Posts tagged ‘financial crisis’

Lessons Learned from Financial Crisis Management 101

For many investors the financial crisis over the last 24 months was an expensive education. Rather than have to enroll and take the courses all over again, I am hopeful we can put that past education to good use. Here are some valuable lessons I learned from my two year degree in Financial Crisis Management 101.

Investors Don’t Get Paid For Emotions: In investing, emotional decisions generally lead to suboptimal decisions. Over the financial crisis, despite the market rebound last year, many investors fell prey to fear. This queasiness (see Queasy Investors article) resulted in money being stuffed under the mattress – earning subpar yields – and asset allocations dramatically shifting towards bonds. Not surprisingly, the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index fell -1% in 2009 as the herd piled in. On the flip side, those willing to brave the equity markets were rewarded with a +23% gain in the S&P500 index. Certainly this bond-equity picture looked different in 2008, but unfortunately many mainstream portfolios lacked adequate bond exposure then. As famed Fidelity Magellan fund manager Peter Lynch points out, fretting about your portfolio can work against you:  “Your ultimate success or failure will depend on your ability to ignore the worries of the world long enough to allow your investments to succeed.”

Martin Luther King Jr. put anxious emotions into perspective by expressing, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us.” Prudent conservatism makes sense, but panicked alarm can lead you astray. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky punctuated this idea by showing the impact that “loss” has on peoples’ psyches. Through their research, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated the pain of loss is more than twice as painful as the pleasure from gain. Euphoria, whether for homes or for other forms of credit-induced spending, is not a desirable emotion when investing either – just ask any house-flipping Florida or California resident looking for work. The moral of the story: plan for a rainy day and don’t succumb to the elation of the herd. Create a disciplined systematic approach that relies less on your gut. Emotional decisions, as we’ve seen over the last few years, generally do not fare well.

Quality Doesn’t Die in a Crisis: Good companies with solid growth prospects don’t disappear in a bear market. On the contrary, they typically are in much better position to invest, step on the throats of their competitors, and steal market share. Many of the quality companies left for dead last year have risen from the ashes. Leveraged financials and debt laden companies were hit the hardest, and bounced nicely last year, but the market leaders are the companies that endure through bull and bear markets.

Buy and Hold is Not Dead:  Catching fish can be difficult if one constantly dips their line in and out of the water. Academic research falls pretty bluntly on the shoulders of “day traders,” and I’m still searching for a Warren Buffett equivalent to show up on Oprah or Charlie Rose espousing the virtues of speculation – oh wait, maybe Jim Cramer qualifies?

Long-term investors are a rare but dying breed – just look at the average fund manager’s holding period, which has dropped from about five years in the 1960s to less than one year today. The 1980s and 1990s weren’t too bad for buy and holders (about a +1,400% increase), but the strategy has subsequently gone in hibernation for a decade. Warren Buffett may be pushing a bit too far when he says, “Our favorite holding period is forever,” but directionally this posture may actually work well over the next ten years. Patience can pay off – even if you arrive late to the game. For example, if you bought Wal-Mart shares (WMT) after it rose 10-fold during its first 10 years, you still could have achieved a 60x return over the next 30 years. I, myself, believe there is a happy medium between high frequency trading (see HFT article) and “forever” investing. Regardless of your time horizon, I agree with late Sir John Templeton who said, The only way to avoid mistakes is not to invest – which is the biggest mistake of all.”

Cyclical is Not Secular: Party crashers may be optimistic about the prospects of a gathering, but if they arrive too late to the event, there may be no more food or wine left. The same principle applies to investment themes, as well-known value manager Bill Miller states, “Latecomers are usually persuaded that the cyclical has become the secular.” Over the last few years, the secular arguments of “real estate prices will never go down nationally,” and the belief that emerging markets like China would “decouple” from the U.S. market in 2008, simple were proved wrong. Time will tell if the gold-bugs will be right regarding their call for continued secular increases, or if the spike is a crescendo on a return to more normalized levels. On the whole, I much rather prefer to arrive at a big party prematurely, rather than showing up late sifting through the crumbs and scraping the bottom of the punch bowl.

