cyclical markets

The Best Way to Get to Know a Recession

photo shows a foggy bend in a road

Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This seems like stretching a point. In my life, I’ve had the good fortune to know many happy families, all quite different. But the quote does capture the uniquely lonely feeling that can come with misery.

The market, we believe, operates in much the same way. Bull markets can cover up a lot of performance differences, and although no two bull markets are quite alike, most investors are generally going to be happy regardless.

But each and every recession hurts in a unique way. We just have to wait.

The market behaved very differently in the tech wreck of 2000–2002 than it did in the Great Recession seven years later. And what we see now is different than either of those!

In a conventional recession, heavily cyclical companies like manufacturers get hammered hard. But cyclical companies generally understand the boom-and-bust cycle and plan for it with their savings.

Consumer goods companies on the other hand might take it for granted that people will keep buying food and clothing and other necessities, so they generally do not keep as much cash on hand. The short, sharp shock we experienced earlier in the year took out a lot of retailers that might have weathered a longer, shallower recession.

Homebuilders are normally one of the biggest casualties in a recession, but they are doing booming business now. So are the companies that make the materials they work with. Many big tech stocks, normally volatile and erratic performers, have been scorching the markets.

This is a stark contrast to the 2007 recession, when the housing market cratered and took out a lot of homebuilders, or the 2000 recession, when growth tech stocks got demolished.

In all likelihood, those previous recessions helped set the stage for these sectors’ current outperformance. Going into this downturn “everyone knew” that homebuilders were going to get wrecked because it happened last time.

Perhaps in five or 10 years there will be big opportunities for investing in restaurants or cruise lines as the next recession prompts investors to flee the businesses that got hit hardest in this one. No guarantees.

Every downturn is different, and we have no way of knowing what the future will hold. All we can do is stick to our principles: avoid the stampede and seek out bargains. Sectors that get trashed in one recession may be found in the bargain bin before a different recession. This is why we study and keep our eyes open.

Clients, if you have any questions, please call or email us.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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

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.

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.

What Comes Next? Three Paths

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Psychologist Shawn Achor wrote about crisis and adversity, recurring features in both the markets and life. Stuff happens, as they say.

Achor says there are three alternate mental paths in the aftermath of crisis.
The first one leads nowhere. We simply expect the crisis conditions to continue. The second one leads downward to more trouble, a continuation of the trend. We humans do tend to believe current conditions or trends will continue.

Finding the third path is difficult when times are tough. Many people do not see it because they do not believe it exists. The third path leads from the challenging conditions to greater strength, capabilities, opportunities and success. Think of it as falling forward.

Studies show those who conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth are more likely to find the third path, and experience that growth. Others have talked about the same concept with words like resilience and grit, or more vividly, post-traumatic growth.

We see this pattern in the investment markets. Although historically the stock market has recovered sooner or later from every downturn, some investors do not recover. Those who can only see the first two paths have a hard time staying invested. If they sell out at low points, believing the crisis conditions will continue or worsen, what might have been a temporary loss becomes permanent.

By the time they see the third path, the market may have already recovered. Their diminished pool of capital can only get reinvested at higher prices, perhaps to repeat the cycle of crisis and loss.

Fortunately, here at 228 Main you clients tend to have productive attitudes toward investing. You can see the third path, which is a big advantage. If you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

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

Teaching an Old Stock New Tricks

© Can Stock Photo / alexskopje

Consolidated Edison Company of New York (Con Ed) was listed on the New York Stock Exchange back in 1824. Known then as New York Gas Light, it holds the record for the longest listing on the exchange.

For every single day of those nearly two centuries, every share of its stock was owned by somebody. Through financial panics, recessions, wars, the Depression – through everything – every share of its stock was owned by someone.

It seems curious to us that some investment advisors advocate the belief that the vast majority of investors are incapable of owning shares of stock through the inevitable downturns. (Stocks do go up and down, as we often note.) Yet somebody has to own every share, every day.

These advisors with low expectations of you usually rely on one of two basic approaches.

1. Keep 40 to 60% of your long term assets in bonds or other forms of fixed income. This strikes us as an exceptionally poor idea for many long term investors, because of historically low interest rates, and potential losses from inflation and rising interest rates.

2. Expect to be able to sell out before big declines, and reinvest before big rises. This unlikely outcome is usually sold as a “tactical” strategy. It is a great one, too, but only on paper. Nobody to our knowledge has ever demonstrated a sustainable long term ability to reduce risk while maintaining market returns with in and out trading.

Our experience tells us that many people understand long term investing, and living with the inevitable ups and downs. Many more can be trained to become effective investors. We think you can handle the truth: real investments go up and down.

