Month: October 2016

The Biggest Stampede Ever?

© Can Stock Photo / afhunta

We think it every day. We’ve written it scores of times. We’ve said it thousands of times. We believe it is the most valuable principle we follow: “Avoid stampedes in the market.”

In our view of the world, a stampede has two criteria: large money flows in, and irrational pricing. For example, in the technology boom of the late 1990’s, very large money flows went into technology stocks. Some were new issues that had no business, no earnings, only a plan. Others were real businesses, but priced five or ten times what they would have been in more normal times.

(We usually speak of stampedes rather than bubbles, because ‘stampede’ connotes herd behavior that is an integral part of the process.)

The flight to safety, or money pouring into the supposed safety of fixed income investments, has reached historic levels. The large money flow satisfies one criteria of a stampede. What about the other one, irrational pricing?

The government of Italy recently issued fifty year bonds. A very few years ago, Italy could barely sell bonds due to the well-publicized economic problems of Europe and the systemic flaws of the Euro common currency. Italian bonds, of course, are denominated in euros. So investors in the bonds issued by a country thought to be going broke a few years ago, denominated in a troubled currency that was born only fourteen years ago, will not get their money back for fifty years.

In a sane world, what ridiculously high rate of interest would be required to persuade you to buy these bonds, if you could even be convinced at any price?

How about 2.85% per year? That is where the bonds were issued. It seems every bit as ridiculous as the most over-priced dot-bomb stock of the tech wreck. Both criteria of a stampede have been met, in spades.

We are working hard to understand the threats and opportunities presented by this stampede. We believe it is the key issue in the markets for the years ahead. If you are interested in how your situation might be affected, please write 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.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

International debt securities involves special additional risks. These risks include, but are not limited to, currency risk, geopolitical and regulatory risk, and risk associated with varying settlement standards. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging markets.

The Melting Pot Matures

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A few weeks ago the Nobel Prize Committee announced the latest round of Nobel laureates for 2016. Seven Americans were named to this high honor—and six of the seven were immigrants, born outside of this country.

Immigration is frequently a hot topic during an election year, this one perhaps more than most. On the one side, we are told that immigration is costing us jobs, lowering our wages, and causing more crime. On the other side we are given a moral argument, that we are a nation of immigrants who should welcome others into our melting-pot culture as we have welcomed those who came before.

We set aside the moral side of this debate; while we occasionally dip into moral philosophy, this blog concerns itself chiefly with practical matters of economics. And as a practical matter, there are very good reasons why we should appreciate the value that immigrants bring to our country, above and beyond whatever Nobel prizes they may win.

As a country we are facing a demographic crisis. Since the 1970s, we have been having noticeably fewer children per family than we did previously. As our generation reaches retirement age, record numbers of Americans are leaving the workforce. I still plan on working until I’m 92—but many of my contemporaries have other plans. As we leave, there are more openings left behind than we have children and grandchildren to fill.

This demographic wall creates a major drag on the economy: we want to grow our economy faster, but we simply don’t have enough workers to do it. For the past year we’ve seen the unemployment rate hovering at 5% and below. Even as the economy recovers and we start to add jobs, there’s going to be a very real question as to who will be filling them. The workers simply aren’t there. To some extent this is a regional issue—some of our employment woes could be fixed by having job-seekers move from economically depressed areas to thriving areas where jobs are being created too quickly to fill. But not everyone can uproot their lives for work, and where people cannot or will not relocate, the only alternative is to import workers from elsewhere.

Ours is not the only country facing this demographic crisis. We need only look at Japan, Europe, and other parts of the developed world to see what happens when an aging population is not replaced. Many first world countries have a lower birth rate and lower immigration rate—and, not coincidentally, lower GDP growth. We would do well to learn from their example what not to do.

This is not to say that we endorse open borders or encourage illegal immigration. We are a nation of law. We should have sensible laws that are enforced in a fair and even-handed manner. But to suggest that we should slam the door shut on immigrants is to ignore the economic reality we face. One of the best and surest ways to expand our economy is to add new people to it—and we will need to, if we wish to continue growing at a reasonable rate.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only.

Are You Getting Your Piece of the Pie?

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Elenathewise

The Federal Reserve provides us with a quarterly report of household net worth. The latest number is $89 trillion, up 59% from the financial crisis year of 2008. I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of wealth—and a nice increase.

