and done.

Flies in the Ointment

As indicated previously, although 2012 has gotten off to a strong start, there are still some flies in the ointment:

•   European Crisis Not Over: Many European countries are at or near recessionary levels. The U.S. may be insulated from some of the weakness, but is not completely immune from the European financial crisis. Weaker fourth quarter revenue growth was suffered by companies like Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM), Citigroup Inc. (C), JP Morgan Chase & Co (JPM), Microsoft Corp (MSFT), and IBM, in part because of European exposure.

•   Slowing Profit Growth: Although at record levels, profit growth is slowing and peak profit margins are starting to feel the pressure. Only so much cost-cutting can be done before growth initiatives, such as hiring, must be implemented to boost profits.

•   Election Uncertainty: As mentioned earlier, 2012 is a presidential election year, and policy uncertainty and political gridlock have the potential of further spooking investors. Much of these issues is not new news to the financial markets. Rather than reading stale, old headlines of the multi-year financial crisis, determining what happens next and ascertaining how much uncertainty is already factored into current asset prices is a much more constructive exercise.

Stocks on Sale for a Discount

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

A lot of the previous concerns (flies) mentioned is not new news to investors and many of these worries are already factored into the cheap equity prices we are witnessing. If everything was all roses, stocks would not be selling for a significant discount to the long-term averages.

A key ratio measuring the priceyness of the stock market is the Price/Earnings (P/E) ratio. History has taught us the best long-term returns have been earned when purchases were made at lower P/E ratio levels. As you can see from the 60-year chart above (Calafia Beach Pundit), stocks can become cheaper (resulting in lower P/Es) for many years, similar to the challenging period experienced through the early 1980s and somewhat analogous to the lower P/E ratios we are presently witnessing (estimated 2012 P/E of approximately 12.4). However, the major difference between then and now is that the Federal Funds interest rate was about 20% back in the early-’80s, while the same rate is closer to 0% currently. Simple math and logic tell us that stocks and other asset-based earnings streams deserve higher prices in periods of low interest rates like today.

We are only one month through the 2012 financial market race, so it much too early to declare a Triple Crown victory, but we are off to a nice start. As I’ve said before, investing has arguably never been as difficult as it is today, but investing has also never been as important. Inflation, whether you are talking about food, energy, healthcare, leisure, or educational costs continue to grind higher. Burying your head in the sand or stuffing your money in low yielding assets may work for a wealthy few and feel good in the short-run, but for much of the masses the destructive inflation-eroding characteristics of purported “safe investments” will likely do more damage than good in the long-run. A low-cost diversified global portfolio of thoroughbred investments that balances income and growth with your risk tolerance and time horizon is a better way to maneuver yourself to the investment winner’s circle.

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 XOM, MSFT, JPM, 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.

February 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm 4 comments

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