Turn Off the TV: Fanning the flames of our daily emotions are media outlets. Thanks to globalization, the internet, and the 24/7 news cycle, we are bombarded with some type of daily fear factor to worry about. Typically, an eloquent strategist or economist pontificates on the direction of the market. In many instances these talking heads don’t even manage client money or are not held accountable for their predictions (see Peter Schiff article). I like Barron’s Michael Santoli’s description of these story-telling market mavens, “A strategist’s first job is to have a plausible, defensible case to shop around client conference rooms globally. Being right is gravy.”  Although intellectually stimulating, I advise you to limit your consumption and delivery of strategist commentary to cocktail parties and don’t let their advice sway your portfolio decisions. You’ll be much better served by listening to veteran investors who have successfully navigated choppy market cycles. Famed growth investor William O’Neil shrewdly chimes in on the subject too, “Since the market tends to go in the opposite direction of what the majority of people think, I would say 95% of all these people you hear on TV shows are giving you their personal opinion. And personal opinions are almost always worthless … facts and markets are far more reliable.”

Bad Loans are Made in Good Times: Markus Brunnermeier, a Princeton economist known for studying financial bubbles, declared this observation regarding loans. Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s no wonder that boat loads of no-doc, no down-payment, teaser rate subprime loans and overleveraged risky private equity loans were being made when unemployment was at 5% — not today’s 10% rate. Now with the loan spigots shut, the tables have been turned. Relatively few loans are now being made, but with a massively steep yield curve, surviving financial institutions are in a golden age for bringing on new wildly lucrative assets onto their balance sheets. Sure, the industry is still saddled with toxic legacy assets, but the negative impact should begin fading in coming quarters if the economy can continue building a firmer foundation.

Diversification Matters: Contrary to current thinking, which believes diversification didn’t help investors through the crisis, owning certain asset classes like treasuries, certain commodities, and cash did help in 2008. Certainly, the correlations between many asset classes converged in the heat of the panic, but I’m convinced the benefits of diversification provide beneficial shock absorbers for most investment portfolios. Princeton professor and economist Burton Gordon Malkiel sums it up succinctly, “Diversity reduces adversity.”

The Herd is Often Led to the Slaughterhouse: The technology and housing bubble implosions serve as gentle reminders of the slaughterhouse fate for those who follow the herd. Avoiding consensus thinking is virtually a requirement of long-term outperformance.  As Sir John Templeton stated, “It’s impossible to produce superior performance unless you do something different from the majority.” John Paulson can also attest to this fact. If aggressively shorting the housing market and loading up on CDS insurance was the consensus, his firm would not have made $20 billion over 2007 and 2008.

These are obviously not all the lessons to be learned from the financial crisis, and by following a philosophy of continual learning, future mistakes should provide additional insights to help guard against losses and capitalize on potential opportunities. Having freshly graduated from Financial Crisis Management 101, I hope to immediately implement this education to land on the financial market’s Dean’s List.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including fixed income ETFs and FXI). Also at time of publishing SCM and some of its clients had a direct long position in WMT, but no position in BEN or BRKA/B. 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 11, 2010 at 12:40 am 2 comments

Too Big to Fail (Review)

Some call Andrew Ross Sorkin’s new behind-the-scenes book about the financial crisis of 2008-2009 “Too Big to Read” due to its meaty page count at 624 pages (a tad more than my book). But actually, once you crack the first chapter of Too Big to Fail you become immediately sucked in. In creating the “fly on the wall” perspective covering the elite power brokers of Wall Street and Washington, Sorkin utilizes 500 hours of interviews with more than 200 individuals.