The distribution of our wealth from person to person is the subject of some political debate, which we will leave to the politicians. It always has made sense to us to focus on the things within our control; let’s see what we can learn from the numbers.

Our $111 trillion of assets includes homes, pensions, stock, money in the bank, mutual funds, small business ownership, and bonds.

We owe $22 trillion, most in the form of mortgage debt but also including consumer debt like auto loans and credit cards.

Net worth is simply the value of our assets minus our liabilities, or what we own minus what we owe. $111 trillion minus $22 trillion is our $89 trillion in net worth.

Here are the pertinent points, as we see them:

1. Having wealth in different forms is a good thing, a form of diversification. We the people have money in the bank, different kinds of investments, homes and businesses.

2. Debt can make sense when it helps us own assets of enduring value that we can afford to pay for over time. $22 trillion is a lot of debt, but it helps us to own $111 trillion worth of homes and businesses and other assets.

3. Since debt or liabilities are subtracted from assets to determine our net worth, it makes sense to minimize debt over time. One who pays off a car loan and then keeps putting the payment amount in savings each month might get by with a smaller loan the next time a vehicle is purchased.

4. Because assets are the starting point for determining net worth, one should seek to invest effectively for growth and income over time. Money does not grow on trees, but it may grow over time.

Our $89 trillion net worth is a very large amount of wealth for us as a society. The decisions we make play a big role in determining whether or not we each get our piece of the pie. We have written about Four Habits for Financial Success which might help, and we encourage you to call or email if we can be of service.


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

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / junjie

Once upon a time in America, a sitting vice president was investigated for extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy. In a plea bargain deal, he pled no contest to a tax charge and resigned. Although historians judge Spiro Agnew as perhaps the worst vice president in history, he did bequeath us the memorable phrase in our headline.

We begin our essay this way for two reasons. First, although some believe the current times are the worst ever or the most this or the least that, there probably are no new things under the sun. Second, the pervasive rotten mood of the country has reached fairly extreme levels.

As contrarians, we believe the times of greatest danger in the markets are when optimism reigns and it seems like clear sailing ahead. Think 1999.

Conversely, the times of greatest opportunity are when the mood is in the toilet. There was a lot to be negative about in 1974, when Nixon resigned and the Arab Oil Embargo meant there was no gas at the gas station and inflation was heating up. And 1982, when mortgage interest rates hit 15% and businesses paid 20% interest and the economy slipped into a double-dip recession. And 1990, with war in the Mideast and falling house prices and the fallout from a huge financial crisis in the S&L’s…same thing. And 2002, when we were dealing with recession and the aftermath of 9/11 and terrorism.

Following each of those episodes, major gains ensued in the stock market. Why is this pertinent today?

Contrarians have to be delighted with the pervasive pessimism of the public. (Or the nattering nabobs of negativism, if you prefer.) LPL Research strategist Ryan Detrick has documented a variety of sentiment measures that have reached multi-year or multi-decade extremes. Gallup reports the most prolonged negative poll readings for the question of whether the country is on the right track or wrong track. You can learn in any barber shop or café that we are going to hell in a handbasket, just listen.

Warren Buffett stated our view more concisely when he wrote, “Be greedy when others are fearful.” If you would like to know more about how this relates to your situation, call or write.


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 performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Money in the Bank

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / turk12

We have learned over the years that money in the bank is useful and worthwhile for a variety of reasons. It helps us deal with emergencies and take advantage of opportunities. The confidence that comes from having that certain amount safe and sound is perhaps the best thing about it.

With the right amount of money in the bank, people may have more tolerance to the ups and downs of longer-term investments. With today’s low returns on safe, liquid investments, for some living with volatility is the only way to have a chance at decent returns over time. (We are using ‘money in the bank’ as a term to include a variety of conservative investments likely to maintain value.)

As with so many things, there is a gap between how people usually think of their money and how the financial industry talks about it. For example, when you think about the balance you need to have in order to sleep comfortably, you think in terms of a dollar amount. It might be $2,000 or $200,000 or some other number—a matter of circumstances and personal preference.

