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The COVID19 Tripwire

“You better tuck that in. You’re gonna’ get that caught on a tripwire.Lieutenant Dan, Forrest Gump

There is a popular game called Jenga in which a tower of rectangular blocks is arranged to form a sturdy tower. The objective of the game is to take turns removing blocks without causing the tower to fall. At first, the task is as easy as the structure is stable. However, as more blocks are removed, the structure weakens. At some point, a key block is pulled, and the tower collapses. Yes, the collapse is a direct cause of the last block being removed, but piece by piece the structure became increasingly unstable. The last block was the catalyst, but the turns played leading up to that point had just as much to do with the collapse. It was bound to happen; the only question was, which block would cause the tower to give way?

A Coronavirus

Pneumonia of unknown cause first detected in Wuhan, China, was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019. The risks of it becoming a global pandemic (formally labeled COVID-19) was apparent by late January. Unfortunately, it went mostly unnoticed in the United States as China was slow to disclose the matter and many Americans were distracted by impeachment proceedings, bullish equity markets, and other geopolitical disruptions.

The S&P 500 peaked on February 19, 2020, at 3393, up over 5% in the first two months of the year. Over the following four weeks, the stock market dropped 30% in one of the most vicious corrections of broad asset prices ever seen. The collapse erased all of the gains achieved during the prior 3+ years of the Trump administration. The economy likely entered a recession in March.

There will be much discussion and debate in the coming months and years about the dynamics of this stunning period. There is one point that must be made clear so that history can properly record it; the COVID-19 virus did not cause the stock and bond market carnage we have seen so far and are likely to see in the coming months. The virus was the passive triggering mechanism, the tripwire, for an economy full of a decade of monetary policy-induced misallocations and excesses leaving assets priced well beyond perfection.

Never-Ending Gains

It is safe to say that the record-long economic expansion, to which no one saw an end, ended in February 2020 at 128 months. To suggest otherwise is preposterous given what we know about national economic shutdowns and the early look at record Initial Jobless Claims that surpassed three million. Between the trough in the S&P 500 from the financial crisis in March 2009 and the recent February peak, 3,999 days passed. The 10-year rally scored a total holding-period return of 528% and annualized returns of 18.3%. Although the longest expansion on record, those may be the most remarkable risk-adjusted performance numbers considering it was also the weakest U.S. economic expansion on record, as shown below.

They say “being early is wrong,” but the 30-day destruction of valuations erasing over three years of gains, argues that you could have been conservative for the past three years, kept a large allocation in cash, and are now sitting on small losses and a pile of opportunity with the market down 30%.

As we have documented time and again, the market for financial assets was a walking dead man, especially heading into 2020. Total corporate profits were stagnant for the last six years, and the optics of magnified earnings-per-share growth, thanks to trillions in share buybacks, provided the lipstick on the pig.

Passive investors indiscriminately and in most cases, unknowingly, bought $1.5 trillion in over-valued stocks and bonds, helping further push the market to irrational levels. Even Goldman Sachs’ assessment of equity market valuations at the end of 2019, showed all of their valuation measures resting in the 90-99th percentile of historical levels.

Blind Bond Markets

The fixed income markets were also swarming with indiscriminate buyers. The corporate bond market was remarkably overvalued with tight spreads and low yields that in no way offered an appropriate return for the risk being incurred. Investment-grade bonds held the highest concentration of BBB credit in history, most of which did not qualify for that rating by the rating agencies’ own guidelines. The junk bond sector was full of companies that did not produce profits, many of whom were zombies by definition, meaning the company did not generate enough operating income to cover their debt servicing costs. The same held for leveraged loans and collateralized loan obligations with low to no covenants imposed. And yet, investors showed up to feed at the trough. After all, one must reach for extra yield even if it means forgoing all discipline and prudence.

To say that no lessons were learned from 2008 is an understatement.

Black Swan

Meanwhile, as the markets priced to ridiculous valuations, corporate executives and financial advisors got paid handsomely, encouraging shareholders and clients to throw caution to the wind and chase the market ever higher. Thanks also to imprudent monetary policies aimed explicitly at propping up indefensible valuations, the market was at risk due to any disruption.

What happened, however, was not a slow leaking of the market as occurred leading into the 2008 crisis, but a doozy of a gut punch in the form of a pandemic. Markets do not correct by 30% in 30 days unless they are extremely overvalued, no matter the cause. We admire the optimism of formerly super-intelligent bulls who bought every dip on the way down. Ask your advisor not just to tell you how he is personally invested at this time, ask him to show you. You may find them to be far more conservative in their investment posture than what they recommend for clients. Why? Because they get paid on your imprudently aggressive posture, and they do not typically “eat their own cooking”. The advisor gets paid more to have you chasing returns as opposed to avoiding large losses.

Summary

We are facing a new world order of DE-globalization. Supply chains will be fractured and re-oriented. Products will cost more as a result. Inflation will rise. Interest rates, therefore, also will increase contingent upon Fed intervention. We have become accustomed to accessing many cheap foreign-made goods, the price for which will now be altered higher or altogether beyond our reach. For most people, these events and outcomes remain inconceivable. The widespread expectation is that at some point in the not too distant future, we will return to the relative stability and tranquility of 2019. That assuredly will not be the case.

Society as a whole does not yet grasp what this will mean, but as we are fond of saying, “you cannot predict, but you can prepare.” That said, we need to be good neighbors and good stewards and alert one another to the rapid changes taking place in our communities, states, and nation. Neither investors nor Americans, in general, can afford to be intellectually lazy.

The COVID-19 virus triggered these changes, and they will have an enormous and lasting impact on our lives much as 9-11 did. Over time, as we experience these changes, our brains will think differently, and our decision-making will change. Given a world where resources are scarce and our proclivity to – since it is made in China and “cheap” – be wasteful, this will probably be a good change. Instead of scoffing at the frugality of our grandparents, we just might begin to see their wisdom. As a nation, we may start to understand what it means to “save for a rainy day.”

Save, remember that forgotten word.

As those things transpire – maybe slowly, maybe rapidly – people will also begin to see the folly in the expedience of monetary and fiscal policy of the past 40 years. Expedience such as the Greenspan Put, quantitative easing, and expanding deficits with an economy at full employment. Doing “what works” in the short term often times conflicts with doing what is best for the most people over the long term.

Why QE Is Not Working

The process by which money is created is so simple that the mind is repelled.” – JK Galbraith

By formally announcing quantitative easing (QE) infinity on March 23, 2020, the Federal Reserve (Fed) is using its entire arsenal of monetary stimulus. Unlimited purchases of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities for an indefinite period is far more dramatic than anything they did in 2008. The Fed also revived other financial crisis programs like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) and created a new special purpose vehicle (SPV), allowing them to buy investment-grade corporate bonds and related ETF’s. The purpose of these unprecedented actions is to unfreeze the credit markets, stem financial market losses, and provide some ballast to the economy.

Most investors seem unable to grasp why the Fed’s actions have been, thus far, ineffective. In this article, we explain why today is different from the past. The Fed’s current predicament is unique as they have never been totally up against the wall of zero-bound interest rates heading into a crisis. Their remaining tools become more controversial and more limited with the Fed Funds rate at zero. Our objective is to assess when the monetary medicine might begin to work and share our thoughts about what is currently impeding it.

All Money is Lent in Existence.

That sentence may be the most crucial concept to understand if you are to make sense of the Fed’s actions and assess their effectiveness.

Under the traditional fractional reserve banking system run by the U.S. and most other countries, money is “created” via loans. Here is a simple example:

  • John deposits a thousand dollars into his bank
  • The bank is allowed to lend 90% of their deposits (keeping 10% in “reserves”)
  • Anne borrows $900 from the same bank and buys a widget from Tommy
  • Tommy then deposits $900 into his checking account at the same bank
  • The bank then lends to someone who needs $810 and they spend that money, etc…

After Tommy’s deposit, there is still only $1,000 of reserves in the banking system, but the two depositors believe they have a total of $1,900 in their bank accounts.  The bank’s accountants would confirm that. To make the bank’s accounting balance, Anne owes the bank $900. The money supply, in this case, is $1,900 despite the amount of real money only being $1,000.

That process continually feeds off the original $1,000 deposit with more loans and more deposits. Taken to its logical conclusion, it eventually creates $9,000 in “new” money through the process from the original $1,000 deposit.

To summarize, we have $1,000 in deposited funds, $10,000 in various bank accounts and $9,000 in new debt. While it may seem “repulsive” and risky, this system is the standard operating procedure for banks and a very effective and powerful tool for generating profits and supporting economic growth. However, if everyone wanted to take their money out at the same time, the bank would not have it to give. They only have the original $1,000 of reserves.

How The Fed Operates

Manipulating the money supply through QE and Fed Funds targeting are the primary tools the Fed uses to conduct monetary policy. As an aside, QE is arguably a controversial blend of monetary and fiscal policy.

When the Fed provides banks with reserves, their intent is to increase the amount of debt and therefore the money supply. As such, more money should result in lower interest rates. Conversely, when they take away reserves, the money supply should decline and interest rates rise. It is important to understand, the Fed does not set the Fed Funds rate by decree, but rather by the aforementioned monetary actions to incentivize banks to increase or reduce the money supply.

The following graph compares the amount of domestic debt outstanding versus the monetary base.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Why is QE not working?

So with an understanding of how money is created through fractional reserve banking and the role the Fed plays in manipulating the money supply, let’s explore why QE helped boost asset prices in the past but is not yet potent this time around.

In our simple banking example, if Anne defaults on her loan, the money supply would decline from $1,900 to $1,000. With a reduced money supply, interest rates would rise as the supply of money is more limited today than yesterday. In this isolated example, the Fed might purchase bonds and, in doing so, conjure reserves onto bank balance sheets through the magic of the digital printing press. Typically the banks would then create money and offset the amount of Anne’s default.  The problem the Fed has today is that Anne is defaulting on some of her debt and, at the same time, John and Tommy need and want to withdraw some of their money.

The money supply is declining due to defaults and falling asset prices, and at the same time, there is a greater demand for cash. This is not just a domestic issue, but a global one, as the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

For the Fed to effectively stimulate financial markets and the economy, they first have to replace the money which has been destroyed due to defaults and lower asset prices. Think of this as a hole the Fed is trying to fill. Until the hole is filled, the new money will not be effective in stimulating the broad economy, but instead will only help limit the erosion of the financial system and yes, it is a stealth form of bailout. Again, from our example, if the banks created new money, it would only replace Anne’s default and would not be stimulative.

During the latter part of QE 1, when mortgage defaults slowed, and for all of the QE 2 and QE 3 periods, the Fed was not “filling a hole.” You can think of their actions as piling dirt on top of a filled hole.

These monetary operations enabled banks to create more money, of which a good amount went mainly towards speculative means and resulted in inflated financial asset prices. It certainly could have been lent toward productive endeavors, but banks have been conservative and much more heavily regulated since the crisis and prefer the liquid collateral supplied with market-oriented loans.

QE 4 (Treasury bills) and the new repo facilities introduced in the fall of 2019 also stimulated speculative investing as the Fed once again piled up dirt on top of a filled hold.  The situation changed drastically on February 19, 2020, as the virus started impacting perspectives around supply chains, economic growth, and unemployment in the global economy. Now QE 4, Fed-sponsored Repo, QE infinity, and a smorgasbord of other Fed programs are required measures to fill the hole.

However, there is one critical caveat to the situation.

As stated earlier, the Fed conducts policy by incentivizing the banking system to alter the supply of money. If the banks are concerned with their financial situation or that of others, they will be reluctant to lend and therefore impede the Fed’s efforts. This is clearly occurring, making the hole progressively more challenging to fill. The same thing happened in 2008 as banks became increasingly suspect in terms of potential losses due to their exorbitant leverage. That problem was solved by changing the rules around how banks were required to report mark-to-market losses by the Federal Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Despite the multitude of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus failures over the previous 18 months, that simple re-writing of an accounting rule caused the market to turn on a dime in March 2009. The hole was suddenly over-filled by what amounted to an accounting gimmick.

Summary

Are Fed actions making headway on filling the hole, or is the hole growing faster than the Fed can shovel as a result of a tsunami of liquidity problems? A declining dollar and stability in the short-term credit markets are essential gauges to assess the Fed’s progress.

The Fed will eventually fill the hole, and if the past is repeated, they will heap a lot of extra dirt on top of the hole and leave it there for a long time. The problem with that excess dirt is the consequences of excessive monetary policy. Those same excesses created after the financial crisis led to an unstable financial situation with which we are now dealing.

While we must stay heavily focused on the here and now, we must also consider the future consequences of their actions. We will undoubtedly share more on this in upcoming articles.

Quick Take: The Dollar Problem

Over the last two weeks, the U.S. dollar index has risen by 6%. That may not seem like much to investors who are watching stocks rise and fall by that amount, and even more daily or bond yields falling in half and then doubling, but trust us; it is.

The dollar is unlike any other asset because it is the world’s reserve currency. When a Canadian tire company buys rubber from a Philippine rubber company, the payment occurs in U.S. dollars. Both countries have their own currencies, but neither currency has the liquidity, deep credit markets, and quite frankly, the world’s largest economy and military power backing it.

Because so many foreign countries and companies transact with dollars, they need to borrow in dollars, despite the fact their revenue is often not in dollars. This creates a mismatch between revenues and expenses as currency values fluctuate. If the mismatch is not hedged, as is frequently the case, foreign borrowers of U.S. dollars are subject to higher borrowing costs if the dollar rises versus their local currency. Simply the local currency depreciates versus the dollar; therefore, they need more of the local currency to make good on their debt. Because of this construct, a stronger dollar is effectively a tightening of financial conditions on the rest of the world.

This is what is occurring today as the virus is severely impacting the global economy. Revenues are deteriorating and the cost of dollar-denominated foreign debt is rising rapidly. As borrowers scramble to raise more dollars to meet their obligations, the situation worsens as the demand for dollars forces the dollar higher. In layman’s terms, there is a global run on the dollar and, in circular fashion, the run is pushing the dollar higher. Either the global economy will break or the dollar. Right now it seems that despite massive liquidity from the Fed the dollar does not want to back down.  

 

 

 

How Far Can Stocks Fall?

The question repeatedly asked of us last week is how much more can the stock market fall? We don’t have a crystal ball and we cannot predict the future but we can take steps to prepare for it.  Our analysis and understanding of history allow us to use many different fundamental and technical models to create a broad range of possible answers to the question. With that range of potential outcomes we adjust our risk tolerance as appropriate.

For example, in our daily series of RIA Pro charts and the weekly Newsletter, we lay out key technical, sentiment, and momentum measures for many markets, sectors, and stocks. In doing so, we provide a range of potential shorter-term outcomes. We also depend on feedback from other reliable independent services such as Brett Freeze at Global Technical Analysis. His work is exclusively and routinely featured every month in Cartography Corner on RIA Pro.

In this article, we move beyond technical analysis and share a simple fundamental valuation analysis to help provide more guidance as to where the market may trade in the coming months and even years. This analysis can be viewed as bullish or bearish. Our goal is not to persuade you towards one direction or the other, but to open your eyes to the wide range of possibilities.

CAPE

The data employed in this analysis is as of the market close on March 13, 2020.

Shiller’s Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE 10) is one of our preferred valuation measures. Robert Shiller developed the CAPE 10 model to help investors assess valuations based on dependable, longer-term earnings trends. The most common CAPE analysis uses ten years of earnings data. The period is not too sensitive to transitory gyrations in earnings and it frequently includes a full economic cycle.

As shown below, monthly readings of CAPE fluctuate around the historical average (dotted line). The variance of valuations around the mean is put into further context with the right side y-axis, which shows how many sigma’s (standard deviations) each reading is from the average. The current CAPE of 25.36, or +1.10 sigma’s from the mean.

Data Courtesy Robert Shiller

The average CAPE over the 120+ years is 17.06, the maximum was 44.20, and the minimum was 4.78.   

If we use more recent data, say from 1980 to current, the average CAPE is 22.29. Due to the higher average over the period, which includes the late 90s dot com bubble and the housing bubble, the current reading is only .36 sigma’s above its average.

The following tables, using both time frames, provide price guidance based on where the S&P 500 would need to be if CAPE were to move to its average, maximum, and minimum, as well as plus or minus one sigma from the mean.

The graph below shows the S&P 500 price in relation to that which would occur if the CAPE ratio went to its average, maximum, minimum, and plus or minus one sigma from the last 120 years.

It is important to stress that the denominator, earnings, includes data from March 2010 to February 2020. That ten years did not include a recession, which, over the 120+ years in this analysis, only happened briefly one other time, the late 1990’s.

The Corona Virus will no doubt hurt earnings for at least a few quarters and could push the economy into a recession. Accordingly, the denominator in CAPE will likely be declining. Whether or not CAPE rises for falls depends on the price action of the index.

Summary

Stocks are not cheap. As shown, a reversion to the average of the last 120 years, would result in an additional 33% decline from current levels. While the massive range of outcomes may appear daunting, this analysis is designed to help better understand the bounds of the market.

The S&P 500 certainly has room to trade much lower. It can also double in price and stay within the bounds of history. Lastly, given the unprecedented nature of current circumstances, it may be different this time and write new history.   

 

Our Triple-C Rated Economy: Complacency, Contradictions, and Corona

“I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand

Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand

Life is good today, life is good today” – Toes, Zac Brown Band

The economic and social instabilities in the U.S. are numerous and growing despite the fact that many of these factors have been in place and observable for years.   

  • Overvaluation of equity markets
  • Weak GDP Growth
  • High Debt to GDP levels
  • BBB Corporate Debt at Record Levels
  • High Leverage and Margin Debt
  • Weak Productivity
  • Growing Fiscal Deficits
  • Geopolitical uncertainty
  • Acute Domestic Political Divisiveness
  • Rising Populism
  • Trade Wars
  • Corona Virus

As we know, this list could be extended for pages, however, the one thing that will never show up on this list is…? 

Inflation.

Inflation

As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), inflation has been running above 2% for the better part of the last few years. Despite CPI being greater than their 2% target, the Federal Reserve (Fed) has been wringing their hands about the lack of inflation. They insist that inflation, as currently measured, is too low. We must disclaim, this all assumes we should have confidence in these measurements.

At his January 29, 2020 press conference, Chairman Powell stated:

“…inflation that runs persistently below our objective can lead longer-term inflation expectations to drift down, pulling actual inflation even lower. In turn, interest rates would be lower, as well, closer to their effective lower bound.

As a result, we would have less room to reduce interest rates to support the economy in a future downturn to the detriment of American families and businesses. We have seen this dynamic play out in other economies around the world and we’re determined to avoid it here in the United States.”

Contradictions

There are a couple of inconsistencies in Powell’s comments from the most recent January 2020 post-FOMC press conference. These are issues we have become increasingly interested in exploring because of the seeming incoherence of Fed policy. Further, as investors, high valuations and PE multiple expansion appear predicated upon “favorable” monetary policy. If investors are to rely on the Fed, they would be well-advised to understand them and properly judge their coherence.

 As discussed in Jerome Powell & the Fed’s Great Betrayal, Powell states that the supply of money that the Fed provides to the system is to be based on the demand for money – not the economic growth rate. That is a major departure from orthodox monetary policy. If investors had been paying attention, the bond market should have melted down on that one sentence. It did not because the market pays attention to the current implications for the Fed’s actions, not the future shock of such a policy. It is a myopic curse that someday could prove costly to investors.

As for Powell’s quote above, the first inconsistency is that the circumstances they have seen “play out in other countries” have not shown itself in the U.S. To front-run something that has not occurred assumes you are correct to anticipate it occurring in the future. It is pure speculation and quite a leap even for those smart PhDs at the Fed.

“Overall, the U.S. economy appears likely to expand at a moderate pace over the second half of 2007, with growth then strengthening a bit in 2008 to a rate close to the economy’s underlying trend.”  – Ben Bernanke, Testimony to Senate Banking Committee, July 2007

Although we have not actually seen this “dynamic” play out in the U.S. since the great depression, Fed officials are so concerned about deflation that they have begun telegraphing their intent to allow inflation to overshoot their 2% target. Based on current Fed guidance, periods of lesser inflation would be offset by periods of higher inflation.

Our question is, how do they come to that conclusion and based on what analytical rigor and evidence? There is, by the way, evidence from other countries throughout the history of humanity, that when money is printed to accommodate the spending incontinence of politicians, people lose confidence in the domestic currency. That would be devastatingly inflationary, and it is, without question of measurements, where we are headed.

The next inconsistency is that the Fed’s protracted engagement in quantitative easing (QE) over the past ten years has created precisely the circumstances about which Powell warns here – “less room to reduce interest rates… to the detriment of American families and businesses.”

The Chairman of the U.S. Fed, Jerome Powell, should understand how supply and demand works, but as a reminder, the less available something is, everything else constant, the more it is worth. Mr. Chairman, your predecessors removed $3.5 trillion of bonds from the market, what did you think would happen to bond prices and therefore yields?

Powell stumbled head-first into that self-contradiction, especially after watching the fantastic failure to normalize rates through rate hikes and quantitative tightening (QT) earlier in 2019, which caused him to perform a hasty 180-degree policy reversal in the fall of 2019.

We think this is a workable plan, and it will, as one of my colleagues, President Harker, described it, it will be like watching paint dry, that this will just be something that runs quietly in the background. – Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chairman, June 14, 2017, FOMC Press Conference

Contrary to the reassurances of Janet Yellen and many other Fed members, it (QT) was a lot more exciting than watching paint dry. That too is troubling.

Wise Owl

In a recent interview on RealVision TV, James Grant, publisher of Grants Interest Rate Observer said:

“Is inflation a thing of the past?… are forces in place today that could reproduce [the great inflation of the 1970s? Inflation by definition, represents a loss of confidence in money. How do you lose confidence in money? Well, you create too much of it to subsidize the spending habits of the politicians. That’s one possible cause and are we on the way to something like that? Well, possibly. In this splendid economy, we’re generating a trillion-dollar budget deficit.”

Grant continues:

“Then two, there is the physical structure of the economy. We live in a world of expedited delivery of just in time rather than just in case. We live in a world of ubiquitous information about supply chains, but maybe if push comes to shove in the world of geopolitics, the supply chains might break. Lo and behold, we might be on our own in America for things we now import, and if we are, those prices would not be so low, they would be much higher.”

Again, pointing back to our recent article referenced above, Jerome Powell & the Fed’s Great Betrayal, there are other indicators of inflation that contradict what the Fed believes. In that article, we discussed real-world examples such as M2 growth, and auto and housing prices, to contrast with the BLS and Fed engineered metrics. Despite a plethora of readily available data to the contrary, we are continually reminded by the Fed of the absence of inflation.

