narratives

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.

 

A Dangerous Fairy Tale

© Can Stock Photo / andreykuzmin

We have written about the power of narrative—stories—before. Stories help us understand and organize the world, and our lives. But not every narrative is helpful, or positive, or improves things.

Much of our political discourse today revolves around a central narrative that does not stand up to examination. We strive to be nonpolitical at 228 Main. Our clients come from every walk of life, and you run from one end of the political spectrum to the other. But the false narrative going around today has the potential for great mischief in our economy and markets. We therefore must address it.

The general theme is that other countries, both allies and enemies, have sorely abused the United States by crafting trade agreements that our leaders were stupid to sign. This has supposedly gone on for decades, because nobody until now has cared about the working person.

We are “losing” hundreds of billions of dollars every year, the story goes. Our factories and jobs have been stolen. And meanwhile we donate to and defend these countries that have mistreated us so. NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and other international agreements are allegedly at the heart of our misery.

The mischief rests in the remedies proposed to right these wrongs. Trade deficits will be cut by simply eliminating trade. Retalitory tariffs will straighten out the bad behavior. Students of history or economics know how this ends up: it is the story of the Great Depression.

Here is a competing narrative. The whole world and the U.S. have enjoyed decades of progress and prosperity unparalleled in history. A billion people have been lifted from extreme poverty, more people than ever before are working in America for more money than ever before, unemployment is at a forty year low.2

Trade has helped to make us all richer and our lives better, on the whole. We have been fairly free to purchase the goods and services we want, without regard to origin. Our choices, yours and mine, are what determines the volume of trade between countries.

We have a global system of relatively free trade because enlightened leaders HAVE cared about American workers and American prosperity. Let’s examine some facts:

1. NAFTA hurts us terribly? The United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person is 24% higher than Canada’s, and 205% higher than Mexico. 2 We have added 40 million jobs since NAFTA was signed.1 If they are killing us, why aren’t they richer than us?

2. Our companies can hardly do business in Europe? We sold $501 billion in goods and services there in 2017. Our GDP per person is 19% higher than Germany, 36% higher than France, and 57% higher than Italy. They supposedly have been taking advantage of us for decades, yet we do a lot more business than they do?

3. China is a special case, and the U.S. has legitimate grievances. Although its per person GDP is lower even than Mexico, piracy and lack of protection for patents and trademarks are serious issues. These need to be addressed. But a trade war, or mounting a new regime of tariffs, is the wrong approach. There are other means and mechanisms.

Millions of people in the US and virtually all of our farmers are dependent on exports. Our Fortune 500 companies do about half their business overseas. Retaliatory tariffs, trade embargoes or restrictions will hurt them—and all of us.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length, please email us or call. We aren’t looking for political arguments. We do believe we will all be better off if we stop believing harmful fairy tales.

1Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

2All GDP numbers derived from the World Factbook at cia.gov.


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.

What’s Your Story?

© gajdamak / www.canstockphoto.com

Thinker Morgan Housel wrote recently about the power of narrative in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The essay focused on the narratives that affect the whole economy, the big-picture themes. The future of the country didn’t change much from 2007 to 2009, but employment, wealth, and the markets all got slammed. What caused it? The central narrative, how we understood our economy, changed dramatically from the peak of the boom to the bottom of the bust.

Investment manias have a story at their core. They may come true or not, but while the story holds sway, real values are driven by the story. Housel summarized it this way: “this is not a story about something happening; something is happening because there’s a story.”

Stories are how we organize and understand the world and our place in it. “Stories create their own kind of truth,” as Housel wrote. We believe the same idea shapes the lives of individuals just as certainly as it shapes economic and societal trends.

At 228 Main, we have stories. About people who save diligently and achieve financial independence. About folks who invest with increasing confidence and less worry over the years. About investors who learn to live with volatility, and hold on through the downturns. (These are stories, not promises or guarantees—you long-time clients know your own realities.)

I would not be able to work with you as effectively without those stories—and more importantly, the narratives of my own life.

I have a story about a vibrant business in the face of steep personal challenges. I have a story about working to age 92. I have a story about new ways of doing business in the 21st century.

These stories have enabled me to thrive while dealing with major issues, live healthier than I have for decades, communicate more effectively with you than ever before, and make plans for the decades ahead while some of my contemporaries coast toward retirement.

It feels to me as if the stories I have crafted in turn have shaped my life. I am not done creating stories; life goes on and things change. We do not know the future. But if we take control of our stories, we may be able to influence our futures. No guarantees.

How about you? What’s your story? Are there aspects of your narrative that we could help you with? Clients, please email us or call if you would like a longer discussion.


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.