Tactics

The State of Our Union

© Can Stock Photo / Niyazz

Our union? Yes, you and we are partners in a unique enterprise. As a client, you share our confidence about the long term. Many of you are willing to live with volatility in the short term to get where you want to go. And many of you don’t join stampedes or sell out in panic. This investment behavior puts you in a select group. It is a vital ingredient in the beginning of your success—and ours.

The 21st anniversary of the decision to embark on our ultimate business venture is a natural time to take stock. Where are we now? Where are we going? We’ll assess this in terms of our three key activities.

Communications.

We love to talk—you know this. About two years ago, we began to figure out how to talk to all of you, every day if you would like. The new media has two aspects. Real time commentary and news shows up in the social media venues like Facebook and Twitter. A permanent library of all of our philosophy and strategies and methods can be found 24/7 at 228Main.com.

Paradoxically, the success of our new media has given us more time to talk one on one, by telephone or email or in person. So now we spend more time doing what we love, connecting with you directly. We expect to continue to build both our archives and our skill at real time interaction.

Investment Research.

To a surprising extent, our research capabilities are tied to new media activity. We interact with great minds in economics and market strategy, trading ideas and insights and finding topics we wish to investigate more deeply.

The one-to-one communications with you also contain a research element. We gain perspective on global markets by talking to executives who have traveled the world on business. We have a better understanding of specific industries and companies because we talk to people who are in those businesses. Every one of you is a consumer, and we talk to you about companies and products you deal with every day.

Our conventional sources have never been better, either. LPL Financial continues to build out our back office research staff by adding and developing talent. Bottom line: we are connected to ever-richer sources of ideas and trends as well as the specific data we need to do our work.

Portfolio Management.

Over the past eighteen months we have worked on improving our capability to act more quickly on fleeting opportunities. You saw the results. Our portfolio review process is more robust than it ever has been.

We also have tweaked our strategy. Now, client portfolios see more activity but in smaller pieces. Instead of looking for opportunities where we can invest 5% of a portfolio balance, we will take action if 1 or 2 or 3% position sizes are appropriate. With more holdings comes greater diversification. Theoretically, this may give us a smoother ride to our goals.

The markets are like a thousand piece mosaic whose tiles are constantly changing. So we cannot tell you what changes are coming in the future—only that we will always be trying to figure out how to grow your buckets more effectively.

So the state of our union is grand. We have focused on our systems and processes so we can take care of business no matter what happens in our lives or the economy and markets. We offer no guarantees about the future, except for our intent to get better as we go along. Thank you all for your part in our unique partnership. Clients, if you’d like to talk at greater length about these things or anything else, please email 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.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

Alternative Facts, Alternative Investments

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Over the past few months, there has been a lot of hay made in the press about “alternative facts.” The term is a sarcastic euphemism; when something is labeled an alternative fact, the clear implication is that it is not a fact at all.

There is a certain class of investments which are collectively called “alternative investments.” This term is unrelated to the term “alternative fact”, but the similarities are undeniable.

Traditional investments are based on the notion of putting your money to work in order to generate more money. When you invest in a company’s stock, you are buying a piece of a going concern that generates revenue. When you invest in bonds, you are buying a debt obligation that bears interest. Even if you are just holding cash reserves, when you leave your cash with a bank, they are paying you interest to hold onto your money. In today’s interest rate environment you are probably earning close to nothing, but at least in theory there is some return on cash.

This is not to say that traditional investments are not without risks. You are not guaranteed to break even, let alone make money—companies may go broke, leaving stocks and bonds at a fraction of their former value. But you still have the hope that your money can grow into more money over time.

“Alternative investments” is a very large category which encompasses a wide range of assets. The only common element is that they do not fall into traditional investment categories such as stocks and bonds, and in many cases, arguably do not qualify as investments in the traditional sense at all.

Commodities are one form of alternative investment. These are gold, silver, oil, corn, and so on—actual, physical products, not the companies that produce them. If you buy a bar of gold, all you will ever have is a bar of gold. It will never turn into two bars of gold. If you are lucky, maybe you can sell it to someone for more than you paid for it. But that is speculation, not investment.