Through the detailed and vivid conversations, you get the keen sense of overwhelming desperation and self-preservation that overtakes the executives of the sinking financial system. Some of the chief participants failed, some were triumphant, and some were pathetically bailed out. History will ultimately be the arbiter of whether government and Wall Street averted, mitigated, postponed, or contributed to the financial collapse. Regardless, Sorkin brilliantly encapsulates this emotionally panicked period in our history that will never be erased from our memories.

Here are a few passages that capture the feeling and mood of the book:

Merger Musical Chairs

The terror-induced insanity of merger musical chairs is best depicted through the notepad of Timothy Geithner, then the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank:

“On a pad that morning, Geithner started writing out various merger permutations: Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase. Morgan Stanley and Mitsubishi. Morgan Stanley and CIC. Morgan Stanley and Outside Investor. Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Goldman Sachs and Wachovia. Goldman Sachs and Outside Investor. Fortress Goldman. Fortress Morgan Stanley. It was the ultimate Wall Street chessboard.”

 

AIG Bombshell

The book is also laced with financial nuggets to put the scope of the crisis in perspective. Here Sorkin examines the distressed call of assistance from AIG CEO, Bob Willumstad, to Timothy Geithner:

“A bombshell that Willumstad was confident would draw Geithner’s attention-was a report on AIG’s counterparty exposure around the world, which included ‘$2.7 trillion of notional derivative exposures, with 12,000 individual contracts.” About halfway down the page, in bold, was the detail that Willumstad hoped would strike Geithner as startling: “$1 trillion of exposures concentrated with 12 major financial institutions.’”

 

Bernanke’s Bumbled Spelling Bee

In setting the stage for the drama that unfolds, Sorkin also provides a background on the key players in the book. For example in describing Ben Bernanke you learn he was

“born in 1953 and grew up in Dillon South Carolina, a small town permeated by the stench of tobacco warehouses. As an eleven-year-old, he traveled to Washington to compete in the national spelling championship in 1965, falling in the second round, when he misspelled ‘Edelweiss.’”

 

TARP Tidbits

On how the precise $700 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) figure was created, Sorkin describes the scattered thought process of the program designer Neel Kashkari:

“They knew they could count on Kashkari to perform some sort of mathematical voodoo to justify it: ‘There’s around $11 trillion of residential mortgages, there’s around $3 trillion of commercial mortgages, that leads to $14 trillion, roughly five percent of that is $700 billion.’ As he plucked numbers from thin air even Kashkari laughed at the absurdity of it all.”

 

Mercedes Moment

Mixed in with the facts and downbeat conversations are a series of humorous anecdotes and one-liners. Here is one exchange between Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, and his Chief of Staff Russell Horwitz:

“’I don’t think I can take another day of this,’ Horowitz said wearily. Blankfein laughed. ‘You’re getting out of a Mercedes to go to the New York Federal Reserve – you’re not getting out of a Higgins boat* on Omaha Beach! Keep things in perspective.’”

 

*Blankfein’s quote: A reference to the bloody D-Day battle. 

Too Big to Fail is an incredible time capsule for the history books. Let’s hope we do not have to relive a period like this in our lifetimes. I wouldn’t mind reading another Andrew Ross Sorkin book…just not another one about a future financial crisis.

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 did not have any direct positions in any stock mentioned in this article at time of publication (including GS, AIG, WFC, MS, and C). No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 28, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Back to the Future: Mag Covers (Part III)

Diploma

Congratulations to those who have graduated through my first two articles (Part I and Part II) regarding the use of media magazine covers as contrarian investment indicator tools. We’ve reviewed magazine’s horrendous ability of predicting market shifts during the 1970s and Tech Bubble of 2000, and now we will take a peek at the “Great Recession” of 2008 and 2009. If you have the stamina to complete this final article, your diploma and selfless glory will be waiting for you at the end.

