Review and Outlook: Perception and Reality

© Can Stock Photo / sborisov

The gap between perception and reality is a key concept for us, as contrarian investors.

Year-end is a logical time to stand back and assess the year just ending, our current situation, and prospects for the next year. Many others ably describe the facts and statistics and the major themes. We will look at a pair of critically important things that may have fallen into the gap.

We believe the president has a flawed understanding of global trade. He recently spoke again of disastrous trade deals, massive profits to other nations, and millions of American jobs lost. The reality is, trade lets us get more for everything we produce, and pay less for everything we consume. It enriches America and the world.

We aren’t here to argue politics. But we are here to understand economics and markets as best we can, for your benefit and ours. The markets may be underestimating the potential for damage to the economy, corporate profits, employment, and stock prices if the president’s rhetoric ever translates into actual policy.

The second concern is about Congress, and a problem to which both parties have contributed (in my opinion.) The American system of governance historically produced major legislation through a bipartisan process. The Civil Rights Act, Social Security, Medicare, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 were all products of give and take between members of both parties. All of these endured.

Without debating the merits of either, the Affordable Care Act and the recent tax legislation are the products of a partisan process. Both featured closed-door negotiations by small groups, deal-making that benefitted narrow groups to win votes, and straight party-line votes that produced less-than-perfect outcomes.

The ACA has been under attack since it was passed, and is now being unraveled by the opposition. The same thing could happen in the years ahead to the tax legislation. Uncertainty about tax policy may create problems for companies and the economy.

The short version of all this is that we are optimistic—as always. But our eyes are wide open. We will continue to diversify into sectors that may be less affected (or unaffected) by these issues. This is consistent with our core principles of seeking the best bargains and avoiding stampedes.

Clients, if you would like to discuss these issues further, or have anything else on your agenda, please write or call. In the meantime, we are enjoying the results of 2017 and hopeful about what will happen in 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.

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.

The Melting Pot Matures


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.

Are You Getting Your Piece of the Pie?

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Elenathewise

The Federal Reserve provides us with a quarterly report of household net worth. The latest number is $89 trillion, up 59% from the financial crisis year of 2008. I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of wealth—and a nice increase.

The distribution of our wealth from person to person is the subject of some political debate, which we will leave to the politicians. It always has made sense to us to focus on the things within our control; let’s see what we can learn from the numbers.

Our $111 trillion of assets includes homes, pensions, stock, money in the bank, mutual funds, small business ownership, and bonds.

We owe $22 trillion, most in the form of mortgage debt but also including consumer debt like auto loans and credit cards.

Net worth is simply the value of our assets minus our liabilities, or what we own minus what we owe. $111 trillion minus $22 trillion is our $89 trillion in net worth.

Here are the pertinent points, as we see them:

1. Having wealth in different forms is a good thing, a form of diversification. We the people have money in the bank, different kinds of investments, homes and businesses.

2. Debt can make sense when it helps us own assets of enduring value that we can afford to pay for over time. $22 trillion is a lot of debt, but it helps us to own $111 trillion worth of homes and businesses and other assets.

3. Since debt or liabilities are subtracted from assets to determine our net worth, it makes sense to minimize debt over time. One who pays off a car loan and then keeps putting the payment amount in savings each month might get by with a smaller loan the next time a vehicle is purchased.

4. Because assets are the starting point for determining net worth, one should seek to invest effectively for growth and income over time. Money does not grow on trees, but it may grow over time.

Our $89 trillion net worth is a very large amount of wealth for us as a society. The decisions we make play a big role in determining whether or not we each get our piece of the pie. We have written about Four Habits for Financial Success which might help, and we encourage you to call or email if we can be of service.

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 Medicine is Worse than the Disease

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / nebari

Monetary authorities took extreme measures during and after the financial crisis. These policies failed in their stated goal. More importantly, they have the potential for much mischief in the portfolios of the unwary in the months and years ahead.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made it clear that the role of zero interest rates and Quantitative Easing was to push money into productive investments (or “risk assets”) that would help the economy grow. Instead, the biggest tidal wave of money ever flooded into supposedly safe assets, like Treasury bonds. Money flows into US stocks disappeared in the crisis, and basically have never come back. Zero interest worked exactly opposite the way it was supposed to. This obvious reality is totally ignored by the central bankers.

Current Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen continues to parrot the party line. Progress toward undoing the mistaken crisis policies has been excruciatingly slow. And the potential for damage to safety-seeking investors continues to mount. Similar policies, or worse, are in effect around the world.

Standard & Poor’s recently issued a report stating that corporate debt would grow from a little over $50 trillion now to $75 trillion by 2021, globally. Bonds are the largest single form of corporate debt, which is how investors are affected. This isn’t happening because corporations are investing so much money in new plants and equipment and research. It is merely meeting the demand of safety-seeking investors for places to put money. We think of this as “the safety bubble.” It appears to be the biggest bubble in history.

Standard & Poor’s is warning of future defaults from companies that borrowed too much money at these artificially low interest rates. Our concern is that when interest rates inevitably rise, people locked into low interest investments will see large market value losses even if their bonds are ultimately repaid.

We’ve written about the impact of higher inflation on today’s supposedly safe investments. Now the warning from S&P highlights another risk. The distortions created by counter-productive monetary policy are growing.

Of course, we believe our portfolios are constructed to defend against these risks, and to profit from the artificially low interest rates. We will continue to monitor these and other developments. If you have questions or comments, please email or call 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. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

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.

Main Street Capitalism

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / MShake

Imagine what a world we would have, if the surest path to prosperity required each of us to be of service to the rest of us. But looking around, we may not even have to imagine it. I’m pretty sure Main Street already works on precisely that principle.

