Posts tagged ‘Winston Churchill’

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

Stretching Rubber Band Creating More Value

Concerns over debt ceiling negotiations, European financial challenges, and overall economic malaise has reached a feverish pitch in the U.S., yet in the background, a valuation rubber band  has quietly been stretching to ever more attractive levels. Regardless of whether seniors might not receive Social Security checks, troops not obtain ammunition, and investors not collect credit rating agency love, corporations keep churning profits out like they are going out of style (17%+ growth in 2011 estimated earnings). We have barely scratched the surface on earnings season, and I’m sure better than expected earnings from the likes of Google Inc. (GOOG), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), FedEx Corp. (FDX), Nike Inc. (NKE), and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. (BBBY) will not sway the bears, but in the meantime profits keep chugging along. Although profits have more than doubled in the last 12 years, not to mention a halving in interest rates (10-year Treasury yield cut from 6% to about 3%), yet the S&P 500 is still down approximately -4% (June 1999 – June 2011).

What Gives?

Could the valuation stretching continue as earnings continue to grind higher? Absolutely. Just because prices have been chopped in half, doesn’t mean they can’t go lower. From 1966 – 1982 the Dow Jones Industrial index traded at around 800 and P/E multiples contracted to single digits. That rubber band eventually snapped and the index catapulted 17-fold from 800 to almost 14,000 in 25 years. Even though equities have struggled in the 21st century, a few things have changed from the low-point reached about 30 years ago. For starters, we have not hit an inflation rate of 15% or a Federal Funds rate of 20% (4% and 0% today, respectively), so we have a tad bit more headroom before the single digit P/E apocalypse descends upon us. If you listen to Peter Lynch, investor extraordinaire, his “Rule of 20” states a market equilibrium P/E ratio should equal 20 minus the inflation rate. This rule would imply an equilibrium P/E ratio of 16-17 when the current 2011 P/E multiple implies a value slightly above 13 times earnings. The bears may claim victory if the earnings denominator collapses, but if earnings, on the contrary, continue coming in better than expected, then the sun might break through the clouds in the form of significant price appreciation.

Another change that has occurred since the days of Cabbage Patch dolls has been the opening floodgates of globalization. The technology revolution has accelerated the flattening of the globe, which has created numerous new opportunities and threats. Creating a company like Facebook with about 750 million users and an estimated value of $80 billion to $100 billion couldn’t happen 30 years ago, but on the flip side, our country is also competing with billions of motivated brains lurking in the far reaches of the world with a singular focus of sucking away our jobs, resources, and dollars. Winners recognize this threat and are currently adapting. Losers blind to this trend remain busy digging their own graves.

Future is Uncertain

As famous Jedi Master Yoda aptly identified, “Always in motion is the future.” The future is always uncertain, and if it wasn’t, I would be on my private island drinking umbrella drinks all day. With undecided debt ceiling negotiations occurring over the next few weeks, political rhetoric will be blaring and traders will be hyperventilating with defibrillator paddles close at hand. If history is a guide, stupid decisions may be made, but the almighty financial markets (and maybe a few Molotov cocktails at a local protest rally) will eventually slap politicians in the face to wake up to reality. Perhaps you recall the attention the markets earned from legislators when the Dow fell 777 points in a single September 2008 trading session. Blood on the streets forced Congress to approve the Troubled Asset Relief Program hot potato four days after the initial vote failed. And if that wasn’t a gentle enough reminder for Democrats and Republicans, then a few lessons can be learned from the interest rate sledgehammer that capital markets vigilantes have slammed on the Greeks (10-year Greek yields are hovering above 17%+).

Down but Not Out

The stories of debt collapse, hyperinflation, double-dip recessions, plunging dollar, secular bear markets, and government shutdowns are all plausible but remote scenarios. As Winston Churchill so eloquently stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” Voter moods are so venomous that if fiscal irresponsibility is not changed, politicians will be voted straight out of office – even hardcore, extremist elected officials understand this self-serving point.

Suffice it to say, as the political noise reaches a deafening pitch in the coming weeks and months, a quiet rubber band in the background keeps stretching. When the political noise dies down, you may just hear a noise snapping stock prices higher.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, GOOG, and FDX, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JPM, NKE, BBBY, Facebook, 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.

July 15, 2011 at 12:17 am Leave a comment


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