This magazine cover series was not designed to be utilized as an exploitable investment strategy, but rather to increase awareness and raise skepticism surrounding investment content. Just because something is written or said by journalist or blogger does not mean it is a fact (although I fancy facts). In the field of investing, along with other behavioral disciplines, there are significant gray areas left open to interpretation. A more educated, critical eye exercised by the general public will perhaps release us from the repetitive boom-bust cycles we’ve become accustomed to. Perhaps my goal is naïve and idealistic, nonetheless I dare to dream.

The wounds from a year ago are still fresh, and we have not fully escaped from the problems that originally got us into this mess, but it is amazing what a 60%+ market move since March can do to the number of “Great Depression” references. Let’s walk down calamity memory lane over the last year:

Great Depression Redux?

Great Depression 2008

Months ago we were in the midst of a severe recession, and the media was not shy about jumping on the “pessimism porn” bandwagon for the sake of ratings. Like a Friday the 13th sequel (nice tie in!), CNBC just weeks ago was plugging the crisis anniversary of the Lehman Brothers failure. Time magazine’s portrayal of the financial crisis as the next Great Depression, including the soup kitchen lines, mass unemployment, and collapse of thousands of banks, was used like chum to feed the frenzy of shocked investing onlookers. Unemployment rates are still creeping up, albeit at a slower rate, but we are nowhere near the 25% levels seen in the Great Depression.

American Disintegration

U.S. Evaporation

One of my favorite articles (read here) of the global crisis was written by The Wall Street Journal late last year about a Russian Professor, Igor Panarin (also a former KGB analyst). I find it absurdly amusing that the WSJ would even give credence to this story, but perhaps now I can look forward to an Op-Ed in their newspaper from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or North Korean Leader Kim Jong Ill. Not only did Professor Panarin pronounce the complete evaporation of the United States, but he also provided a specific timeframe. In late June or early July 2010, he expects the U.S. to fall into civil war and subsequently get carved up into six pieces by particular foreign regions, including China, Mexico, E.U., Japan, Canada, and Russia (which will control Alaska of course). I guess Sarah Palin will not be a happy camper?

Other Crisis Souvenirs

Soros Headline

Hey Georgy, let me know when you turn bullish…so I can sell!

Market Mayhem

New Yorker Cover 10-08
Who’s that on the cover? Nancy Pelosi?!

 

Lessons Learned

Contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism is not necessarily a good thing. Trend can be your friend too. Bubbles take much longer to inflate than they burst, so it may be in your best interest to ride the wave of ecstasy for longer than the early alarm ringers. Take for example Alan Greenspan’s infamous irrational exuberance speech in 1996, when the NASDAQ index was trading around 1300. As we all know, the NASDAQ went on to pierce the 5000 mark, four years later. Sorry Al…right idea, but a tad early. Although he may have been correct directionally, his timing and degree were way off.  Pundits like Nouriel Roubini and Peter Schiff are other examples of prognosticators who identified the financial crisis many years before the catastrophe actually hit. As I noted previously, trading based on magazine covers was not conceived as a legitimate investable strategy, but as I’ve shown they can be indicators of sentiment. And these sentiment indicators can be used as a valuable apparatus in your toolbox to prevent harmful decisions at the worst possible times.

 Thanks for coming Back to the Future on this historical tour of cover stories. Now that you have graduated with honors, next time you are in line at the grocery store, feel free to flash your diploma to receive a discount on a magazine purchase.

Class dismissed.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

DISCLOSURE: No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 13, 2009 at 2:39 am 3 comments

“Bill, Say It Ain’t So…”

Bond guru and Newport Beach neighbor, Bill Gross, is out with his entertaining monthly PIMCO piece (Click Here). Try to keep a box of tissues close by in case you cry during the read. His views support my stance on short duration bonds and TIPs (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities), but big Bill would NEVER stand to root for equities – especially after his call for Dow 5000 a while back.

In this CNBC piece, he points out the obvious troubles we face from all the debt we’re choking on. As a country, we need the “Heimlich Maneuver!”

"Save to Your Grave"

"Save to Your Grave"

 Click Here for Video

June 4, 2009 at 7:00 am 2 comments

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