As we know, the Fed just began another round of radical policy accommodation to incite higher inflation. If you pre-suppose a confluence of circumstances that begins to constrict global supply chains, then the inflation Grant theorizes might not be so far-fetched. The Fed, as has historically been the case, would be caught looking the wrong way, and given their proclivity toward wanting more inflation, it would almost certainly be too late to respond.

“Moreover, the agencies have made clear that no bank is too-big-too-fail, so that bank management, shareholders, and un-insured debt holders understand that they will not escape the consequences of excessive risk-taking. In short, although vigilance is necessary, I believe the systemic risk inherent in the banking system is well-managed and well-controlled.” – Benjamin S. Bernanke Fed Chairman confirmation hearing November 15, 2005

“Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.” – Senator Jim Bunning at Bernanke second confirmation hearing December 3, 2009

In the same way, there were recorded levels of laughter in FOMC meetings at the absurd incentives homebuilders were offering to sell houses in 2004, 2005, and 2006. The Fed is now equally blind, neglect, and arrogant concerning the perceived absence of inflation. The laughter in the Eccles Building boardroom stopped abruptly in mid-2007 as the housing market stalled. The Coronavirus may be a similar wake-up call with serious economic consequences.

Here and Now

The situation that is developing illustrates the one-dimensional nature of Fed thinking. Despite having the latest news on the spread of the Corona Virus at the January 29, 2020 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the Fed’s concern was for a slowdown in global growth and failed attempts to prime inflation. There was no consideration for possible second and third-order effects of the virus.

What are the possible second and third-order effects? They are the things that follow after the obvious occurs. In this case, there is no question that China’s growth is going to be hurt by the virus and quarantines, the restrictions on flight and travel, and factory shutdowns. That is obvious.

Consider the virus is now spreading rapidly to other suppliers of U.S. goods and services such as Korea, Japan, and Italy. What might not be obvious is that the growing problem will impede global commerce and cause fractures in the extensive and complex network of global supply chains. Goods and services we are accustomed to finding on the shelves of the local Wal-Mart or via the internet may not be available to us, or if they are, they may come at a cost well above the price we paid before the pandemic. If that occurs, those changes in prices will eventually find their way to the BLS inflation data collectors, and then, as the old saying goes, all bets are off.

Summary

There are plenty of uncertainties in the world. Individuals have the decision-making ability to evaluate those uncertainties and the risks they pose. That said, it is difficult to remember a time when the potential turbulence we face has been so broadly ignored by the “market” and so overlooked by the Fed and politicians. It is as though we have been tranquilized by the ever-rising stock market and net worth as an artifact of that fallacious indicator of security.

By all appearances, stock index levels convey not a worry in the world. Indeed, life is good today. We are just not so sure about tomorrow.

Digging For Value in a Pile of Manure

A special thank you to Brett Freeze of Global Technical Analysis for his analytical rigor and technical expertise.

There is an old story about a little boy who was such an extreme optimist that his worried parents took him to a psychiatrist. The doctor decided to try to temper the young boy’s optimism by ushering him into a room full of horse manure. Promptly the boy waded enthusiastically into the middle of the room saying, “I know there’s a pony in here somewhere!”

Such as it is with markets these days.

Finding Opportunity

These days, we often hear that the financial markets are caught up in the “Everything Bubble.” Stocks are overvalued, trillions in sovereign debt trade with negative interest rates, corporate credit, both investment grade, and high yield seem to trade with far more risk than return, and so on. However, as investors, we must ask, can we dig through this muck and find the pony in the room.

To frame this discussion, it is worth considering the contrast in risk between several credit market categories. According to the Bloomberg-Barclays Aggregate Investment Grade Corporate Index, yields at the end of January 2020 were hovering around 2.55% and in a range between 2.10% for double-A (AA) credits and 2.85% for triple-B (BBB) credits. That means the yield “pick-up” to move down in credit from AA to BBB is only worth 0.75%. If you shifted $1 million out of AA and into BBB, you should anticipate receiving an extra $7,500 per year as compensation for taking on significantly more risk. Gaining only 0.75% seems paltry compared to historical spreads, but in a world of microscopic yields, investors are desperate for income and willing to forego risk management and sound judgment.

As if the poor risk premium to own BBB over AA is not enough, one must also consider there is an unusually high concentration of BBB bonds currently outstanding as a percentage of the total amount of bonds in the investment-grade universe. The graph below from our article, The Corporate Maginot Line, shows how BBB bonds have become a larger part of the corporate bond universe versus all other credit tiers.

In that article, we discussed and highlighted how more bonds than ever in the history of corporate credit markets rest one step away from losing their investment-grade credit status.

Furthermore, as shared in the article and shown below, there is evidence that many of those companies are not even worthy of the BBB rating, having debt ratios that are incompatible with investment-grade categories. That too is troubling.

A second and often overlooked factor in evaluating risk is the price risk embedded in these bonds. In the fixed income markets, interest rate risk is typically assessed with a calculation called duration. Similar to beta in stocks, duration allows an investor to estimate how a change in interest rates will affect the price of the bond. Simply, if interest rates were to rise by 100 basis points (1.00%), duration allows us to quantify the effect on the price of a bond. How much money would be lost? That, after all, is what defines risk.

Currently, duration risk in the corporate credit market is higher than at any time in at least the last 30 years. At a duration of 8.05 years on average for the investment-grade bond market, an interest rate increase of 1.00% would coincide with the price of a bond with a duration of 8.05 to fall by 8.05%. In that case a par priced bond (price of 100) would drop to 91.95.

Yield Per Unit of Duration

Those two metrics, yield and duration, bring us to an important measure of value and a tool to compare different fixed income securities and classes. Combining the two measures and calculating yield per unit of duration, offers unique insight. Specifically, the calculation measures how much yield an investor receives (return) relative to the amount of duration (risk). This ratio is similar to the Sharpe Ratio for stocks but forward-looking, not backward-looking.

In the case of the aggregate investment-grade corporate bond market as described above, dividing 2.55% yield by the 8.05 duration produces a ratio of 0.317. Put another way, an investor is receiving 31.7 basis points of yield for each unit of duration risk. That is pretty skinny.

After all that digging, it may seem as though there may not be a pony in the corporate bond market. What we have determined is that investors appear to be indiscriminately plowing money into the corporate credit market without giving much thought to the minimal returns and heightened risk. As we have described on several other occasions, this is yet another symptom of the passive investing phenomenon.

Our Pony

If we compare the corporate yield per unit of duration metric to the same metric for mortgage-backed securities (MBS) we very well may have found our pony. The table below offers a comparison of yield per unit of duration ratios as of the end of January:

Clearly, the poorest risk-reward categories are in the corporate bond sectors with very low ratios. As shown, the ratios currently sit at nearly two standard deviations rich to the average. Conversely, the MBS sector has a ratio of 0.863, which is nearly three times that of the corporate sectors and is almost 1.5 standard deviations above the average for the mortgage sector.

The chart below puts further context to the MBS yield per unit of duration ratio to the investment-grade corporate sector. As shown, MBS are at their cheapest levels as compared to corporates since 2015.

Chart Courtesy Brett Freeze – Global Technical Analysis

MBS, such as those issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are guaranteed against default by the U.S. government, which means that unlike corporate bonds, the bonds will always mature or be repaid at par. Because of this protection, they are rated AAA. MBS also have the added benefit of being intrinsically well diversified. The interest and principal of a mortgage bond are backed by thousands and even tens of thousands of different homeowners from many different geographical and socio-economic locations. Maybe most important, homeowners are desperately interested in keeping the roof over their head

In contrast, a bond issued by IBM is backed solely by that one company and its capabilities to service the debt. No matter how many homeowners default, an MBS investor is guaranteed to receive par or 100 cents on the dollar. Investors of IBM, or any other corporate bond, on the other hand, may not be quite so lucky.

It is important to note that if an investor pays a premium for a mortgage bond, say a 102-dollar price, and receives par in return, a loss may be incurred. The determining factor is how much cash flow was received from coupon payments over time. The same equally holds for corporate bonds. What differentiates corporate bonds from MBS is that the risk of a large loss is much lower for MBS.

Summary

As the chart and table above reveal, AAA-rated MBS currently have a very favorable risk-reward when compared with investment-grade corporate bonds at a comparable yield.

Although the world is distracted by celebrity investing in the FAANG stocks, Tesla, and now corporate debt, our preference is to find high quality investment options that deliver excellent risk-adjusted returns, or at a minimum improve them.

This analysis argues for one of two outcomes as it relates to the fixed income markets. If one is seeking fixed income credit exposure, they are better served to shift their asset allocation to a heavier weighting of MBS as opposed to investment-grade corporate bonds. Secondly, it suggests that reducing exposure to corporate bonds on an outright basis is prudent given their extreme valuations. Although cash or the money markets do not offer much yield, they are always powerful in terms of the option it affords should the equity and fixed income markets finally come to their senses and mean revert.

With so many assets having historically expensive valuations, it is a difficult time to be an optimist. However, despite limited options, it is encouraging to know there are still a few ponies around, one just has to hold their nose and get a little dirty to find it.

McDonald’s, Not A Shelter In The Coming Storm

The amount of time and effort that investors spend assessing the risks versus the potential returns of their portfolio should shift as the economy and markets cycle over time. For example, when an economic recovery finally breaks the grip of a recession, and asset prices and valuations have fallen to average or below-average levels, price and economic risks are greatly diminished. That is not to say there is no risk, just less risk.  

Market and economic troughs are akin to the aftermath of a forest fire. After a fire has ravaged a forest, the risks for another fire are not zero, but they are below average. Counter-intuitively, it is at these points in time when people are most fearful of fire or, in the case of investing, most worried about losses. With reduced risks, investors during these times should be more focused on the better than average rewards offered by the markets and not as concerned with the risks entailed in reaping those rewards.

Conversely, in the ninth inning of a bull market when valuations are well above the norm, and the economy has expanded for a long period, investors need to shift focus heavily to the potential risks. That is not to say there are no more rewards to come, but the overwhelming risks are substantial, and they can result in a permanent loss of wealth. As human beings are prone to do, we often zig when we should zag.

In January, we wrote Gimme Shelter to highlight that risk can be hard to detect. Sure, high flying companies with massive price gains and repeated net losses like Tesla or Netflix are easy to spot. More difficult, though, are those tried and true value stocks of companies that have flourished for decades. Specifically, we provided readers with an in-depth analysis of Coca-Cola (KO). While KO is a name brand known around the world with a long record of dependable earnings growth, its stock price has greatly exceeded its fair value.

We did not say that KO is a sure-fire short sale or even a sell. Instead, we conveyed that when a significant market drawdown occurs, KO has a lot more risk than is likely perceived by most investors. Simply, it is not the place investors should seek shelter in a market storm as they may have in the past.

We now take the opportunity to discuss another “value” company that many investors may consider a stock market shelter or safe haven.

We follow in this series with a review of McDonald’s (MCD).

You Deserve a Break Today

Please note the models and computations employed in this series use earnings per share and net income. Stock buybacks warp earnings per share (EPS), making earnings appear better than they would have without buybacks. The more positive result is simply due to a declining share count or denominator in the EPS equation. Net income and revenue data are unaffected by share buybacks and therefore deliver a more accurate appraisal of a company’s value.

Over the last ten years, the price of MCD has grown at a 13% annual rate, more than double its EPS, and over five times the rate of growth of its net income. The pace at which the growth of its stock price has surpassed its fundamentals has increased sharply over the last three years. During this period, the stock price has increased 46% annually, which is almost four times its EPS growth and more than six times the growth of its net income. 

Of further concern, revenues have declined 5% annually over the last three years, and the most recently reported annual revenues are now less than they were ten years ago when the U.S. and global GDP were only about 60% the size they are today. To pile on, the amount of debt MCD has incurred over the last ten years has increased by 355%.

MCD is a good company and, like KO, is one of the most well-known brands on the globe. Rated at BBB+, default or bankruptcy risk for MCD is remote, and because of its product line, it will probably see earnings hold up well during the next recession. For many, it is cheaper to eat at a McDonald’s restaurant than to cook at home. Although their operating business is valuable and dependable, those are not reasons to acquire or hold the stock. The issue is what price I am willing to pay in order to try to avoid a loss and secure a reasonable return.

Valuations

Using a simple price to earnings (P/E) valuation, as shown below, MCD’s current P/E for the trailing twelve months is 28, which is about 40% greater than its average over the last two decades.

The following graphs, tables, and data use the same models and methods we used to evaluate KO. For a further description, please read Gimme Shelter.    

Currently, as shown below, MCD is trading 85% above its fair value using our earnings growth model. It is worth noting that MCD, as shown with green shading, was typically valued as cheap using this model. The table below the graph shows that, on average, from 2002-2013, the stock traded 13% below fair value.

We support the graph and table above with a cash flow analysis. We assumed McDonald’s 5.6% long-run income growth rate to forecast earnings for the next 30 years. When these forecasted earnings are then discounted at the appropriate discounting rate of 7%, representing longer-term equity returns, MCD is currently overvalued by 72%.

Lastly, as we did in Gimme Shelter, we asked our friend David Robertson from Arete Asset Management to evaluate MCD’s intrinsic value. His cash flow-based model assigns an intrinsic share price value of 97.27. Based on his work, MCD is currently overvalued by 124%.

Summary

Like KO, we are not making a recommendation on MCD as a short or a sell candidate, but by our analysis, MCD stock appears to be trading at a very high valuation. Much of what we see in large-cap stocks today, MCD included, is being driven by indiscriminate buying by passive investment funds. Such buying can certainly continue, but at some point, the gross overvaluations will correct as all extremes do.

Even if MCD were to “only” decline back to a normal valuation, the losses could be significant and might even exceed those of the benchmark index, the S&P 500. Now consider that MCD may correct beyond the average and could once again trade below fair value.  Even assuming MCD earnings are not hurt during a recession, the correction in its stock price to more reasonable levels could be painful for shareholders.

Why “Not-QE” is QE: Deciphering Gibberish

I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.”  – Alan Greenspan

Imagine if Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell told the American people they must pay more for the goods and services they consume.

How long would it take for mobs with pitchforks to surround the Mariner Eccles building?  However, Jerome Powell and every other member of the Fed routinely and consistently convey pro-inflationary ideals, and there is nary a protest, which seems odd. The reason for the American public’s complacency is that the Fed is not that direct and relies on carefully crafted language and euphemisms to describe the desire for higher inflation.

To wit, the following statements from past and present Fed officials make it all but clear they want more inflation:  

  • That is why it is essential that we at the Fed use our tools to make sure that we do not permit an unhealthy downward drift in inflation expectations and inflation,” – Jerome Powell November 2019
  • In order to move rates up, I would want to see inflation that’s persistent and that’s significant,” -Jerome Powell December 2019
  • Been very challenging to get inflation back to 2% target” -Jerome Powell December 2019
  • Ms. Yellen also said that continuing low inflation, regarded as a boon by many, could be “dangerous” – FT – November 2017
  • One way to increase the scope for monetary policy is to retain the Fed’s current focus on hitting a targeted value of inflation, but to raise the target to, say, 3 or 4 percent.” –Ben Bernanke October 2017
  • Further weakness in inflation could prompt the U.S. Federal Reserve to cut interest rates, even if economic growth maintains its momentum”  -James Bullard, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis  May 2019
  • Fed Evans Says Low Inflation Readings Elevating His Concerns” -Bloomberg May 2019
  • “I believe an aggressive policy action such as this is required to re-anchor inflation expectations at our target.”  Neel Kashkari, President Minneapolis Fed June 2019

As an aside, it cannot be overemphasized the policies touted in the quotes above actually result in deflation, an outcome the Fed desperately fears.

The Fed, and all central banks for that matter, have a long history of using confusing economic terminology. Economics is not as complicated as the Fed makes it seem. What does make economics hard to grasp is the technical language and numerous contradictions the Fed uses to explain economics and justify unorthodox monetary policy. It is made even more difficult when the Fed’s supporting cast – the media, Wall Street and other Fed apologists – regurgitate the Fed’s gibberish.   

The Fed’s fourth installment of quantitative easing (“QE4”, also known as “Not-QE QE”) is vehemently denied as QE by the Fed and Fed apologists. These denials, specifically a recent article in the Financial Times (FT), provide us yet another opportunity to show how the Fed and its minions so blatantly deceive the public.

What is QE?

QE is a transaction in which the Fed purchases assets, mainly U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage-backed-securities, via their network of primary dealers. In exchange for the assets, the Fed credits the participating dealers’ reserve account at the Fed, which is a fancy word for a place for dormant money. In this transaction, each dealer receives payment for the assets sold to the Fed in an account that is essentially the equivalent of a depository account with the Fed. Via QE, the Fed has created reserves that sit in accounts maintained by it.

Reserves are the amount of funds required by the Fed to be held by banks (which we are using interchangeably with “primary dealer” for the remainder of this discussion) in their Fed account or in vault cash to back up a percentage of specified deposit liabilities. While QE is not directly money printing, it enables banks to create loans at a multiple of approximately ten times the reserves available, if they so choose.

Notice that “Quantitative Easing” is the preferred terminology for the operations that create additional reserves, not something easier to understand and more direct like money/reserve printing, Fed bond buying program, or liquidity injections. Consider the two words used to describe this policy – Quantitative and Easing. Easing is an accurate descriptor of the Fed’s actions as it refers to an action that makes financial conditions easier, e.g., lower interest rates and more money/liquidity. However, what does quantitative mean? From the Oxford Dictionary, “quantitative” is “relating to, measuring, or measured by the quantity of something rather than its quality.”   

So, QE is a measure of the amount of easing in the economy. Does that make sense to you? Would the public be so complacent if QE were called BBMPO (bond buying and money printing operations)? Of course not. The public’s acceptance of QE without much thought is a victory for the Fed marketing and public relations departments.

Is “Not-QE” QE?

The Fed and media are vehemently defending the latest round of repurchase market (“repo”) operations and T-bill purchases as “not QE.” Before the Fed even implemented these new measures, Jerome Powell was quick to qualify their actions accordingly: “My colleagues and I will soon announce measures to add to the supply of reserves over time,” “This is not QE.”

This new round of easing is QE, QE4, to be specific. We dissect a recent article from the FT to debunk the nonsense commonly used to differentiate these recent actions from QE.  

On February 5th, 2020, Dominic White, an economist with a research firm in London, wrote an article published by the FT entitled The Fed is not doing QE. Here’s why that matters.

The article presents three factors that must be present for an action to qualify as QE, and then it rationalizes why recent Fed operations are something else. Here are the requirements, per the article:

  1. “increasing the volume of reserves in the banking system”
  2. “altering the mix of assets held by investors”
  3. “influence investors’ expectations about monetary policy”

Simply:

  1.  providing banks the ability to make more money
  2.  forcing investors to take more risk and thereby push asset prices higher
  3.  steer expectations about future Fed policy. 

Point 1

In the article, White argues “that the US banking system has not multiplied up the Fed’s injection of reserves.”

That is an objectively false statement. Since September 2019, when repo and Treasury bill purchase operations started, the assets on the Fed’s balance sheet have increased by approximately $397 billion. Since they didn’t pay for those assets with cash, wampum, bitcoin, or physical currency, we know that $397 billion in additional reserves have been created. We also know that excess reserves, those reserves held above the minimum and therefore not required to backstop specified deposit liabilities, have increased by only $124 billion since September 2019. That means $273 billion (397-124) in reserves were employed (“multiplied up”) by banks to support loan growth.

Regardless of whether these reserves were used to back loans to individuals, corporations, hedge funds, or the U.S. government, banks increased the amount of debt outstanding and therefore the supply of money. In the first half of 2019, the M2 money supply rose at a 4.0% to 4.5% annualized rate. Since September, M2 has grown at a 7% annualized rate.  

Point 2

White’s second argument against the recent Fed action’s qualifying as QE is that, because the Fed is buying Treasury Bills and offering short term repo for this round of operations, they are not removing riskier assets like longer term Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities from the market. As such, they are not causing investors to replace safe investments with riskier ones.  Ergo, not QE.

This too is false. Although by purchasing T-bills and offering repo the Fed has focused on the part of the bond market with little to no price risk, the Fed has removed a vast amount of assets in a short period. Out of necessity, investors need to replace those assets with other assets. There are now fewer non-risky assets available due to the Fed’s actions, thus replacement assets in aggregate must be riskier than those they replace.

Additionally, the Fed is offering repo funding to the market.  Repo is largely used by banks, hedge funds, and other investors to deploy leverage when buying financial assets. By cheapening the cost of this funding source and making it more readily available, institutional investors are incented to expand their use of leverage. As we know, this alters the pricing of all assets, be they stocks, bonds, or commodities.

By way of example, we know that two large mortgage REITs, AGNC and NLY, have dramatically increased the leverage they utilize to acquire mortgage related assets over the last few months. They fund and lever their portfolios in part with repo.

Point 3

White’s third point states, “the Fed is not using its balance sheet to guide expectations for interest rates.”

Again, patently false. One would have to be dangerously naïve to subscribe to White’s logic. As described below, recent measures by the Fed are gargantuan relative to steps they had taken over the prior 50 years. Are we to believe that more money, more leverage, and fewer assets in the fixed income universe is anything other than a signal that the Fed wants lower interest rates? Is the Fed taking these steps for more altruistic reasons?

Bad Advice

After pulling the wool over his reader’s eyes, the author of the FT article ends with a little advice to investors: Rather than obsessing about fluctuations in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, then, investors might be better off focusing on those things that have changed more fundamentally in recent months.”

After a riddled and generally incoherent explanation about why QE is not QE, White has the chutzpah to follow up with advice to disregard the actions of the world’s largest central bank and the crisis-type operations they are conducting. QE 4 and repo operations were a sudden and major reversal of policy. On a relative basis using a 6-month rate of change, it was the third largest liquidity injection to the U.S. financial system, exceeded only by actions taken following the 9/11 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. As shown below, using a 12-month rate of change, recent Fed actions constitute the single biggest liquidity injection in 50 years of data.

Are we to believe that the latest round of Fed policy is not worth following? In what is the biggest “tell” that White is not qualified on this topic, every investment manager knows that money moves the markets and changes in liquidity, especially those driven by the central banks, are critically important to follow.

The graph below compares prior balance sheet actions to the latest round.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

This next graph is a not so subtle reminder that the current use of repo is simply unprecedented.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Summary

This is a rebuttal to the FT article and comments from the Fed, others on Wall Street and those employed by the financial media. The wrong-headed views in the FT article largely parrot those of Ben Bernanke. This past January he stated the following:

“Quantitative easing works through two principal channels: by reducing the net supply of longer-term assets, which increases their prices and lower their yields; and by signaling policymakers’ intention to keep short rates low for an extended period. Both channels helped ease financial conditions in the post-crisis era.”   -LINK

Bourbon, tequila, and beer offer drinkers’ very different flavors of alcohol, but they all have the same effect. This round of QE may be a slightly different cocktail of policy action, but it is just as potent as QE 1, 2, and 3 and will equally intoxicate the market as much, if not more.

Keep in mind that QE 1, 2, and 3 were described as emergency policy actions designed to foster recovery from an economic crisis. Might that fact be the rationale for claiming this round of liquidity is far different from prior ones? Altering words to describe clear emergency policy actions is a calculated effort to normalize those actions. Normalizing them gives the Fed greater latitude to use them at will, which appears to be the true objective. Pathetic though it may be, it is the only rationale that helps us understand their obfuscation.

Jerome Powell & The Fed’s Great Betrayal

“Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

John Maynard Keynes – The Economic Consequences of Peace 1920

“And when we see that we’ve reached that level we’ll begin to gradually reduce our asset purchases to the level of the underlying trend growth of demand for our liabilities.” –Jerome Powell January 29, 2020.

With that one seemingly innocuous statement, Chairman Powell revealed an alarming admission about the supply of money and your wealth. The current state of monetary policy explains why so many people are falling behind and why wealth inequality is at levels last seen almost 100 years ago. 

REALity

 “Real” is a very important concept in the field of economics. Real generally refers to an amount of something adjusted for the effects of inflation. This allows economists to measure true organic growth or decline.

Real is equally important for the rest of us. The size of our paycheck or bank account balance is meaningless without an understanding of what money can buy. For instance, an annual income of $25,000 in 1920 was about eight times the national average. Today that puts a family of four below the Federal Poverty Guideline. As your grandfather used to say, a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.

Real wealth and real wage growth are important for assessing your economic standing and that of the nation.

Here are two facts:

  • Wealth is largely a function of the wages we earn
  • The wages we earn are predominately a function of the growth rate of the economy

These facts establish that the prosperity and wealth of all citizens in aggregate is meaningfully tied to economic growth or the output of a nation. It makes perfect sense.

Now, let us consider inflation and the role it plays in determining our real wages and real wealth.

If the rate of inflation is less than the rate of wage growth over time, then our real wages are rising and our wealth is increasing. Conversely, if inflation rises at a pace faster than wages, wealth declines despite a larger paycheck and more money in the bank.

With that understanding of “real,” let’s discuss inflation.

What is Inflation?

Borrowing from an upcoming article, we describe inflation in the following way:

“One of the most pernicious of these issues in our “modern and sophisticated” intellectual age is that of inflation. Most people, when asked to define inflation, would say “rising prices” with no appreciation for the fact that price movements are an effect, not a cause. They are a symptom of monetary circumstances. Inflation defined is, in fact, a disequilibrium between the amount of currency entering an economic system relative to the productive output of that same system.”

The price of cars, cheeseburgers, movie tickets, and all the other goods and services we consume are chiefly based on supply and demand. Demand is a function of both our need and desire to own a good and, equally importantly, how much money we have. The amount of money we have in aggregate, known as money supply, is governed by the Federal Reserve. Therefore, the supply of money is a key component of demand and therefore a significant factor affecting prices.

With the linkage between the supply of money and inflation defined, let us revisit Powell’s recent revelation.

“And when we see that we’ve reached that level we’ll begin to gradually reduce our asset purchases to the level of the underlying trend growth of demand for our liabilities.”

In plain English, Powell states that the supply of money is based on the demand for money and not the economic growth rate.  To clarify, one of the Fed’s largest liabilities currently are bank reserves. Banks are required to hold reserves for every loan they make. Therefore, they need reserves to create money to lend. Ergo, “demand for our liabilities,” as Powell states, actually means bank demand for the seed funding to create money and make loans.

The relationship between money supply and the demand for money may, in fact, be aligned with economic growth. If so, then the supply of money should rise with the economy. This occurs when debt is predominately employed to facilitate productive investments.

The problem occurs when money is demanded for consumption or speculation. For example:

  • When hedge funds demand billions to leverage their trading activity
  • When Apple, which has over $200 billion in cash, borrows money to buy back their stock  
  • When you borrow money to buy a car, the size of the economy increases but not permanently as you are not likely to buy another car tomorrow and the next day

Now ask, should the supply of money increase because of those instances?

The relationship between the demand for money and economic activity boils down to what percentage of the debt taken on is productive and helps the economy and the populace grow versus what percentage is for speculation and consumption.

While there is no way to quantify how debt is used, we do know that speculative and consumptive debt has risen sharply and takes up a much larger percentage of all debt than in prior eras.  The glaring evidence is the sharp rise of debt to GDP.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

If most of the debt were used productively, then the level of debt would drop relative to GDP. In other words, the debt would not only produce more economic growth but would also pay for itself.  The exact opposite is occurring as growth languishes despite record levels of debt accumulation.

The speculative markets provide further evidence. Without presenting the long list of asset valuations that stand at or near record levels, consider that since the last time the S&P 500 was fairly valued in 2009, it has grown 375%. Meanwhile, total U.S. Treasury debt outstanding is up by 105% from $11 trillion to $22.5 trillion and corporate debt is up 55% from $6.5 trillion to $10.1 trillion. Over that same period, nominal GDP has only grown 46% and Average Hourly Earnings by 29%.

When the money supply is increased for consumptive and speculative purposes, the Fed creates dissonance between our wages, wealth, and the rate of inflation. In other words, they generate excessive inflation and reduce our real wealth.  

If this is the case, why is the stated rate of inflation less than economic growth and wage growth?

The Wealth Scheme

This scheme works like all schemes by keeping the majority of people blind to what is truly occurring. To perpetuate such a scheme, the public must be convinced that inflation is low and their wealth is increasing.

In 2000, a brand new Ford Taurus SE sedan had an original MSRP of $18,935. The 2019 Ford Taurus SE has a starting price of $27,800.  Over the last 19 years, the base price of the Ford Taurus has risen by 2.05% a year or a total of 47%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statics (BLS), since the year 2000, the consumer price index for new vehicles has only risen by 0.08% a year and a total of 1.68% over the same period.

For another instance of how inflation is grossly underreported, we highlighted flaws in the reporting of housing prices in MMT Sounds Great in Theory But…  To wit: 

“Since then, inflation measures have been tortured, mangled, and abused to the point where it scarcely equates to the inflation that consumers deal with in reality. For example, home prices were substituted for “homeowners equivalent rent,” which was falling at the time, and lowered inflationary pressures, despite rising house prices.

Since 1998, homeowners equivalent rent has risen 72% while house prices, as measured by the Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index has almost doubled the rate at 136%. Needless to say, house prices, which currently comprise almost 25% of CPI, have been grossly under-accounted for. In fact, since 1998 CPI has been under-reported by .40% a year on average. Considering that official CPI has run at a 2.20% annual rate since 1998, .40% is a big misrepresentation, especially for just one line item.”

Those two obscene examples highlight that the government reported inflation is not the same inflation experienced by consumers. It is important to note that we are not breaking new ground with the assertion that the government reporting of inflation is low. As we have previously discussed, numerous private assessments quantify that the real inflation rate could easily be well above the average reported 2% rate. For example, Shadow Stats quantifies that inflation is running at 10% when one uses the official BLS formula from 1980.

Despite what we may sense and a multitude of private studies confirming that inflation is running greater than 2%, there are a multitude of other government-sponsored studies that argue inflation is actually over-stated. So, the battle is in the trenches, and the devil is in the details.

As defined earlier, inflation is “a disequilibrium between the amount of currency entering an economic system relative to the productive output of that same system.”

The following graph shows that the supply of money, measured by M2, has grown far more than the rate of economic growth (GDP) over the last 20 years.

Data St. Louis Federal Reserve

Since 2000, M2 has grown 234% while GDP has grown at half of that rate, 117%. Over the same period, the CPI price index has only grown by 53%. M2 implies an annualized inflation rate over the last 20 years of 6.22% which is three times that of CPI. 

Dampening perceived inflation is only part of the cover-up. The scheme is also perpetuated with other help from the government. The government borrows to boost temporary economic growth and help citizens on the margin. This further limits people’s ability to detect a significant decline in their standard of living.

As shown below, when one strips out the change in government debt (the actual increase in U.S. Treasury debt outstanding) from the change in GDP growth, the organic economy has shrunk for the better part of the last 20 years. 

Data St. Louis Federal Reserve

It doesn’t take an economist to know that a 6.22% inflation rate (based on M2) and decade long recession would force changes to our monetary policy and send those responsible to the guillotines. If someone suffering severe headaches is diagnosed with a brain tumor, the problem does not go away because the doctor uses white-out to cover up the tumor on the x-ray film.

Despite crystal clear evidence, the mirages of economic growth and low inflation prevent us from seeing reality.

Summary

Those engaging in speculative ventures with the benefit of cheap borrowing costs are thriving. Those whose livelihood and wealth are dependent on a paycheck are falling behind. For this large percentage of the population, their paychecks may be growing in line with the stated government inflation rate but not the true inflation rate they pay at the counter. They fall further behind day by day as shown below.

While this may be hard to prove using government inflation data, it is the reality. If you think otherwise, you may want to ask why a political outsider like Donald Trump won the election four years ago and why socialism and populism are surging in popularity. We doubt that it is because everyone thinks their wealth is increasing. To quote Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

That brings us back to Jerome Powell and the Fed. The U.S. economy is driven by millions of individuals making decisions in their own best interests. Prices are best determined by those millions of people based on supply and demand – that includes the price of money or interest rates. Any governmental interference with that natural mechanism is a recipe for inefficiency and quite often failure.

If monetary policy is to be set by a small number of people in a conference room in the Eccles Building in Washington, D.C. who think they know what is best for us based on flawed data, then they should prepare themselves for even more radical social and political movements than we have already seen.

Quick Take: The Great “Tesla” Hysteria Of 2020

“Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings.” – E. O. Wilson

Since January 1, 2020, Tesla’s (TSLA) stock price has risen by $462 or 110%. TSLA’s market cap now exceeds every automaker except for Toyota. In fact, it exceeds not only the combined value of the “big three” automakers GM, Ford, and Chrysler/Fiat, but also companies like Charles Schwab, Target, Deere, Eli Lily, and Marriot to name a few large companies.

Seem crazy? Not as crazy as what comes next. Crazy are the expectations of Catherine Wood of ARK Invest. This well-known “disruptive innovation” based investor put out the following chart showing an expected price of $7,000 in 2024 with a $15,000 upside target.

Siren songs such as the one shown above encourage investors to chase the stock higher with reckless abandon, and maybe that is ARK’s intent. Given their large holding of TSLA, it certainly makes more sense than their price targets. Instead of taking her recommendations with blind faith, here are some statistics to illustrate what is required for TSLA to reach such lofty goals.

To start, let’s compare TSLA to their peer group, the auto industry. The chart below shows that TSLA has the second largest market cap in the auto industry, only behind Toyota. Despite the market cap, its sales are the lowest in the industry and by a lot. According to figures published on their website, TSLA sold 367,500 cars in 2019. General Motors sold 2.9 million and Ford sold 2.4 million.

Clearly investors are betting on the future, so let’s put ARK’s forecast into context.  

If the TSLA share price were to rise to their baseline forecast of 7,000, the market cap would increase to $1.26 trillion. Currently, the auto industry, as shown above, and including TSLA, aggregates to $772 billion. At the upside scenario of 15,000, the market cap of TSLA ($2.7 trillion) would be almost four times the current market cap of the entire auto industry.  More stunning, it would be greater than the combined value of Apple and Microsoft.

Even if we make the ridiculous assumption that TSLA will be the world’s only automaker, a price of 15,000 still implies a valuation that is three to four times the current industry average based on price to sales and price to earnings. At 7,000, its valuation would be 1.6 times the industry average. Again, and we stress, that is if TSLA is the world’s only automaker.

Summary

Tesla is one of a few poster children for the latest surge in the current bull market. That said, it’s worth remembering some examples from the past. For instance, Qualcomm (QCOM) was a poster child for the tech boom in the late 1990s. Below is a chart comparing the final surge in QCOM (Q4 1999) to the last three months of trading for TSLA.

In the last quarter of 1999, QCOM’s price rose by 277%. TSLA is only up 181% in the last three months and may catch up to QCOM’s meteoric rise. However, if history is any guide, QCOM likely offers what a textbook example of a blow-off top is. By 2003 QCOM lost 90% of its value and would not recapture the 1999 highs for 15 years. 

Tesla may be the next great automaker and, in doing so, own a sizeable portion of market share. However, to have estimates as high as those proposed by ARK, they must be the only automaker and assume fantastic growth in the number of cars bought worldwide. Given their technology is replicable and given the enormous incentives for competitors, we not only find ARK’s wild forecast exceedingly optimistic, but we believe it is already trading near a best-case scenario level.

One final factor that ARK Invest also seems to have neglected is the risk of an economic downturn. Although they do highlight a “Bear Case” price target of $1,500, that too seems incoherent. Given that TSLA is still losing money and is also heavily indebted, an economic slowdown would raise the risk of their demise. In such an instance, TSLA would probably become the property of one of the major car companies for less than $50 per share.

TSLA’s stock may run higher. Its price is now a function of all the key speculative ingredients – momentum, greed, FOMO, and of course, short covering. The sky always seems to be the limit in the short run, but as Icarus found out, be careful aiming for the sun.

**As we published the article Tesla was up 20% on the day. The one day jump raised their market cap by an amount greater than the respective market caps of KIA, Hyundai, Nissan, and Fiat/Chrysler!!

Maybe This Time Is Different?

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau” – Irving Fisher, New York Times September 3, 1929

One of the more infamous quotes from the roaring ‘20s came within two months of a market peak, which would not be surpassed again until the 1950s. Between 1920 and September 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose over 18% on an annualized basis.  Economist Irving Fisher essentially declared that such outsized gains were the norm. As he discovered a couple of months later, that time was not different.

Today, with valuations as stretched as they were in 1929 and 1999, the calls for a lengthy continuation of the current bull market are growing to a crescendo. The sentiment is so extreme that some outlandish predictions on individual stocks and indexes are treated as gospel as opposed to the warnings they likely are.  

Despite the high likelihood of poor returns over the coming decade, more and more stock analysts are telling us this time is different. One particular article caught our attention and is worth discussing to show how data can be used to support nearly any view.

4x by 2030

The Investor’s Fallacy by Nick Magguilli, states the following:

“And the crazy part is that the red star represents “only” a doubling over the next decade.  If history were to repeat itself in some meaningful way, the S&P 500 would be 4x higher by 2030 than where it is today.” 

Magguilli’s bold statement is based on an analysis comparing prior returns to forward returns. Correctly, he assumes that periods of lower than average returns are typically followed by a period of higher returns. We wholeheartedly agree; however, one must first understand that this method of forecasting returns is heavily reliant on the dates one assigns to prior and forward periods.

The article shows several charts using different periods. The intention is to show that 20 year prior returns have a stronger correlation with ten year forward returns than other date ranges. The graph below from the article highlights his findings.

Below the graph Magguilli states the following:

“Think about how insane this would be relative to history.  If you are expecting anything less than a doubling of the S&P 500 by 2030, then you are suggesting that the red star above will be even lower on the y-axis than where I already placed it.  If this were to occur, it would be unlike anything we have ever seen before in terms of growth over such a long time period.

And the crazy part is that the red star represents “only” a doubling over the next decade.  If history were to repeat itself in some meaningful way, the S&P 500 would be 4x higher by 2030 than where it is today. 

This statement seems crazy right now, but that’s what has happened historically.  I understand that there is no law forcing U.S. markets to follow this trend indefinitely.  However, if you are forecasting an awful coming decade for U.S. stocks, I have some bad news for you—the evidence is heavily against you.

We repeat- the evidence is heavily against you. We find not only the forecast crazy but his assertion that anyone bracing for a period of weak returns is an outlier.”

With that ringing endorsement to quadruple your money in the next ten years, it is worth highlighting two significant flaws in the analysis.

Flaw #1

One of the reasons that his forecast for the 2020s is so high is that the preceding 20-year period started in 2000 at the peak of a ten-year bull market and what was clearly an equity market bubble. The total annualized return (dividends included) from that peak to today is 5.30%, as shown below. If instead he had used 17 years as his backward-looking period, the start date would have coincided with the bottom of the dot com crash, and the total annualized returns over the past period would have been significantly higher.

Recall, from his graph, the higher the prior period return, the lower the forecasted return and vice versa. The graph below shows how a relatively small change in the start date makes a big difference in the analytical conclusion.

Data Courtesy Shiller

As we will detail below, when one uses a 17-year prior period starting at the market trough, the expected annualized return is only 10% as opposed to Magguilli’s approximated 16% return using a 20-year time frame. This is certainly not the end of the world, as 10% is still an above-average return. To put the two returns in context, the 6% annualized difference on a $100,000 portfolio results in a $182,000 difference in returns over the ten-year period.

Most analysts, ourselves included, like to use even numbers when conducting long term analysis. In this case, an even 20 years coincides with an important market peak. The lesson from the first flaw is that the start and end dates and associated index values are very important.

Flaw #2

And though my process is limited by the amount of data that I have, I know that it’s not unreasonable.”

Despite Magguilli’s attestation, the amount of data he used could have been more robust. The second flaw in the article relates to the span of data used to assess correlation. We believe he is using approximately 60 years of data. While 60 years encompasses a lot of data, more data is readily available to make the analysis better. If we include data back to 1900, as shown below, the chart tells us something different about the future.

Data Shiller

The first thing to notice is that R2, or measure of correlation, drops significantly from .83 to .33. It appears a primary reason for the loss of correlation is the performance from the depression era, as shown with orange dots.   

The following graph uses prior 17-year returns from 1900 forward. The red line highlights the current prior 17 years annualized return of 9.47%.

Data Shiller

The expected total annualized return for the next decade is approximately 10%, denoted on the chart above where the red line crosses the dotted regression line. More importantly, the range of possible returns is much larger than what Nick’s graph shows.  Annualized returns could be as high as 18% but may also be as low as negative 3%. As it should, the risk-adjustment considering dispersion, or range of possible returns, raises a variety of other questions and concerns, among them, certitude in the original analysis.

Your guess is as good as ours on where returns will fall over the next ten years. However, consider that in 1929 valuations were similar to where levels stand today across a wide variety of metrics. Many valuation-based forecasts predict returns of plus or minus a few percent annualized over the next ten years.  The graph below, for example, shows that returns could easily be below zero for the next ten years.

For further perspective on valuations, the following table contrasts current valuations versus prior periods.

Additionally, the more rigorous and detailed analysis of Jeremy Grantham of GMO show 7-year projected returns which are not encouraging.

Summary

Maggiulli humbly states that he doesn’t know what the future holds, but the substance of the article suggests that you, dear investor, would be a fool not to buy and hold stocks for the next decade.

Although you cannot predict the future, you can prepare for it. What we do know is that we are well into a historically long bull market and valuations are in record territory. We believe that at this stage of the cycle investors should focus less on the potential rewards and much more on the risks. The primary reason is that market reversals are often sudden and vicious, especially from points of extreme valuation. As one example, after peaking on March 10, 2000, the NASDAQ composite wiped out 29% of its value in only three weeks and 37% in less than five weeks. Having been conditioned to “buy-the-dip” over the previous months and years, investors could not envision a lasting selloff despite the radical dislocation between market prices and fundamentals.  

For those who have enjoyed the benefits of the surging equity market over the past several quarters, congratulations on a race well run, but do not forget the importance of risk management. Those who fail to heed signs of caution or are blinded by false confidence tend to lose what they gained. Remember, the objective is compounding wealth over the long haul and not keeping up with the S&P 500 index.

We hope this article encourages you to think about current circumstances and develop plans to hedge and/or reduce exposure if and when you deem appropriate.

That “high plateau” Irving Fisher thought we had achieved in September 1929 cost him his reputation and his net worth. The cost of being prudent is not that expensive and, in part, depends on one questioning both bullish and bearish arguments.

Looking Beyond Apple and Microsoft

As the 1970s came to a close, six of the world’s ten largest companies were in the oil exploration, drilling, and services business. Just a few years earlier, on April 1, 1976, Steven Jobs and Steven Wozniak, two college dropouts working out of a garage, formed Apple Computers, Inc. In April 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen formed a company called Micro-Soft.

Four decades later, these two technology startups are the world’s largest companies, far surpassing the largest oil companies of the 1970s. In fact, the combined market capitalization of Microsoft and Apple is larger than the aggregate market cap of the domestic oil industry. Even more astounding, the combined market cap of Microsoft and Apple just surpassed the total market cap of the entire German stock market.

The table below shows the rotation of the world’s largest publically traded companies over the last fifty years. Of the companies shown below only five have been in the top ten for more than one decade.

Throughout history, most of the world’s largest companies are routinely supplanted by new and different companies from decade to decade. Furthermore, different industries tend to dominate each decade and then fade into the next decade as new industries dominate. For instance, in the 1970’s big oil accounted for six of the top ten largest companies. In the 1980’s, Japanese companies held eight of the top ten spots. In the 1990s it was telecom, the 2000s were controlled by banks and commodities, and this past decade was dominated by technology and social media companies.  

Throughout history, most of the world’s largest companies are routinely supplanted by new and different companies from decade to decade. Furthermore, different industries tend to dominate each decade and then fade into the next decade as new industries dominate. For instance, in the 1970’s big oil accounted for six of the top ten largest companies. In the 1980’s, Japanese companies held eight of the top ten spots. In the 1990s it was telecom, the 2000s were controlled by banks and commodities, and this past decade was dominated by technology and social media companies.  

While table offers several insights, we believe the most important lesson is that our investment strategies must focus on the future and our dependence on past strategies must be carefully considered. Today, two college dropouts in their parent’s basement fooling around with artificial intelligence, block chain, or robotics may prove to be worth more than Apple, Microsoft, or Amazon in just a few decades. The table also emphasizes the importance of selling high and rotating to that which has “value”.

To emphasize that point, we constructed the following graph. Although simple, it effectively illustrates the theme by comparing one stock looking backward and one stock looking forward as an investment strategy. The backward-looking strategy (blue line) buys the largest company at the end of each decade and holds it through the following decade. The forward-looking strategy (orange line), with the gift of 20/20 foresight, buys the company that will be the largest company at the end of the new decade and holds it for that decade.  For example, on January 1, 2010, the forward-looking strategy bought Microsoft and held it until December 31, 2019, while the backward-looking strategy bought Exxon and held it over the same period.

Due to the split-up of AT&T and poor price data, we used GM data which had the second largest market capitalization in 1969. For similar reasons, we also replaced Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (NTT) with The Bank of Tokyo. The graph is based on share price returns and is not inclusive of dividends.

The forward strategy beat the S&P 500 by over 12% a year, while the backward-looking strategy grossly underperformed with a negative cumulative annualized price return over the last 50 years. As startling as the differences are, they fail to provide proper context for the value of 50 years of compounding at the annualized rates of return as shown. If all three portfolios started with $100,000, the backward-looking portfolio would be worth $59,000 today, the S&P 500 worth $3,500,000 today, and the forward-looking portfolio would be worth $791,000,000 today.

Summary

Although no one knows what the top ten list will look like on December 31, 2029, we do know that the next ten years will not be like the last ten. The 2000’s brought two recessions and for the first time in recorded history, the 2010s brought NO recessions. Investors need to be opportunistic, flexible, creative and forward-looking in choosing investments. Investing in today’s winners is not likely to yield us the results of yesterday. It is difficult to fathom as Apple and Microsoft drive the entire market higher, but history warns that their breath-taking returns of the last decade should not be expected in the 2020’s. In fact, history and prudence argue one should sell high.

Gimme Shelter – Unlocked RIA Pro

Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today
If I don’t get some shelter oh yeah I’m gonna fade away
” – Rolling Stones

The graph below plots 15 years’ worth of quarterly earnings per share for a large, well known publicly traded company. Within the graph’s time horizon is the 2008 financial crisis and recession. Can you spot where it occurred? Hint- it is not the big dip on the right side of the graph or the outsized increase in the middle.

The purpose of asking the question is to point out that this company has very steady earnings growth with few instances of marked variation. The recession of 2008 had no discernable effect on their earnings. It is not a stretch to say the company’s earnings are recession-proof.

The company was formed in 1886 and is the parent of an iconic name brand known around the world. The company has matured into a very predictable company, as defined by steady earnings growth.

Fundamentally, this company has all the trappings of a safe and conservative investment the likes of which are frequently classified as defensive value stocks. These kinds of companies traditionally provide a degree of safety to investors during market drawdowns. Today, however, this company and many other “shelter stocks” are trading at valuations that suggest otherwise.

The following article was posted for RIA Pro subscribers last week.

For more research like this as well as daily commentary, investment ideas, portfolios, scanning and analysis tools, and our new 401K manager sign up today at RIA Pro and test drive our site for 30 days before being charged.

What is Value?

Determining the intrinsic value for an investment is a crucial baseline metric that investors must calculate if they want to properly determine whether the share price of a company is rich, cheap, or fair.

Investors use a myriad of computations, forecasts, and assumptions to calculate intrinsic value. As such, the intrinsic value for a company can vary widely based on numerous factors. 

We broadly define intrinsic value as the price that a rational investor would pay for the discounted cash flows, after expenses, of a company. More simply, what is the future stream of net income worth to you? As value investors, we prefer to invest in companies where the market value is below the intrinsic value. Doing so provides a margin of safety.

Jim Rogers, the former partner of George Soros, put it this way: “If you buy value, you won’t lose much even if you’re wrong.”

Calculating the intrinsic value with a high level of confidence is difficult, if not impossible, for some companies. For instance, many smaller biotech companies are formed to find a cure or treatment for one or two medical ailments. These firms typically lose money and burn through funding during the research and development (R&D) stage. If they successfully find a treatment or cure and financially survive the long FDA approval process, the shareholders are likely to receive hefty returns. The outcome may also be positive if they have a promising medication and a suitor with deep pockets buys the company. Because the outcome is uncertain, many biotech companies fail to maintain enough funding through the R&D stage.

Calculating an intrinsic value for a small biotech company can be like trying to estimate what you may win or lose at a roulette table. The number of potential outcomes is immense and highly dependent on your assumptions. 

Coca-Cola

At the other end of the spectrum, there are mature companies with very predictable cash flows, making intrinsic value calculations somewhat simple, as we will show.

Coca Cola (KO) is the company we referenced in the opening section. KO is one of the most well-known companies in the world, with an array of products sold in almost every country. KO is mature in its lifecycle with very dependable sales and earnings growth. The question we raise in this analysis is not whether or not KO is a good company, but whether or not its stock is worth buying.  To answer this question, we will determine its intrinsic value and compare it to the current value of the company.

The textbook way to calculate intrinsic value is to discount the future cash flows of the company. The calculation entails projecting net income for the next 30 years, discounting those annual income figures at an appropriate rate, and summing up the discounted cash flows. The answer is the present value of the total earnings stream based on an assumed earnings growth rate.

In our intrinsic value model for KO, we assumed an earnings growth rate of 4.5%, derived from its 20 year annualized earnings growth rate of 5.4% and it’s more recent ten year annualized growth rate of 2.9%. Recent trends argue that using 5.4% is aggressive. We used a discounting factor of 7% representing the historical return on equities. The model discounted 30 years of estimated future earnings.

The model, with the assumptions above, yields an intrinsic value of $157 billion. The current market cap, or value, of KO is $235 billion, meaning the stock is about 51% overvalued. Even if we assume the longer-term 20-year growth rate (5.4%), the stock is still 35% overvalued.

To confirm the analysis and illustrate it in a different format, we calculated what the stock price would be on a rolling basis had it grown in line with the prior rate of ten years of earnings growth. As shown in the graph and table below, the market value is currently 55% above the model’s valuation for KO.  The green and red areas highlight how much the stock was overvalued and undervalued.

To check our analysis, we enlisted our friend David Robertson from Arete Asset Management and asked him what intrinsic value his cash flow based model assigned to KO. The following is from David:

In looking at the valuation of KO, I see a couple of familiar patterns. The most obvious one is that the warranted value, based on a long-term model that discounts expected cash flows, is substantially below the current market value. Specifically, the warranted value per share is about $21, and nowhere near the mid-50s current market price. The biggest reason for this is that the discounted value of future investments has declined the last few years substantially due to lower economic returns and lower sustainable growth rates. In other words, as the company’s ability to generate future returns has diminished, its stock price has completely failed to capture the change.

The chart below from David compares his model’s current and future intrinsic value (Arete target) with the annual high, low, and closing price for KO.  David’s graph is very similar to what we highlighted above; KO has been trading at a steep premium to its intrinsic value for the last few years.

Lastly, we share a few more facts about KO’s valuations.

  • Revenues (sales) have been in decline since 2012
  • Price to Sales (6.99) is at a 20 year high and three times greater than the faster growing S&P 500
  • Price to Earnings (25.83 –trailing 12 mos.) is at a 17 year high
  • Price to Book (11.24) is at an 18 year high
  • Enterprise Value to EBITDA is at an eight-year high
  • Capital Expenditures are at a 15 year low and have declined rapidly over the last eight years
  • Book Value is at a ten year low
  • Debt has tripled over the last ten years while revenues and earnings have grown at about 15-20% over the same period

When Value Becomes Growth

In 2018 we wrote a six-part RIA Pro series called Value Your Wealth. Part of the series was devoted to the current divergence between value and growth stocks and the potential for outsized returns for value investors when the market reverts to the mean. In the article, we explored mutual funds and S&P sectors to show how value can be defined, but also how the title “value” is being mischaracterized.

One of the key takeaway from the series is that finding value is not always as easy as buying an ETF or fund with the word “value” in it. Nor, as we show with KO, can you rely on traditional individual stock mainstays to provide true value. Today’s value hunters must work harder than in years past.

Based on our model, KO traded below the model’s intrinsic value from 2003 through 2013 and likely in the years prior. As noted, its average discount to intrinsic value during this period was 41%. Since 2014 KO has traded well above its intrinsic value.

In 2014 passive investing strategies started to gain popularity. As this occurred, many companies’ share prices rose faster than their earnings growth. These stocks became connected to popular indexes and disconnected from their fundamentals. The larger the company and the more indexes they are in, the more that the wave of passive investing helped the share price. KO meets all of those qualifications. As the old saying goes, if you buy enough of them, the price will go up.

Summary

Buying “Value” is not as easy as buying shares in well-known companies with great brand names, proven track records, and relative earnings stability. As we exemplified with KO, great companies do not necessarily make great investments.

The bull market starting in 2009 is unique in many aspects. One facet that we have written extensively on is how so many companies have become overpriced due to indiscriminate buying from passive investment strategies. This has big implications for the next equity market drawdown as companies like KO may go down every bit as much or even more than the broader market.

Be careful where you seek shelter in managing your portfolio of stocks; it may not be the safe bunker that you think it is.  

In a follow-up article for RIA Pro, we will present similar analysis and expose more “value” companies.

Yeah…But

Yeah… Barry Bonds, a Major League Baseball (MLB) player, put up some amazing stats in his career. What sets him apart from other players is that he got better in the later years of his career, a time when most players see their production rapidly decline.

Before the age of 30, Bonds hit a home run every 5.9% of the time he was at bat. After his 30th birthday, that rate almost doubled to over 10%. From age 36 to 39, he hit an astounding .351, well above his lifetime .298 batting average. Of all Major League baseball players over the age of 35, Bonds leads in home runs, slugging percentage, runs created, extra-base hits, and home runs per at bat. We would be remiss if we neglected to mention that Barry Bonds hit a record 762 homeruns in his MLB career and he also holds the MLB record for most home runs in a season with 73.

But… as we found out after those records were broken, Bond’s extraordinary statistics were not because of practice, a new batting stance, maturity, or other organic factors. It was his use of steroids. The same steroids that allowed Bonds to get stronger, heal quicker, and produce Hall of Fame statistics will also take a toll on his health in the years ahead.  

Turn on CNBC or Bloomberg News, and you will inevitably hear the hosts and interviewees rave on and on about the booming markets, low unemployment, and the record economic expansion. To that, we say Yeah… As in the Barry Bonds story, there is also a “But…” that tells the whole story.

As we will discuss, the economy is not all roses when one considers the massive amount of monetary steroids stimulating growth. Further, as Bonds too will likely find out at some point in his future, there will be consequences for these performance-enhancing policies.

Wicksell’s Wisdom

Before a discussion of the abnormal fiscal and monetary policies responsible for surging financial asset prices and the record-long economic expansion, it is important to impart the wisdom of Knut Wicksell and a few paragraphs from a prior article we published entitled Wicksell’s Elegant Model.

“According to Wicksell, when the market rate (of interest) is below the natural rate, there is an incentive to borrow and reinvest in an economy at the higher natural rate. This normally leads to an economic boom until demand drives up the market rate and eventually chokes off demand. When the market rate exceeds the natural rate, borrowing slows along with economic activity eventually leading to a recession, and the market rate again falls back below the natural rate. Wicksell viewed the divergences between the natural rate and the market rate as the mechanism by which the economic cycle is determined. If a divergence between the natural rate and the market rate is abnormally sustained, it causes a severe misallocation of capital.

Per Wicksell, optimal policy should aim at keeping the natural rate and the market rate as closely aligned as possible to prevent misallocation. But when short-term market rates are below the natural rate, intelligent investors respond appropriately. They borrow heavily at the low rate and buy existing assets with somewhat predictable returns and shorter time horizons. Financial assets skyrocket in value while long-term, cash-flow driven investments with riskier prospects languish. The bottom line: existing assets rise in value but few new assets are added to the capital stock, which is decidedly bad for productivity and the structural growth of the economy.

Essentially, Wicksell warns that when interest rates are lower than they should be, speculation in financial assets is spurred and investment into the real economy suffers. The result is a boom in financial asset prices at the expense of future economic activity. Sound familiar? 

But… Monetary Policy

The Fed’s primary tool to manage economic growth and inflation is the Fed Funds rate. Fed Funds is the rate of interest that banks charge each other to borrow on an overnight basis. As the graph below shows, the Fed Funds rate has been pinned at least 2% below the rate of economic growth since the financial crisis. Such a low relative rate spanning such a long period is simply unprecedented, and in the words of Wicksell not “optimal policy.” 

Until the financial crisis, managing the Fed Funds rate was the sole tool for setting monetary policy. As such, it was easy to assess how much, if any, stimulus the Fed was providing at any point in time. The advent of Quantitative Easing (QE) made this task less transparent at the same time the Fed was telling us they wanted to be more transparent.  

Between 2008 and 2014, through three installations of QE, the Fed bought nearly $3.2 trillion of government, mortgage-backed, and agency securities in exchange for excess banking reserves. These excess reserves allowed banks to extend more loans than would be otherwise possible. In doing so, not only was economic activity generated, but the money supply rose which had a positive effect on the economy and financial markets.

Trying to quantifying the amount of stimulus offered by QE is not easy. However, in 2011, Fed Chairman Bernanke provided a simple rule in Congressional testimony to allow us to transform a dollar amount of QE into an interest rate equivalent. Bernanke suggested that every additional $6.6 to $10 billion of excess reserves, the byproduct of QE, has the effect of lowering interest rates by 0.01%. Therefore, every trillion dollars’ worth of new excess reserves is equivalent to lowering interest rates by 1.00% to 1.50% in Bernanke’s opinion. In the ensuing discussion, we use Bernanke’s more conservative estimate of $10 billion to produce a .01% decline in interest rates.

The graph below aggregates the two forms of monetary stimulus (Fed Funds and QE) to gauge how much effective interest rates are below the rate of economic growth. The blue area uses the Fed Funds – GDP data from the first graph. The orange area representing QE is based on Bernanke’s formula. 

Since the financial crisis, the Fed has effectively kept interest rates 5.11% below the rate of economic growth on average. Looking back in time, one can see that the current policy prescription is vastly different from the prior three recessions and ensuing expansions. Following the three recessions before the financial crisis, the Fed kept interest rates lower than the GDP rate to help foster recovery. The stimulus was limited in duration and removed entirely during the expansion. Before comparing these periods to the current expansion, it is worth noting that the amount of stimulus increased during each expansion. This is a function of the growth of debt in the economy beyond the economy’s growth rate and the increasing reliance on debt to generate economic growth. 

The current expansion is being promoted by significantly more stimulus and at much more consistent levels. Effectively the Fed is keeping rates 5.11% below normal, which is about five times the stimulus applied to the average of the prior three recessions. 

Simply the Fed has gone from periodic use of stimulus to heal the economy following recessions to a constant intravenous drip of stimulus to support the economy.

Moar

Starting in late 2015, the Fed tried to wean the economy from the stimulus. Between December of 2015 and December of 2018, the Fed increased the Fed Funds rates by 2.50%. They stepped up those efforts in 2018 as they also reduced the size of their balance sheet (via Quantitative Tightening, “QT”) from $4.4 trillion to $3.7 trillion.

The Fed hoped the economic patient was finally healing from the crisis and they could remove the exorbitant amount of stimulus applied to the economy and the markets. What they discovered is their imprudent policies of the post-crisis era made the patient hopelessly addicted to monetary drugs.

Beginning in July 2019, the Fed cut the target for the Fed Funds rate three times by a cumulative 0.75%. A month after the first rate cut they abruptly halted QT and started increasing their balance sheet through a series of repo operations and QE. Since then, the Fed’s balance sheet has reversed much of the QT related decrease and is growing at a pace that rivals what we saw immediately following the crisis. It is now up almost a half a trillion dollars from the lows and only $200 billion from the high watermark. The Fed is scheduled to add $60 billion more per month to its balance sheet through April. Even more may be added if repo operations expand.

The economy was slowing, and markets were turbulent in late 2018. Despite the massive stimulus still in place, the removal of a relatively small amount of stimulus proved too volatility-inducing for the Fed and the markets to bear.

Summary

Wicksell warned that lower than normal rates lead to speculation in financial assets and less investment into the real economy. Is it any wonder that risk assets have zoomed higher over the last five years despite tepid economic growth and flat corporate earnings (NIPA data Bureau of Economic Analysis -BEA)? 

When someone tells you the economy is doing fine, remind them that Barry Bonds was a very good player but the statistics don’t tell the whole story.

To provide further context on the extremity of monetary policy in America and around the world, we present an incredible graph courtesy of Bianco Research. The graph shows the Bank of England’s balance sheet as a percentage of GDP since 1700. If we focus on the past 100 years, notice the only period comparable to today was during World War II. England was in a life or death battle at the time. What is the rationalization today? Central banker inconvenience?

While most major countries cannot produce similar data going back that far, they have all experienced the same unprecedented surge in their central bank’s balance sheet.

Assuming today’s environment is normal without considering the but…. is a big mistake. And like Barry Bonds, who will never know when the consequences of his actions will bring regret, neither do the central bankers or the markets. 

Gimme Shelter

Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today
If I don’t get some shelter oh yeah I’m gonna fade away
” – Rolling Stones

The graph below plots 15 years’ worth of quarterly earnings per share for a large, well known publicly traded company. Within the graph’s time horizon is the 2008 financial crisis and recession. Can you spot where it occurred? Hint- it is not the big dip on the right side of the graph or the outsized increase in the middle.

The purpose of asking the question is to point out that this company has very steady earnings growth with few instances of marked variation. The recession of 2008 had no discernable effect on their earnings. It is not a stretch to say the company’s earnings are recession-proof.

The company was formed in 1886 and is the parent of an iconic name brand known around the world. The company has matured into a very predictable company, as defined by steady earnings growth.

Fundamentally, this company has all the trappings of a safe and conservative investment the likes of which are frequently classified as defensive value stocks. These kinds of companies traditionally provide a degree of safety to investors during market drawdowns. Today, however, this company and many other “shelter stocks” are trading at valuations that suggest otherwise.

What is Value?

Determining the intrinsic value for an investment is a crucial baseline metric that investors must calculate if they want to properly determine whether the share price of a company is rich, cheap, or fair.

Investors use a myriad of computations, forecasts, and assumptions to calculate intrinsic value. As such, the intrinsic value for a company can vary widely based on numerous factors. 

We broadly define intrinsic value as the price that a rational investor would pay for the discounted cash flows, after expenses, of a company. More simply, what is the future stream of net income worth to you? As value investors, we prefer to invest in companies where the market value is below the intrinsic value. Doing so provides a margin of safety.

Jim Rogers, the former partner of George Soros, put it this way: “If you buy value, you won’t lose much even if you’re wrong.”

Calculating the intrinsic value with a high level of confidence is difficult, if not impossible, for some companies. For instance, many smaller biotech companies are formed to find a cure or treatment for one or two medical ailments. These firms typically lose money and burn through funding during the research and development (R&D) stage. If they successfully find a treatment or cure and financially survive the long FDA approval process, the shareholders are likely to receive hefty returns. The outcome may also be positive if they have a promising medication and a suitor with deep pockets buys the company. Because the outcome is uncertain, many biotech companies fail to maintain enough funding through the R&D stage.

Calculating an intrinsic value for a small biotech company can be like trying to estimate what you may win or lose at a roulette table. The number of potential outcomes is immense and highly dependent on your assumptions. 

At the other end of the spectrum, there are mature companies with very predictable cash flows, making intrinsic value calculations somewhat simple, as we will show.

Coca-Cola

Coca Cola (KO) is the company we referenced in the opening section. KO is one of the most well-known companies in the world, with an array of products sold in almost every country. KO is mature in its lifecycle with very dependable sales and earnings growth. The question we raise in this analysis is not whether or not KO is a good company, but whether or not its stock is worth buying.  To answer this question, we will determine its intrinsic value and compare it to the current value of the company.

The textbook way to calculate intrinsic value is to discount the future cash flows of the company. The calculation entails projecting net income for the next 30 years, discounting those annual income figures at an appropriate rate, and summing up the discounted cash flows. The answer is the present value of the total earnings stream based on an assumed earnings growth rate.

In our intrinsic value model for KO, we assumed an earnings growth rate of 4.5%, derived from its 20 year annualized earnings growth rate of 5.4% and it’s more recent ten year annualized growth rate of 2.9%. Recent trends argue that using 5.4% is aggressive. We used a discounting factor of 7% representing the historical return on equities. The model discounted 30 years of estimated future earnings.

The model, with the assumptions above, yields an intrinsic value of $157 billion. The current market cap, or value, of KO is $235 billion, meaning the stock is about 51% overvalued. Even if we assume the longer-term 20-year growth rate (5.4%), the stock is still 35% overvalued.

To confirm the analysis and illustrate it in a different format, we calculated what the stock price would be on a rolling basis had it grown in line with the prior rate of ten years of earnings growth. As shown in the graph and table below, the market value is currently 55% above the model’s valuation for KO.  The green and red areas highlight how much the stock was overvalued and undervalued.

To check our analysis, we enlisted our friend David Robertson from Arete Asset Management and asked him what intrinsic value his cash flow based model assigned to KO. The following is from David:

In looking at the valuation of KO, I see a couple of familiar patterns. The most obvious one is that the warranted value, based on a long-term model that discounts expected cash flows, is substantially below the current market value. Specifically, the warranted value per share is about $21, and nowhere near the mid-50s current market price. The biggest reason for this is that the discounted value of future investments has declined the last few years substantially due to lower economic returns and lower sustainable growth rates. In other words, as the company’s ability to generate future returns has diminished, its stock price has completely failed to capture the change.

The chart below from David compares his model’s current and future intrinsic value (Arete target) with the annual high, low, and closing price for KO.  David’s graph is very similar to what we highlighted above; KO has been trading at a steep premium to its intrinsic value for the last few years.

Lastly, we share a few more facts about KO’s valuations.

  • Revenues (sales) have been in decline since 2012
  • Price to Sales (6.99) is at a 20 year high and three times greater than the faster growing S&P 500
  • Price to Earnings (25.83 –trailing 12 mos.) is at a 17 year high
  • Price to Book (11.24) is at an 18 year high
  • Enterprise Value to EBITDA is at an eight-year high
  • Capital Expenditures are at a 15 year low and have declined rapidly over the last eight years
  • Book Value is at a ten year low
  • Debt has tripled over the last ten years while revenues and earnings have grown at about 15-20% over the same period

When Value Becomes Growth

In 2018 we wrote a six-part RIA Pro series called Value Your Wealth. Part of the series was devoted to the current divergence between value and growth stocks and the potential for outsized returns for value investors when the market reverts to the mean. In the article, we explored mutual funds and S&P sectors to show how value can be defined, but also how the title “value” is being mischaracterized.

One of the key takeaway from the series is that finding value is not always as easy as buying an ETF or fund with the word “value” in it. Nor, as we show with KO, can you rely on traditional individual stock mainstays to provide true value. Today’s value hunters must work harder than in years past.

Based on our model, KO traded below the model’s intrinsic value from 2003 through 2013 and likely in the years prior. As noted, its average discount to intrinsic value during this period was 41%. Since 2014 KO has traded well above its intrinsic value.

In 2014 passive investing strategies started to gain popularity. As this occurred, many companies’ share prices rose faster than their earnings growth. These stocks became connected to popular indexes and disconnected from their fundamentals. The larger the company and the more indexes they are in, the more that the wave of passive investing helped the share price. KO meets all of those qualifications. As the old saying goes, if you buy enough of them, the price will go up.