The thought of forfeiting a significant fraction of potential future wealth by pandering to fear of short-term volatility hits us wrong. We won’t do it here at 228 Main, nor would we pretend we our crystal ball works well enough for in and out trading.

Of course, our approach is not right for everyone. Clients must be able to live with their chosen approach, and not everyone can live with ours. We can handle the 60/40 or 40/60 mix for clients who want less volatility. But the fraction in the market is going to experience market volatility, a pre-requisite to obtaining market returns.

We mean no disrespect to advisors with different approaches. After all, they lack the main advantage we enjoy: working with the best clients in the whole world.

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


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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

 

To Everything There is a Season

© Can Stock Photo / jordache

After a long and snowy winter, spring has finally arrived in Nebraska, and it is wasting no time. The weather may be nicer, but the sudden thaw and ensuing floods have turned much of our state into a disaster zone.

While tragic, this was a long time coming. Most folks saw how much snow had accumulated through March and knew that it would be trouble when the weather warmed up. We all know how the cycle of the seasons work, and it should be no surprise that winter is followed by spring.

The markets, like the seasons, are cyclical. After a certain point, a bull market turns into a bear market, and vice versa. Summer turns into winter; winter turns into spring. But investor behavior can sometimes overlook this important fact.

Imagine if someone looked around at how cold and snowy it was at the beginning of the month and said “There’s even more snow than there was last month! At this rate there will be two feet of snow on the ground by May!” Obviously, they would sound quite foolish.

But is this really any different than investors who, late in a market rally, say “The market is higher than ever! At this rate it will be even higher in a few months!”

We know how market cycles work. Like the weather, we are not able to predict exactly when the turning point will come. But we know that it will happen eventually, and as contrarians the stronger the trend is the harder we expect the turning point will be.

Sometimes we temporarily look foolish—a bubble may persist for years after we expect it to burst. The fellow predicting snow in May probably would have felt vindicated by how much snow got dumped on us the first half of March, after all. We would rather miss out in the short term than miss a key turn in the markets altogether, though.

To everything there is a season: a time to buy, a time to sell. Clients, if you want to talk about the markets (or the weather), 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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

Up And Down Really Means Up And Down

© Can Stock Photo / webking

As long term investors we talk a lot about the need to weather short-term volatility in pursuit of long-term results. Our notion is that volatility is not risk, but an inherent feature of investing.

As years go by, many think of the market as having good years and bad years. This is based on the outcome for calendar years. The astonishing thing is how much movement there is during the course of the typical year.

“At least one year in four, roughly, the market declines.” We’ve said that about a billion times, to reiterate that our accounts are likely to also have good years and bad years, if one judges on annual returns. The object is to make a decent return over the whole course of the economic cycle, year by year and decade by decade.

But in those other three years out of four, the market also experiences declines during the course of the year. In an average year you may see a decline of 10 to 15% at some point during the year.

Our object is to leave long term money to work through the ups and downs, without selling out at a bad time. Three things help us do that:

1. A sense that everything will work out eventually, a mindset of optimism.

2. Awareness that downturns tend to be temporary, ultimately yielding to long term growth in the economy.

3. Knowing where our needed cash will come from, based on a sound cash flow plan.

Bottom line, even years that end up well can give us a rough ride. Knowing this can make it easier to deal with.

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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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 Happiness Assassins

© Can Stock Photo / Feverpitched

A professor at the Harvard Business School studies the connections between happiness and wealth. Since our immediate business here at 228 Main is wealth, and our primary object as human beings is happiness, we are paying attention.

Michael Norton’s research says there are two main questions people with money ask themselves when thinking about their level of satisfaction or happiness. “Am I doing better than before?” and “Am I doing better than other people?”

We recognize the comparison to others as ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ don’t we? And always doing better than before implies a treadmill of constant improvement, ignoring the natural ebb and flow of markets, business and the economy. These are high hurdles to happiness.

Somebody somewhere is always doing better than us. And we can never have enough, if we always want more. Perhaps this is why researchers have found that people feel if only they had two or three times as much money as they had, then they would be perfectly happy.

Being the best clients in the world, you as a group are a little different. You possess a certain kind of common sense, a groundedness, that has you considering your happiness in connection with what you need and with your natural aspirations for the future. You understand the “two steps forward, one step back” nature of the markets and economy. (You don’t always like it, but you do understand it.)

One friend quotes her granny on this point: “I have enough, and enough is as good as a feast.” This is sheer genius.

Clients, it is unimaginably more satisfying for us to work with you, instead of the kind of people these researchers talk 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.

It’s a Whole New Ballgame!

© Can Stock Photo / eric1513

When a team came from behind to forge a tie in the course of a game, a certain sportscaster in the last century would exclaim “It’s a whole new ball game!”