Derivatives contracts are another type of alternative investment. A derivative’s value is based on (“derived from”) the value of another asset, such as a stock or commodity. When you buy options to purchase a company’s stock, you are making a bet that the company will be successful, just like owning stock. However, stock options tend to have a very short time horizon. You are speculating on short term price fluctuations, not really investing in a company’s long term growth.

Undoubtedly some people make good money speculating on alternative investments. As a result, some portfolio managers believe in buying small slices of alternative investments for everyone in case they happen to outperform traditional investments. Our response: nuts! We want to build an orchard big enough to live off the fruit crop. We have no interest in owning a smaller orchard and trying to make up the difference buying and selling fruit with other fruit speculators.

Clients, if you want to talk about your portfolio, please call or email. But if someone is trying to sell you “alternative investments”, you should perhaps treat them with the same skepticism you’d give to someone pitching “alternative facts.”


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

Alternative investments may not be suitable for all investors and involve special risks such as leveraging the investment, potential adverse market forces, regulatory changes and potentially illiquidity. The strategies employed in the management of alternative investments may accelerate the velocity of potential losses.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

The fast price swings in commodities and currencies will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.

Crab Claws, Sustainability, and Your Money

© Can Stock Photo / connect

Perhaps the most sustainable crop in the world is the stone crab claw, a seasonal Florida delicacy. You see, stone crabs are caught in live traps, a claw is removed, and the crab is returned to the water. The claw regenerates, usually growing back larger than before—an ability they evolved to escape predators, which now supplies Florida fisheries with a sustainable catch.

We have come a long way since 1883, when a keynote speaker at the International Fisheries Exposition in London proclaimed that “all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible.” We later learned to our chagrin that it is, in fact, entirely possible to harvest anything to the point of extinction.

Fortunately we also figured out how to nurture fisheries to produce more fish, and to limit harvest to sustainable levels. You can take out the entire population of fish just once…but you may be able to harvest some fraction of the population, year after year, until the end of time.

A pertinent comparison may be made to your stock of wealth in retirement. Like a fishery, a portfolio can be over-harvested until it inevitably declines and disappears. But with sustainable management, it may produce a recurring crop. This is the endowment principle in action. A dollar may be spent one time only—but if invested, the income from it may be spent every year, in perpetuity.

Decades ago, our life expectancies did not extend long past retirement age. Planning for a short retirement, one could aim at a target sum and figure that it would be spent down over a few years, then there would be a funeral. But with many life expectancies extending decades past retirement, the arithmetic of planning has changed completely. Not every financial planner has kept up with the change.

Sustainable fisheries assure the world that it will not run out of fish. Sustainable portfolios reduce the chance that you will run out of money in retirement. One of our objects is to help you understand what part of your resources may be considered permanent capital, to be invested on a sustainable basis.

This is a process that has some nuances; each of you has a different situation and specific goals. Clients, if you would like to talk about 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.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Short Cuts

© Can Stock Photo / BackyardProduct

When I was a child, a friend and I were off on some adventure or other. We arrived back at his home quite a bit later than expected. His mother was waiting, and demanded an explanation. My friend’s answer was Marx Brothers-quality dialogue: “We took a short-cut!”

His mother seemed to think that a short cut ought to reduce travel time, not increase it.

Some financial professionals and investment advisors take a very similar short cut. They adopt the view that it is either not possible to do better than the market averages, or not worth the effort of trying.

The reasons sound plausible, but may not stand up under examination. Human nature often encourages counterproductive behavior. We believe untrained human nature is a poor guide to investing; training and education may improve investor behavior, which may improve investment results. But the short-cutters seem to pander to human nature in its untrained state.

Active investment managers typically underperform the market averages, and this is often cited as evidence “it is too hard to beat the market.” What many fail to see is that active managers have human beings as customers, so may include popular investments and avoid out-of-favor sectors in order to draw more funds to manage. These tactics, of course, may be detrimental to actual investment results.

So that human nature thing enters into that argument, as well.

Life is straightforward for the short-cutters. They typically avoid the hard work of researching specific investment opportunities; they spend no time reading SEC filings, press releases, and conference call transcripts. They have no reason to try to understand the role of emotion driving money into different market sectors.

Hey, it is a free country and we are glad it is. Each person is entitled to his or her own opinion; investors are free to use or ignore any advice or advisors.

The short-cutters have become very popular. At the same time, with your help, our business has continued to grow and prosper. We do not mind the existence of short-cutters; they may actually reduce the competition for favorable opportunities. But we do want you to understand what we are talking about, and why.

If you have questions or comments on how this may apply 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.

When Will the Next Recession Arrive?

© Can Stock Photo / iDesign

We know the economy, like the markets, goes up and down. It expands and contracts, as naturally as the tides come in and go out, or day gives way to night. Although much in life is unpredictable, it seems worthwhile to consider where we might be in the economic cycle.

The collapse of one or more of four major economic sectors has long been a factor in recessions. Home building, auto sales, capital investment by business, and inventories have been susceptible to booms and busts. Currently, three of these remain below long-term averages while auto sales seem to be at a sustainable pace.

LPL Research recently examined the Leading Economic Index and concluded that ‘plenty of gas remains in the tank’ for a growing economy. The index is based on ten separate data points, which we find have a history of usefulness: average weekly manufacturing hours; average weekly new claims for unemployment insurance; manufacturer’s new orders for consumer goods and materials; the Institute for Supply Management Index of New Orders; manufacturer’s new orders for nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders; building permits for new private housing units; stock prices for 500 common stocks; the Leading Credit Index; the interest rate spread (10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds rate); and average consumer expectations for business conditions. We concur with LPL Research.

The bond market gives us hints about the possible direction of the future through the yield curve, which remains pointed in the right direction for continuing expansion. So the fundamentals for continuing economic growth seem to be in place.

Do we have worries or concerns? Shoot, yes. The world is an uncertain place. There are political risks as long-standing relationships with our allies change, and potential new rules about trade and taxes promote uncertainty.

As long term investors, we do not need to fear recessions—we need to be ready to take advantage of any bargains that may result. We have taken steps to try to mitigate risk, although there are no guarantees against unwanted and unexpected volatility.

Bottom line: we expect continued growth in the economy, but we will try to be ready for anything. If you would like to discuss 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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.

Investing in mutual funds involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Government bonds and Treasury bills are guaranteed by the US government as to the timely payment of principal and interest and, if held to maturity, offer a fixed rate of return and fixed principal value.

When Dark Clouds Fill the Sky

© Can Stock Photo / pzAxe

Warren Buffett’s latest shareholder letter contained a remarkable paragraph:

“Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do.”

Long-time clients saw how this worked in the recovery from the 2009 crisis low point, and the post-9/11 lows in 2002. You are a remarkable group: when others panicked and sold out, many of you stayed the course. There is no guarantee, of course, that history will repeat, or that past performance indicates future outcomes.

Like great chess players, we need to be thinking many moves ahead. In our opinion, the economy in the US and around the globe is pretty good. We do not buy the whole stock market, we pick our spots. And we are excited about those spots.

But we do need to be steeled to both occasional market corrections of up to 10%, and the deeper declines that occur from time to time. They cannot be reliably predicted. What is in our control, however, is how we react. Do we sell out at low points, or get in position for a possible recovery? We are taking steps that may mitigate a general market decline—no guarantees, of course.

We are a little more prone to keep a little cash in reserve, to diversify into lower-priced markets, to continue to prune holdings that may be extended and add names we believe to be bargains. Most of our holdings are not sitting at all-time highs, although overall market averages are–the S&P 500 for example reached a new high as recently as March 1st1. You can read about our current themes here.

In the very best case, markets and our account values fluctuate. This is the tradeoff we accept in order to seek the returns we need to pursue our goals.

We have a great partnership with you, our amazing group of clients. You understand living with volatility can lead to long term rewards. We think we know what to do, whether the skies are blue or the dark clouds have gathered. If you have questions or comments, please write or call.

