The Liquidation of Markets

Every weekend I read Barry Ritholtz’s recommended reading and there are a lot of gems in there. Recently he posted this Credit Suisse graphic about markets at the turn of the 20th century by market share and compared it with 2014 on the topic of global equity investing.


In his article he mentioned the fallacy one might fall into as a UK equity investor in 1899… why bother investing in the USA when the UK market is so much larger? And then this line of thought ends up missing the huge growth in US market share over the next century.

However, the real issue here isn’t the relative change in market share by the different countries; it is the fact that almost all of these markets were entirely extinguished at one time or another by political, economic or military events that wiped out the investors.
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Currency Returns Since the Crash

It is important to realize the impacts of currencies on the stocks that you select, and your portfolio in total. If you are a US citizen (as are most readers of this blog), then your portfolio of stocks, bonds and cash is essentially “denominated” in US dollars).

The fact that the Australian dollar is up 50% from the 2009 market nadir (against its’ own performance) is compounded by the fact that the US dollar dropped during the last 5 years, for a “net” impact of over 70%. While this is a simplified example, if you just held Australian dollars (plus their implied governmental interest rates), and then transferred them (plus interest) into US dollars at the end of that period, you’d be up 70% on your money (US dollars).

This is important because we have Australian, European, Japanese and ETF’s from other nations in our portfolio.  The fact that the dollar has overall been declining during this period means that stocks held in other currencies have seen their returns boosted in comparison to US dollar investments (like stocks on the NYSE or NASDAQ or US Treasuries).

While there are many reasons why the US dollar has been a poor performer, past performance is not a good indicator of the future, and currency fluctuations are very difficult to predict.  Many people (myself included) have been mystified by the continued strength of the Euro, but the historical returns are undeniable.

When you are selecting stocks, particularly ADR’s which represent stocks traded on foreign exchanges, currency returns may be just as important as stock returns.  When you view the performance of the stock in US Dollars, both the currency returns and the underlying stock performance are “one” number, since the price of the currency is part of the ADR stock price.  To see the impact of the currency, you need to look at underlying performance in the “native” stock market and view this against the price of the ADR in the US market.

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In this case we’ve graphed WBC (the Westpac Banking Corp stock on the Australian Exchange) against the equivalent US ADR (WBK) that trades on the New York Stock Exchange.  You can see how the two stocks mirror each other, with an additional “kicker” on the US ADR because of the decline of the US dollar against the Australian dollar.  If the Australian dollar underperformed vs. the US dollar, these trends would be reversed.  Note that there are many other additional factors to consider including dividends received (WBK is a heavy dividend payer).  With free graphing and analysis tools available at Yahoo and Google and many other sites, it is much easier to do these sorts of analyses and to spot the impact of currencies on your investments.

Stock Market Performance and Our Stocks in the News

Over the 11+ years that we’ve been setting up these trust funds, tools for monitoring stock performance have improved greatly.  Today I use Google Finance to keep portfolios online for each of the six trust funds, and I update them for buys and sells and available cash.  When we first started these portfolios, it was the dawn of the Internet age (remember those commercials for e-trade), and we usually waited to receive our paper statements.

On the other hand, you don’t want to move into a mode of constant reshuffling of the portfolios.  Watching frequently is strongly correlated with frequent trading – you see and react to short term market movements, and you “kick yourself” when you don’t act on short term hunches.

For these portfolios there is a secondary consideration that I want the portfolio beneficiaries, who will ultimately receive 100% of the value of these stocks, to be as large a part of the decision making process on purchases and sales as possible.  This is a key purpose of these trust funds – to teach the beneficiaries about money and to show the real and substantial long term gains that can occur from systematic investing in a thoughtful way over a long period of time.  For purchases we are able to accomplish this by making it an annual process, tied with the annual back-to-school ritual.  For sales, I am attempting to make this more of a joint decision making process by setting “stop loss” levels up front and communicating these levels rather than selling when I think something is 1) overvalued 2) headed for a big loss.  I still have to move unilaterally on an occasional sale when I want to move relatively quickly, however, but I try to minimize those activities.

With all this said, I do watch the markets relatively closely (usually for a few minutes each night I scan the google finance portfolios for the six trust funds and see if alerts pop up for any of the stocks).

While it is easy to say that “the market has rallied this year and gone up by x%” and then to compare this return vs. your stocks, in reality every stock has its own story based on nationality (about 1/2 of our stocks are non-US), its industry, and then finally there is the large “joint” component of economic moves by the Federal Reserve starting with ZIRP and then moving into “Quantitative Easing”.  These events greatly influence all stock pricing, which can be seen clearly when the entire portfolio moves up and down in unison based on news (or perceived consensus on behavior) from the Feds.

