Thoughts on Portfolio One

These portfolios started out as a long run risk taking vehicle that (hopefully) would grow and show the importance of investing. The average person has a net worth of zero (after you take into account debt on cars and mortgages) and has little cash in the bank. With these stock portfolios at least everyone has some core body of savings that they can use for investing or to purchase key capital goods (an initial house, a wedding ring). Now, for some of the participants, the portfolios have moved away from a long term risk vehicle to more of a generalized investment portfolio that should logically be slanted towards equities and higher risk since the participants are young but also has to take into account the possibility of a correction that could reduce equity values 25% – 50% for some extended period of time (years) like it did in 2008. You do not want to be in a position where you sell at a downturn and don’t stay in the market because you have to liquidate remaining stocks to cover necessary investments.

For some of the participants we needed to move out of individual stocks and into ETF’s because their professions make owning individual stocks more complicated. ETF’s, however, share the same mix of risk and return as underlying stocks and during the transition we’ve also shifted some of the money out of equity ETF’s and into CD’s and gold as a hedge and partial hedge.

Our current goal for portfolio one is to take some level of risk out of the portfolio and replace it with a combination of CD (get a return of about 1.5%), gold (generally holds more during a crash), or cash (if you need it in the next few months). Depending on the short term interest rate the brokerage account gives in the cash fund we may just choose to leave it in cash instead of CD’s.

Portfolio One is worth about $45k. We could take out $15k or so which would leave $30k in stocks. This is still a pretty high percent of stock for the market (about 70% equity).

Continue reading “Thoughts on Portfolio One”

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.

US_stocks

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.
Continue reading “The Liquidation of Markets”

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.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 1.46.45 PM

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

The Long Run

The portfolios that we run on this site coincide with a market that effectively is a “do nothing” market.  We are basically flat over the last 13 years, meaning that there hasn’t been growth in the indexes since 1998.

The money that an index investor would have earned (i.e. if you put $100,000 in the SPY ETF or a mutual fund such as Vanguard’s VFINX) would have come through dividends, which averaged about 2% / year during the period.  Thus every year you received $2,000 in dividends (taxable each year) which means over the 13 year period you made roughly $30,000 (adding in compounding of interest) before taxes or maybe $24,000 after taxes depending on your bracket (and whether or not the 15% dividend received deduction applied during the period).

This is reflected in our results; while valuations fluctuate about 1/2 the total return of portfolio one, our longest lasting portfolio at over 10 years, is due to dividends.  When we look to select stocks a strong (and sustainable) dividend yield is an important, although not the only factor we look for in the “list of six stocks” that we pick from each year.

In the October 24, 2011 issue of Barron’s there is an article titled “It’s Cheaper the Second Time Around” that discusses the fact that indexes have been flat for the last 13 years.

The fact that we are struggling daily to hold above a level first reached nearly 13 years ago is both sobering and, viewed in the proper light, profoundly encouraging for true long-term investors… we are finally returning to a time of ‘stocks for the long run’… anyone who believes in mean-reversion investing has to consider the current starting point for equities at least somewhat attractive…

Jim Paulsen of Wells Capital was kind enough to calculate the 10-year forward return from all points in historry when the market was flat or down over the priod 12 yars.  The result: a 7.2% annual gain, versus 4.7% for all other times, not including dividends.

It is good that this analysis disclaimed the impact of dividends and yet noted that they are important, although if the yield is relatively consistent over time (which isn’t true, since yields go down when stocks go up, and vice versa) the analysis should hold true.

This type of investing approach is also a version of “market timing” – you should buy when items are cheap, and sell when they are expensive.  The most obvious example of this is housing; if you bought in 2007-8 you probably are regretting it right now – that same house probably would cost you a lot less to buy in 2011 then it did back then, for the same exact house.  It isn’t obvious HOW to do market timing, but the effects are real for anyone struggling to pay on an underwater mortgage today.

Like every good investment analogy, there is a counterpoint – Japan.  Japan peaked long ago, in 1989, and still hasn’t recovered to the highs.  In order to be a long-run investor in Japan you apparently have to be very patient, indeed.  Of course at some point investors are entering the market and they don’t care about recovering 1989 highs anyways.

For our portfolios here at the site flat returns mean a few things:

1) we don’t feel so bad at our struggles to raise values since the market has been poised against us

2) we have been right to focus on dividends, since they have been the only reliable source of cash over the period (relative to stock values)

3) while the analysis is more complex many of the overseas indexes weren’t flat over the same time frame; we have been putting up almost 1/2 our picks from overseas companies (US based ADR’s to keep it simple) in that same time frame

4) there is some hope that our patience will be rewarded if values increase in the next decade

Do Your Own Research

If we had a motto here at “Trust funds for kids” I am sure that part of it would be “Do your own research” and another element would be “Don’t believe the so-called experts”. This was put on amazing display recently in a Bloomberg article (really, if you just look to one place for financial information and analysis, it probably should be Bloomberg) titled “Equity Analysts Prove Hazardous to Returns As Contrarian Stocks Rise 165%“. From the article:

Following the advice of equity analysts may be perilous for your profits. Companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index that analysts loved the most rose 73 percent on average since the benchmark for U.S. equity started to recover in March 2009, while those with the fewest “buy” recommendations gained 165 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The equity analysts are “professionals” that rate a stocks’ prospects using a variety of mechanisms, including modeling their financial results into the future to determine if the stock is over or under valued. In the past the analysts had blatant conflicts of interests (i.e. they would recommend that customers purchase a stock in print while they were privately telling other customers via email that it was a piece of sh*t or while selling their own or company’s stake) but this has mostly been fixed; now they are just terrible in their collective recommendations.

Analysts use a scale from “sell” to “hold” to “buy”. If the analysts are generally bullish on a stock and most of them recommend purchasing that stock to investors than this stock is favored. Analysts usually review and recommend stocks that are already moving up.

In a recent post I described the massive run-up in equity values in the US market from the nadir in 2009; if the analysts were going to prove their mettle an excellent time would have been to provide advice when markets were at their (in hindsight) low point.

Instead, from that critical moment, the Bloomberg article proves that the analysts were almost completely WRONG from that point forward. If you BOUGHT the stocks the analysts told you to SELL, then you did well, and if you followed their recommendations and loaded up on those stocks you actually did WORSE than the benchmark.

Remember this as you pay for advice or read through the detailed analyst reports. From the nadir, when the analysts’ advice would have been most valuable, they have been virtually, completely, wrong. It is as if someone predicted the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl at the start of the 2010 season; they could not have been wrong-er.

It is All Market Timing

When I first started in investing one of the cardinal rules (for the general public) was “don’t try to time the market”.  From a practical perspective this meant that you were supposed to continue putting money in the market whether it went up or down and then hold for the long term.

Everyone knew that the market does move in cycles, such as the giant bust at the time of the great depression in the 20’s and the 30’s when stocks crashed, wiping out many investors.  Another classic example is the Japanese stock market which peaked in 1989 at around 39,000 before falling to a low of 7000 in 2009, over 80% below its high (today it is around 10,000).  Even the most cursory review of the chart shows that if you sold at the peak and / or bought at the trough (this hasn’t worked yet in Japan because the market hasn’t moved back up yet) you’d make a tremendous amount of money; but the popular wisdom is that it was “too hard” for an individual investor to determine when to enter and exit the market so don’t try at all.

To some extent “re-balancing” is a form of market timing, because as stocks rise in value if you practice the model you are supposed to sell off some stocks and buy bonds (or whatever else is in your portfolio, could be commodities or real estate) which accomplishes much of what market timing is supposed to do.  Re-balancing is more complex because it involves multiple asset classes which each have their own valuations but you could say that re-balancing is at least a “cousin” of market timing.

While everyone’s situation is different this graph shows Portfolio One, the longest of the portfolios that I run at “Trust Funds for Kids” for my nieces and nephews.   This graph neatly shows the immense power of market timing during the critical period 2007-2010.
Portfolio One History December 2010
In order to understand this graph, you need to know that we invest $1500 / year in each portfolio (I put in $500, the beneficiary puts in $500, and I match $500) so this is a classic “dollar cost averaging” model where we put in money at fixed intervals regardless of the markets’ performance.

In 2007, the market was mostly flat, and we made an investment of $1500 late in Q3 2007, right when the market took a punishing drop.  As you can see the value of this incremental investment was immediately devoured by a drop across all the stocks in the portfolio.  From a high of $14,000 when the investment was made in Q3 2007 (the scale on the right is in dollars) the portfolio skidded to a sickening drop of around $9500 in a matter of months, or a loss of over 30% by early 2008.

Since that nadir in 2008 at $9500 we have invested $3000 more in the portfolio ($1500 in Q3 2009 and $1500 in Q3 2010) so the “base” value ignoring any gains in the interim would be $9500 + $3000 = $12,500.  And now the portfolio is worth over $20,000!  Thus the portfolio gained $20,000 – $12,500 in value or $7500, a gain of 60% (calculated by dividing the gain of $7500 vs. the base of $12,500).

One thing that has been constant during this time is my “strategy”, which consists of picking from a list of (mostly) large capitalization stocks that is split roughly 2/3 US and 1/3 international in this portfolio.  Thus swings weren’t caused by a change in strategy or an improvement in my stock-picking capabilities (a topic of much amusement for Dan) – these changes were solely caused by a move in the aggregate market.

Thus what can I conclude based upon this experience – that market timing is pretty much everything.  ANY STOCK you bought in 2007-8 appeared to be a tremendous LOSER when the market fell out in late 2008-9, and ANY STOCK you bought at the nadir in 2009 is a WINNER today.  I am obviously exaggerating a bit here because some stocks rose or fell based on their own particular circumstance (think BP) but this rule cuts across the vast majority (90%+) of the total stocks in the market, especially if you have a relatively diversified portfolio like Portfolio One.

I’m not telling anyone anything that isn’t obvious to many people, especially professional investors or technical analysts.  There still is a large population of the general public, however, that are starting to wake up to this (they know their stocks got killed all at once and then rose) but in general they don’t know what to do with these hard-won insights.

For the portfolios I run for my nieces and nephews I am not going to a market timing method although I do try to sell off stocks I viewed as over-valued or stocks I think aren’t going anywhere.  Since I re-invest the proceeds into other stocks, however, the portfolios are still just as exposed to the overall market.  There are a lot of reasons for this but the main one is consistency, this model has generally worked and it is understandable to them (you work over the summer and we make regular investments) and these funds are supposed to be a help not their entire source of income and support.

If you did want to “time the market” there are a vast number of tools and indicators that you can use.  Pick up any trading or professional investment journal and there are myriad software applications and methodologies to choose from starting with the classic price / earnings ratio on to super complex methods that are way over my head.  I am not advocating any of this do your own research and your own planning but the performance of this portfolio neatly shows the impact of the overall market and how it generally dwarfs the impact of individual stock selections.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

If They Are Making the Call, I Am Going The Other Way

Carl and I really are chumps in the world of which we speak, which is mostly the stock market.  I heard someone say that the stock market was the bond markets idiot little brother.  I have to agree.  Sometimes the best researched purchases end up being dogs, and dartboard hail marys work out.

Barry Ritholz has a very interesting column today at the Big Picture.  His main thesis is that if someone who has a ton of money (namely Mark Cuban in this example) makes a call that the stock market is going to tank, it is probably for the better that you are on the other side of that trade.  Ritholz freely admits that he is in a large cash position right now, but outright worries about it while wondering aloud wrt the Recency Effect:

I don’t doubt the business acumen of either of these gentlemen; Each is wildly successful in their chosen fields. However, I cannot help but note that neither of their fields involve analyzing the data that goes into determining economic or market collapses. Indeed, it smells more like a case of Recency effect than anything else.

Note that I am not talking my book: We have been mostly cash since May 5th (as much as 100% then, 50% cash in June). We are now over 80% cash, and are looking for a move down towards 950 on the SPX. So what both of these commentators are saying actually matches both our positioning and our perspectives (as well as this AM’s futures).

What I am pointing out is the unusual perspective of two businessmen discussing a crash that is so far outside of their expertise, following a 55% drop from the market top, and a 16% drop from the April highs. Perspectives such as this would be more valuable before, rather than after, a huge crash. (We will revisit this in 6 months).

It reminds me in some small part of the parade of sports figures and celebs on CNBC in late 1999 discussing their equity trades, or the Playboy bunny turned RE Agent in 2005 (also on TV) just as that market peaked. These were all late cycle momentum calls, as opposed to insightful analysis based on new data, fresh perspectives, or creative research.

I doubt this rises to the level of full contrary indicator, but it makes me nervous to be on the same side of the trade of what can be described as “scared” or “dumb” money.

Oddly, I base a lot of my market research on contrarian indicators and it appears Ritholz (who is a baller to be sure, unlike me) does as well.  Most of my contrarian indicators consist of me hearing someone who I think to be a dunce (Paul Kru#man, Mark Cuban, others) and going the opposite way.  Yes, this is simple and is certainly not a recommended way to invest as opposed to thoughtful research, but it works for me.

Market Timing

In the past I, like many general investors, shied away from the concept of market timing. It was viewed as too difficult, and many investors left the markets when stocks went down and then missed the rally on the way up, essentially “buying high and selling low”. Instead, investors were advised to “stay the course” and keep investing, assuming that, over time, the rising markets would reward continuous faith with high returns.

An article in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune showed in a crystal clear fashion that, in fact, market timing is the ONLY issue for stocks, at least nowadays. This article shows stock performance for the top 50 stocks by market capitalization based in the Chicago region.

EVERY SINGLE STOCK is showing positive performance over the last 12 months! What are the odds of that, assuming that the stock market has its ebbs and flows? Very remote. The ONLY issue in the market over the last few years has been timing; everyone lost in late 2008 when the market cratered, and everyone who bought in at the trough made a lot of money. Likely to see this same article in late 2008 virtually 100% of the top 50 firms would be in negative territory over the prior year.

While I can’t say for certain what is driving stock performance UP (now) or DOWN (2008), I can say that virtually the entire market is extremely correlated with this phenomenon, as indicated by the top 50 stocks all being in positive territory.

Recent articles I have seen point to returns as being closely tied to the P/E level; when you buy into a “cheap” P/E market, you do well; when you buy into an “expensive” P/E market, you do poorly. While no one can say for certain what cheap or expensive really means, that broad theory is one that might be crucial to stock investing post 2000. In modern history (the last 30 years) there hasn’t been a long period where stocks traded in such a narrow range (around the Dow 10,000 level); but we need to decide how to weight the last few decades against the entire history of the stock market.

While I am not a professional stock adviser, the fact that 50 out of 50 of the top Chicago stocks (by market capitalization) are all up has to be a signal of some sort.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz and LITGM

Regression to the Mean

A recent Wall Street Journal titled “Rebound of the Losers” from July 6, 2009 described how some specific actively managed mutual funds with large losses recently booked better performance. From the article

Ninety-four diversified U.S.- stock funds that finished 2008 in the bottom 10% of their peers are now performing in the upper 25% of their categories

The article then described their reasons why these specific managers were able to “rebound”. They included:

– purchased shares of better-performing foreign companies (the markets in China and Russia, for example, fell further and later rebounded better as a % than US markets)
– commodity markets improved, so stocks with a commodity footprint like energy benefited
– some managers described their own “guts”

“It’s funny how quickly things can change,” Mr. Soviero says, “but I’m glad I had the level of conviction and stuck with a concentrated strategy.”

– others used terms like “discipline” and said they were looking for companies with a “sustainable advantage”

But the journalist on the article missed the simplest, and most obvious answer –

REGRESSION TO THE MEAN

What this means, in practical terms, is that stocks or sectors that have the largest rise now are likely to fall later, and vice versa. One financial magazine I read had “Chicos”, the clothing store, as the “worst” performer over the last year, and the “best” performer over the prior decade, in back to back pages.

Something to watch for, especially when people describe their recovery in personal terms, rather than ascribing it to typical market “bounce”.

What I’ve Learned About the Stock Market

Anyone who has a retirement fund or personal investments has an interest in the stock market.  I have an additional interest because I am the fiduciary in charge of trust funds and describe at this site.

When the stock market started cratering in 2008, I didn’t take immediate action, for the most part (I was going to say didn’t do anything “rash” like sell off, but in hindsight of course probably that would have been under the category of “smart”).  I did sell off financials (owned ICICI, an Indian bank, and GE, which is essentially a giant financial conglomerate with a few businesses stuck in there) immediately, and although my exposure to that sector was limited in those funds, those stocks had not done well.

Now I am trying to re-visit the stock market and do some research to consider what to do next.  I am starting out with what I’ve learned from this debacle.  As always, do your own research, this is just my 2 cents based on my experience and body of knowledge.

1.  Watch the level of debt, and the timing of debt – for many years there was an absence of a risk premium, which meant that newly emerging (risky) companies could raise debt very cheaply, such as only a couple of points above the treasury rate.  Today, it is unlikely that these types of companies can raise any money AT ALL, and if they did it would be at a rate perhaps 10 percentage points above Treasuries (i.e. if Treasuries are at 4%, they would pay 14% for financing).  Companies are moving into bankruptcy rather than try to refinance at these rates – companies like Charter Communications, for example.  Even if bankruptcy is avoided (or deferred) the company would have to be highly profitable to earn enough to cover that level of interest payments – and most companies can’t profit when their cost of capital is that high.  I won’t even comment on the 33-1 leverage used by investment banks because we all know how that turned out

2. Guessing the actions of the US Government is important – during the cold war, “Kremlinologists” attempted to divine what was occurring at the top levels of the Soviet government, since it had a direct bearing on our policies.  For example, the Feds let Lehman die and saved AIG, although in both cases their equity value evaporated to the point that a 100% equity loss and a 98% equity loss were a toss-up either way.  The subtle way in which by saving AIG they benefited Goldman Sachs (since AIG was a major counter-party to Goldman Sachs) would be something worth understanding, for example.  The Feds also didn’t bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac preferred shares, which caused whole ranks of smaller institutions to fail.  In general, if you are investing in an industry that looks likely to need government help, you should get out now, because whether or not you have a few equity crumbs or go to zero is a Hobson’s choice you don’t want to face

3. Correlation between asset classes is higher than you expect – Basically unless you were 100% in gold or treasuries you were likely hurt badly in this market.  Foreign stocks, US stocks, many debt instruments, preferred stocks, real estates and most commodities (excluding gold) all dived together.  One of the “core” beliefs of “modern portfolio theory” is that if you spread your investments across classes with lower correlation to one another, you will do better over time.  Modern portfolio theory basically didn’t save anyone in the time frame we are talking about here

4. Liquidity can evaporate, and if you depend on liquid markets, you are in trouble – Not only did the risk premium (see #1 above) go up quickly, liquidity in the market evaporated, meaning that if you counted on liquid markets, you were in big trouble.  Illiquid markets mean that you can’t “roll over” debt and if you do have to sell, you will receive a distressed price for those assets (a big loss, in real terms).  One of the first items to fail were the “auctions” in the municipal area which were a sign of bad tidings to come

5. Real estate is no bulwark – For individuals, there was often an assumption that real estate is a “safe” investment, but real estate values have proven to be anything but.  Real estate losses for individuals were semi-spared because the government has set a very low rate for mortgages and nationalized Fannie and Freddie – without that floor mortgages would be illiquid and subject to #1 and #4 below.  Now, however, the mortgage market is basically subject to government fiat – see #2 above.  If the government decides that condominiums are too risky and pulls back on guaranteeing mortgages on half built condominiums, those investments will fail.  For real estate companies that specialize in building new homes, those stocks are basically dead, since demand won’t catch up with supply for years.  The government is definitely working to prop up the home market, with tax incentives for the new buyer (and likely no more talk about not making home interest deductible)

6. Complexity is dangerous – Another early warning sign was the fact that Citicorp and others had to bring in “off balance sheet” entities onto their balance sheet when liquidity failed (see #4 above).  Those companies were incredibly complex, and their financial statements were incomprehensible even to me, a financial professional.  These counter-parties, off balance sheet entities, and WAY too much leverage made a toxic stew.  In general, companies that have a very complex “story” will likely have a harder road to travel when trying to show their value to the equity community, since people have been burned by what they don’t understand

7. Dividends provide little shelter – over time a significant portion of the total “return” from stocks is driven by dividends paid to stockholders.  Many companies paid dividends at a steadily growing rate for decades, and constantly re-emphasized the importance of dividends to their strategy (giving investors confidence that these dividends would continue in the future).  However, virtually everyone gave up on their dividends, from the financial companies that are sliding to the edge of oblivion to GE (who really is a financial company anyways) to many other industrial companies.  There are exceptions to the rule (companies that are not facing dire straits) but the fact is that strong companies can pay dividends and weak companies cannot, so betting on a dividend independent of the underlying financial structure is a fools errand.  The dividend is nice to have (and starting from a solid one is better), but counting on it in the future has proved to be devastating

8. For the most part, no one (who talks) knows anything – yes you can point to the occasional seer who cried doom and certainly many, many smart and rich (and tight lipped people) made tons of money shorting the entire market all the way down, but for the most part the conventional wisdom was completely and utterly wrong.  There are people or firms that understand the market well and can profit in down times, but you aren’t getting their thoughts from Jim Cramer on CNBC or in the WSJ or Barron’s or anywhere else, much less the popular magazines like Time, Money or your local paper columnist.  Look at how their stock ratings performed, and generally it was terrible.  A lot of this is institutional bias because those magazines and paper can’t just tell you to short everything and get out of the market because those same companies buy advertising and those sorts of negative messages frankly sound un-American when explained out loud.

9. Timing IS important, as is re-investment risk – I resisted timing in favor of “buy and hold” for years but then I moved into selling stocks when I thought that they had peaked on the upside, or they had huge down side risk (financials).  Buy and hold really hasn’t done anything for anyone in the last decade or so except rack up huge losses.  That doesn’t mean that I have a better strategy, but it is a fact that the central issue is timing.  Tied to timing is re-investment risk – which basically hits you in that even though you sell at a gain, you have to re-invest in something else that has increased in price (due to strong correlation) and you don’t mitigate your risk that much by selling one overvalued stock for a gain and trading it for a new one.

10. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is – I am not a seer but I think that all these people piling into municipal bonds for the tax benefits and historically low default rates are in for a rude awakening when bad things start happening to the states.  I know that there are many ways to bail out a state including the Federal government but it just seems like the municipal financing is going to fall apart and I don’t want to be holding the bag.  This applies to “free lunches” everywhere…

Now with all these “lessons”, what is a forward looking investor to do?  The stock prices are down, and this could be an historic time to “buy in” to the market, rather than sitting on the sidelines licking your wounds.  I am trying to figure that one out now, but thought it made sense to take stock of what, if anything, I learned so far.

Cross posted at LITGM and Chicago Boyz