1Market data from Standard & Poor’s


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

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

A Penny for Your Stocks

© Can Stock Photo / sqback

Occasionally, you will hear the term “penny stocks” coming up in investment advice. Often this may be in the form of a slick advertisement telling you how much money you’re missing out on by not investing in penny stocks. Unfortunately, in many cases these solicitations are trying to take advantage of you.

What are penny stocks, and why are they so dangerous? So-called penny stocks are stocks that are not listed on any major stock exchange, which typically trade for very low prices per share. In general a company’s share price does not necessarily tell you much about the quality of a company, since different companies float different numbers of shares. But small, unlisted companies generally are not able to circulate useful numbers of shares at anything above a very low price, and typically trade at a few dollars per share or less.

Because these companies float relatively small numbers of shares, they are subject to extreme volatility and their prices may experience very rapid swings up or down. This may not sound so bad on paper (at least the “up” part), but unlisted stocks also suffer serious liquidity risks. Unlike exchange-listed stocks, you can’t push a button and buy or sell penny stocks with an accurate price quote at any given time: over-the-counter stock transactions depend on being able to track down another buyer or seller and negotiate with them. You might buy a stock at $0.20 and watch it go up to $0.30, only to find that nobody actually wants to buy it from you for $0.30. By the time you manage to unload your shares, you may be back down to $0.20 or even lower.

These risks should be enough to warn away most reasonable investors. But on top of that, the structural problems that plague penny stocks also make them an attractive hunting ground for predatory scammers. The classic “pump and dump” scam takes advantage of low trade volumes to easily run up the price with relatively modest stock purchases. The rising price can then be used to encourage victims to buy in, driving the price even higher. At this point the scammer pulls the plug and sells their shares at a profit, crashing the price and leaving their victims holding devalued shares in a worthless company. Any time you hear someone discussing penny stocks, there is a good chance they are either a scammer or a victim who has already been pulled in.

Many such scams have been showing up lately because the scammers have a powerful new bait in the form of cannabis company stocks. The growing trend of state-by-state marijuana legalization has created lucrative new markets that many investors want to get in on, but the continuing threat of legal action at a federal level keeps legitimate finance companies on the sidelines. As a response a number of fly-by-night companies have formed claiming to offer vehicles for individual investors to buy into the growing marijuana market. Be warned: not only could these companies be shut down overnight by federal agencies, many of them are bogus to begin with.

Penny stocks may seem like an enticing way to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing. But companies with the next big thing generally don’t go directly to market—if someone has a great business idea, you can bet it will be snapped up by private venture capitalists. Penny stocks are a minefield best avoided altogether. As always, remember: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If you hear about a “fabulous” investment opportunity and need help figuring out whether it is legitimate, please give us a call or email us.


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

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Fear and Greed

© Can Stock Photo / Andreus

Two of the primary emotions affecting the stock market, it is said, are fear and greed.

Facts and figures are prominent in our work of assessing and ranking various investment opportunities. But in the day to day action of any market, buyers and sellers and their motivations have an oversize impact.

In our view, fear has dominated most of the last eight years in the US stock market. Many investors sold out after the double drubbings beginning in 2000 and in 2007. Money flows from retail investors, reflecting withdrawals from the market in most recent years, seem to confirm it.

Anecdotally, we also noticed burgeoning interest in strategies that hoped to avoid exposure to the stock market yet still make money. Commodities, derivatives, factor investing, bonds at low interest rates and other fads drew in a lot of money. This, we believe, reflected fear of the stock market.

For much of the market rise since 2009, it was said to be ‘the most hated rally in history’ because so many people missed out.

Knowing Warren Buffett’s famous dictum, “Be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy,” we stayed the course through the downturn. None of us hated this rally, did we?

Now the market sits at all-time highs. This probably makes sense when earnings are high and rising, and interest rates remain fairly low. But we are on the lookout for signs that greed has become the dominant force in the market. When others become greedy, perhaps we need to become fearful.

We are also doing other things, as well. You may have noticed winning positions getting trimmed back, and potential new bargains (we hope!) being added to portfolios. Owning bargains is no guarantee against loss, but we believe it helps. We are also nibbling at other markets in other lands, ones that have lagged and may be at low levels.

