cyclical markets

Bargain Hiding in Plain Sight

© Can Stock Photo / mrivserg

Imagine a product that has these uses1:
• Vital part of every home and building.
• Goes into every vehicle; hybrids and electrics use up to four times more.2
• Needed for manufacture, installation and use of solar panels and wind turbines.
• Key requirement in making batteries.

One might imagine that demand for this product will rise in coming years, as technology changes our power grid and transportation, and the world continues to modernize.

Now consider the supply side. It takes billions of dollars and four years or more to create a new production facility. The industry that produces it went through a depression as prices for the product got cut in half from 2011 to 20163. Revenues disappeared, losses mounted, spending got slashed. New projects were cancelled.

Rising demand, constricted supply: we know how this works. Prices will rise, revenues and earnings for producers will go up, stock prices may follow. No guarantees, of course, and the timing is always uncertain.

The product is COPPER. There is no replacement for it. The question we face as investors is, can we get involved on a favorable basis?

We know companies that produce a lot of copper, along with other resources. Their stocks are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The valuation on their shares seems compelling. A dollar of profit in one trades for a third less than that of the average stock; the other one carries a two-thirds discount. One is trading at one-third of its all-time peak a few years back, the other is discounted even more.

Both stocks have been about twice as volatile as the average stock. (This is measured by a statistic called ‘beta.’) We don’t care. Downside volatility is wonderful if you are trying to buy bargains. But owners should be prepared for the roller-coaster.

Clients, we are telling you this story for a reason. When you hear that ‘the market is too high’ or things are at some unsustainable peak, remember that at 228 Main, we are pounding the table and jumping up and down about the bargains we are finding. If you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length, please email us or call.

1The World Copper Factbook 2014, International Copper Study Group

2The Electric Vehicle Market and Copper Demand, International Copper Alliance

3Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


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.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

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

We Work Hard for the Money

© Can Stock Photo / lunamarina

Clients are familiar with our work in high yield corporate bonds. Since 2001, we have identified eight opportunities in the sector. We put more than $10 million to work by purchasing more than $20 million of bond face amounts at a discount, issued by these eight companies.

To be clear about the terminology, ‘high yield’ is a polite way to say ‘JUNK.’ Bonds do not sell for 70 cents or 30 cents on the dollar unless there are some issues that place the outcome in doubt. The conventional wisdom says that people should not purchase individual issues of junk bonds because of the risk involved.

This arena is a contrarian’s dream. We human beings know how to take things too far—it is one of the things we do best. To illustrate, when the price of oil fell from $140 to $100 to $60 to $30, the news was full of predictions that the price would fall to just $9 per barrel. Bonds issued by an oil exploration and production company fell to 30 cents on the dollar, then fell even more.

You already know we believe the crowd can be wrong, and the stampede is to be avoided. Our analysis of the company financial statements said that even if the oil company went broke, at $9 oil then bondholders would still probably recover 30 cents on the dollar in a liquidation. Since negative sentiment about oil prices had gone way too far, in our opinion, we concluded that oil was NOT going to $9 per barrel anyway.

Oil bottomed, the bonds bottomed, both rose. Clients, you noticed this in your 2016 statements. When we find an anomaly between what we expect will happen and what the market has priced in, profits may result.

What you do not see is the process by which we found the eight opportunities over sixteen years, and how we go about finding the next one. We recently found 199 high yield bonds offered for sale by 29 different issuing companies that met our first criteria. We seek 10% or higher yields, and 25% or greater discounts from face amount.

Smaller companies or issues of bonds that do not trade with sufficient liquidity are thrown out. Companies that lack an asset base from which creditors might gain a recovery are ruled out. And certain industries are judged too risky, based on the economic cycle.

The bottom line is, we need to understand how we would get our purchase money back even in the event of liquidation. If a bond issuing company ultimately cannot pay back the whole dollar, it goes broke. Creditors including bondholders get paid first, before stockholders. So if we buy in for 50 cents on the dollar and receive 75 cents back in a liquidation, we make money.