Another entire path is how the international markets are faring – the Chinese economy is built on capital expansion, both in real estate and in manufacturing, and they have their own version of high leverage in various trust products and local debt and banking relationships that are starting to flash major warning signals.  When you listen to the news on economics 90% of it is about the US and our policies, when we represent maybe 20% of the world wide economy and we are heavily influenced by what happens elsewhere.  Of high interest to stock investors is the fact that Chinese markets have been in a slump for years, as they anticipated high growth before the growth became reality and then Chinese investors have since moved on to the (perceived) “easier gains” of local real estate.

Thus with all of this background behind us, here are some of the stories that I’m watching…

Australian banks seem to be the most expensive in the world, and are booming due to a real estate and highly valued currency.  We own Westpac, and this is something to watch.  Note also that when evaluating a high dividend stock (they currently yield almost 6%), it is important to look beyond just the stock value to see the total return.

Yahoo! is a 2013 pick and has done very well recently, up over 40% since we selected it in late Q3 2013.  The new CEO (Marissa Mayer) recently fired her hand-picked head of advertising who had a $60M pay package and their advertising revenue isn’t growing.  However, this doesn’t matter much since almost all of the value of this stock is in its China (Alibaba) stake and Japan stake – the US operations are mostly irrelevant (or a possible upside) to the stocks’ total valuation, per this article.

Shell (we own the “B” shares because they are out of the UK and don’t have the dividend withholding that we would have if we owned the “A” shares out of the Netherlands) recently issued earnings guidance that was touted as “Shell shock” about bad quarterly results.  The stock went down and now we are watching to see what happens next.

Beyond Shell we have a large exposure to the oil industry, including Statoil (Norway), SASOL (South Africa), CNOOC in China (we sold CEO recently when it hit our stop loss), Exxon, and also Anadarko (natural gas).  Thus we need to monitor these companies, to some extent, but we mainly buy and hold them because this is an essential part of the world economy and they pay strong dividends (mostly).

We continue to monitor these stocks and will close down our stop-losses pretty soon and create new stop-losses going out into 2014 for a few months.  We want to keep some down side coverage going both for stocks that have had a great run but also for stocks that might be headed for a fall.  Our stop loss strategy is summarized in this post.

US Markets vs. The Rest of the World

Although the US stock market has pulled back a bit as of late, we are up over 10% in the year to date. The rest of the world with the exception of the US, however, is actually down about 1% or so. The Vanguard ETF VEU is a decent, simple proxy for the rest of the non-US market (although any single measure is flawed). I started using an average of the US markets and the VUE to compare against the trust funds documented in this blog (see funds 1-5 plus newly started 6 in links to the right) because it is a more applicable mix since 30-50% of the assets are in non US stocks (ADR’s).

There are two main components for the foreign markets right now

1) their currency against the US dollar
2) their market index performance

The US dollar has strengthened against many of the foreign currencies, which means that US assets are worth more and foreign assets are worth correspondingly less. We recently looked at the impact of this on the Japanese markets, where strong growth in local currency (the Yen) didn’t translate to increases in value of stocks to US citizens (unless you bought from an ETF or mutual fund that hedged the dollar / yen exposure to stay neutral, which most of them do not).

Many of the foreign indexes have declined, and European stocks in general have not recovered from the 2007-8 crash to the same extent as the US market did. A simple rule is that anything (in the US) bought in 2006-7 near the peak was way overpriced and anyone who bought during the trough in 2008 when the markets were in their nadir did very well. This rule generally applied overseas as well but some markets didn’t come back as strongly.

Every country is unique as is their impact on the markets. There have been riots and other acts of instability in emerging markets. However, it seems that the moves of the US to perhaps reduce “quantitative easing” by the Fed (QE1-3…) that are spooking the foreign markets, since a rise in the value of the US dollar and interest rates is thought to have a major impact on the relative attractiveness of these foreign markets. Today the world benefits from low interest rates and it is anticipated that at some point these low interest rates will rise and it will have various (mostly negative) impacts on countries and currencies around the world.

Investing is very complex and this blog highly recommends that you do your own research. The point of this post is that in order to judge performance you need some applicable benchmarks and if over 30% of your portfolio is in non-US assets you can’t judge against a US benchmark. You also need to understand not only the performance of the overseas markets but also the performance of their currency vs. the US dollar.

Market Timing on Debt

The historical “rule of thumb” is that markets are rational. This is likely true over some period of time, but not in the short run.

A recent article in the WSJ (more like a blurb, on the back page) called “The Big Number” described the current situation with junk bonds.