Our new portfolio design, accommodating layers of cash and more moderate investments as well as our traditional research-driven core layer, is another way to attempt to mitigate future downside.

The markets go up and down. We cannot build wealth over the long haul without facing that, and living with it. If you would like to talk about your portfolio or situation in detail, please call or email us.


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

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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 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.

Spring 2017 Market Themes

© Can Stock Photo / photoslb

We look for promising investments by studying opportunities in detail, reading annual reports, SEC filings, analyst commentary, and doing our own arithmetic. Potential gains live in the gap between the unfolding reality and consensus expectations. The outcome of this study and thought is a list of investments we would like to own.

Although we look at individual companies, we often find themes in our list. This makes sense when you consider that undervalued companies are often found in unpopular industries.

Last fall we wrote about three of our market themes. Biotechnology companies, the evolution of the automobile, and natural resources continue to figure into our thinking. Other themes have emerged.

Consolidation has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the airline industry. It used to be that fierce waves of competition caused price cutting, which led to poor financial results and even bankruptcies. But there are not twenty players, or even ten any more. Consolidation and liquidation has reduced the number of major competitors to four.

The four biggies compete with each other, but more gently. Each knows that lower growth ambitions and stable pricing may lead to greater profits than higher growth ambitions and lower prices. This idea of a pricing oligopoly seems to explain the behavior of the airlines, which are booking record profits. We believe the market has not awoken to the new dynamics, and undervalues the stocks. We may be wrong.

The European equity markets have had one problem after another for more than a decade. An index of major blue chip stocks, the Eurostoxx 50, is lower than it was ten years ago. Meanwhile in the US, major averages have doubled. Dividend yields and prices are more favorable “over there.” So we have begun to include European equity exposure in portfolios.

The Buy List of thirty-some holdings reflects these themes and other opportunities we believe to be attractive. There are no guarantees on any of them. We can tell you we are excited about the prospects. If you would like to discuss your holdings or situation in detail, 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Value investments can perform differently from the market as a whole. They can remain undervalued by the market for long periods of time.

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

News from the Trade Desk

© Can Stock Photo / mflippo

 As a hands-on research and portfolio management shop, we develop capabilities that many advisors do not need or have. If we were just finding money and sending it off to a third party to manage, life would be simple (and boring).

From time to time our research uncovers potential opportunities in discounted corporate bonds. The market for these high yield bonds is challenging. At times the market is “thin,” which means there is a lack of buyers and sellers. That makes it difficult to complete the purchases we desire.

Fortunately, LPL Financial has experienced and capable traders on the bond desk. They help us execute multimillion dollar bulk transactions at the best available prices. Buying for many accounts at one time in a bulk deal is a more efficient way to do it.

The opportunity in bonds is somewhat rare. We have only purchased eight different issuing companies in sixteen years. But there is another kind of trading that is relatively constant—the purchase and sale of stock.

The bulk bond purchases led us to a breakthrough in our stock trading protocol. One day we learned at 1 P.M. that a big bond purchase had been completed. We needed to go through eighty accounts and make sales of stock to raise money to pay for the newly purchased bonds. We had two hours before the market closed.

We had devised a protocol (a set of rules) to guide us. The four holdings we liked the least were ranked in order of priority to sell. In each account, we sold in that order until the bonds were paid for. Greg Leibman worked from one end of the list, Mark Leibman worked from the other, and they met in the middle before the market closed.

More recently we adapted the protocol concept to make stock trades. We came to a negative conclusion about an industry we previously invested in—at the same time we uncovered a new opportunity in another industry. We devised a protocol to sell one and buy the other, and completed more than five hundred stock trades in a single day.

The trade desk is where two of our key activities come together for you: research and portfolio management. We are pleased at the continued development of our research. The time we save with effective operations goes back into communicating with you—so call or email if you would like perspective on any money question.


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.

The market value of corporate bonds will fluctuate, and if the bond is sold prior to maturity, the investor’s yield may differ from the advertised yield.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.