inflation

Four Trends for Fall, 2018

© Can Stock Photo / Elenathewise

The gap between consensus expectations and reality as it unfolds is where we think profit potential lives. This is why we put so much effort into studying trends, and the ramifications for investors.

One year ago, we wrote about four trends. The next energy revolution (solar + batteries), long range prospects for the world’s most populous democracy, the airline industry, and rising interest rates continue to play roles in our thoughts and portfolios.

Other ideas are also in play.

1. Thinking about the next few years, our highest conviction idea is inflation will exceed consensus expectations. Some of the ways we act on this belief may provide some counterweight to other portfolio holdings, since inflation hurts some industries while it helps others.

2. As the economic expansion lengthens toward record territory, the desire to extend our lifespan tends to be insensitive to the business cycle. Biopharmaceutical companies, working on cures for everything from Alzheimers to various forms of cancer, seem attractively priced.

3. The trend toward rising interest rates, noted last year, may have an effect on weaker and more leveraged companies. We are looking to avoid the second-order and third-order effects that higher rates may have on some borrowers.

4. US stocks have become popular relative to international equities, with dramatic outperformance over the past decade. At some point the trend changes, and better value usually wins out.

One of the difficult things about being contrarian–going against the crowd–is that we sometimes look silly. When everybody else is having more success in the short run while we search for bargains, it can be tough. But that is what we do. We’re excited about the continuing evolution of your holdings as the future unfolds.

We can offer no guarantees except that we will continue to put our best effort into the endeavor. Clients, if you have any questions or comments or insights to add, 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.

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.

 

Wishing For A Gold Mine?

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We know a fellow who built a gold mine. Whenever we mention this, people usually ask what it was. The answer is…a gold mine. This client worked as a construction superintendent for a very large contractor. He had built coal mines and a gold mine among many other large projects.

This anecdote comes to mind as we prepare to tell you our latest thoughts on investment tactics. We invest time every week looking for the best bargains, trying to figure out emerging trends, thinking about the economy and the markets. In a recent research meeting, Greg Leibman posed the question, “What can we own that might benefit from rising inflation?”

We humans tend to think that recent conditions or trends will persist. This makes it hard to realize the long spell of very low inflation might come to an end, with inflation outpacing expectations.

One way to weather periods of rising inflation is to invest in companies that own things: land, buildings, factories, raw materials, and so on. An oil company already owns the oil in their reserves and the wells to pump it; when prices go up, they get to sell it for more profit but most of their capital expenses have already been baked in.

Miners similarly benefit when the prices of their existing mineral reserves go up. Like oil companies, their stock price tends to move in correlation with natural resource prices, making them a potential inflation hedge. Some mining companies have exposure to the gold market, which some people may see as a particularly important hedge against inflation.

We have had raw material companies on our radar for some time now: they tend to be big cyclical movers, and we have been bullish about the current cycle so far. But we believe that this same sentiment may have created buying opportunities in the mining sector.

We look for potential gaps between expectations and the unfolding reality. That is where profit lives, in our opinion. When Greg posed the question, we put our heads together and started looking at potential opportunities. To summarize,

• Inflation may exceed expectations in the years ahead.
• We believe that some companies within the mining sector are at bargain levels.

There are no guarantees. What we think of as bargains sometimes have the dismaying tendency to get cheaper after we buy them. But we think we have identified potential investment opportunities that may be appropriate for some portfolios. 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.

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

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

The Inflation Powder Keg

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A few weeks ago, the Federal Reserve issued a policy statement greenlighting more interest rate hikes despite fears of inflation.1 For years the Fed has struggled to keep inflation up to its target rate of 2%, and now that it is there, it looks likely to us that the Fed may overshoot the target entirely.

Interest rates and inflation tend to go hand in hand. When interest rates are high, borrowers can earn more money to spend, creating upward price pressures. When inflation is high, lenders try to raise rates to keep ahead of inflation. As rates continue to rise, you can often expect inflation to do the same.

Worse, there are other pressures looming on the horizon that we think may contribute even more to inflation. A strong economic cycle and robust jobs market may often bring higher inflation. As unemployment drops, workers become harder to find. Many companies might have to offer higher wages to get the employees they need, forcing them to raise prices—at the same time that workers have more money to spend from higher wages. Rising prices and rising wages equals inflation.

We also expect more price pressure to arrive from overseas. The trade war that the current administration seems bent on fighting shows no signs of cooling off. When you raise taxes on a product, such as a tariff on imports, inevitably the price may go up to pay for the taxes.

Tariffs create knock-on effects, as well. Many products manufactured inside the U.S. use materials imported from overseas that are subject to tariffs, so domestic products may also face rising prices. And domestic companies that are fortunate enough to dodge the tariffs entirely may still raise their prices opportunistically: with the prices of other goods rising, they have an opportunity to increase prices and profits without hurting themselves as much competitively.

Once again, where you have rising prices, you have inflation. Put it all together and the economy may be sitting on a powder keg of explosive inflation pressure. We do not know when or if the powder may exploded, but we cannot afford to ignore it.

We have gotten so used to low inflation rates in the past decade that it is easy to pretend they will last forever. Sooner or later, we expect some investors to be burned by this mindset. We want to do what we can to avoid being among them. Clients, if you have any concerns about how inflation may affect your portfolio or investment strategy please call us.

Notes and References

1:Press Release, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve: https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/monetary20180613a.htm. Accessed June 28, 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.

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.

 

Burning Up Money

© Can Stock Photo / ancientimages

No doubt you probably noticed the turmoil in the stock market over the past several weeks. You might have assumed, if you watched the stock indexes hit a low of more than 10% below their peak, that some particularly ugly piece of news had hit the market.

If so, you would probably be surprised to hear that the biggest news stories leading to the correction were that the economy was booming and unemployment was at record lows. So why were investors panicking at this seemingly positive news? The answer is inflation.

You see, as the economy grows, increasing wealth leads to increasing demand. This means higher prices–or, in economic terms, inflation. This creates a couple of problems for the stock market. In the long term, rising prices make it harder to maintain economic growth and may contribute to an eventual crash. In the short term, both economic growth and inflation increase the pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, making bonds and other interest-driven investments more attractive relative to stocks.

We are deeply skeptical of this short-term rationale. While bond investors may salivate at the prospect of higher interest rates in the future, we think this is short-sighted. Tomorrow’s higher interest bonds may sound attractive, but you would be foolish to buy them if the interest rate is going to be even higher the day after. On February 5th, when the stock market was posting headline-grabbing declines fueled by interest rate paranoia, investors were actually buying up bonds–bonds that stood to lose purchasing power as soon as better, higher interest bonds started being issued!

The longer term concern, that inflation may spell the beginning of the end of the current economic boom, is a bigger threat. We have warned for a long time that the Federal Reserve was likely to wind up overshooting the mark on its 2% inflation rate target. We think this is even more likely now that the government has passed a very stimulus-minded tax package. Cutting taxes during the middle of a boom is likely just throwing gasoline on the fire: it is possible we may see some explosive growth, so in the short run we are excited about the market, but in the long run the economy may just burn out that much faster.

Clients, many of you have been in business with us long enough to remember the roller-coaster years we saw around 2007. The dip at the start of February may potentially be forgotten as the market forges on ahead, but it will not be the last one. The roller coaster is coming back, and although we look forward to the ride we will keep a mindful eye for the day we may need to think about getting off. Call us if you have any questions about the market and the broader economic outlook.


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.

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

A is A

© Can Stock Photo / hurricanehank

At the height of ancient Greek civilization, the philosopher Aristotle taught the Law of Identity. A is A. Everything has a single identity, not two or more, and two different things do not share the same identity. A is A. A dog is not a cat; an orange is not an orangutan, an olive is an olive.

One wonders what has been lost through the centuries, when considering Federal Reserve Bank policy. The Fed, as it is known, is charged with a dual mandate. It is supposed to promote maximum employment and stable prices.

If Aristotle were alive today, he might teach that stable prices are stable prices. This would be in accordance with the Law of Identity. A thing is what it is. Yet the Fed has adopted a 2% inflation target, supposedly in accordance with its mandate of price stability1.

At 2% inflation, a dollar today buys only 98 cents worth of goods next year and about 96 cents the year after. Prices would double every 35 years or so, under this inflation target. Over the course of a century, a dollar would shrink to about 12 cents in purchasing power. In what sense is this ‘price stability?’ It violates the simple precept that Aristotle taught 2,300 years ago.

One error some people make is presuming the things we can measure are important, and the things we cannot measure are unimportant. Higher dollar volumes of activity are presumed to be good. So when productivity or technological improvements reduce prices of things we purchase and use, we are obviously better off—but conventional economic statistics may indicate otherwise.

There are ramifications for us as investors. The threats to our prosperity from inflation may be discounted by the Federal Reserve. The advantages of technological progress are understated. We think this means we need to be more sensitive to the damage that future inflation might do to our wealth, and the opportunities presented by technological progress.

Clients, if you have any questions about this or any other pertinent topic, please email us or call.

1Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, https://www.federalreserve.gov/faqs/economy_14400.htm


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 opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

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.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

Two Robbers Lurk in the Shortcut

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The investment methodology promoted by most financial professionals has a costly shortcut at its core. A mathematical trick is used in place of common sense, one that simply equates volatility with risk.

The shortcut enables people to pretend that statistical models can predict the future risk in any portfolio. The model always works perfectly, until it doesn’t. Three Nobel Prize-winners using these kinds of models blew up a hedge fund with billions of dollars in 1998. The failure of Long Term Capital Management caused an international crisis.

Warren Buffett wrote a wonderful analysis of this issue in his 2014 letter to shareholders. He explained that stock prices will always be more volatile than cash holdings in the short term. But he believes that fixed-dollar investments are far riskier than widely diversified stock portfolios over the long term.

One of the robbers that lurks in the shortcut is inflation. A dollar today will only buy 98 cents worth of goods next year, and 96 cents the year after that. Buffett wrote in 2014 that the dollar had lost 87% of its purchasing power over the previous 50 years. So over the long haul, the stable fixed investment becomes quite risky in terms of the potential to melt your wealth away.

While the high risk in currency-denominated investments did its damage, the same 50 year period saw the S&P 500 advance by 11,196%. Another of the robbers lurking in the shortcut is missed opportunity for long term gains.

Fortunately, you can spot the shortcut fairly easily. Every one of the following situations involves costly confusion about volatility and risk:

1. When every market sector supposedly needs to be owned for proper diversification. Our view: Some sectors are overpriced and should not be owned—tech stocks in 2000, real estate in 2007, commodities in 2011, and so forth.

2. When the presence of declining elements in a portfolio is held as proof of proper investment process—the idea that some things always zig when others zag, and keep the whole bucket more stable. Our view: When a crisis hits, many things decline across the board.

3. When a short-term decline is spoken of as ‘a loss.’ Our view: This is a costly misperception, born of a short-sighted approach.

4. When the future returns of a portfolio are described as a range that will be accurate 95% of the time—this is a hallmark of the statistical model. Our view: The model knows the past. The future will be different than the past. The wheels will come off the model when these differences emerge.

No one knows what the future holds. Our approach is to avoid stampedes, seek the best bargains, and strive to own the orchard for the fruit crop. These principles help us pick our spots, so to speak, rather than think we need to own a little bit of everything no matter what. The principles are no guarantee against loss.

The key advantage in our method, we believe, is avoiding the robbers who lurk in the shortcut. No systematic wealth melting from unneeded stagnant fixed investments, no missed opportunities for long term gains. We have no guarantees that our approach will be superior.

Clients, you know that one thing is required of you in order to have a chance to be successful with our methods. The understanding that volatility is NOT risk is key. Please call us or email if you would like to discuss this at greater length.


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.

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 and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

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

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 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.

Deflated Inflation Expectations

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / NataliyaShirokova

We’ve written before about inflation and its corrosive effect over time. The topic has become much more timely because of two developments:

1. The prospects for inflation have gone up with the large increase in the price of oil and other forms of energy. We could potentially see annual inflation indicators top 3% within the next six months.

2. Money continues to flood into long-term low rate fixed income, as safety-seekers buy bonds yielding in the 1 and 2 percent range.

It appears these trends are in for quite a collision. Our first principle is ‘Avoid stampedes in the markets.’ So we suspect that the safety-seekers may not end up with what they were seeking. If today’s 2% bond is repriced in a 3% world, capital losses may result.

Human tendency is to expect current conditions and trends to continue. So the prospects for inflation are pretty much ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ since we have not had much inflation for quite a while. But the large increases in the price of oil and other raw materials could potentially generate annual inflation rates in excess of 3% over the next few months. Crude oil, for example, bottomed at $28 per barrel in February 2016. Current prices in the $40’s, if they persist until February 2017, will exert a lot of upward pressure on inflation.1

One would expect that investors locked in at 2% yields when inflation is running at 3% will not sit still for it. The mystery is, will the stampede of money into bonds come stampeding back out if safety-seekers find losses on their supposedly safe investments?

The potential for profit lives in the gap between expectations and unfolding reality. We believe inflation expectations and corresponding investment yields are off the mark. We have no guarantees, but our opinion is inflation will be up and bond prices will be down in the months and years ahead. If you would like to talk about the ramifications on our portfolios or yours, write or call.

1Oil prices retrieved via Federal 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. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

Bond yields are subject to change. Certain call or special redemption features may exist which could impact yield.

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

Inflated Expectations

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / smuay

Back in 1970, gas was 25 cents a gallon and you could buy a liter of Coca-Cola for 15 cents. We all know that money is not what it used to be. When planning for the future, we need to remember that our money is not always going to be what it is now, either.

Conventional monetary policy aims for “normal” levels of inflation in the low 2-3% range per year. That may not sound like much, but it adds up. At this level of inflation, prices double approximately every 30 years. If you bury a dollar in the ground and dig it back up in 30 years, you can expect it to only buy half of what it could buy today.

For some people, this is fantastic news. If you take out a mortgage to buy a house, it gradually becomes easier for you to pay it off over the lifetime of the loan. At the end of a 30 year mortgage you’ll still be paying off the same amount, but the prices of everything else (including your wages) will have doubled. A small amount of inflation gives people incentives to invest and take risks with their money, helping make the economy more productive.

If you’re planning to retire on fixed assets, however, inflation poses a serious threat to you. With advances in healthcare it’s not unreasonable to expect new retirees to live another 30 years. After thirty years of inflation your retirement assets will only buy half as much in groceries and rent. Retirement funds that seem generous when you’re 65 may leave you in dire straits when you’re 95.

The simplest way to fix this is just to have more money than you’ll ever need—it doesn’t matter if your money loses spending power if you have even more money to spend. Of course, this is easier said than done! Saving diligently and spending wisely will only take you so far. If your retirement bucket isn’t big enough to weather inflation, you need to be able to grow your bucket. A balanced growth and income portfolio can potentially give you retirement income while still having some growth possibilities.

There are no guarantees; the future is full of uncertainty. Growth-oriented holdings can be volatile, and it takes steady nerves to watch the value of your retirement holdings going up and down. If you can tolerate it, though, including growth holdings as part of your retirement portfolio can give you a chance to stay ahead of inflation.


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.

Not All That Glitters is Gold

© www.canstockphoto.com / scanrail

The gold standard is a seductive idea that tends to emerge in times of economic confusion. We see this today with the anxiety surrounding the Federal Reserve’s long-anticipated rate increase. Gold is synonymous with wealth, and a gold-based currency represents stability in a world of economic uncertainty… or so we think.

Unfortunately the reality is more complex. The value of a currency is based on two things: the amount of that currency, and the amount of economic wealth it represents. If our supply of currency increases at the same rate as the supply of “stuff” for it to buy, prices remain stable.

If the supply of currency grows faster than the supply of “stuff”, it takes more currency to buy the same amount. Prices rise, and then we have inflation. The gold standard is not a guarantee against this: sudden increases in the gold supply (such as from a mining boom) can create spikes of inflation in a gold-based economy. This risk decreases as we accumulate more gold stockpiles, but gold supplies can still be manipulated by currency speculators in the open market, doing serious damage to gold-based economies.

Worse, even if we could keep the supply of gold stable, the supply of “stuff” is not. If a large amount of wealth is wiped out (by wars, natural disasters, or economic collapse) then we have inflation again as there is now too much currency for the shrinking amount of stuff, creating a “double whammy” of inflation on top of economic hardship.

If the currency supply fails to keep up with the “stuff” supply (as is likely when mineral gold reserves become depleted), it’s just as bad. In this case, the currency becomes more valuable and prices decrease. We have deflation, the opposite of inflation. This sounds fantastic at first: all our money becomes more valuable! But then we have a problem, because who wants to spend money today if they know it will be more valuable tomorrow? Everyone begins hoarding money instead of spending or investing it, creating an economic slowdown.

We don’t always agree with the Fed’s policies. However, we believe that having someone influencing the money supply on purpose is a better way to stabilize prices than crossing our fingers and hoping that our supply of shiny metals just happens to expand and contract itself as needed.


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

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