Yield hungry investors are making the bond market a welcoming place for even the lowest rated borrowers. The average yield paid by new triple-C rated issuers (i.e. “junk”) of corporate bonds in the third quarter hit a record low.

The current yield on new CCC bonds is 9.05%, down from 10.65% in the second quarter of last year. This is a decline of 18% in about a year, which is a giant decrease for a company considering re-financing.

In addition to being able to sell debt at the lowest rates in years, these highly leveraged firms are also able to find buyers for their debt (i.e. the market is liquid).

When the market freezes up, as it did in 2008, there are two main impacts – 1) the rates that everyone pays for financing in the short term move up sharply 2) there is little financing available for those that don’t have the strongest credit. In practical terms, #2 means that if you need money, it will cost you very dearly such as when Goldman Sachs had to borrow from Warren Buffet at a 10% preferred stock issuance.

While it is very difficult to determine the right time to buy and sell, there is no doubt that “market timing” is of incredible importance. If you have a highly leveraged company, these low rates and many yield hungry buyers willing to lend to you means that you can retire very high cost debt, load up on lower cost debt, and roll out maturities for many years, buying your company valuable time in case there is a recession or business downturn.

Today is literally the opposite point of time in terms of market timing from when Goldman Sachs was forced to pay 10% rates to Buffett; today even the lousiest company (in terms of credit ratings) can get funding cheaper than that (9.05%, per this article). This doesn’t mean that rates won’t still fall – if I could predict that I’d be on an island somewhere – but it does show the amazing difference in market conditions that just a few years made, without the economy itself changing in any substantive manner.

Who is buying all of this? Right now your bank account and CD’s effectively pay almost zero, and US government debt 10 years out is 1.6%. Thus for someone who wants income, an investment that pays 9.05% LOOKS a lot better than under 2%.

The flip side of loaning to the most highly leveraged, lowest rated companies, is risk. Risk can be business risk or their continued ability to find low rate financing (liquidity).

On a market timing basis, this is the best time for these sorts of companies.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Buy And Hold Works… Sometimes

For these trust funds we work to link stock selections with long-term thinking. These portfolios start when the beneficiary is 11 or so years old so they have a long time horizon.

With that, there are times that it is wise to sell. If you believe that a stock has been part of a huge run-up and gains are not sustainable, you should sell. We sold a number of stocks in 2007 when valuations were insanely high (such as China Mobile (CHL), which peaked near $100 in 2007-8 and now is settled back in around $50 / share) and many of them have not recovered back to those levels. Unfortunately, we re-invested the proceeds into new stocks which promptly went down with the rest of the market but it still was the right thing to do.

On the other hand, some stocks seem to get permanently impaired or on a downward spiral from which they never recovered. We bought Nokia (NOK) and then sold at a loss – and the stock has kept dropping since, damaged by their dismal position in the smart phone market. We also did the same with Cemex (CX) which also had a high near $40 in the 2007-8 time frame but has settled to around $10 / share.

It is hard to know when to capitulate, and when to hold on to wait for the rebound. Urban Outfitters (URBN) was selected because it had low debt and seemed well run – until they had a bad earnings report and the stock tanked. We held onto it for over a year after it had lost about a third of its value, and then a lot of their top management resigned. Yet recently it came back and is now above its original purchase price. Other stocks that we waited on until they came back include Comcast (CMSCA) and Ebay (EBAY). On the other hand, we are still waiting for recovery on Canon (CAJ), Riverbed (RVBD), WYNN, Exelon (EXC), and Alcoa (AA). I am bullish EXC in the long term as well as RVBD; I think there is hope for CAJ because they are well run; and watching WYNN and AA.

Faith vs. Experience and the Young

A recent Wall Street Journal titled “The Young and the Riskless” details how “twentysomethings” are not investing in stocks, but instead are putting their savings into less risky investments.  The tag line on the article is:

Twentysomethings are seeking safety from market volatility at precisely the wrong moment in their investing lives.  Here’s how to get back on track.

From the outset I was struck by the author’s presumptuous and scolding tone. I also like their strategic use of the word “volatility” instead of the more appropriate term of “losses” when describing market events over the twentysomething’s financially sentient lifetime, which would be something like the last 10-15 years.

Per the charts in the article

The percentage of young investors who say they’re willing to take above-average or substantial risk has declined from 52% in 1998 to 31% in 2011. 52% of investors in their 20’s who say they will “never feel comfortable in the stock market”. 33% of 20-somethings’ non-401(k) portfolios held in cash, versus 27% for all investors.