Jeff the grocer can only build sustainable increases in wealth and income by helping more people feed their families. He could try to raise prices or skimp on service or pass off inferior goods, but his trade would soon dry up and he would go broke. Customers would simply shop elsewhere. So instead he works to stock the foods that people want, at fair prices, as part of a pleasant shopping experience.

Likewise, Bob the car dealer can only prosper by helping more people get where they want to go, to and from work and shopping and entertainment and on vacation. He certainly could make more money in a short amount of time by tricking customers into bad deals, but most people can only be fooled once. The trickery would doom his business.

Kevin in the auto parts store is legendary for his ability to put the right parts and tools in the hands of his customers, so they can fix their troubles. He helps people take care of their vehicles and keep them on the road.

Leibman Financial Services is not immune. Competitors abound. We have to work hard to deliver more value per dollar of cost than anyone else can, to help people pursue their financial goals.

You see the pattern, right? We prosper by helping one another. If we aren’t of use to our customers, we don’t keep the customers. When we do it right, everybody benefits. Everyone is better off. When we don’t do it right, the discipline of the marketplace is harsh and swift. All the other businesses on Main Street, and the professionals offering medical and dental and pharmacy services, are in exactly the same circumstances. We prosper by helping one another.

This is the moral basis of capitalism.

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

Renting the Oil Company

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / fredgoldstein

We all seem to know intuitively that rent on a residence covers all the expenses of ownership, plus a profit for the landlord. Hence most people prefer to own their homes rather than pad the landlord’s wealth.

And yet when we buy a gallon of gasoline, we are paying all of the oil company’s expenses plus a profit for their owners. We pay the cost of refining crude oil into gasoline, transporting it to retail locations, or running the store at which we purchase the gasoline. Not to mention the cost of exploring for and pumping the crude oil and shipping it to refineries.

But if we own a piece of the action (in the form of shares of common stock) in an oil company, we indirectly own a share in the oil wells and refineries and transportation and everything else needed to put a gallon of gasoline within our reach. Own or rent? We prefer to own—and by the way, if you prefer to rent, thank you for doing business with our oil company!

We and our clients own phone companies and clothing manufacturers and car makers and raw material producers and major retailers and airlines and nearly every other segment of the economy. From the time we wake up and brush our teeth, put on clothes, go to factories and shops and offices, use energy through the day… we are doing business with ourselves. We are owners, not renters.

It is our opinion that a person who owns no common stock or other business rents everything: the refineries, auto manufacturers, food distributors, trains and planes, communications networks. They are paying rent for everything that goes into their life, without receiving any benefits of ownership.

Rent or Own? You might want to own shares of companies for the very same reason you prefer to own your home. We are available to discuss whether this philosophy fits into your plans and planning—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.

Stock investing 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.

Is the Market Just A Casino?

© / provasilich

Some people experience a lingering reluctance to invest because they suspect Wall Street is a giant casino. Most of us understand that a casino will, on average, fleece its customers of their hard-earned money. But does the market actually function like that?

In reality, a share of common stock listed on a stock exchange represents a percentage ownership interest in a large enterprise. A bond represents money loaned to an enterprise or government for the promise of stated interest and a return of the face amount on the maturity date.

Shares of a successful business or bonds issued by a solvent company tend to reward long-term holders by returning amounts in excess of the original investment. These increases may be in the form of interest on bonds or dividends on stock, plus preservation or growth of the principal invested. These kinds of investments are not like a slot machine or a roulette wheel, games rigged by casinos to pay out only a fraction of the money wagered.

The amazing thing about a share of stock is that an owner receives the same proportional benefits whether a single share or millions of shares are owned. The companies associated with Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the Walton family are well known to many. And anyone who wishes may invest in those companies on exactly the same basis as Buffett or Gates or
the Waltons—and enjoy the same percentage results.

(We are not recommending or advocating the purchase of any specific company to anyone, of course.)

The flawed casino analogy may seem plausible since some investors engage in short-term trading, speculation, and other aggressive tactics. But how one uses the market is within one’s control, and the practices of short-term traders have nothing to do with long term investors.

One person may use an automobile as a getaway car after bank robberies, while the next one uses a car to commute to work. The misuse of a vehicle by the robber has nothing to do with the usefulness of the vehicle to the commuter.

So for you and for us, the answer is, “NO!” the market is not a casino.

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 investments involve risk and may lose value.

Behavioral Economics and The Price of Stability

Stone wall with gold letters spelling out STABILITYThe first theory of economists was that human beings act rationally. When they realized they needed a new theory, the field of Behavioral Economics was born.

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, if you earn $5 it should feel just as satisfying as if you earned $10 and then lost $5 of that—but we still feel the sting of the loss harder, even though the outcome is the same.

If people weigh these two otherwise identical outcomes differently, when it comes time to invest they will wind up paying more for $5 earned in stable investments than they would for $5 earned in volatile investments. There is no shortage of expensive products designed to pander to this tendency by selling the promise of stability at a premium.

The necessary conclusion we see—the one nobody else seems to—is that if the price of stability is too high, the potential rewards for enduring volatility must be larger than they otherwise should be.

These concepts shape our work, our strategies, and our tactics. “The pain of a loss” is determined by one’s mindset, training, and understanding. Many great investors (and many of our clients) feel no pain over short-term losses. Some are even gleeful at the chance to buy securities at bargain prices. One of our roles is to help you develop more productive and effective attitudes about investing, and we believe that by training yourself out of irrational pain over short-term volatility you can perform better in the long run.

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

The illustration is hypothetical and is not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

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