Special Relativity

© Can Stock Photo / Alexis84

A friend wrote to me recently about the two kinds of time. The time that gallops onward in an undistinguished blur, versus the time that resolves itself into perfect crystal moments that stretch on to forever. Haven’t we all had those kind of peak moments?

We seem more prone to the ‘undistinguished blur’ sort of time as the years go by, and routines get set. Perhaps breaking the routine, new experiences, are what sets those forever moments apart.

My friend concluded that if there is a secret to keeping time in a bottle, it must involve moving forward – a special kind of special relativity. This notion has some interesting aspects, including one that bears on our work for you, I believe.

Many financially independent retirees have noted that they spent much time when younger worrying about having enough money in later years. Then, when they get there, they discover that money is abundant, compared to time, which is finite.

If we spend our working years on a treadmill of accumulating a fortune for enjoyment way down the road, perhaps we live life in a routine, in which time is an undistinguished blur. This shortens the subjective experience of our lives.

Alternatively, we can work to understand and perhaps moderate what “enough” means, and balance living in the moment against our longer-term objectives. Would this leave us open to more new experiences, new ways of thinking and being, and that sense of moving forward that might bring about more of those ‘forever’ moments?

Hey, I don’t know either. But I’m in favor of more special moments, and less undistinguished routine. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

The High Cost of Low Interest

© Can Stock Photo / AndreyPopov

Savers might remember the 1990’s with great fondness. For most of the decade, money earned 4 to 6% in bank certificates and other safe and liquid forms. Even in the first decade of this millenium, at times there were interest rates above zero on deposits.

After the financial crisis that began in 2008, interest rates plunged. The Federal Reserve adopted a Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) in an attempt to spur economic activity. Some foreign central banks even went to NIRP, a negative interest rate policy. For most of the time since then, short term rates in the US have been close to zero. (Federal Reserve Bank St Louis)

After a tentative, brief return to rates above zero, the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus has slammed rates back to near nothing. Rates may stay lower for longer. Savers and investors are affected.

• The difference beween 5% and zero on $100,000 in the bank is about $400 in monthly income. Savers used to enjoy cash income on their balances, income that could make a difference.
• In order to get income returns on money, people face volatility in market values or greater risk of loss or reduced access to funds.
• The competition for income-producing investments creates market distortions, which may increase risk.
• Artificial stimulus for goods or services could result in lower growth later, when monetary conditions return to normal.

Against those challenges, low interest rates appear to benefit one group of people: borrowers. Many people have been able to refinance home mortgages to rates lower than they might have imagined years ago. But even this silver lining has a cloud around it: low mortgage rates may have increased home prices.

Bottom line, as with all of the challenges in life, the key is to make the most of it. We work to understand alternatives and strive to sort out how to balance the needs for income, and growth, and preservation of purchasing power. Finding the opportunity in the challenge is our goal.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

The More Things Change

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“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote those words in 1849, which we know by the translation “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

We are reminded of this epigram when we hear about the wide and sweeping changes that are supposedly with us forever now, in the aftermath of the pandemic. You do not need to go very far to find predictions that our daily lives will be changed forever. No more large-venue events like sports or concerts, restaurant dining becoming a rarity, central offices a thing of the past, airline travel shriveling.

The truth is, we humans are social beings. The biggest pandemic of modern times, the 1918 influenza, killed 50 million people worldwide, more than any war in history. Then as now, infection could mean death. And it was followed by the Roaring Twenties, notable for its gatherings and parties. Two or four years from now, we are likely to be attending as many group events as we were seven, fourteen or twenty-one years ago.

A home office teammate moved to a beautiful, larger living space shortly before concern about the coronavirus became widespread. I posed the question: was it possible to work from home? Their answer was, it was possible, but not desireable. The interaction with colleagues, the ease of finding the right expertise to help with a question, shared meals, the serendipitous exposure to unexpected ideas: those positives are hard to replicate working from home.

We humans are adaptable. We can do this lockdown thing, stay in touch with video calls, work from home effectively, get by without restaurant dining and parties and conferences. In other words, make the best of it. But we also tend to believe that current conditions will persist, and sometimes have trouble picturing a change.

Yes, there will be changes. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our humanity is not going away. We crave connection. We believe the enduring features of human nature will manifest themselves as soon as they are able.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Birthday!

© Can Stock Photo / soupstock

One of my most cherished goals in life has been to get old without being old.

The first half of that is marked by having birthdays. These are signs of progress. Some people I knew do not have birthdays any more, and I wish they would. Getting older is a good thing, especially compared to the alternative.

The second part, not being old, is trickier. The plan to work to age 92 is surely part of the equation. While some of my peers are coasting toward the finish line, we are focused on the decades ahead. We work on figuring out how to serve you more effectively, how to be better. This plan is giving us a sense of vibrancy and growth one typically finds in younger people.

My birthday is coming up. Here is what it means, in years: 28 more years until retirement. Save the date: May 27, 2048. We are going to have a party.