It is important to understand how “faith” in the market is typically defined in the popular financial press. Faith usually means putting your money in an index fund (or ETF), with low fees, continuing to do so regardless of market conditions, and relying on the belief that “in the long run” it will all turn out alright and you will be able to retire rich. The “financial calculators” have an assumed rate of return that you receive on your money, similar to the same calculators that public pension funds use, and they are typically “set” between 6% and 10%. Due to the “miracle of compounding returns” you can amass large sums of money in the future.

The problem with this mantra is that NO ONE has been winning with this strategy for a LONG time. What you see, instead, is that money put into the market is often battered immediately by volatility and is worth a fraction of what you put in only months prior. If you change jobs regularly (once every 2-3 years, as younger people often do) and are an avid 401(k) saver (which is recommended), many times when you pull out your money it will be valued far less than what you put in, or about even when the company match is taken into effect (depending on vesting). This can be demoralizing. I know that when I left companies in the late nineties and after the dot-com collapse I started putting more of my money into cash-like investment selections (despite warnings from my employers’ 401(k) educational materials) just because I hated moving balances worth a fraction of what I held back out of my pay when I left to start with a new company.

Also, in order to win “in the long run”, you have to stay with it in the short run. This means that when stocks plummet, you need to stay in the market and keep investing. If you decide to cut your losses and run, or stop putting new money in during market troughs, you don’t get the same benefits when the stocks rise later. This post I wrote basically said that no matter what you did in 2007, it turned out to be a loser, but if you bought during the trough in 2008 (or held throughout) you saw big gains later as the market turned back around (to where it was before). BUT if you didn’t stick with the markets, you didn’t benefit from these gains and ended up as a net loser. It is VERY HARD mentally to keep investing when markets are going down, but if you don’t buy low there is no way you can even conceptually win in the “long run”. If you bail, for sure you are going to fail, assuming you are following the mantra (which is what the WSJ article’s author was lamenting).

Kids see their parents’ struggles. Their parents have been believers in the markets, since the bear markets of the 70’s were replaced by the bull markets of the 80’s and 90’s. If you retired in the 90’s, after years of investing in the doldrums, you not only benefited from high interest rates which appeared to “goose” the compounding effect, but you also essentially did some great “market timing”, buying low and selling high. But the parents of today’s twentysomethings didn’t retire in the early 90’s, they kept working, and watched their investments suffer along. Now the parents’ are in a bind.

Not only did the markets get hit, but there isn’t really an underlying foundation of belief in WHY the market should do so great “in the long term”. In the past you could look at the track record of the US and show how we weathered recessions, panics and depressions, wars whether declared or un-declared, and always came out ahead. But today everything seems to be static or declining; our unemployment rate is high, we have high “real” inflation from commodity price increases (oil, food), and the cost of services like a college education or health care (if you can get insurance at all) is very difficult to bear. In order for the market to rise, the country needs to be productive, well run, and growing – does this seem to be today’s perception of American performance? This lack of an underlying narrative in why markets should rise of the long term (other than it has happened in the past), combined with the miserable ACTUAL performance during the last decade and a half, is killing confidence in the “long run” hypothesis that markets go up.

Another element of caution is that not only did stocks crater (or stay flat), but everything else fell apart too, in defiance of what the typical financial media said would occur. Housing became a miserable investment, rather than the guaranteed path to wealth that was painted in the press. Can’t you remember people saying that renting was “throwing your money away”? I remember having many, many people look at me in a dumbfounded fashion when I told them that I rented for over a decade when I could have easily bought. This thinking has obviously changed radically, despite record low interest rates (high rates would have made the housing problems unimaginably worse, at least in the short and medium term).

If kids travel, they can see how the “US Peso” doesn’t go far overseas. The dollars is worth a fraction of what it used to buy vs. the Euro, the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, or the Japanese Yen. The devaluation of the US dollar is another signal of our relative decline, along with our equity markets and housing markets.

The popular press’ scolding is going to fall on deaf ears until young adults see something out of their own experience that would convince them that stock investing is a winning strategy. The lack of anything except (comparatively) ancient charts of a world before the cell phone and the internet won’t sway them.

It really comes down to faith vs. experience. And among the young, experience is winning.

Generation X Addendum

This wasn’t mentioned in the article but a parallel trend I personally have noticed is that people of my generation (Gen X) are taking charge of their finances in their own way. Those with means tend to personally select stocks and get involved directly in their investing rather than “passively” investing through indexes (although ETF’s are part of their portfolio). While I am in the finance industry, many of my friends and acquaintances are not, but they have grown tired of bad and counter-intuitive advice and are taking matters into their own hands, in a variety of ways. Their particular strategies aren’t important – what is important is that they don’t believe the common wisdom and are taking responsibility for their own investment outcomes. In my opinion this is another manifestation of what the twentysomethings are doing, except by people with more assets to invest in the first place.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz