Month: April 2020

The High Tech Rear View Mirror

© Can Stock Photo / canbedone

Once upon a time, we wrote that pretending present and future risk can best be measured by past volatility is akin to driving down the highway with eyes firmly planted on the rear view mirror. (Our theory is the future will not be like the past, so the windshield is a better thing on which to focus.)

The current market upset is the first one featuring the latest generation of so-called risk analytics. These high tech tools generate risk numbers for individual investments as well as entire portfolios. They are entirely based on past volatility. Incorporating frequent updates to the database of past price behavior and enabling near-instantaneous assessments expressed as an index number (say, 1 to 100), they seem quite scientific and highly analytical.

But all of this precision is predicated on the idea that past volatility is a measure of present and future investment risk. So in the latest version, it is like driving down the highway with eyes firmly fixed on an array of rear view mirrors, wide-angle and telephoto and high-definition.

The interesting thing is, when the inevitable downturn occurs, the ‘volatility equals risk’ crowd is quick to point out that their statistical methods are designed to predict what will happen, with a 95% probability. So if you run into a wall while focused on the rear view mirror, there was nothing wrong with the analytics – you just landed in the 5%.

Call us what you want, but a system designed to ferret out risk that fails exactly when you do need it to work may not be all that useful. (An elevator that does not crash to the basement 95% of the time would not be useful, either, in our opinion.)

We will continue to work with our understanding that volatility is a feature of long term investments. It necessitates a long time horizon, so the effect of temporary declines may be mitigated by time. Short term money needs to be kept out of long term investments. And we will keep our eyes focused on the future, not the past.

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

The Joy of Ownership

canstockphoto130552

The old fashioned equity culture is about owning shares in companies believed to be durable, and holding them through the ups and downs. Often, these might include the familiar names you see on the products in your cupboard or medicine cabinet, or around your home or office.

An ownership share in a blue chip company may fluctuate in value, but a share is a share. The long term growth in the American economy has generally been reflected in its companies. Of course, there are no guarantees about what the future may hold.

More than a decade ago, in the financial crisis that began in 2008, we noticed something different about people who knew the companies they owned. Compared to those who owned investment products consisting of scores or hundreds of holdings, owners seemed to understand that they held shares of ownership in actual businesses. While the value of the shares might fluctuate, a hundred shares generally remains a hundred shares.

If you have this understanding, it may help you maintain a long term perspective, and hold on through the temporary price declines associated with recessions or market corrections. People with indirect holdings by way of products managed by people far away may not feel the same connection to their investments.

We are not suggesting that one strategy is more profitable than the other, only that greater clarity about one’s holdings may be helpful.

It makes sense to use the right tool for the job. There are some investment exposures which are best obtained by something other than direct share ownership. But all things being equal, we prefer to have shares in actual companies, not investment products made out of many underlying holdings.

Clients, if you would like to talk about the joy of ownership or anything else, please email us or call.

Stagnation

© Can Stock Photo / stevekight

The word stagnant is an adjective used to describe things that are motionless, lifeless, lethargic, slow-moving, inactive or static, like water with no flow to it.

If these kinds of words also describe financial accounts you own, this may be a good time to get things moving. A dormant old 401(k) or too much cash parked in the bank could be in that category. Investments or advisors you don’t understand might be another sign.

A wise person once said that every past market crash looks like an opportunity. We do not have to wait until after the inevitable rebound to treat the current turmoil as an opportunity. It could be a great time to do something about the stagnant pieces of your financial puzzle. Or not. No guarantees.

(We address our communications to clients, but know that we have many eavesdroppers. To them we say, our approach is not for everyone. You can learn a lot about it here at 228Main.com, or in our Twitter or LinkedIn feeds.)

You may need to clean house in your finances or review your plans and planning in light of new information. If we might be able to help, put us to work. It’s what we do.

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

Deepwater Disaster and Expectations

© Can Stock Photo / curraheeshutter

A decade ago, perhaps the biggest environmental disaster in American history began to unfold. The Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in a fireball from high pressure methane gas coming up from the well.