The mindset is one piece of it. I won’t detail the other pieces. They are boring, and everyone already knows them: the five things you try to be healthy at in order to live a long time. In this new, more boring phase of life for me, I have time for those things.

Please note, I am not prescribing this working lifestyle to anyone else. I may have been dropped on my head as a child, I don’t know what makes me think this way. It goes back a long way. Good thing so many of you retired younger than 92, or plan to, so I have work to do!

A debt of gratitude goes to you who employ me in this gratifying work. The plan will not pan out without you.

(We are planning to hire more younger-generation people. You will not need to worry about declining capacity on my part.)

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Can You See the Forest?

© Can Stock Photo / Elnur

The old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” refers to the difficulty we humans have in maintaining perspective, of keeping the larger context in mind. Our current challenges bring us reminders of this.

Recently we were discussing the prospects for investing in a food processing company. Market disruptions have knocked the cost of $1 of annual earning power down to $10 – an earnings yield of 10%. (Another way to say it: a price-earnings ratio of 10.) If one can purchase durable earning power in an enduring industry at valuations like that, the holding might be owned a very long time.

(No guarantees – there are a lot of assumptions in that last paragraph.)

A colleague asked us whether we were concerned about the impact of processing plant shutdowns. After agreeing that any shutdowns would likely be limited to a matter of weeks, this seemed to be one of those problems of perspective.

For none of the past few decades have the plants been shut down for a virus. Apart from the next few weeks, it seems unlikely that virus-related shutdowns will be much of a factor in the decades ahead.

The forest is that we humans will still need to eat in the future, and there is probably money to be made by meeting that need. The trees are the virus and the shutdowns and the disruptions. One of our key roles is working to see the big picture and striving to act accordingly. We need to be able to see the forest in spite of the trees.

Interestingly, the challenge of maintaining perspective may play a role in creating bargains. Investors who get too wrapped up in transitory effects may push prices to levels that don’t reflect the long term value. When current conditions fade, as they will, that value may become apparent. Again, no guarantees.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Portfolio Developments, Emerging Themes

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This has been an eventful year in the markets, to put it lightly. Unforeseen events have had dramatic effects.

We wrote about some of the themes in our portfolios last fall. Airlines and biopharmaceutical companies both seemed attractive, with valuations at seemingly favorable levels. Needless to say, global pandemics turn out to be as great for biotechs as they are lousy for airline travel.

Our natural resource holdings had similar variation. Turmoil helped the shares of precious metal miners and hurt the shares of industrial metal producers as much of the global economy shut down.

We are keeping the long view in mind. The next energy revolution, driven by solar power and batter storage, will still require higher production of copper and other minerals. The decades-long trend toward higher levels of air traffic will resume. These are our views.

As we review the finances and prospects of our holdings and rebalance where appropriate, another theme has emerged. The shares of some basic kinds of companies, those involved in food and shelter and beverages, have gotten to bargain levels, in our opinion. It seems like it has been a long time since we felt that way, and we are excited to add holdings in these lines.

Last fall we believed that international equity markets had some attraction based on value compared to US holdings. We are more excited now about the emerging bargains we perceive here in the US.

Clients, these are the conclusions our principles and our processes are leading us to. If you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss. .

International investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability and may not be suitable for all investors. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging markets..

Rebalancing a portfolio may cause investors to incur tax liabilities and/or transaction costs and does not assure a profit or protect against a loss.

Up In The Air

© Can Stock Photo / jefras

We have written before about the miracle of air travel. You can go from breakfast on the coast to lunch in the middle of the country, renting the use of an $80 million machine and the services of $1 million in payroll for just a couple hundred dollars.

It is no wonder that US passengers flew 57% more miles in a recent year than they had twenty years before. This record of growth included the disruption caused by terrorists on 9/11. Our commercial aviation system was used against us, to devastating effect. Dramatic changes in the flying experience resulted. But traffic volumes still grew over the long term.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created a larger shock to air traffic volumes. Noted investor Warren Buffett, who had previously invested in four major US airlines, recently announced the sale of those holdings by his firm. Many are wondering what to think.

Our research and thinking will continue to evolve, but we do have thoughts to share.

  • Buffett had the luxury of selling out before news of his sales depressed the share prices. What we may choose to do today is a different set of choices than what could be done last month.
  • Although he is arguably the most successful investor in all of human history, he has proven to be wrong from time to time. (We treasure those moments when we were right and he was not– just ask us, we will tell you all about them.)
  • Buffett’s original idea, that he was buying $1 billion per year of earning power for an $8 billion investment in airline ownership, became obsolete. But perhaps the buyers of those shares have purchased $1 billion per year of future earning power for less money, $6 billion. No guarantees.

The future of air travel and participating companies is up in the air. But it seems likely to us that the miracle of air travel will sooner or later exert its charms over an increasing number of people from year to year. We are working to understand what this all means in terms of investment opportunities and challenges.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.