Summary

Buying “Value” is not as easy as buying shares in well-known companies with great brand names, proven track records, and relative earnings stability. As we exemplified with KO, great companies do not necessarily make great investments.

The bull market starting in 2009 is unique in many aspects. One facet that we have written extensively on is how so many companies have become overpriced due to indiscriminate buying from passive investment strategies. This has big implications for the next equity market drawdown as companies like KO may go down every bit as much or even more than the broader market.

Be careful where you seek shelter in managing your portfolio of stocks; it may not be the safe bunker that you think it is.  

In a follow-up article for RIA Pro, we will present similar analysis and expose more “value” companies.

Investing Versus Speculating

Value investing is an active management strategy that considers company fundamentals and the valuation of securities to acquire that which is undervalued. The time-proven investment style is most clearly defined by Ben Graham and David Dodd in their book, Security Analysis. In the book they state, “An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.”

There are countless articles and textbooks written about, and accolades showered upon, the Mount Rushmore of value investors (Graham, Dodd, Berkowitz, Klarman, Buffett, et al.). Yet, present-day “investors” have shifted away from the value proposition these greats profess as the time-tested secret to successful investing and compounding wealth.  

The graph below shows running ten year return differentials between value and growth. Clearly, as shown, investors are chasing growth at the expense of value in a manner that is quite frankly unprecedented over the last 90 years.

Data Courtesy French, Fama, and Dartmouth

In the 83 ten year periods starting in 1936, growth outperformed value only eight times. Five of those ten year periods ended in each of the last five years.

Contrast

Value stocks naturally trade at a discount to the market. Companies with weaker than market fundamental growth leads to discounted valuations and a perception among investors that is too pessimistic about their ability to eventually achieve a stronger growth trajectory.

Growth stocks are those that pay little or no dividends but promise exceptional revenue and earnings growth in the future.

The outperformance of growth over value stocks is natural in times when investors become exuberant. Modern-day market participants claim superior insight into this Fed-controlled, growth-friendly environment. Based on the media, it appears as if the business cycle is dead, and recessions are an archaic thing of the past. Growth stocks promising terrific streams of cash flow at some point in the future rule the day. This naturally leads to investors becoming too optimistic and extrapolate strong growth far into the future.

Meanwhile, value companies tend to retain an advantage by offering higher market yields than growth stocks. That edge may only be 1 or 2% but compounded over time, it is significant. The problem is that when valuations on the broad market become elevated, as they are now, that premium compresses and diminishes the income effect. The problem is temporary, however, assuming valuations eventually mean-revert.

One other important distinction of value companies is that they, more commonly than growth companies, end up as takeover targets. Historically, this has served as another premium in favor of value investing. Over the course of the past 12 years, however, corporate capital has uncharacteristically been more focused on growth companies and the ability to tell their shareholder a tale of wild earnings growth that accompany their takeover targets. This is likely due to the environment of ultra-low interest rates, highly accommodative debt markets, and investors that are not focused on the inevitability of the current business cycle coming to an end.

Active versus Passive

Another related facet to the value versus growth discussion is active versus passive investment management. Although active management may be involved in either category, value investing, as mentioned above, must be an active strategy. Managers involved in active management require higher fees for those efforts. Yet, as value strategies have underperformed growth for the past 12 years, many investors are questioning the active management logic.

Why pay the high fees of active managers when passive management suffices at a cost of pennies on the dollar? But as Graham and Dodd defined it, passive strategies are not investing, they are speculating. As the graph below illustrates, the shift out of active management and into passive funds is stark.

Overlooking the historical benefits and outperformance of value managers, current investors seek to chase returns at the lowest cost. This behavior is reflective of a troubling lack of discipline and suggests that investors are complacent about the possibility of having their equity wealth cut in half as it was in two episodes since 2000.

Pure passive investing, investing in a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) that mimics an index, represents a low-fee approach to speculation. It does not involve “thorough analysis,” the promise of “safety of principal,” or an “adequate return.” Capital received is immediately deployed and invested dollars are weighted most heavily toward the most expensive stocks. This approach represents the opposite of the “buy-low, sell-high” golden rule of investing.

Active management, on the other hand, involves analytical rigor by usually seasoned managers and investors seeking out opportunities in good companies in which to invest at the best price.

Definition of Terms

To properly emphasize the worth of value investing, it is important first to define a couple of key terms that many investors tend to take for granted.

Risk – Contrary to Wall Street marketing propaganda, risk is not a number calculated by a formula in a spreadsheet. Risk is simply the likelihood of a substantial and permanent loss of capital with no ability to ever recover. Exposure to risk cannot be mitigated by blind diversification. Real risk cannot be quantified by processing the standard deviation of historical returns or the sophisticated variations of Value-at-Risk. These calculations and the many assumptions within them lead to misperceptions and misplaced confidence.

Wealth – Wealth is savings. It is that which is left over after consumption and is the accumulation of savings over time. Wealth results from the compounding of earnings. Wealth is not the net value of assets minus liabilities. That is a balance sheet metric that can change dramatically and suddenly depending on economic circumstances. An investor who seeks to sell high and buy low, like a business owner who prudently waits for opportunities to buy out competitors when they are distressed, uniquely illustrates proper wealth management and are but two forms of value investors.

Economic Worldview

Understanding these terms is important because it affects one’s economic worldview and the ability to make prudent investment decisions consistently. As Dylan Grice of Edelweiss Holdings describes it:

Language is the machinery with which we conceptualize the world around us. Devaluing language is tantamount to devaluing our ability to think and understand.” Grice continues, clarifying that point, “linguistic precision leads to cognitive precision.”

Value investors understand that compounding wealth depends on avoiding large losses. These terms and their proper definitions serve as a rock-solid foundation for sound reasoning and analytical rigor of market forces, central bank policies, and geopolitical dynamics that influence global liquidity, asset prices, and valuations. They enable critical foresight.

Proper definitional terms clarify the logical framework for an investor to benchmark their wealth, net of inflation, rather than obsessing with benchmarking returns to those of the S&P 500 or other passive indexes. Redefining one’s benchmark to inflation plus some excess return properly aligns target returns with life goals. Comparisons to the returns of the stock market are irrelevant to your goals and induce one to be dangerously urgent and speculative.

Value investing is having the courage to be opportunistic when others are pessimistic, to buy what others are selling, and to embrace volatility because it is in those times of upheaval that the greatest opportunities arise. That courage is derived from clarity of goals and a sturdy premise of assessing value. This is not an easy task in a world where the discounting mechanism itself has become so disfigured as to be rendered little more than a reckless guess.  

Properly executed, value investing seeks to find opportunities to deploy capital in such a way that reduces risk by acquiring assets at prices that are sufficiently below intrinsic value. This approach also extends to potential gains and creates a desirable performance asymmetry.

In the words of famed investor and former George Soros colleague, Jim Rogers, “If you buy value, you won’t lose much even if you’re wrong.” And let’s face it, everybody in this business is wrong far more than they’re right.

Summary

Analytically, safety, and profits are rooted in buying assets with abnormally large risk premiums and then having the patience to wait for mean reversion. It often requires the rather unconventional approach of identifying those areas where there is distress and misguided selling is occurring.

As briefly referenced above in the definition of wealth, a value investor manages money as a capitalist business owner would manage his company. A value investor is more interested in long-term survival. Their decisions are motivated by investing in companies that are doing those things that will add to the substance and durability of the enterprise. They are interested in companies that aim to enhance the cash flow of the operation and, ideally, do so with a very long time-preference and as a habitual pattern of behavior.

Unlike a business owner and an “investor,” most people who buy stocks think in terms of acquiring financial securities in hopes of selling them at a higher price. As a result, they make decisions primarily with a concern about what other investors’ expectations may be since that will determine tomorrow’s price. This is otherwise known as speculation, not investing, as properly defined by Graham and Dodd.

Although value investing strategies have underperformed relative to growth strategies for the past decade, the extent to which value has become cheap is reaching its limit.

We leave you with a question to ponder; why do you think Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is sitting on $128 billion in cash?

What We Are Not Being Told About The Trade Deal

Unlike most trade deals where the terms are readily available, the details of the Phase One trade agreement between China and the U.S. will not be announced nor signed in public. Accordingly, investors are left to cobble together official comments, anonymous statements from officials, and rumors to ascertain how it might affect their portfolios.

Based on official and unofficial sources, existing tariffs will remain in place, new tariff hikes will be delayed, and China will purchase $40-50 billion in agricultural goods annually. At first blush, the “deal” appears to be a hostage situation- China will buy more goods in exchange for tariff relief.

The chart below, courtesy of Bloomberg, provides reasons for skepticism. The rumored $40-50 billion in goods is nearly double what China purchased from the U.S. in any year of the last decade. It is over four times what they bought in 2018 before the trade war started in earnest.

The commitment is even more questionable when one considers that China recently agreed to purchase agricultural products from Brazil, Argentina, and New Zealand. 

The following tweet by Karen Braun, (@kannbwx), a Global Agricultural Columnist for Thomson-Reuters, puts the massive commitment into further context.  She claims that the maximum annual totalimport of four key agriculture products, only adds up to $56 billion. As she stresses in the tweet, the figures are based on the maximum amount China bought for each respective good in any one year.

Either China will buy more agriculture than they need and stockpile a tremendous amount of agriculture, which is possible, or they have agreed to something else that is not being disclosed. That, to us, seems more likely. We have a theory about what might not be disclosed and why it may matter to our investment portfolios.

Donald’s Dollar

Given the agreement as laid out in public, what else can China can offer that would satisfy President Trump? While there are many possibilities, the easiest and most beneficial commitment that China can offer the U.S. is a stronger yuan, and thus, a weaker dollar.

The tweets below highlight Trump’s disdain for the strengthening dollar.

A weaker dollar would reduce the U.S. trade deficit by making exports cheaper and imports more expensive. If sustained, it could provide an incentive for some companies to move production back to the U.S. This would help fulfill one of Trump’s core promises to voters, especially in “fly over” states that pushed him over the top in the last election. Further, a weaker dollar is inflationary, which would boost nominal GDP and help satisfy the Fed’s craving for more inflation.

From China’s point of view, a weaker dollar/ stronger yuan would hurt their exporting sectors but allow them to buy U.S. goods at lower prices. This is an important consideration based on what we wrote on December 11th, in our RIA Pro daily Commentary:   

“In part, due to skyrocketing pork prices, food prices in China have risen 19.1% year over year. In addition to hurting consumers, inflation makes monetary stimulus harder for the Bank of China to administer as it is inflationary. From a trade perspective, consumer inflation will likely be one factor that pushes Chinese leaders to come to some sort of Phase One agreement.

Food inflation is a growing problem for China and its leadership. In part, due to the issues in Hong Kong, Chairman Xi benefits from pleasing his people. While a stronger yuan would result in some lost trade and possibly jobs, the price of the agricultural goods will be lower which benefits the entire population.

A stronger yuan is not ideal for China, but it appears to be a nice tradeoff and something that benefits Trump. This is speculation, but if correct, and recent weakness in the dollar suggests it is, then we must assess how a weaker dollar affects our investment stance. 

Investment Implications

The following table shows the recent and longer-term average monthly correlations between the U.S. dollar and various asset classes. Below the table is a graph that shows the history of the two-year running monthly correlations for these asset classes to provide more context.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The takeaway from the data shown above is that gold and ten-year Treasury yields have a consistent negative correlation with the dollar. This means that we would expect higher gold prices and Treasury yields if the dollar weakens. Interestingly, the CRB (broad commodities index) and Emerging Equity Markets have the most positive correlation. Oil and the S&P 500 appear to be neutral.

The S&P 500 is a broad measure, so when looking at particular stocks or sectors, it is important to consider the size of the company(s) and the global or domestic nature of the company(s). For instance, domestic large-cap companies with global sales should benefit most from a weaker dollar, while small-cap domestic companies, reliant on foreign sources to produce their goods, should perform relatively poorly.  

Summary

From the onset of negotiations, the China-US trade war has been tough to handicap. China has a lot to lose if they give in to Trump’s demands. Trump has leverage as a tariff war hits China’s economy harder than the U.S. economy. China is fully aware that the U.S. election is only 11 months away, and Trump’s re-election prospects are sensitive to the state of the economy and market sentiment. A trade victory should help Trump at the polls.

Our dollar thesis is speculation, but such an agreement is self-serving for both sides. Keep a close eye on the dollar, especially versus the yuan, as a weaker dollar has implications for all asset classes.

When It Becomes Serious You Have To Lie: Update On The Repo Fiasco

Occasionally, problems reveal themselves gradually. A water stain on the ceiling is potentially evidence of a much larger problem. Painting over the stain will temporarily relieve the unsightly condition, but in time, the water stain will return. This is analogous to a situation occurring within the banking system. Almost three months after water stains first appeared in the overnight funding markets, the Fed has stepped in on a daily basis to “re-paint the ceiling” and the problem has appeared to vanish. Yet, every day the stain reappears and the Fed’s work begins anew. One is left to wonder why the leak hasn’t been fixed. 

In mid-September, evidence of issues in the U.S. banking system began to appear. The problem occurred in the overnight funding markets which serve as one of the most important components of a well-functioning financial and economic system. It is also a market that few investors follow and even fewer understand. At that time, interest rates in the normally boring repo market suddenly spiked higher with intra-day rates surpassing a whopping 8%. The difference between the 8% repo rate recorded on September 16, 2019 and Treasuries was an eight standard deviation event. Statistically, such an event should occur once every three billion years.

For a refresher on the details of those events, we suggest reading our article from September 25, 2019, entitled Who Could Have Known: What The Repo Fiasco Entails.  

At the time, it was surprising that the sudden change in overnight repo borrowing rates caught the Fed completely off guard and that they lacked a reasonable explanation for the disruption. Since then, our surprise has turned to concern and suspicion.

We harbor doubts about the cause of the problem based on two excuses the Fed and banks use to explain the situation. Neither are compelling or convincing. 

As we were putting the finishing touches on this article, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) reported that the overnight repo problems might stem from the reluctance of the four largest U.S. banks to lend to some of the largest hedge funds. The four banks are being forced to fund a massive surge in U.S. Treasury issuance and therefore reallocated funding from the hedge funds to the U.S. Treasury.  Per the Financial Times in Hedge Funds key in exacerbating repo market turmoil, says BIS: “High demand for secured (repo) funding from non-financial institutions, such as hedge funds heavily engaged in leveraging up relative value trades,” – was a key factor behind the chaos, said Claudio Borio, Head of the monetary and economic department at the BIS.

In the article, the BIS implies that the Fed is providing liquidity to banks so that banks, in turn, can provide the hedge funds funding to maintain their leverage. The Fed is worried that hedge funds will sell assets if liquidity is not available. Instead of forcing hedge funds to deal with a funding risk that they know about, they are effectively bailing them out from having to liquidate their holdings. If that is the case, and as the central bank to central bankers the BIS should be well informed on such matters, why should the Fed be involved in micro-managing leverage to hedge funds? It would certainly represent another extreme example of mission creep.

Excuse #1

In the article linked above, we discussed the initial excuse for the funding issues bandied about by Wall Street, the banks, and the media as follows:

Most likely, there was an unexpected cash crunch that left banks and/or financial institutions underfunded. The media has talked up the corporate tax date and a large Treasury bond settlement date as potential reasons.”

While the excuse seemed legitimate, it made little sense as we surmised in the next sentence:

“We are not convinced by either excuse as they were easily forecastable weeks in advance.”

If the dearth of liquidity in the overnight funding markets was due to predictable, one-time cash demands, the problem should have been fixed easily. Simply replenish the cash with open market operations as the Fed routinely did prior to the Financial Crisis.

Since mid-September, the Fed has elected instead to increase their balance sheet by over $320 billion.  In addition to conducting daily overnight repo auctions, they introduced term repo that extends for weeks and then abruptly restarted quantitative easing (QE).

Imagine your plumber coming into your house with five other plumbers and a bull dozer to fix what you assumed was a leaky pipe.

The graph below, courtesy Bianco Research, shows the dramatic rise in the Fed’s balance sheet since September.

Based on the purported cash shortfall excuse, one would expect that the increase in the Fed’s balance sheet would have easily met demands for cash and the markets would have stabilized. Liquidity hole filled, problem solved.

However, as witnessed by the continuing growth of the Fed’s balance sheet and ever-increasing size of Fed operations, the hole seems to be growing. It is worth noting that the Fed has committed to add $60 billion a month to their balance sheet through March of 2020 via QE. In other words, the stain keeps reappearing and getting bigger despite increasing amounts of paint. 

Excuse #2

The latest rationale used to explain the funding problems revolves around banking regulations. Many Fed members and banking professionals have recently stated that banking regulations, enacted after the Financial Crisis, are constraining banks’ ability to lend to other banks and therefore worsening the funding situation. In the words of Randy Quarles, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Banking Supervision, in his testimony to the House Financial Services Committee:

We have identified some areas where our existing supervision of the regulatory framework…may have created some incentives that were contributors

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, is quoted in MarketWatch as saying the following:

“The turmoil may be a precursor of a bigger crisis if the Fed doesn’t adjust its regulations. He said the liquidity requirements tie up what was seen as excess reserves.”

Essentially, Quarles and Dimon argue that excess reserves are not really excess. When new post Financial Crisis regulatory requirements are factored in, banks only hold the appropriate amount of reserves and are not exceeding requirements.

This may be the case, and if so, the amount of true excess reserves was dwindling several months prior to the repo debacle in September.  Any potential or forecasted shortfalls due to the constraints should have been easily identifiable weeks and months in advance of any problem.

The banks and the Fed speak to each other quite often about financial conditions and potential problems that might arise. Most of the systemically important financial institutions (SIFI banks) have government regulators on-site every day. In addition, the Fed audits the banks on a regular basis. We find it hard to believe that new regulatory restraints and the effect they have on true excess reserves were not discussed. This is even harder to believe when one considers that the Fed was actively reducing the amount of reserves in the system via Quantitative Tightening (QT) through 2018 and early 2019. The banks and the regulators should have been alerting everyone they were getting dangerously close to exhausting their true excess reserves. That did not occur, at least not publicly.

Theories and Speculation

A golden rule we follow is that when we think we are being misled, especially by market participants, the Fed, or the government, it pays to try to understand the motive.  “Why would they do this?” Although not conclusive, we have a few theories about the faulty explanations for the funding shortage. They are as follows:

  • The banks and the Fed would like to reduce the regulatory constraints imposed on them in recent years. Disruptions demonstrating that the regulations not only inhibit lending but can cause a funding crisis allow them to leverage lobbying efforts to reduce regulations.
  • There may be a bank or large financial institution that is in distress. In an effort to keep it out of the headlines, the Fed is indirectly supplying liquidity to the institution. This would help explain why the September Repo event was so sudden and unexpected. Rumors about troubles at certain European banks have been circulating for months.
  • The Fed and the banks grossly underestimated how much of the increased U.S. Treasury debt issuance they would have to buy. In just the last quarter, the Treasury issued nearly $1 trillion dollars of debt. At the same time, foreign sponsorship of U.S. Treasuries has been declining. While predictable, the large amount of cash required to buy Treasury notes and bonds may have created a cash shortfall. For more on why this problem is even more pronounced today, read our article Who Is Funding Uncle Sam. If this is the case, the Fed is funding the Treasury under the table via QE. This is better known as “debt monetization”.
  • Between July and November the Fed reduced the Fed Funds rate by 0.75% without any economic justification for doing so. The Fed claims that the cuts are an “insurance” policy to ensure that slowing global growth and trade turmoil do not halt the already record long economic expansion. Might they now be afraid that further cuts would raise suspicion that the Fed has recessionary concerns? QE, which was supposedly enacted to combat the overnight funding issues, has generously supported financial markets in the past. Maybe a funding crisis provides the Fed cover for QE despite rates not being at the zero bound. Since 2008, the Fed has been vocal about the ways in which market confidence supports consumer confidence. 

The analysis of what is true and what is rhetoric spins wildly out of control when we allow our imaginations to run. This is what happens when pieces do not fit neatly into the puzzle and when sound policy decisions are subordinated to public relations sound bites. One thing seems certain, despite what we are being told, there likely something else is going on.

Of greater concern in this matter of overnight funding, is the potential the Fed and banks were truly blindsided. If that is the case, we should harbor even deeper concern as there is likely a much bigger issue being painted over with temporary liquidity injections.

Summary

In the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of the more famous quotes is, “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

We do not accept the rationale the Fed is using to justify the reintroduction of QE and the latest surge in their balance sheet. Although we do not know why the Fed has been so incoherent in their application of monetary policy, our theories offer other ideas for thinking through the monetary policy maze. They also have various implications for the markets, none of which should be taken lightly.

We are just as certain that we are not entirely correct as we are certain that we aren’t entirely wrong. Like the water spot on the ceiling, financial market issues normally reveal themselves gradually. Prudent risk management suggests finding and addressing the source of the problem rather than cosmetics. We want to reiterate that, if the Fed is papering over problems in the overnight funding market, we are left to question the Fed’s understanding of global funding markets and the global banking system’s ability to weather a more significant disruption than the preview we observed in September.

Collecting Tolls On The Energy Express

The recent surge in passive investment strategies, and corresponding decline in active investment strategies, is causing strong price correlations amongst a broad swath of equities. This dynamic has caused a large majority of stocks to rise lockstep with the market, while a few unpopular stocks have been left behind. It is these lagging assets that provide an opportunity. Overlooked and underappreciated stocks potentially offer outsized returns and low correlation to the market. Finding these “misfits” is one way we are taking advantage of a glaring market inefficiency.

In July 2019, we recommended that investors consider a specific and underfollowed sector of REITs that pay double-digit dividends and could see reasonable price appreciation. In this article, we shed light on another underfollowed gem that also offers a high dividend yield, albeit with a vastly different fundamental profile.

The Case for MLP’s

Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) are similar in legal structure to REITs in that they pass through a large majority of income to investors. As such, many MLP’s tend to pay higher than average dividends. That is where the similarities between REITs and MLPs end. 

The particular class of MLPs that interest us are called mid-stream MLPs. We like to think of these MLPs as the toll booth on the energy express. These MLPs own the pipelines that deliver energy products from the exploration fields (upstream) to the refiners and distributors (downstream). Like a toll road, these MLPs’ profitability is based on the volume of cars on the road, not the value of the cars on it. In other words, mid-stream MLPs care about the volume of energy they carry, not the price of that energy. That said, low oil prices can reduce the volume flowing through the pipelines and, provide energy producers, refiners, and distributors leverage to renegotiate pipeline fees.

Because the income of MLPs is the result of the volume of products flowing through their pipelines and not the cost of the products, their sales revenue, income, and dividend payouts are not well correlated to the price of oil or other energy products. Despite a different earnings profile than most energy companies, MLP stock prices have been strongly correlated to the energy sector. This correlation has always been positive, but the correlation is even greater today, largely due to the surge of passive investment strategies.

Passive investors tend to buy indexes and sectors containing stocks with similar traits. As passive investors become a larger part of the market, the prices of the underlying constituents’ trade more in line with each other despite variances in their businesses, valuations, outlooks, and risks. As this occurs, those marginal active investors that differentiate between stocks and their associated fundamentals play a lesser role in setting prices. With this pricing dynamic, inefficiencies flourish.

The graph below compares the tight correlation of the Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index (MLPI) and the State Street Energy Sector ETF (XLE).

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Before further discussing MLP’s, it is worth pointing out the value proposition that the entire energy sector affords investors. While MLP cash flows and dividends are not necessarily similar to those companies in the broad energy sector, given the strong correlation, we must factor in the fundamental prospects of the entire energy sector.

The following table compares valuation fundamentals, returns, volatility, and dividends for XLE and the S&P 500. As shown, XLE has traded poorly versus the S&P 500 despite a better value proposition. XLE also pays more than twice the dividend of the S&P 500. However, it trades with about 50% more volatility than the index.  

The following table compares two valuation metrics and the dividend yield of the top 6 holdings of Alerian MLP ETF (AMLP) and the S&P 500. A similar value story emerges.

As XLE has grossly underperformed the market, so have MLPs. It is important for value investors to understand the decline in MLP’s is largely in sympathy with the gross underperformance of the energy sector and not the fundamentals of the MLP sector itself. The graph below shows the steadily rising earnings per share of the MLP sector versus the entire energy sector.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Illustrating the Value Proposition

The following graphs help better define the value of owning MLPs at current valuations.

The scatter graph below compares 60-day changes to the price of oil with 60-day changes in AMLP’s dividend yield. At current levels (the orange dot) either oil should be $10.30 lower given AMLP’s current dividend yield, or the dividend yield should be 1.14% lower based on current oil prices. A decline in the dividend yield to the norm, assuming the dividend payout is unchanged, would result in a price increase of 13.17% for AMLP. Alternatively if oil declined about 20% in value, the current AMLP dividend yield would then be fairly priced. We consider this a significant margin of safety should the price of oil fall, as it likely would if the U.S. enters a recession in the near future.   

Data Courtesy Alerian and Bloomberg

The graph below highlights that AMLP’s dividend yield is historically high, albeit below three short term spikes occurring over the last 25 years. In all three cases oil fell precipitously due to a recession or a sharp slowdown of global growth.

Data Courtesy Alerian and Bloomberg

Due to their high dividend yields and volatility, MLP’s are frequently compared to higher-yielding, lower-rated corporate debt securities. The graph below shows that the spread of AMLP’s dividend yield to the yield on junk-rated BB corporate bonds is the largest in at least 25 years. The current spread is 5.66%, which is 5.18% above the average since 1995.

Data Courtesy Alerian and St. Louis Federal Reserve

To help us better quantify the pricing of MLPs, we created a two-factor model. This model forecasts the price of MLPI based on changes to the price of XLE and the yield of U.S. Ten-year Treasury Notes. The model below has an R-squared of .76, meaning 76% of the price change of MLPI is attributable to the price changes of energy stocks and Treasury yields. Currently the model shows that MLPI is 20% undervalued (gray bars).  The last two times MLPI was undervalued by over 20%, its price rose 49% (2016) and 15% (2018) in the following three months.

The following summarizes some of the more important pros and cons of investing in MLPs.

Pros

  • Dividend yields are very high on an absolute basis and versus other higher-yielding securities
  • Valuations are cheap
  • Earnings are growing in a dependable trend
  • Balance sheets are in good shape
  • Potential for stock buybacks as balance sheets improve and stock prices offer value

Cons

  • Strong correlation to oil prices and energy stocks
  • “Peak oil demand” – electric cars/solar
  • Sensitivity to global trade, economy, and broad asset prices
  • Political uncertainty/green movement
  • High volatility

Summary

The stronger the market influence that passive investors have, the greater the potential for market dislocations. Simply, as individual stock prices become more correlated with markets and each other, specific out of favor companies are punished. We believe this explains why MLP’s have traded so poorly and why they are so cheap today.

We urge caution as buying MLPs in today’s environment is a “catching the falling knife” trade. AMLP has fallen nearly 25% over the last few months and may continue to fall further, especially as tax selling occurs over the coming weeks. It has also been in a longer-term downtrend since 2017.  We are unlikely to call the market bottom in MLPs and therefore intend to scale into a larger position over time. We will likely buy our first set of shares opportunistically over the next few weeks or possibly in early 2020. Readers will be alerted at the time. We may possibly use leveraged MLP funds in addition to AMLP.

It is worth noting this position is a small part of our portfolio and fits within the construct of the entire portfolio. While the value proposition is great, we must remain cognizant of the current price trend, the risks of owning MLPs, and how this investment changes our exposure to equities and interest rates.

This article focuses predominately on the current pricing and value proposition. We suggest that if you are interested in MLPs, read more on MLP legal structures, their tax treatment, and specific risks they entail.

AMLP does not require investors to file a K-1 tax form. Many ETFs and all individual MLPs have this requirement.

*MLPI and AMLP were used in this article as a proxy for MLPs. They are both extremely correlated to each other. Usage was based on the data needed.

Beware Of Those Selling “Technology”

“3. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” Genesis 11:3-4 (NRSV)

Technology

Technology can be thought of as the development of new tools. New tools enhance productivity and profits, and productivity improvements afford a rising standard of living for the people of a nation. Put to proper uses, technological advancement is a good thing; indeed, it is a necessary thing. Like the invention of bricks and mortar as documented in the book of Genesis, the term technology has historically been applied to advancements in tangible instruments and machinery like those used in manufacturing. Additional examples include the printing press, the cotton gin, and the internal combustion engine. These were truly remarkable technological achievements that changed the world.

Although the identity of a technology company began to emerge in the late 1930s as IBM developed tabulation equipment capable of processing large amounts of data, the modern-day distinction did not take shape until 1956 when IBM developed the first example of artificial intelligence and machine learning. At that time, a computer was programmed to play checkers and learn from its experience. About one year later, IBM developed the FORTRAN computer programming language. Until the early 1980s, IBM was the dominant tech company in the world and largely stood as the singular representative of the burgeoning technology investment sector.

The springboard for the modern tech era came in 1980 when the U.S. Congress expanded the definition list of copyright law to include the term “computer program.” With that change, software developers and companies like IBM involved in programming computers (mostly mainframes at that time) had a legal means of preventing unauthorized copying of their software. This development led to the proliferation of software licensing.

As further described by Ben Thompson of stratechery.com –

This highlighted another critical factor that makes tech companies unique: the zero marginal cost nature of software. To be sure, this wasn’t a new concept: Silicon Valley received its name because silicon-based chips have similar characteristics; there are massive up-front costs to develop and build a working chip, but once built additional chips can be manufactured for basically nothing. It was this economic reality that gave rise to venture capital, which is about providing money ahead of a viable product for the chance at effectively infinite returns should the product and associated company be successful.

To summarize: venture capitalists fund tech companies, which are characterized by a zero marginal cost component that allows for uncapped returns on investment.

Everybody is a Tech Company

Today, every company employs some form of software to run their organization, but that does not make every company a tech company. As such, it is important to differentiate real tech companies from those that wish to pose as one. If a publicly traded company can convince the investing public that they are a legitimate tech company with scalability at zero marginal cost, it could be worth a large increase in their price-to-earnings multiple. Investors should be discerning in evaluating this claim. Getting caught with a pretender almost certainly means you will have bought high and will be forced to sell low.

Pretenders in Detail

Ride share company Uber (Tkr: UBER) went public in May 2019 at a market capitalization of over $75 billion. Their formal name is Uber Technologies, but in reality, they are a cab company with a useful app and a business producing negative income.

Arlo Technologies (Tkr: ARLO) develops high-tech home security cameras and uses a cloud-based platform to “provide software solutions.” ARLO IPO’ed at $16 per share in August 2018. After trading as high as $23 per share within a couple of weeks of the initial offering, they currently trade at less than $4. Although the Arlo app is available to anyone, use of it requires an investment in the Arlo security equipment. Unlike a pure tech company, that is not a zero marginal cost platform.

Peloton (Tkr: PTON) makes exercise bikes with an interactive computer screen affording the rider the ability to tap in to live sessions with professional exercise instructors and exercise groups from around the world. Like Arlo, the Peloton app is available to anyone, but the experience requires an investment of over $2,000 for the stationary bike. PTON went public in September 2019 at the IPO price of $29 per share. It currently trades at roughly $23.

Recent Universe

From 2010 to the end of the third quarter of 2019, there have been 1,192 initial public offerings or IPOs. Of those, 19% or 226 have been labeled technology companies. Over the past two years, many of the companies brought to the IPO market have, for reasons discussed above, desperately tried to label themselves as a tech company. Using analysis from Michael Cembalest, Chief Strategist for JP Morgan Asset Management, we considered 32 “tech” stocks that have gone public over the past two years under that guise. We decided to look at how they have performed.

In an effort to capture the reality that most investors are not able to get in on an IPO before they are priced, the assumption for return calculations is that a normal investor may buy on the day after the IPO. We acknowledge that the one-day change radically alters the total return data, but we stand by it as an accurate reflection of reality for most non-institutional investors.

As shown in the table below, 23 of the 32 IPOs we analyzed, or 72%, have produced a negative total return through October 31, 2019. Additionally, those stocks as a group underperformed the S&P 500 from the day after their IPO date through October 31, 2019 by an average of over 35%.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Summary

Over the past several years, we have seen an unprecedented move among companies to characterize themselves as technology companies. The reason is that the “tech” label carries with it a hefty premium in valuation on a presumption of a steeper growth trajectory and the zero marginal cost benefit. A standard consumer lending company may employ technology to convince investors they are actually a new-age lender on a sophisticated and proprietary technology platform. If done convincingly, this serves to garner a large price-to-earnings multiple boost thereby significantly (and artificially) increasing the value of the company.

A new automaker that can convince investors they are more of a technology company than other automobile companies’ trades at many multiples above that of the traditional yet profitable car companies. Still, the core of the business is making cars and trying to sell them to a populace that already has three in the driveway.

Using the technology label falsely is a deceptive scheme. Those who fall for the artificial marketing jargon are doomed to sacrifice hard-earned wealth as has been the case with Lyft and Fiverr among many others. For those who are not discerning, the lessons learned will ultimately be harsh as were those described in the story of the tower of Babel.

It is not in the long-term best interest of the economic system or its stewards to chase high-flying pseudo-technology stocks. Frequently they are old school companies using software like every other company. Enron and Theranos offer stark lessons. Those were total loss outcomes, yet the allure of jumping aboard a speculative circus is as irresistible as ever, especially with interest rates at near-record lows. The investing herd continues to follow the celebrity of popular “momentum” investing, thereby they ignore the analytical rigor aimed at discovering what is reasonable and what allows one to, as Warren Buffett says, “avoid big mistakes.”

UPDATE: To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide to QE 4

In our RIA Pro article, To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide To QE4, we studied asset performance returns during the first three episodes of QE. We then normalized the data for the duration and amount of QE to project how QE4 might affect various assets.  

With a month of QE4 under our belt, we update you on the pacing of this latest version of extreme monetary policy and review how various assets are performing versus our projections. Further, we share some recent comments from Fed speakers and analyze trading in the Fed Funds market to provide some unique thoughts about the future of QE4.

QE4

Since October 14th, when QE4 was announced by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, the Fed’s balance sheet has increased by approximately $100 billion. The graph below compares the current weekly balance sheet growth with the initial growth that occurred during the three prior iterations of QE.  

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

As shown above, the Fed is supplying liquidity at a pace greater than QE2 but slightly off the pace of QE 1 and 3. What is not shown is the $190 billion of growth in the Fed’s balance sheet that occurred in the weeks before announcing QE4. When this amount is considered along with the amount shown since October 14th, the current pacing is much larger than the other three instances of QE.

To put this in context, take a step back and consider the circumstances under which QE1 occurred. When the Fed initiated QE1 in November of 2008, markets were plummeting, major financial institutions had already failed with many others on the brink, and the domestic and global economy was broadly in recession. The Fed was trying to stop the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression from worsening.

Today, U.S. equity markets sit at all-time highs, the economic expansion has extended to an all-time record 126 months, unemployment at 3.6% is at levels not seen since the 1960s, and banks are posting record profits.

The introduction of QE4 against this backdrop reveals the possibility that one of two things is occurring, or quite possibly both.

One, there could be or could have been a major bank struggling to borrow or in financial trouble. The Fed, via repo operations and QE, may be providing liquidity either to the institution directly or indirectly via other banks to forestall the ramifications of a potential banking related default.

Two, the markets are struggling to absorb the massive amount of Treasury debt issued since July when Congress extended the debt cap. From August through October 2019, the amount of Treasury debt outstanding grew by $1 trillion. Importantly, foreign entities are now net sellers of Treasury debt, which is worsening the problem. For more read our recent article, Who Is Funding Uncle Sam?

The bottom line is that the Fed has taken massive steps over the last few months to provide liquidity to the financial markets. As we saw in prior QEs, this liquidity distorts financial markets.  

QE4 Projections and Updates

The following table provides the original return projections by asset class as well as performance returns since October 14th.  The rankings are based on projected performance by asset class and total.  

Here are a few takeaways about performance during QE4 thus far:

  • Value is outperforming growth by 1.67% (5.95% vs. 4.28%)
  • There is general uniformity amongst the equity indexes
  • Equity indices have captured at least 50%, and in the case of value and large caps (S&P 100) over 100% of the expected gains, despite being only one-sixth of the way through QE4
  • The sharp variation in sector returns is contradictory to the relatively consistent returns at the index level
  • Discretionary stocks are trading poorly when compared to other sectors and to the expected performance forecast for discretionary stocks
  • Defensive sectors are trading relatively weaker as occurred during prior QE
  • The healthcare sector has been the best performing sector within the S&P as well as versus every index and commodity in the tables
  • The yield curve steepened as expected
  • In the commodity sector, precious metals are weaker, but oil and copper are positive

Are Adjustments to QE4 Coming?

The Fed has recently made public statements that lead us to believe they are concerned with rising debt levels. In particular, a few Fed speakers have noted the sharp rise in corporate and federal debt levels both on an absolute basis and versus earnings and GDP. The increase in leverage is made possible in part by low interest rates and QE. In addition, some Fed speakers over the last year or two have grumbled about higher than normal equity valuations.

It was for these very reasons that in 2013, Jerome Powell voiced concerns about the consequences of asset purchases (QE). To wit: 

“What of the potential costs or risks of the asset purchases? A variety of concerns have been raised over time. With inflation in check, the most important potential risk, in my view, is that of financial instability. One concern is that our policies might drive excessive risk-taking or create bubbles in financial assets or housing.”

Earlier this month, Jerome Powell, in Congressional testimony said:

“The debt is growing faster than the economy. It’s as simple as that. That is by definition unsustainable. And it is growing faster in the United States by a significant margin.”

With more leverage in the financial system and higher valuations in the equity and credit markets, how does Fed Chairman Powell reconcile those comments with where we are today? It further serves to highlight that political expediency has thus far trumped the long-run health of the economy and the financial system.

Based on the Fed’s prior and current warnings about debt and valuations, we believe they are trying to fix funding issues without promoting greater excesses in the financial markets. To thread this needle, they must supply just enough liquidity to restore financing markets to normal but not over stimulate them. This task is much easier said than done due to the markets’ Pavlovian response to QE.

Where the fed funds effective rate sits within the Fed’s target range can be a useful gauge of the over or undersupplying of liquidity. Based on this measure, it appears the Fed is currently oversupplying liquidity as seen in the following chart. For the first time in at least two years, as circled, the effective Fed Funds rate has been consistently below the midpoint of the Fed’s target range.

If the Fed is concerned with debt levels and equity valuations and is comfortable that they have provided sufficient liquidity, might they halt QE4, reduce monthly amounts, or switch to a more flexible model of QE?

We think all of these options are possible.

Any effort to curtail QE will be negative for markets that have been feasting on the additional liquidity. Given the symbiotic relationship between markets and QE, the Fed will be cautious in making changes. As always, the first whisper of change could upset the apple cart.

Summary

Equity markets have been rising on an almost daily basis despite benign economic reports, negative trade and tariff headlines, and Presidential impeachment proceedings, among other worrisome factors. We have little doubt that investors have caught QE fever again, and they are more concerned with the FOMO than fundamentals.

As the fresh round of liquidity provided by the Fed leaks into the markets, it only further advances more misallocation of capital, such as excessive borrowing by zombie companies and borrowing to further fund unproductive stock buybacks. Like dogs drooling at the sound of a ringing bell, most investors expect the bull run to continue. It may, but there is certainly reason for more caution this time around as the contours of the economy and the market are vastly different from prior rounds. Add to this the incoherence of this policy action in light of the record expansion, benign inflation readings, and low unemployment rate and we have more questions about QE4 than feasible answers.

Absurdity Spewed From Market Peaks

A recent article by James Deporre at thestreet.com asked Will Powell’s Remarks Push the Algos to Make a Move?

Deporre’s article is a recap of a day’s market events beginning with Jerome Powell’s recent testimony to Congress. He suggests that what matters are not Powell’s words, but whether computerized trading programs, known as “algos,” would buy stocks as a result of Powell’s testimony. Summarizing what ended up being an uneventful day of trading activity, Deporre made the following absurd comment which caught our attention:

“On the other hand, the mighty Apple (AAPL) is holding up and seems to function as a de facto money market account these days. It is a great place for some to park cash and that helps to keep the indices hovering near highs.” 

While we currently hold Apple stock on behalf of some of our clients, we do so with the full awareness that valuations for Apple and many other stocks are extreme. A reversion back to or below average historical valuations will result in a massive loss of wealth for many investors. As such, we maintain a careful and balanced investment posture and take nothing for granted. Most importantly, we never confuse “parking” cash with owning a stock. Like a shovel and hammer, stocks and cash are valuable tools, but neither is a perfect substitute for the other.  

What Apple Is And What It Isn’t

Apple is one of the world’s largest corporations, with innovative products and a great growth trajectory. As reported in its third-quarter 2019 earnings release, the company has a war chest of $245 billion in cash. These facts are not lost on investors. As shown below, Apple shares have risen at a remarkable pace. Since its IPO in 1984, the stock is up almost 70,000% or more than 20% annually. A $1500 investment in 1984 is now worth over a million dollars!

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Money market mutual funds, also known as cash accounts, are vehicles that allow investors to hold cash and earn the short term rate of interest in the market. These funds invest in very short term, liquid, and highly rated securities. The investments produce little to no price volatility. Many money market mutual funds are governed by the SEC’s 2A7 rules, which greatly limit the credit and liquidity risk of these funds and attempt to ensure investors in them do not have a risk of loss of principal. Given the near riskless nature of money market mutual funds, they offer meager returns.

Buy And Hold

As the Byrds sang, “there is a season- turn – turn- turn. Similarly, there is a time to invest heavily in stocks and a time to scale back on stock holdings and take less risk. It is all too popular for market gurus, especially at market peaks when complacency is the highest, to preach about buy and hold strategies. This advice is based on a misconception that market drawdowns will be short-lived and investors will quickly recoup any losses. Therefore, it is not surprising that the popular investing view today insists that investors should check their brains at the door and remain fully invested in stocks at all times.

As shown below, such logic flies in the face of history.   

Over the long run, investors in Apple have fared better than the market. As shown, drawdowns over the last decade have been relatively short-lived. However, those setbacks have not been small. Since 2010, Apple’s stock price has dropped by 35-45% on three different occasions and by 20% on one other. So, can we treat Apple like a money market fund and hold it with the certainty of knowing that it will never lose value?

It is important to understand that, in the long run, stock prices are regulated by the cash flows of the underlying corporation. We explained this recently as follows:

“A Honus Wagner baseball card from 1909 was recently auctioned for over $3 million. While that may seem like a lot of money, it is not necessarily expensive. A baseball card is nothing more than paper and ink with no real value. Its street value, or price, is based on the whims of collectors. “Whim” is impossible to value.

Stocks are not baseball cards. Stocks represent ownership in a corporation, and therefore, their share prices are based on a series of future expected earnings and cash flows. Further, there are many other types of investments that serve not only as alternatives, but provide a means to assess relative value.

Today, investors are trading stocks on a “whim,” with scant attention to their value. Unlike a baseball card, when a stock’s market value rises much more than its real value, an inevitable correction will occur. The only question is not if, but when.”

There is an important distinction to be made here between “investing” vs. “speculating.” 

Apple’s shares are priced at a historically steep premium to its fundamentals, meaning “whim” is playing a role in recent price appreciation. Whim is speculating. Here are a few fundamental data points to consider, but as you do, keep in mind Apple has bought back a third of their shares outstanding since 2012, making per share data when adjusted for buybacks higher than that shown below.

  • Price to book value is the highest it has ever been since the IPO (12.90x)
  • Price to earnings (trailing twelve months), price to sales, and price to free cash flow are at the highest levels since 2009

Regardless of whether Apple’s valuation may appear rich, there is little doubt the valuation premium can still rise further in the future. Earnings can grow faster than expected and justify the current valuations.  However, the premium can also revert back to historical levels and earnings may disappoint in the future. Apple’s stock price dropped 61% in 2008, and that was following the release of the first iPhone. It is difficult to imagine a better time to have owned shares in the company.

Apple also appears to be over extended on a technical basis. The graph below shows the premium or discount of Apple stock price to its 50 day moving average. As circled, three of the last four times that the stock has been this far above the moving average, a drawdown of at least 20% occurred.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Our simple conclusion is that Apple is a speculative investment with zero guarantees and, therefore a poor substitute for a money market fund.

Sorry Mr. Deporre, but Apple is not cash. When markets drop in earnest, so will Apple, as suggested by its beta to the S&P 500 of 1.06. Holding Apple shares will not afford you the ability to take advantage of lower prices when stocks go on sale. Therein lies an important difference between the utilization of cash and stocks in a portfolio.

The graph below shows the percentage drawdowns that occurred in Apple’s stock over the last fifteen years.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Summary

There are two key points that Deporre’s article fails to consider. First, an equity stake in any company – whether a boring utility or hot IPO – is speculative, especially when valuations are above fair value. Value is never guaranteed, but it is far less uncertain when the price paid is below fair value. Second, cash is king when markets decline. Investors that are fully invested with little cash as an insurance policy tend to sell when markets decline rapidly. Quite often, a low is marked with a massive amount of capitulation selling.  Those who harvest gains when markets are over-valued and hold a reasonable amount of their portfolio in cash can buy stocks that trade at a discount to fair value from those who are panicking.