Eleven workers were never found; seventeen were injured. Two days later, a slick began to form. It was the harbinger of the biggest oil spill ever, over 200 million gallons.

Day after day, the nightly news and cable channels showed images of oil billowing up from the sea floor. It was like a never-ending horror show, dragging out for eighty-seven days. Environmental damage to the waters of the Gulf and its beautiful beaches would clearly exact a heavy toll on the fisheries and tourism industries.

The well owner, BP, was rightly vilified for operational lapses and safety practices. Civil penalties and restitution were bound to be in the many billions of dollars. Many people wondered how the company could even survive, or do business afterward.

In the face of these challenges, it is not surprising that the price of BP stock was more than cut in half in less than three months.

The surprising part is that the stock bottomed and began to move up even before the oil stopped billowing into the Gulf.

There is a lesson here about expectations and unfolding reality. When the consensus expectations got below the reality that would eventually emerge, the stage was set for unexpected gains. As a company, BP did pay in many ways for its failures, in amounts that did get into the many billions of dollars.

But reality almost had to be better than the expectations, since the expectations were so low.

(This is not a recommendation, or a recital of our research prowess. We never advocated for the purchase of BP stock near the low point, believing it to be too much to ask of you.)

Near this tenth anniversary of the disaster, we recall this history to note that taking the contrarian approach against the prevailing consensus may sometimes be a fruitful way to invest.

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

Setbacks and Setups

© Can Stock Photo / yellowcrest

Time travel is a powerful way to reframe the present. Our collective present is full of challenges and setbacks, but what will this moment mean to you down the road, looking back?

If you’re prone to stay mired in the moment, here’s a game of “I spy” for you: where are the setups among all these setbacks?

You’ve heard it from us before. There’s day-night, day-night. There’s up-down, up-down. Well here’s one for these challenging times: setback and setup.

Some of our acquaintances are facing tradeoffs big and small right now. Less time for work… but more time with the kids. Less time with the gym buddies… but more time out in the sunshine.

In terms of business, our classic principles still apply here. We seek bargains. Economic activity is shifting. Some areas have slammed on the brakes as demand has fallen off; some areas are buzzing in a scramble to keep up with demand.

Just like the setbacks in our individual lives, the business setbacks exist alongside potential setups. Part of our job is to take a good look around to try to spot them. No guarantees, but we wonder what future growth is being watered by the current storm.

We’re not ignoring the storm. This approach, however, helps remind us of the bigger picture. It’s a more complete way to tell the story of a setback.

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

Making Connections

© Can Stock Photo / alphaspirit

A client recently talked about a friend, searching for an investment philosophy that works. (This sometimes happens after a person withdraws from investing for loss of faith in the markets or an advisor.)

The questions to me were, how do I help my friend understand your philosophy? What is the best way for her to learn about what you do?

I am always aware of our day job: taking care of your bucket as best as we are able, striving to help you get where you want to go. Talking to strangers, even friends of yours, always ranks lower. These days we are quite occupied with our day job.

It takes time for people to understand whether we might be a good fit for them. We know we are different. Our old-fashioned philosophy and methods are a labor of love – and require more effort than simply filling up the pie chart like the computer tells you. A contrarian approach is not for everyone.

Fortunately, there are three ways you can help a friend like that, without getting in our way at all.

  • Forward a weekly email newsletter you find interesting, with links to our current thoughts.
  • ‘Like’ or share our content on Facebook or other social media. That is a way to spread the word.
  • The most foolproof way: provide us a name and email address so we may send the weekly email newsletter, with links to new articles and videos and other short notes.

We’re too busy with our day job to make unsolicited calls. We will make time for your friends who call, when we can. It is always helpful if they have first had a chance to see what we are about.

You know this already, but our approach is not suitable for everyone. We do not cater to short-sighted thinking or overly pessimistic long term views. All of the communications we put out for you may be read by bystanders or eavesdroppers, without cost in time or money to us. That means we can start on the same page when we do talk one-on-one, a big time-saver.

If you would like to talk about this or anything else, or sign up a new subscriber, email us or call.

