cyclical markets

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.

Professionalism? Or Pandering?

© Can Stock Photo / stokkete

Two popular trends in the investment business may be affecting the financial health of clients. In my opinion the use of “risk tolerance assessment” tools, combined with the trend toward model portfolios, may be good for advisors and bad for the customer.

Many advisors use risk tolerance assessments. The issue is that when markets are lovely and rising, these tests have the potential to show that risk tolerance is high based on the client’s response. When markets are ugly and falling, they have the potential to show risk tolerance is low based on the client’s response. These tests measure changing conditions, not some fixed internal thermostat.

The potential for mischief comes into play when the results are tied to model portfolios. A lower risk tolerance potentially gets you a portfolio with less chance for long term growth, lower exposure to fluctuating but rewarding markets, and more supposedly stable investments with smaller potential returns. So the market goes down, risk tolerance goes down, and people may sell out at low points.

Conversely, when markets go up, risk tolerance goes up, and people may buy in at high points.

The old rule is ‘buy low, sell high.’ It is my opinion that the supposedly scientific approach of risk tolerance assessment tied to model portfolios encourages people to do exactly the opposite.

It appears to be objective, almost scientific. The pie charts are impressive. But the process panders to the worst elements of untrained human nature—and actual investment outcomes may show it.

It is as if the cardiologist, upon learning that a patient dislikes sweating, prescribes sitting on the couch instead of exercise. Or if a pediatrician first assesses a child’s tolerance for icky-tasting medicine, then tailors his prescription accordingly.

We believe that people can handle the truth. Our experience says people can learn to understand and live with volatility on some fraction of their wealth in order to strive for long term returns.

So the first step in our process is to determine if a prospective client can be an effective investor. It doesn’t matter to us whether they were born with great instincts or are trainable—we provide support and education through all kinds of markets. It takes a lot of effort, but we do it because of the results it may provide.

If you need a refresher on the ‘buy low, sell high’ thing or would like to discuss how this affects your plans and planning, 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.

There is no assurance that the techniques and strategies discussed are suitable for all investors or will yield positive outcomes. The purchase of certain securities may be required to effect some of the strategies. Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal.

Memento Mori

© Can Stock Photo / boggy

In ancient Rome, it was customary for the city to throw lavish triumphal parades in honor of victorious generals. The whole city would turn out to celebrate those who had brought glory to Rome. For a successful general, it was an intoxicating reward.

Lest their generals become too intoxicated with success, however, the Romans would assign a servant with a unique task. Their job was to follow the triumphant general throughout the festivities and periodically whisper in their ear memento mori: “Remember, you are mortal.”

It is humbling advice, and one that we would do well to remember. The markets have had several great quarters lately, leading to the Dow average topping the dizzying benchmark of 20,000 points for the first time last week. We have no way of knowing how high it may get in this rally or the next, either.

We do know one thing, however: no rally lasts forever. No matter how high the market soars, it can always drop back down. We don’t know when, and we don’t know how much, but someday that day will come. There is always a recession in our future.

Our goal is to try to minimize the damage by avoiding stampedes when we see them. When investor sentiment gets overly exuberant, when we start hearing people say “You can’t lose money in the stock market”, this is when we must pay heed: “Remember, market rallies are mortal.” We are confident that in the long run the markets may bounce back from future downturns as they have always done before and we can potentially be better off afterwards—but the recovery will undoubtedly be slower and more painful if we fall into the trap of thinking that our portfolios are invincible just because they’re doing well now.

We’re thrilled with our performance over the past year and excited about the continued evolution of our portfolio strategies. At the same time, we know that nothing lasts forever. At some point in the future, we will have to reckon with another downturn. It might be in a year, or it might be in five years. Either way we must keep this inevitable fact in mind if we hope to try to mitigate the damage. If this weighs on your plans and planning, give us a call or email us to discuss your situation.


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 economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is comprised of 30 stocks that are major factors in their industries and widely held by individuals and institutional investors.

Stealthy is the Bull

© Can Stock Photo / KarSol

The broad stock market indicators like the Dow Jones Average and the S&P 500 Stock Index reached a low point in March 2009, near the end of the financial crisis. Looking back a year or four years or seven years later, hindsight showed that the crisis was potentially a great buying opportunity.

Many investors missed out on the multi-year rise, however. (Or should they be called former investors?) In real time, nobody ever knows what will happen next, particularly in the short term. And rising markets, or ‘bull markets’ as they are known, seem to have many disguises.

After a rebound begins from a long decline, inevitably some pundits label the rise with an overly colorful phrase, “dead cat bounce.” The implication is that, while there might be a bounce, it certainly won’t go very high or last very long—the market is going nowhere.

Next comes the idea that if buying has produced a slight turnaround, it is just “short-covering.” This means that speculators who profited from the drop are now booking their profits, reversing their positions. Supposedly, there are no ‘real’ buyers.

When the market persists in the upward trend, the next excuse might be that “the market got oversold.” Therefore a temporary bounce is to be expected, before the market slumps again.

Then when the next slump fails to show, pessimists start saying things like, “We can’t know we are in a new uptrend unless the market reaches new all-time highs.” Or “It has gone up too far, too fast.”

When you take a step back and look at the big picture, those poor pessimists never could get back into the stock market. They had one rationale after another to doubt the recovery; meanwhile the market went up and up.