For each bond issuer, we need to understand the capital structure of the company. This tells us where the bonds rank in liquidation priority. We need to analyze the financial statements. What assets would be available for liquidation? Would the company make money if its debt was recalibrated to market value? We also must consider company management, and think about how well it would maneuver through a reorganization.

The title above says we work hard for the money. What we are talking about is the recent exercise where we looked at the 199 bonds of 29 issuers, went through our analysis to see if we could find a new opportunity…and came up empty. This is usually what happens.

We have looked at thousands of bonds issued by hundreds of companies over the years. Eight times in sixteen years, the stars lined up for us (and for you.) The search goes on, the next opportunity will pop up sooner or later. If you would like to talk about this or any other issue, 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.

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.

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

A 10% Correction is Coming!

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There is an amazing thing about the performance of the stock market this year. Looking at the S&P 500 Stock Index, it has hardly dipped more than a few percent from its peaks. There has been a little wiggling, but far less than usual.

We human beings have a remarkable capacity to get used to current conditions, and expect them to persist. This could make trouble for us when the 10% market correction does eventually come around.

Long time clients know we believe that these market drops can neither be predicted nor traded profitably. Many of you call when the market does drop, seeking to invest in any bargains that appeared. We know how this works!

(Of course, we do not own ‘the market.’ Our holdings—and your account balances—sometimes deviate from the direction of the market. In 2016 we were fond of the difference. 2017 so far, the market is a little ahead of us. The point is, the market wiggles up and down, and our performance relative to the market also moves around.)

Commentator Morgan Housel recently wrote “every past market crash looks like an opportunity, but every future market crash looks like a risk.” Our experience after the 2007-2009 downturn demonstrated the first part of that statement. It is the next market crash that we must be concerned with.

Our research process is focused on finding bargains. We’ve taken steps in many portfolios to dampen volatility by changing holdings. Cash levels are generally higher, too. But none of these things will eliminate the temporary fluctuations that are an integral and necessary part of long term investing.

The market will decline. Our portfolios will decline. These declines will seem like a risk when we are going through them; we may see later that they really were an opportunity. The relative calm we’ve experience recently will give way to more volatile times—we know this, and should not be surprised by it.

We’re working to be in position to profit from opportunities that arise. Clients, if you would like to discuss your situation in greater detail, 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. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

A Drop or a Loss?

© Can Stock Photo / jamdesign

Recently a client informed us that another person told her that her primary investment account may be invested too aggressively. We asked what the basis was for that conclusion. The explanation: “If the market corrects, I would lose money.”

Anyone who has followed us for any length of time could probably spot the two questionable ideas contained in those eight words. It is worth discussing, because, in our opinion, getting these ideas right may help our clients build wealth more effectively.

1. There is no “if” about the next market correction, it should be when the market corrects. Why act as if we could avoid corrections when we know they will happen and they cannot be reliably predicted nor traded?

2. Is a drop in the market a loss?

We have many long term clients who have lived through dozens of 3-5-7% drops, a fair number of 10-20% declines known as ‘corrections,’ and three or four bear markets with drops of more than 20% in the major market averages. Yet they are sitting on cumulative gains—account balances in excess of the net amount they invested. One might reasonably ask, “what losses?”

The key to our plan, of course, is remaining on course even in difficult conditions, which we know will happen from time to time. We described our efforts to build a client group with this characteristic in our article Niche Market of the Mind.

It is worth mentioning that much of the conventional wisdom about investing assumes that, indeed, a drop in the market is a loss. Furthermore, since many people behave ineffectively when it comes to investing, the conventional wisdom seems to be that everybody behaves ineffectively—doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, again and again—as if it is inevitable for everyone.

It is almost as if statistics about the average weight and exercise habits of Americans are taken as proof that no group of relatively fit people show up at the gym at 6 AM to work out.

We are grateful to be working with you, a group of clients who are disciplined and fit when it comes to effective wealth-building behavior. If you have questions about this or any other topic, 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.