Games begin tied, zero to zero. So in a sense, a game that becomes tied in mid-course is a new game. We get the same sensation from the start of a new year. The coming of the new year is a good time to reflect on the year just ending, and to think ahead about the year to come.

2018 was interesting, to say the least.

• From a high point in January, the market became choppy and volatile. Some of the bargains we own got cheaper. Account values shrank over the course of the year.
• Some corporate earnings and economic indicators were strong, and interest rates rose.
• LPL Financial, our institutional broker dealer, used its increasing scale to reduce our overhead and improve the technology with which we serve you.
• We added staff at 228 Main, and started projects that will improve things in the years ahead.

2019 awaits.

• We will work to uncover potential opportunities as the economic cycle unfolds, and continue to monitor our holdings on a regular basis.
• Sorting out how to house a growing business in the years ahead will be a bigger issue as time goes on.
• We will continue to add systems and understudies to improve the sustainability and durability of the business. (I still want to work to age 92, after all.)

Your own look back and look ahead are about your own challenges and opportunities. Clients, if you would like to talk about those, 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.

 

World’s Biggest Roller Coaster?

© Can Stock Photo / winnieapple

The biggest roller coaster in the world is Kingda Ka, at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. Sometimes investing provides a similar experience.

We have written before about the lovely decade of the 1990s, when the major stock market averages more than tripled. When you get up close and really look at what happened, however, it looks a whole lot different. We examined the data for the S&P 500 Stock Index.

During that decade, there were 1,171 trading days when the S&P went down. The total points “lost” on those days adds up to 5,228. Put that in perspective: the decade started at just 353 points! The down days “lost” more than fourteen times the beginning value1.

Who would knowingly stick around if, on the first day of the decade, we knew that 5,228 points would be “lost” on the down days?

There is a reason we put the word “lost” in quotation marks. It might be more appropriate to speak of temporary declines rather than losses. We say this, because of what happened on the other 1,356 trading days in the decade.

On those up days, the market went up a total of 6,344 points—or more than 17 times the beginning value1. If we knew only that piece of the future at the outset, money might have flooded in.

The bottom line is, here is how we got a triple in the market: it went up 17 times its original value, and down 14 times its original value, in totally unpredictable bits and pieces of rallies and corrections. Patient people prospered.

It is hard to argue with a triple. That is a fine result. This is why we talk incessantly about the long term, long time horizons, keeping the faith, following fundamental principles, and not panicking at low points.

During the decade, how many times did 10% corrections have to be endured? 20% bear markets? Were there any 30% or 40% losses? WHO CARES? It didn’t matter to long term investors.

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

Notes & References

1Standard & Poor’s 500 index, S&P Dow Jones Indices: https://us.spindices.com/indices/equity/sp-500. Accessed October 3rd, 2018.


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. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted.

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

 

It Works Until It Doesn’t

© Can Stock Photo / joebelanger

Money poured into tech stocks in the late 1990s. Then it went into residential real estate in the middle 2000s. No wonder: prices marched higher, year after year—until they didn’t.

We humans usually believe that recent trends will continue. When friends and neighbors and coworkers are getting in on the action, it is easy to join them.

A powerful narrative that seems to be creating a lot of wealth is hard to resist. “We have entered a new era.” “This time is different.” “You can’t lose money in real estate.”

Popularity pushes values farther and farther away from the underlying economics, and a reversal usually follows. The bubble pops; a great number of people are surprised. Some end up with losses instead of the gains they felt sure about making.

Our analysis suggests that a new kind of bubble is upon us. The zero interest rate policy or ZIRP of the Federal Reserve Board for most of the past decade led to a scramble for yield. This moved the valuation on many kinds of investments that pay income into very rich territory, in our opinion.

For example, we were recently pitched on a “cash substitute” with a 5% yield, in a supposedly liquid form. Sounds great, right? Perhaps too good to be true.

Indeed, when we took the proposition apart, we found it was made largely out of corporate bonds in financially weak companies—junk bonds, in other words. To make matters worse, the manager pursued opportunities in a thinly-traded part of the market—odd lots, small amounts of each bond that are unattractive to other buyers.

This idea will work until it doesn’t. When the next economic slowdown creates cracks in the theory, investors who believed they owned a “cash substitute” may be sensitive about losses of any size. As they cash out, the manager may be forced to sell into a market with even fewer buyers.

The silver lining for us is that dislocations bring opportunities. Prices overshoot in both directions. One of our roles is to try to spot these anomalies, and figure out which ones are attractive opportunities for you. (We have no guarantees of success in this.)

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. 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.

All investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal.

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

High yield/junk bonds (grade BB or below) are not investment grade securities, and are subject to higher interest rate, credit, and liquidity risks than those graded BBB and above. They generally should be part of a diversified portfolio for sophisticated investors.