The Pain Up Close and the Big Picture

© Can Stock Photo / PongMoji

This is personal.

I was visiting with a client the other day about the inevitable rebound to come in our economy, and the opportunities that are developing now. The conversation turned to concern for those we know who might not survive a COVID-19 episode, and the grim scenes and stories from tragically overburdened hospitals.

It was a reminder, again, of the duality of our existence.

On the big scale, it is almost mundane. Demographers estimate that 108 billion humans have been born in all of history, and 100 billion of us have already died. Death comes to us all. It happens to everyone.

Yet when you get down to cases, what could be more unique or personal than our experience of the loss of a friend, lover, parent, brother, sister?

It may seem impersonal or cold to compare a projected death toll from our current troubles to some past pandemic, to talk about economic recovery and market rebounds. But we have to think about the big picture in order to make plans for living. We need to avoid emotional reactions to issues which would benefit from reasoned consideration.

I am only going to say this once. I feel the pain up close, intensely. Less than a year ago I learned first hand what happens when the ventilator loses the battle to keep a person alive.

I’ll not be apologizing for trying to figure out how to make the most of what we have to work with. Cathy wrote me a note in her last hours. It said “You have a lot of wonderful life left.” That’s the big picture. 330 million of us will survive the virus in this country. We have a lot of wonderful life left.

We need to feel our feelings about the pain up close. But we owe it to each other to think our thinking in the big picture.

If you would like to talk about the big picture or anything else, please email us or call.

20% – 30% – 40% Off!

© Can Stock Photo / PaulMatthew

Some say the seeds of future gains are planted in the downturns. The future is always uncertain, but the past is not: we know many investments can be owned for less money today than last month or last year.

As we go about our work, we are seeking three kinds of bargains.

  • Great companies available at good prices.
  • Cyclical companies at low points in their cycle.
  • The best bargains in the investment universe, wherever they are.

Often, the companies we most admire seem expensive. We know farmers that are always excited to talk about buying their favorite iconic tractor maker. We hear the same thing from parents about the entertainment conglomerate that makes the movies and runs the theme parks their children enjoy. Downturns sometimes reduce stock prices to attractive levels.

Everyone knows that recessions usually hurt company revenues and profits. We are thinking how the inevitable recovery might improve revenues and profits. That long view improves our appetite for temporarily depressed cyclical companies.

Some of our favorite past bargains have come from the sector politely known as “high yield bonds.” (You and I can use a more descriptive term, junk bonds.) From time to time, at rare intervals over the past twenty years, we have found something we believed to be investable hiding in the junk pile. Times might be ripe for that again.

Now is the time. We are studying and thinking and researching to make the most of it.

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

Change: Lasting or Fleeting?

© Can Stock Photo / martinan

The efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19 are reshaping our lives. Work-from-home (WFH), social distancing, and self-isolation mean big changes, with some unforeseen consequences.

We have been thinking and studying some of the impacts on society, striving to understand the effects on commerce and the economy. There are many unknowns.

Fewer people commuting means less traffic past the coffee shop, less wear on automobiles, emptier workplaces. When the virus has faded, will these effects be lasting, or fleeting?

Will work-from-home gain a permanent boost, reducing the long term demand for office space?

Do those who formerly stopped at the coffee shop everyday resume that habit when they begin commuting again?

After enjoying more free time from less commuting, will more people seek to live closer to their work?

“Dinner and a movie” has given way to carry-out, cooking from scratch, and streaming services. What happens when the crisis fades?

What is the future for movie attendance?

Does cooking replace some fraction of restaurant meals?

What effects will these trends have on commercial real estate?

There have been other effects, too. Online shopping got a big boost from mass retail store closings. Weddings, funerals, and other kinds of gatherings have been cancelled or postponed. Some people report an increased interest in improving their health; others talk about using food or alcohol to deal with stress. Are these changes lasting or fleeting?

After the 1918-1919 great influenza pandemic, the Roaring Twenties followed. Were exuberance and celebration a bounceback from the isolation, sickness and death of the pandemic?

We have many questions. What do you think? If you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.