Do not worry about the bears, however: they have a new story. “The market is too expensive.”

Fortunately, we don’t buy the whole market anyway—we seek the bargains. You can read about our current strategies in this article. If you would like to talk about your portfolio or 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.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is comprised of 30 stocks that are major factors in their industries and widely held by individuals and institutional investors.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is a capitalization weighted index of 500 stocks designed to measure performance of the broad domestic economy through changes in the aggregate market value of 500 stocks representing all major industries.

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

The Melting Pot Matures

canstockphoto4480931

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.

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.

Au Naturel

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / kadmy

We’ve written before about our positions in natural resource sector companies. They were key to both our pain in 2015 and our pleasure in 2016.

Noted investor Jeremy Grantham of Grantham, Mayo & van Otterloo (GMO) recently published additional insights on this topic in a white paper. Three of his nine key points are worthy of special mention:

1. “Resource equities have not only protected against inflation historically, but have actually significantly increased purchasing power in most inflationary periods.” Regular readers know we believe that prospects for increasing inflation are under-appreciated in today’s markets. Although we have no guarantees that we are correct in this view, and past performance is no guarantee of future results, we may be very well-positioned for a rise in inflation.

2. “We believe the prices of many commodities will rise in the decades to come due to growing demand and the finite supply of cheap resources.” Low prices have curtailed future supplies; we know how this works.

3. “Despite all of this, investors generally don’t have much exposure to resource equities.” As eclectic contrarians, we are used to marching to a different drummer. This is certainly the case in 2016 with regard to our exposures in this sector. The unstated premise is that when the crowd decides to gain exposure, a lot of money may shift into the sector. Again, no guarantees.

We are watching economic, business and market trends closely to see how this all comes out. We enjoyed the analysis by Jeremy Grantham, even as we guard against the fallacy of believing he is a genius because he agrees with us. As always, please call or email if you would like to discuss your position.


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

The economic forecasts set forth in the presentation may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

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

Meet Your Partner, Mr. Market

© www.canstockphoto.com / stokkete

Suppose that you owned a partnership interest in a business, and that your business partner was readily available any day to either buy out your half of the business or sell his half to you—as long as the price was right.

Suppose, though, that your partner suffered from erratic mood swings. He can quote you the price he’ll buy or sell for any time, but his appraisals are always colored by his current mood. When business is good he over-values the business and offers you the moon for your half of the business; when business is poor he becomes pessimistic and offers to sell you his share for pennies on the dollar.

This is a metaphor Warren Buffett uses in his shareholder letters to describe the stock market from the investor’s perspective, dubbing our hypothetical business partner “Mr. Market.” As a stock holder you have an ownership interest of a tiny slice in a business. There is a market to buy or sell shares of the business at almost any time. But the price the market may give you depends on investor moods.

According to Buffett, if you understand the value of a business it’s in your best interest to take advantage of Mr. Market’s mood swings to trade when his prices are at their most irrational. However, he also offers this warning:

“But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence.”

So when the market is in a frenzy of buying or selling, there may be opportunities to profitably take advantage of the stampede—but not to join it.


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. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The Next Recession is Coming, Continued

Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis
Federal Reserve of St. Louis

Once again it is time for our quarterly assessment of economic conditions. Is the economy growing or shrinking? This is the fundamental question.

The next recession is always out there, of course, as is the recovery which will follow it. The excesses that build up in good times lead to imbalances that get corrected by economic downturns. But what are the current indications?

• The Index of Leading Economic Indicators is supposed to point to the direction of the economy in the months ahead. It has remained solidly in positive territory.
• The bond market speaks to us about economic conditions through the yield curve. Although it has flattened somewhat recently, it remains in growth mode.
• The Current Conditions Index from LPL Research remains in positive territory.
• The “Overs,” a proprietary LPL measure of potential over-spending, over-borrowing, and over-confidence, point to continuing expansion.
• Details on the LPL Research work are available here.

Economic news is always mixed, and can always be better. But jobs and incomes and spending continue to grow in fits and starts. The weight of the evidence says we are doing OK, at least.

We do have challenges. Policy makers attempt to manage the economy from above, using a philosophy that was discredited long ago. Their interventions create distortions which we monitor carefully. Much of our work involves avoiding the problems created by people trying to “help us.”

We are on the job, doing the best we can to preserve your interests and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Call or email us if you have questions or comments.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

Human Nature Creates Investment Opportunity

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / soupstock

Economists like to believe that human beings act rationally. Those of us that know otherwise follow the theory of Behavioral Economics instead.

One of the key findings of Behavioral Economics is that the pain of a loss is twice as great as the pleasure of a corresponding gain. Rationally speaking, $5 is $5, whether it is gained or lost. But we still feel the sting of the loss as a bigger deal than the pleasure arising from the gain. This is human nature in its raw, untrained state.

Confounding this finding is an extremely pertinent point, one that is ignored by the academics and the finance types who trade off their work. They treat a temporary decline as a loss. There is no shortage of expensive products designed to pander to this tendency by selling the promise of stability at a premium.

In the real world, many successful investors treat a temporary decline as either an opportunity, or a matter of no long term consequence. For most of us it takes education and training to overcome our behavioral tendency to feel the pain of a loss over short-term volatility. We’re here to help you with that.


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