We leave you with an interesting graph from The Leuthold Group.

Impact Investing- Is It Right For You?

Over the last 30 years, the popularity of impact investing and a desire to ‘do good’ with investment portfolios has blossomed. In April 2019, The Global Impact Investing Network estimated the global impact investing market was $502 billion. While impressive, it represents less than 1% of the investing universe.

Impact investors, looking to have a positive social and environmental influence, tend to analyze factors not typically on the radar of traditional investors. In particular, ESG, an acronym for environmental, social, and corporate governance, is a framework for investors to assess investments within three broad factors.  

We all want to make the world a better place, but are investment portfolios the right tool to do that?

To answer the question it is important to step back from impact investing and explore investment goals and how wealth grows fastest to help answer the question.

As a wealth fiduciary, our mission is managing our client’s portfolios in a risk-appropriate manner to meet their financial goals. Whether a client is ultra-conservative or uber-aggressive, the principle of compounding underlies every strategy we employ.  Compounding, dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” by Albert Einstein, is an incredibly important factor in wealth management.

Wealth compounding is achieved through consistency. Targeting steady growth while avoiding large drawdowns is the key.  To do this, we develop an aggregation of diversified investment ideas.

Investment diversification is well-touted but not well understood. Commonly it is believed that portfolio diversification is about adding exposure to many different investments within many different asset classes. True portfolio diversification is best created by owning a variety of assets with unique, uncorrelated cash flows that each individually, offer a promising risk and return trade-off.

To demonstrate the importance of drawdown avoidance, we compare two portfolios. Both average 5% annual growth. Portfolio A grows by a very dependable 5% every year. Portfolio B is a more typical portfolio with larger growth rates but occasional drawdowns. Portfolio B grows 10% a year for four years but experiences a 15% drawdown every fifth year. Despite earning 5% a year less in four of five years, portfolio A avoids losses and grows at an increasing rate to portfolio B as highlighted below.

Consistent, steady returns and no drawdowns build wealth in the most efficient manner. The more investment options we have, the better we can diversify and minimize portfolio drawdowns. When options are limited, our ability to manage risk is limited.

Is doing ‘good,’ good for you?

The cost of impact investing is two-fold. First, by limiting the purchase of certain companies and industries, you forego the potential to buy assets offering a better risk-return tradeoff than other assets in the market.  Second, due to the smaller size of your investable pool, your ability to diversify is hampered. The combination of these costs show up as more volatile returns which results in a lessened ability to compound.  

While impossible to quantify, this cost is hopefully more than offset by the feeling of having a positive impact on the world.

Inclusion or Exclusion

To invest with purpose, there are some things you may or may not have considered. Foremost on the list is the question, “Where are your investment dollars truly going?”  Most investments in stocks and bonds are in securities that were issued in the past. The company behind those stocks or bonds already raised capital and is using it to achieve their mission. We may avoid buying stocks in coal miners or tobacco companies, but the funds from a market transaction go to another investor, not the company. This holds equally true if we buy stocks or bonds of a company we deem has a positive social or environmental impact.

That does not mean our investment decisions are fruitless. Our participation affects the perceived health of a company via the liquidity we’ve provided or taken from the company’s securities. When equity prices decline and/or bond yields rise, a company will find it harder and more costly to raise new capital.

Bill Gates has some interesting views to help us understand our potential role in social impact investing. 

In a recent Financial Times article, Fossil fuel divestment has ‘zero’ climate impact, says Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist argues environmental change is achieved via investing in disruptive and innovative companies that tackle environmental problems, not divesting from those that do not.

Divestment, to date, probably has reduced about zero tonnes of emissions. It’s not like you’ve capital-starved [the] people making steel and gasoline,” he said. “I don’t know the mechanism of action where divestment [keeps] emissions [from] going up every year. I’m just too damn numeric.”

If you are interested in impact investing, we ask you to consider Bill Gates advice of inclusion not exclusion. Use the entire menu of investment opportunities and rigorous analysis to determine which assets are worthy. If the “disrupters” qualify under your investment protocol, include them in your portfolio and perhaps favor them. However, be cognizant of the cost of shunning companies that are doing things you don’t like.

A well-diversified portfolio with a positive risk/return structure will provide more stability and limit drawdowns. By growing your wealth as efficiently as possible, you will be able to invest more into companies that are having a positive social impact and have more wealth which you can donate in more direct, impactful ways.  

Corporate Profits Are Worse Than You Think – Addendum

We recently published Corporate Profits Are Worse Than You Think to expose stock prices that have surged well beyond levels that are justified by corporate profits. 

A topic not raised in the article, but a frequent theme of ours, is the role that share buybacks have played in this bull market. Corporations have not only been the largest buyer of stocks over the last few years, but share buybacks result in misleading earnings per share data, which warp valuations and makes stocks look cheaper. Over the last five years, corporations have been heavily leaning on the issuance of corporate debt to facilitate share buybacks. In doing so, earnings per share appear to sustain a healthy upward trajectory, but only because the denominator of the ratio (number of shares) is being reduced as debt on the balance sheet rises. This corporate shell game is one of the most obvious and egregious manifestations of imprudent Federal Reserve policies of the past decade.

Given the importance of debt to share buybacks, we provide two graphs below which question the sustainability of this practice.

The first graph below compares the growth of corporate debt and corporate profits since the early 1950s. The growing divergence, especially as of late, is a clear warning that debt is not being used for productive purposes. If it were, profits would be rising in a manner commensurate or even greater than the debt curve. The unproductive nature of corporate debt is also seen in the rising ratio of corporate debt to GDP, which now stands at all-time highs. Too much debt is being used for buybacks that curtail capital investment, innovation, productivity, and ultimately profits.  

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

The next graph uses the same data but presents the growth rates of profits and debt since 2015. Keep in mind the bump up in corporate profits in 2018 was largely due to tax legislation.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Lastly, we present a favorite chart of ours showing how the universe of corporate debt has migrated towards the lower end of the investment-grade bucket. Many investment-grade companies (AAA – BBB-) are issuing debt until they reach the risk of a credit downgrade to junk status (BB+ or lower). We believe many companies are now limited in their use of debt for fear of downgrades, which will naturally restrict their further ability to conduct buybacks. For more on this graph, please read The Corporate Maginot Line.

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

I think we would need to see a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent before we even consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.” – Jerome Powell 10/30/2019

The recent quote above from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is powerful, to say the least. We cannot remember a time in the last 30 years when a Fed Chairman has so clearly articulated such a strong desire for more inflation.

In particular, let’s dissect the bolded words in the quote for further clarification. 

  • “Really Significant”– Powell is not only saying that the Fed will allow a substantial boost to inflation but does one better by adding the word “really.”
  • “Persistent”– Unlike the prior few Fed Chairman who claimed to be vigilant towards inflation, Powell is clearly telling us that he will not react to inflation that is not only a “really significant” leap from current levels, but a rate that lasts for a while.
  • “Even Consider”– The language he uses here conveys the seriousness of the Fed’s commitment. The rise in inflation must not only be “really significant” but also “persistent.” Powell is saying both conditions must be met before they will even discuss rate hikes. A significant rise in inflation but one they do not deem to be persistent will not suffice. Nor would a persistent move in inflation but one they do not measure as significant. Both conditions must be present together based on his language.

We are stunned by the choice of words Powell used to describe the Fed’s view on inflation. We are even more shocked that the markets and the media are ignoring it. Maybe, they are failing to focus on the three bolded sections.

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

I think we would need to see a move up in inflation before we consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.

Such a statement is more in line with traditional Fed-speak. The other alternative is that Powell has altered his language in so many different ways over the past year that nobody seems to be paying attention to his words anymore. If so, he has lost credibility.

This article presents Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as a hedge against Jerome Powell and the Fed getting what they want.

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

Before a discussion on using TIPS as a way to protect your investments from the deleterious effects of inflation, we need to examine how the Fed gauges inflation and debunk the narrative that terms inflation and price stability as one and the same. Price data going back about 250 years, as shown below, shows the stark difference between inflation and price stability.  

Data Courtesy: Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, ‘The Annual Consumer Price Index for the United States, 1774-Present

The orange line plots annual price changes before the Fed was established in 1913. As shown, prices were volatile year to year, but cumulative inflation over the entire 138 year period was negligible at 23% or .15% annualized. Dare we say prices were stable?

Compare that to the era after the Fed’s creation (represented by the blue line above). Annual inflation rates were less volatile but largely positive. The cumulative growth of prices has been an astonishing 2491% in the post-Fed area, which equates to 3.1% annually. There is nothing stable about such massive price inflation. 

Here is another graph to shed more light on price stability.

Stable prices should be defined as prices that are constant. In other words, a dollar today can purchase the same basket of goods that it did yesterday. Inflation must be near zero over longer periods for this to occur.

The Fed’s definition of stable denotes a consistent rate of annual inflation. Based on their actions and words, they have little regard for the destruction of a dollar’s purchasing power caused by a steady inflation rate. The Fed benefits from this linguistic imprecision because it allows for economic expansion via the accumulation of debt while their Congressional mandates are achieved. This is why the Fed wants to produce inflation. It reduces the amount of debt on an inflation-adjusted basis. The Fed wants inflation but disguises it under the banner of price stability.

With Federal deficits now topping $1 trillion and corporate debt and consumer debt and financial liabilities at all-time highs as a percentage of GDP, we must think about hedging our equity and fixed income portfolios in case the Fed gets more inflation than the 2% goal they consider stable.

Despite what the Fed leads us to believe, they have little control over the rate of inflation and they do not know how to accurately measure it. As occurred 50 years ago, they can easily lose control of prices.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect yourself or profit from it is to anticipate it.

The rest of this article is for RIA Pro subscribers only. If you are not a subscriber and want to learn about the mechanics of TIPS and how they can protect you in an inflationary or deflationary environment, please SIGN UP HERE for a 30-day free trial.

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

I think we would need to see a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent before we even consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.” – Jerome Powell 10/30/2019

The recent quote above from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is powerful, to say the least. We cannot remember a time in the last 30 years when a Fed Chairman has so clearly articulated such a strong desire for more inflation.

In particular, let’s dissect the bolded words in the quote for further clarification. 

  • “Really Significant”– Powell is not only saying that the Fed will allow a substantial boost to inflation but does one better by adding the word “really.”
  • “Persistent”– Unlike the prior few Fed Chairman who claimed to be vigilant towards inflation, Powell is clearly telling us that he will not react to inflation that is not only a “really significant” leap from current levels, but a rate that lasts for a while.
  • “Even Consider”– The language he uses here conveys the seriousness of the Fed’s commitment. The rise in inflation must not only be “really significant” but also “persistent.” Powell is saying both conditions must be met before they will even discuss rate hikes. A significant rise in inflation but one they do not deem to be persistent will not suffice. Nor would a persistent move in inflation but one they do not measure as significant. Both conditions must be present together based on his language.

We are stunned by the choice of words Powell used to describe the Fed’s view on inflation. We are even more shocked that the markets and the media are ignoring it. Maybe, they are failing to focus on the three bolded sections.

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

I think we would need to see a move up in inflation before we consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.

Such a statement is more in line with traditional Fed-speak. The other alternative is that Powell has altered his language in so many different ways over the past year that nobody seems to be paying attention to his words anymore. If so, he has lost credibility.

This article presents Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as a hedge against Jerome Powell and the Fed getting what they want.

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

Before a discussion on using TIPS as a way to protect your investments from the deleterious effects of inflation, we need to examine how the Fed gauges inflation and debunk the narrative that terms inflation and price stability as one and the same. Price data going back about 250 years, as shown below, shows the stark difference between inflation and price stability.  

Data Courtesy: Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, ‘The Annual Consumer Price Index for the United States, 1774-Present

The orange line plots annual price changes before the Fed was established in 1913. As shown, prices were volatile year to year, but cumulative inflation over the entire 138 year period was negligible at 23% or .15% annualized. Dare we say prices were stable?

Compare that to the era after the Fed’s creation (represented by the blue line above). Annual inflation rates were less volatile but largely positive. The cumulative growth of prices has been an astonishing 2491% in the post-Fed area, which equates to 3.1% annually. There is nothing stable about such massive price inflation. 

Here is another graph to shed more light on price stability.

Stable prices should be defined as prices that are constant. In other words, a dollar today can purchase the same basket of goods that it did yesterday. Inflation must be near zero over longer periods for this to occur.

The Fed’s definition of stable denotes a consistent rate of annual inflation. Based on their actions and words, they have little regard for the destruction of a dollar’s purchasing power caused by a steady inflation rate. The Fed benefits from this linguistic imprecision because it allows for economic expansion via the accumulation of debt while their Congressional mandates are achieved. This is why the Fed wants to produce inflation. It reduces the amount of debt on an inflation-adjusted basis. The Fed wants inflation but disguises it under the banner of price stability.

With Federal deficits now topping $1 trillion and corporate debt and consumer debt and financial liabilities at all-time highs as a percentage of GDP, we must think about hedging our equity and fixed income portfolios in case the Fed gets more inflation than the 2% goal they consider stable.

Despite what the Fed leads us to believe, they have little control over the rate of inflation and they do not know how to accurately measure it. As occurred 50 years ago, they can easily lose control of prices.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect yourself or profit from it is to anticipate it.

Part two of this article is for RIA Pro subscribers only. If you are not a subscriber and want to learn about the mechanics of TIPS and how they can protect you in an inflationary or deflationary environment, please SIGN UP HERE for a 30-day free trial.

TIPS Mechanics

Few investors truly understand the mechanics of TIPS, so let’s review the basics.

TIPS are debt securities issued by the U.S. government.  Like most U.S. Treasury securities, TIPS have a stated maturity and coupon. Unlike other securities, the principal value of TIPS adjust based on changes in the rate of inflation. The principal value can increase or decrease but will never fall below the bond’s initial par value. The semi-annual coupon on TIPS are a function of the yield of a like-maturity Treasury bond less the expected inflation rate over the life of the security, known as the break-even inflation rate.

The tables below compare the cash flows of a typical fixed coupon Treasury bond, referred to as a nominal coupon bond, and a TIPS bond to help further clarify.

The table above shows the cash flows that an investor pays and receives when purchasing a five-year bond with a fixed coupon of 4% a year. The investor initially invests $1,000 in the bond and in return receives $40 or 4% a year plus a return of the original investment ($1,000) at maturity. In our example, the annual return to the bondholder is 4%. While the price and yield of the security will change during the life of the bond, an investor holding the bond to maturity will be guaranteed the cash flows, as shown.

The TIPS table above shows the cash flows an investor pays and receives when purchasing a five-year TIPS bond with a fixed coupon of 2% a year. Like the fixed coupon bond, the investor initially pays $1,000 to purchase the bond. The similarities end here. Every six months the principal value adjusts for inflation. The coupon payment for each period is then calculated based on the new principal value (and not on the original par value. The principal value can adjust downward, but it cannot fall below the original value. This is an important safety feature that guarantees a minimum return equal to the coupon times the original principal value.  At maturity, the investor receives the final adjusted principal value, not the original principal value. Please note that if a TIPS is bought in the secondary market at a principal value exceeding its original value, the investor can lose the premium and returns can be negative in a deflationary environment.

In the hypothetical example above and excluding reinvestment of coupon payments, an investor in the nominal bond will receive $1,200 in cumulative cash flows over the life of the security. The TIPS investor would receive $1,209.12 in cumulative cash flows.

TIPS are a bet or a hedge on the breakeven inflation rate. If realized inflation over the life of a TIPS is less than the breakeven rate the investor earns a lower return than on a nominal Treasury bond with the same coupon rate. As shown in our example, if inflation is greater than the breakeven rate, then the TIPS investor earns a higher return than a nominal Treasury bond with the same coupon.

The following charts show the return profiles under various inflation scenarios, for the fixed coupon and TIPS examples used in the tables above.

The first graph shows the real (inflation-adjusted) coupon payments at various levels of inflation and deflation. In deflationary environments, both bonds provide positive real returns with the fixed coupon bond outperforming by the 2% breakeven rate. As inflation rises above the breakeven rate, the real return on the TIPS bond increasingly outperforms the fixed bond.

The next graph shows the nominal coupons of both bonds, assuming the investor holds them to maturity. The fixed bond earns the 4% coupon through all inflation scenarios. The TIPS bond earns a constant 2% coupon through all deflationary scenarios while the coupon rises in value as inflation increases. 

At any point in a TIPS life, investors may incur mark to market losses, and if the bonds are sold before maturity, this can result in a permanent loss. Any TIPS bond held from issuance to maturity will have a real positive gain assuming the coupon is above zero, the same is not true for a fixed rate bond.

Current environment

Various inflation surveys, as well as market-implied readings, suggest investors expect low levels of inflation to continue for at least the next ten years. The following graph provides a historical perspective on inflation trends and current long term inflation expectations as measured by 5, 10, and 20-year TIPS breakeven inflation rates.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

The rate of inflation over the last 20 years, as measured by the consumer price index, has generally been decelerating. In other words, prices are rising but at a progressively slower pace.  Since 1985, the year over year change in inflation has averaged 2.6%, and since 2015, it has averaged 1.5%.

The market determined break-even inflation rate, or the differential between TIPS yields and like maturity fixed coupon yields, for the next 5, 10, and 20 years is currently 1.39%, 1.59%, and 1.65%, respectively. Inflation expectations for the next twenty years are consistent with the actual rate of inflation for the last ten years.

The Case For TIPS

While most forecasts are based on the past and therefore do not predict meaningful inflation, we must remain cognizant that since the Great Financial Crisis in 2008/09, the Federal Reserve (FED) and many other central banks have taken extraordinary monetary policy actions. The Fed lowered their targeted interest rates to zero while central banks in Japan and Europe have gone even further and introduced negative interest rates. Additionally, banks have sharply increased their balance sheets. These actions are being employed to incentivize additional borrowing to foster economic growth and boost inflation. More recently, as we are now seeing with a new round of QE, it appears the Fed is now using monetary policy to help facilitate trillion-dollar Federal deficits. 

Investors must be careful with the market’s assumption that the Fed’s efforts to stimulate inflation will lead to the same inflation rates of the past decade. Further, if “warranted”, a central bank can literally print money and hand it out to its citizens or directly fund the government. These alternative methods of monetary policy, deemed “helicopter money” by Ben Bernanke, would most likely cause prices to rise significantly.   

“Too much” inflation would be a detriment to the equity and bond markets. If inflation rates greater than three or four percent were to occur, a large majority of investors would pay dearly. Such circumstances would depreciate investor asset values and simultaneously reduce their purchasing power. With this double-edged sword in mind, TIPS should be considered by all investors.

The graph below, courtesy Doug Short and Advisor Perspectives, shows that equity valuations tend to be at their highest when inflation ranges between zero and two percent. Outside of that band, valuations are lower.  Currently, the market is making a big bet that valuations can remain near historical highs and inflation will remain in its recent range.

The worst case scenario for TIPS, as shown in the graphs, is a continuation of the inflation trends of yesterday. In those circumstances, TIPS would provide a return on par with or slightly less than comparable maturity nominal Treasury bonds. Investors also need to incorporate the opportunity cost of not allocating those funds towards stocks or riskier bonds should inflation remain subdued.

For those conservative investors sitting on excess cash, TIPS can be effectively employed as a surrogate to cash but with the added benefits of coupon payments and protection against the uncertainty of inflation.  In a worst case scenario, TIPS provide a return similar to those found on money market mutual funds. In the event of deflation and/or negative rates, TIPS should outperform these funds, which could easily experience negative returns.

Summary

Markets have a long history of assuming the future will be just like the past. Such assumptions and complacency work great until they don’t.  We do not profess to know when inflation may pick up in earnest, and we do not have a good economic explanation for what would cause that to happen. That being said, monetary policy around the world is managed by aggressive central bankers with strong and misplaced beliefs about the benefits of inflation. At some point, there is a greater than zero likelihood central bankers will be pushed to take actions that are truly inflationary. While the markets may initially cheer, the inevitable consequences may be dire for anyone not focused on preserving their purchasing power.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS is tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect and or profit from it is to anticipate it. As has been said, you cannot predict the future, but you can prepare for it.

We leave you with an important quote from our recent article- Warning, No Life Guards on Duty.

Another “lifeguard” is Daniel Oliver of Myrmikan Capital. In a recently published article entitled QE for the People, Oliver eloquently sums up the Fed’s policy situation this way:

The new QE will take place near the end of a credit cycle, as overcapacity starts to bite and in a relatively steady interest rate environment. Corporate America is already choked with too much debt. As the economy sours, so too will the appetite for more debt. This coming QE, therefore, will go mostly toward government transfer payments to be used for consumption. This is the “QE for the people” for which leftwing economists and politicians have been clamoring. It is “Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.” The Fed wants inflation and now it’s going to get it, good and hard.”

Warning! No Lifeguards On Duty

In a poll administered by the CFA Institute of America {Link}, readers, many of whom are professional investors, were asked which behavioral biases most affect investment decisions. The results are shown in the chart below.

We are not surprised by the results, but we believe a rational investor would put these in reverse order.

Compounding wealth, which should be the primary objective of every investor, depends first and foremost on avoiding large losses. Based on the poll, loss aversion was the lowest ranked bias. Warren Buffett has commented frequently on the importance of limiting losses. His two most important rules are: “Rule #1 of investing is don’t lose money. Rule #2 is never forget rule #1.”

At Real Investment Advice, we have covered a lot of ground on investor behavioral biases. In 5 Mental Traps Investors are Falling In To Right Now, Lance Roberts lucidly points out, “Cognitive biases are a curse to portfolio management as they impair our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As history all too clearly shows, investors always do the “opposite” of what they should when it comes to investing their own money.”

Lance’s quote nicely sums up the chart above. These same biases driving markets higher today also drove irrational conduct in the late 1920s and the late 1990s. Currently, valuations are at or near levels reached during those two historical market peaks. Current valuations have long since surpassed all other prior valuation peaks.

One major difference between the late 1920s, the late 1990s, and today is the extent to which the Federal Reserve (Fed) is fostering current market conditions and imprudent investor behavior. To what extent have investors fallen into the overconfidence trap as the herd marches onward?

This “ignorance is bliss” type of behavior raises some serious questions, especially in light of the recent changes in Fed policy.

Not QE

As predicted in QE By Any Other Name, the Fed recently surprised investors with a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). The announcement of $60 billion in monthly Treasury bill purchases to replenish depleted excess reserves and another $20 billion to sustain existing balances was made late in the afternoon on Friday October 11. With a formal FOMC meeting scheduled in less than three weeks, the timing and substance of this announcement occurred under unusual circumstances.