But the financial industry talks about it in terms of percentages. For example, a blend of 80% stocks and 20% conservative, or 60/40, or 40/60. We see things a little differently. Like Warren Buffett, we believe a temporary dip is not a loss, we are optimistic about the long term, and we know that tolerating volatility is crucial to successful investing. But you still need to sleep comfortably at night, and you still need those advantages that come from having money in the bank.

Our proposal: we will be working with you in the weeks and months ahead to sort out how much if any of the funds entrusted to us should be devoted to capital preservation first. We won’t be talking about percentages like 80/20 or 60/40; we’ll be looking to help you ascertain that dollar amount in conservative investments that strive to leave you feeling comfortable.

This is slightly harder than it sounds, since the trade-off for more stability is less growth potential over time. But we are here to work you through these issues. Write or call if you would like to discuss your situation in detail, or have other questions about this.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

There is no assurance that these techniques are suitable for all investors or will yield positive outcomes.

When the Tide Goes Out

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / RobGooch

A lot of money talk uses words that evoke water: liquidity, a wave of buying or selling, money sloshing around. We have described large sums of money going into a particular sector as a tsunami.

The extreme actions taken by central banks around the world, instead of goosing economic activity, have actually caused people to become more cautious, spend less, and save more money. The primary effect has been a huge increase in demand for supposedly safe bonds and other fixed income investments.

In our lifetimes, there have been several investment manias that featured large sums of money pouring into a single sector or type of asset. The real estate boom of the early 2000’s is fresh in our minds. The technology and growth stock boom of the late 1990’s grew into a classic bubble.

The biggest financial tsunami in history is the one we are in right now: the rush into bonds. Bloomberg recently reported on the International Monetary Fund’s concern over the global $152 trillion debt pile. The key for us is to understand how this happened: people and institutions demanded bonds in unprecedented quantities. Interest rates reached extremely low levels as the tsunami of money flooded the fixed income markets.

The market will supply whatever is demanded. Companies that didn’t need money borrowed, simply to lock up financing for years or decades ahead at the most favorable prices in history. Some consumers are taking on mortgage debt at the lowest interest rates ever just because they can. Governments around the world see little cost to borrow, so finance their deficits.

The global debt pile is like a coin with another side. That other side is the unparalleled tsunami of money into bonds and fixed income. Investors who believed they were being prudent have ramped up their holdings in the supposedly safe kinds of investments.

Some say you cannot spot a bubble when it is happening. We disagree. What cannot be known is when the bubble pops. To get back to our water words, we can’t know when the tide will go back out.

We believe that bonds will be punished severely in price when the tide goes out. There will be collateral damage to bond substitutes and other income investments. And other assets may rise in price, as money returns from the bond bubble and goes back into other, now-neglected sectors. Peril and opportunity go together.

This issue is the key to the investment markets for the next few years. We know that opportunities and threats are always present, and you know we’ll be working hard to sort out which is which. If you have questions about how this applies to your situation, please write 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.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

Cryptogenic Market Action: How it Can Help You

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / gajdamak

The field of medicine has a pair of terms that mean the same thing. The words describe an incredibly useful concept. The concept has important applications to the investment markets, and other economic and business usage. We were aware of the idea, but previously had no handy term to describe it.

The words are “cryptogenic” and “idiopathic.” They mean ‘of uncertain or unknown origin.’ For example, a cryptogenic stroke is one that has no known causative factors. Sometimes doctors know why something happened, other times they don’t. When they don’t, the diagnosis includes one or the other of these descriptions.

How would this apply to investing?

Every day at the market close, commentators speak or write as if they know exactly why the market did what it did. Despite the market averages being set by millions of people making billions of dollars in transactions for a nearly infinite variety of reasons, commentators boil it down to ONE REASON. “The market rose today over better-than-expected whatever,” or “The market fell today because of poor whatnot.”

We have said as many ways as we know how: the market goes up and down. It just does. To put it in more clinical terms, the market has cryptogenic rallies and idiopathic falls. The short-term action is of mostly unknown or uncertain origin.

According to Investopedia.com, in 1602 the Dutch East India Company issued shares that could be traded on the first stock exchange in Amsterdam. We suspect that at the close of trading on the first day, somebody said something like, “The market rose today because the tulips looked set to bloom early.” And this nonsensical tradition continues to this day.

If we accept the idea of cryptogenic stock market action day to day, we can focus instead on long term trends and fundamentals that may prove more fruitful.