The stated purpose of this new round of QE is to address recent liquidity issues in the short-term funding markets. Up to this point, the Fed added additional liquidity through its repo facility. These are actions not taken since the financial crisis a decade ago. The liquidity problems, though not resolved, certainly have largely subsided.

So why the strange off-cycle announcement? In other words, why did the Fed seemingly scramble over the prior few days to announce a resumption of QE now? Why not wait to make this announcement through the normal FOMC meeting statement and press conference process? The answer to those questions tells us more about current circumstances than the actual policy change itself.

The Drowning Man

As is always the case with human beings, actions speak louder than words. If you observe the physical behavior of someone in distress and know what to look for, you learn far more about their circumstance than you would by listening to their words. As an example, the signs of drowning are typically not what we would expect.  A person who is drowning can often appear to be playing in the water. When a person in the water is in distress, their body understands the threat and directs all energy toward staying alive.

People who drown seldom flail and scream for help as is often portrayed on television. If you ask a drowning person if they are okay, you might not receive a response. They are often incapable of producing the energy to speak or scream as all bodily functions are focused on staying afloat.

Since the Financial Crisis, investors, market analysts, and observers are helplessly watching the Fed, a guardian that does not realize the market is drowning. The Fed, the lifeguard of the market, is unaware of the signs of distress and unable to diagnose the problem (see also The Voice of the Market – The Millennial Perspective).

In this case, it is the global banking system that has become so dependent on excess reserves and dollar liquidity that any shortfall, however temporary, causes acute problems. Investor confidence and Fed hubris are blinding many to the source of the turbulence.

Lifeguards

Fortunately, there are a few other “lifeguards” who have not fallen into the behavioral traps that prevent so many investors from properly assessing the situation and potential consequences.

One of the most articulate “lifeguards” on this matter is Jeff Snyder of Alhambra Investments. For years, he has flatly stated that the Fed and their army of PhDs do not understand the global money marketplace. They set domestic policy and expect global participants to adjust to their actions. What is becoming clear is that central bankers, who more than anyone else should understand the nature of money, do not. Therefore, they repeatedly make critical policy errors as a result of hubris and ignorance.

Snyder claims that without an in-depth understanding of the dollar-based global lending market, one cannot grasp the extent to which problems exist and monetary policy is doomed to fail. Like the issues that surfaced around the sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, the funding turmoil that emerged in September was a symptom of that fact. Every “solution” the Fed implements creates another larger problem.

Another “lifeguard” is Daniel Oliver of Myrmikan Capital. In a recently published article entitled QE for the People, Oliver eloquently sums up the Fed’s policy situation this way:

The new QE will take place near the end of a credit cycle, as overcapacity starts to bite and in a relatively steady interest rate environment. Corporate America is already choked with too much debt. As the economy sours, so too will the appetite for more debt. This coming QE, therefore, will go mostly toward government transfer payments to be used for consumption. This is the “QE for the people” for which leftwing economists and politicians have been clamoring. It is “Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.” The Fed wants inflation and now it’s going to get it, good and hard.”

We added the emphasis in the quote because we believe that to be a critically important point of consideration. Inflation is the one thing no one is looking for or even considering a possibility.

Summary

Today, similar to the months leading up to the Financial Crisis, irrational behavioral biases are the mindset of the market. As such, there are very few “lifeguards” that know what to look for in terms of distress. Those who do however, are sounding the alarm. Thus far warnings go largely unheeded because blind confidence in the Fed and profits from yesteryear are blinding investors. Similar to the analogy James Grant uses, where he refers to the Fed as an arsonist not a firefighter, here the Fed is not the lifeguard on duty but the invisible undertow.

Investors should frequently evaluate a list of cognitive biases and be aware of their weaknesses. Humility will be an enormous asset as this economic and market expansion ends and the inevitable correction takes shape.  We have attached links to our other behavioral investing articles as they may be helpful in that difficult task of self-evaluation.

Finally, we must ask what asset can be a life preserver that is neither being chased higher by the herd nor providing any confirmation bias.

Gold is currently one of the most hated investments by the media and social media influencers. The only herd following gold are thought to be relics of ancient history and doomsday preppers. Maybe, as we saw in the aftermath of the prior valuation peaks, those who were ridiculed for their rigor and discipline will once again come out on top.

Gold provides ballast to a portfolio during troubling times and should definitely be considered today as the distress becomes more pronounced and obvious.

Please find below links to some of our favorite behavioral investing articles:  

Dalbar 2017: Investors Suck at Investing and Tips for Advisors

8 Reasons to Hold Some Extra Cash

The 5-Laws Of Human Stupidity & How To Be A “Non-Stupid” Investor

The Money Game & the Human Brain

The Definitive Guide to Investing for the Long Run

To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide to QE 4

In no sense is this QE” – Jerome Powell

On October 9, 2019, the Federal Reserve announced a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). Fed Chairman Jerome Powell went to great lengths to make sure he characterized the new operation as something different than QE. Like QE 1, 2, and 3, this new action involves a series of large asset purchases of Treasury securities conducted by the Fed. The action is designed to pump liquidity and reserves into the banking system.

Regardless of the nomenclature, what matters to investors is whether this new action will have an effect on asset prices similar to prior rounds of QE. For the remainder of this article, we refer to the latest action as QE 4.

To quantify what a similar effect may mean, we start by examining the performance of various equity indexes, equity sectors, commodities, and yields during the three prior QE operations. We then normalize the data for the duration and amount of QE to project what QE 4 might hold in store for the assets.

Equally important, we present several factors that are unique to QE 4 and may result in different outcomes. While no one has the answers, we hope that the quantitative data and the qualitative commentary we provide arms you with a better appreciation for asset return possibilities during this latest round of QE. 

How QE 1, 2, and 3 affected the markets

The following series of tables, separated by asset class, breaks down price performance for each episode of QE. The first table for each asset class shows the absolute price return for the respective assets along with the maximum and minimum returns from the start of each QE. The smaller table below it normalizes these returns, making them comparable across the three QE operations. To normalize the data, we annualize the respective QE returns and then scale the returns per $100 billion of QE. For instance, if the S&P 500 returned 10% annualized and the Fed bought $500 billion of assets during a particular QE, then the normalized return would be 2% per $100 billion of QE.

Data in the tables are from Bloomberg.  Click on any of the tables to enlarge.

QE 4 potential returns

If we assume that assets will perform similarly under QE 4, we can easily forecast returns using the normalized data from above. The following three tables show these forecasts. Below the tables are rankings by asset class as well as in aggregate. For purposes of this exercise, we assume, based on the Fed’s guidance, that they will purchase $60 billion a month for six months ($360 billion) of U.S. Treasury Bills.

Takeaways

The following list provides a summarization of the tables.

  • Higher volatility and higher beta equity indexes generally outperformed during the first three rounds of QE.
  • Defensive equity sectors underperformed during QE.
  • On average, growth stocks slightly outperformed value stocks during QE. Over the last decade, inclusive of non-QE periods, growth stocks have significantly outperformed value stocks.
  • Longer-term bond yields generally rose while shorter-term yields were flat, resulting in steeper yield curves in all three instances. 
  • Copper, crude oil, and silver outperformed the S&P 500, although the exceptional returns primarily occurred during QE 1 for copper and crude and QE 1 and 2 for Silver.
  • On a normalized basis, Silver’s 10.17% return per $100bn in QE 2, is head and shoulders above all other normalized returns in all three prior instances of QE.
  • In general, assets were at or near their peak returns as QE 1 and 3 ended. During QE 2, a significant percentage of early gains were relinquished before QE ended.
  • QE 2 was much shorter in duration and involved significantly fewer purchases by the Fed.
  • The expected top five performers during QE4 on a normalized basis from highest to lowest are: Silver, S&P 400, Discretionary stocks, S&P 600, and Crude Oil. 
  • Projected returns for QE 4 are about two-thirds lower than the average of prior QE. The lesser expectations are, in large part, a function of our assumption of a smaller size for QE4. If the actual amount of QE 4 is larger than current expectations, the forecasts will rise.

QE, but in a different environment

While it is tempting to use the tables above and assume the future will look like the past, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the current environment surrounding QE 4 is different from prior QE periods. The following bullet points highlight some of the more important differences.

  • As currently planned, the Fed will only buy Treasury Bills during QE 4, while the other QE programs included the purchase of both short and long term Treasury securities as well as mortgages backed securities and agency debt. 
  • Fed Funds are currently targeted at 1.75-2.00%, leaving the Fed multiple opportunities to reduce rates during QE 4. In the other instances of QE, the Fed Funds rate was pegged at zero. 
  • QE 4 is intended to provide the banking system needed bank reserves to fill the apparent shortfall evidenced by high overnight repo funding rates in September 2019. Prior instances of QE, especially the second and third programs, supplied banks with truly excess reserves. These excess reserves helped fuel asset prices.
  • Equity valuations are significantly higher today than during QE 1, 2, and 3.
  • The amount of government and corporate debt outstanding is much higher today, especially as compared with the QE 1 and 2 timeframes.
  • Having achieved a record-breaking duration, the current economic expansion is old and best described as “late-cycle”.

Déjà vu all over again?

The prior QE operations helped asset prices for three reasons.

  • The Fed removed a significant amount of securities from the market, which forced investors to buy other assets. Because the securities removed were the least risky available in the market, investors, in general, moved into riskier assets. This had a circular effect pushing investors further and further into riskier assets.
  • QE 4 appears to be providing the banks with needed reserves. Assuming that true excess reserves in the system do not rise sharply, as they did in prior QE, the banks will probably not use these reserves for proprietary trading and investing. 
  • Because the Fed is only purchasing Treasury Bills, the boost of liquidity and reserves is relatively temporary and will only be in the banking system for months, not years or even decades like QE 1, 2, and 3.

Will QE 4 have the same effect on asset prices as QE 1, 2, and 3?

Will the bullish market spirits that persisted during prior episodes of QE emerge again during QE 4?

We do not have the answers, but we caution that this version of QE is different for the reasons pointed out above. That said, QE 4 can certainly morph into something bigger and more akin to prior QE. The Fed can continue this round beyond the second quarter of 2020, an end date they provided in their recent announcement. They can also buy more securities than they currently allude to or extend their purchases to longer maturity Treasuries or both. If the economy stumbles, the Fed will find the justification to expand QE4 into whatever they wish.

The Fed is sensitive to market returns, and while they may not want excessive valuations to keep rising, they will do anything in their power to stop valuations from returning to more normal levels. We do not think investors can blindly buy on QE 4, as the various wrinkles in Fed execution and the environment leave too many unanswered questions. Investors will need to closely follow Fed meetings and Fed speakers for clues on expectations and guidance around QE 4.

The framework above should afford the basis for critical evaluation and prudent decision-making. The main consideration of this analysis is the benchmark it provides for asset prices going forward. Should the market disappoint despite QE 4 that would be a critically important contrarian signal.

The Bandwagon Effect: A World Series Lesson For Investors

Opening day is a glorious time for baseball fans. Warmer temperatures and blooming shrubbery are on their way, and more importantly, their favorite teams will begin a stretch of 162 games that culminates with a best-of-seven battle between the American and National League champions.

With leaves falling and colder temperatures upon us, most baseball fans are left out in the cold. However, here in Washington D.C., and no doubt in Houston, everyone is a diehard fan cheering their team on to a World Series crown.

Curly W’s, the logo of the Washington Nationals (Nats) baseball team, litter the streets, schools, and even office buildings of D.C. Everyone is on board the Nationals train, yet in August you could have spent a paltry $20 for a decent seat and shown up to a half-empty stadium to see the same Nationals play. Today, standing room only tickets for the World Series are said to be fetching $1000.

As the Nationals and Astros begin the World Series, the baseball gods are teaching us a valuable lesson that applies to investing as much as it does sports.

Bandwagon Bias

Within the last month or so, the Nationals and Astros have attracted a huge following of “bandwagon” fans. People who were casual fans or not even fans at all are gripped by a desire and the camaraderie of being with a winner. 

Trina Ulrich, a friend of ours and sports psychology professor at American University, was recently interviewed by radio station WAMU to talk about the psychology behind bandwagon fans. The interview and article can be found HERE. Stay tuned as The Lance Roberts Podcast will be interviewing Trina in November.

Trina Ulrich defines the bandwagon effect as follows: “[It’s] essentially a psychological phenomenon that happens when people are doing something because others are doing it already.” Sound familiar?

We have written many articles describing and warning about the dangers of market bandwagons, in particular, investor conformity and the so-called herding effect. These biases are widespread in today’s market place and are extremely important to grasp.  

In no uncertain terms, a FOMO (fear of missing out) is leading equity markets to valuations that are at or above those of 1929 and only bettered by those in the late 1990s. Other risk assets such as corporate debt, private equity, and high-end real estate trade at similarly rich valuations. The burgeoning bandwagons in these markets have been growing for years, unlike the short term nature of those simmering in Washington, D.C. and Houston.

Trina Ulrich says our attraction to bandwagons is defined by a psychological term called dispositional hope. Dispositional hope is the belief that one can achieve their goals. The high dispositional hopes that some baseball fans and investors carry is attractive to others with less dispositional hope. Those with less hope are enticed as the goal of winning is seen as attainable and beneficial.  

As the Nationals and Astros advanced through the regular season and the playoffs, diehard fans with hope that their team will win attracted others looking for dispositional hope. Similarly, investors over the last few years with high hopes for generous future returns are drawing in a wide swath of investors. In both cases, hope is selling off the shelves.   

Trina Ulrich goes on to explain that human minds are built to buy hope. Per Ulrich, “So if you have a bunch of die-hard Nats fans with high dispositional hope, they will draw in other fans that may have a low dispositional hope. It has to do with the feel-good hormones in the brain like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine.

“When [the hormones] rise because of motivation and excitement and success, the brain gets bathed in this and there is a pleasure effect.” “So why not feel this way too when you see someone else feeling this way?”

In The Money Game & The Human Brain Lance Roberts put it similarly:

As individuals, we are “addicted” to the “dopamine effect.” It is why social media has become so ingrained in society today as individuals constantly look to see how many likes, shares, retweets, or comments they have received. That instant gratification and acknowledgment keep us glued to our screens and less involved in the world around us.”

We are addicted to winning, be it on the baseball field or in our investment accounts, because it delivers a gratification that we crave. Consistently winning is remarkably satisfying, ask any New England Patriots fan. Yet, even Patriot quarterback Tom Brady will eventually retire (or die of old age on the field), and the game for Patriots fans will likely change dramatically. Similarly, in spite of a dynastic run of success, there is the cold hard reality that markets do not, indeed cannot, always go up.

Markets have a strong tendency to oscillate between high and low valuations. Rarely, if ever, does a market follow a straight line that mimics the true fundamentals.  When markets are overvalued, they tend to get even more overvalued due in large part to the bandwagon effect. At some point, however, markets must face the reality of the limitations of valuations. When prices can no longer be justified by marginal investors, reality sets in.

In Bubbles and Elevators we stated:

From time to time, financial markets produce a similar behavioral herding effect as those described above. In fact, the main ingredient fueling financial bubbles has always been a strong desire to do what other investors are doing. As asset bubbles grow and valuation metrics get further stretched, the FOMO siren song becomes louder, drowning out logic. Investors struggle watching from the sidelines as neighbors and friends make “easy” money. One by one, reluctant investors are forced into the market despite their troubling concerns.”

“Justification for chasing the market higher is further reinforced by leading investors, Wall Street analysts, and the media which use faulty logic and narratives to rationalize prices trading at steep premiums to historical norms. Such narratives help investors convince themselves that, “this time is different,” despite facts evidencing the contrary.”

Summary

In baseball and other sports, the bandwagon effect is a good thing as winning unites people that would otherwise have little in common. Today, a city as politically divided as Washington can greatly benefit when its people of such diverse political mindsets are united, even if only for a few weeks. The downside of joining the wrong bandwagon is an emotional hangover and maybe a lost bet or two.

In markets, the bandwagon effect can also be a good thing as rising markets fuel optimism and help investors meet their financial objectives. Unfortunately, jumping on a market bandwagon at the wrong time can come with steep costs. Bandwagons, after all, are always a speculative venture. Currently, a normalization of equity valuations can result in investors losing half of their wealth or possibly more. Not only will those on the bandwagon have a lasting emotional hangover but they will also have a tremendous loss that could take years to recoup.

Choose your bandwagons wisely and GO NATS!!

The Voice of the Market- The Millennial Perspective

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

Current investors must be at least 60 years old to have been of working age during a sustained bond bear market. The vast majority of investment professionals have only worked in an environment where yields generally decline and bond prices increase. For those with this perspective, the bond market has been very rewarding and seemingly risk-free and easy to trade.

Investors in Europe are buying bonds with negative yields, guaranteeing some loss of principal unless bond yields become even more negative. The U.S. Treasury 30-year bond carries a current yield to maturity of 2.00%, which implies negative real returns when adjusted for expected inflation unless yields continue to fall. From the perspective of most bond investors, yields only fall, so there’s not much of a reason for concern with the current dynamics.

We wonder how much of this complacent behavior is due to the positive experience of those investors and traders driving the bond markets. It is worth exploring how the viewpoint of a leading investor archetype(s) can influence the mindset of financial markets at large.

Millennials

The millennial generation was born between the years 1981 and 1996, putting them currently between the ages of 23 and 38. Like all generations, millennials have unique outlooks and opinions based on their life experiences.

Millennials represent less than 25% of the total U.S. population, but they are over 40% of the working-age population defined as ages 25 to 65. Millennials are quickly becoming the generation that drives consumer, economic, market, and political decision making. Older millennials are in their prime spending years and quickly moving up corporate ladders, and they are taking leading roles in government. In many cases, millennials are the dominant leaders in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, social media, and alternative energy.

Their rise is exaggerated due to the disproportionately large baby boomer generation that is reaching retirement age and witnessing their consumer, economic, and political impact diminishing. An additional boost to millennials’ influence is their comfort with social media and technology. They are digital natives. They created Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and are the most active voices on these platforms. Their opinions are amplified like no other generation and will only get louder in the years to come.

Given millennial’s rising influence over national opinion, we examine their experiences so we can better appreciate their economic and market perspectives.

Millennial Economics

In this section, we focus on the millennial experience with recessions. It is usually these trying economic experiences that stand foremost in our memories and play an important role in forming our economic behaviors. As an extreme example, anyone alive during the Great Depression is generally fiscally conservative and not willing to take outsized risks in the markets, despite the fact that they were likely children when the Depression struck.

The table below shows the number of recessions experienced by population groupings and the number of recessions experienced by those groupings when they were working adults, defined as 25 or older.

Data Courtesy US Census Bureau – Millennial Generation 1981-1996

About two-thirds of the Millennials, highlighted in beige, have only experienced one recession as an adult, the financial crisis of 2008. The recession of 1990/91 occurred when the oldest millennial was nine years old. More Millennials are likely to remember the recession of 2001, but they were only between the ages of 5 and 20.

Unlike most prior recessions, the recession of 2008 was borne out of a banking and real-estate crisis. Typically, recessions occur due to an excessive buildup in inventories that cause a slowing of new orders and layoffs. While the market volatility of the Financial Crisis was disturbing, the economic decline was not as severe when viewed through the lens of peak to trough GDP decline. As shown in the table below, the difference between the cycle peak GDP growth and the cycle trough GDP growth during the most recent recession was only the eighth largest difference of the last ten recessions.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

One of the reasons the 2008 experience was not more economically challenging was the massive fiscal and monetary stimulus provided by the federal government and Federal Reserve, respectively. In many ways, these actions were unprecedented. When the troubles in the banking sector were arrested, consumer and business confidence rose quickly, helping the economy and the financial markets. Although it took time for the fear to subside, it set the path for a smooth decade of uninterrupted economic growth. A decade later, with the expansion now the longest since at least the Civil War, the financial crisis is a fleeting memory for many.

The market crisis of 2008 was harsh, but it did not last long. It is largely blamed on poor banking practices and real-estate speculation issues that have been supposedly fixed. Most Millennials likely believe the experience was a black swan event not likely to be repeated. One could argue there’s a large contingent of non-millennials who feel likewise.  Given the effectiveness of fiscal and monetary policy to reverse the effects of the crisis,  Millennials might also believe that recessions can be avoided, or greatly curtailed. 

Half of the millennial generation were teenagers during the financial crisis and have few if any, memories of the economic hardships of the era. The oldest of the Millennials were only in their early to mid-20s at the time and are not likely to be as financially scarred as older generations. In the words of Nassim Taleb, they had little skin in the game.

No one in the millennial generation has experienced a classical recession, which the Federal Reserve is not as effective at stopping. With only one recession under their belt, and minimal harm occurring as a result of their relatively young age, recession naivete is to be expected from the millennial generation.

Millennial Financial Markets

As stated earlier, the dot com bust, steep equity market decline, and the ensuing recession of 2001 occurred when the millennial generation was very young.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 occurred when millennials were between the ages of 12 and 27. More than half of them were teenagers with little to no investing experience during the crisis. Some older Millennials may have been trading and investing, but at the time they were not very experienced, and the large majority had little money to lose. 

What is likely more memorable for the vast majority of the generation is the sharp rebound in markets following the crisis and the ease in executing a passive buy and hold strategy that has worked ever since.  

Millennial investors are not unlike bond traders under the age of 60 – they only know one direction, and that is up. They have been rewarded for following the herd, ignoring the warnings raised by excessive valuations, and dismissing the concerns of those that have experienced recessions and lasting market downturns.

Are they ready for 2001?

The next recession and market decline are more likely to be traditional in character, i.e. based on economic factors and not a crisis in the financial sector. Current equity valuations argue that a recession could result in a 50% or greater decline, similar to what occurred in  2008 and 2001. The difference, however, may be that the amount of time required to recover losses will be vastly different from 2008-2009. The two most comparable instances were 1929 and 2001 when valuations were as stretched as they are today. It took the S&P 500 over 20 years to recover from 1929. Likewise, the tech-laden NASDAQ needed 15 years to set new record highs after the early 2000’s dot com bust.

Those that were prepared, and had experienced numerous recessions were able to protect their wealth during the last two downturns. Some investors even prospered. Those that believed the popular narrative that prices would move onward and upward forever paid dearly.

Today, the narrative is increasingly driven by those that have never really experienced a recession or sharp market decline. Is this the perspective you should follow?

Summary

 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

We would add, “those who remember the past are more likely to avoid it.”

The millennial generation has a lot going for it, but in the case of markets and economics, it has lived in an environment coddled by monetary policy. Massive amounts of monetary stimulus have warped markets and created a dangerous mindset for those with a short time perspective.

If you fall into this camp, you may want to befriend a 60-year old bond trader, and let them explain what a bear market is.