volatility

Optional Thinking

© Can Stock Photo / lisafx

Readers know we believe there are those financial arrangements that maintain stability and those that may garner long-term investment returns. But anything that promises both stability and high returns is not likely to work out that way.

The uncomfortable truth is, we must live with volatility in order to have a chance at market returns. Short-term market action cannot be reliably forecast, nor profitably traded, in our opinion.

Yet market values can be volatile. Imagine an account of $500,000: a 20% drop would shrink it to $400,000, while a 20% gain would grow it to $600,000. How do people stand it?

First, long-term clients tend to take the long view. If that $500,000 account started as a $200,000 account years ago, the owners remember where they’ve been. That original investment is their anchor: any value above $200,000 represents a gain from that beginning value. (We are talking about the effects of time and compounding, not claiming any unusual investment results.)

Second, the long view helps clients understand that volatility is not risk. Put another way, as we’ve written before, a short-term drop does not necessarily represent a loss. How should we view that $500,000 value dropping to $400,000, in the long view? Relative to the original $200,000, it’s still a gain. Worrying about drops as if they are losses is optional for people who are investing for many years or decades down the road.

Third, even while staying the course over the long haul is important, strategies need to address short-term needs. For those who are living on their capital, knowing where the cash is going to come from is vitally important. With secure cash flow, it is easier to live with the ups and downs in account values. We call this pursuit of opportunity “owning the orchard for the fruit crop.”

This perspective requires a certain confidence that we will stumble through any problems and likely come out of whatever troubles have arisen. Optimism is sound policy, for if we are going back to the Stone Age, it won’t matter what is in your portfolio anyway.

Clients, if you would like to talk about these ideas or any other, 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.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific situation. Your results will vary. The hypothetical rates of return used do not reflect the deduction of fees and charges inherent to investing.

 

Building a Retirement Fund: Two Simple Things

© Can Stock Photo / tashka

As a rookie in business, I impressed myself with how much knowledge the work required. It was complicated! It did not take long to figure out that many people believe the same thing about their work.

The point was driven home when I made the mistake of suggesting that working in the ice cream factory must be pretty simple—to a fellow who worked on the production line. “Are you kidding me? You got all your different flavors, plus the ones with nuts or candy mixed in… it’s complicated!”

Like any field of endeavor, retirement planning has those who seek to impress with how complicated it is. But if you get just two simple things right, you can put yourself on the road to progress.

Your Savings Rate. The money you put away is the raw material of your future retirement. The first thing is to set aside money every payday. 401(k) plans make it easy, but you can do it with or without one. It seems like many people starting out cannot save 10% or 15% of their earnings—one needs to buy groceries and electricity, too.

But wherever you start, even at 1% or 4%, you can increase that 1% per year until you get to 15%. Or put half of any raise into the plan—if you get a 4% raise, add 2% to your contribution rate.

Your Long Term Strategy. Put your long term money into long term investments. Various investments offer short term stability or long term returns—but not all of both. If your retirement is decades away, investments that promise a stable value tomorrow or next year do nothing for you in your real life. You might aim for higher returns instead.

(Some people are unable to live with the ups and downs of long term investing. We aren’t suggesting that living with volatility is right for everyone. But if you require stability, you will probably need to save more in order to reach your goals.)

Clients, if you figured these things out long ago, you might pass this along to younger folks. To talk about these ideas or anything else, 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 investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

 

No Free Lunch

© Can Stock Photo / 279photo

From time to time, we meet people who are devoted to avoiding the worst selloffs in the market. When there are so many simple statistical tools available to keep track of the trend, they say, it makes no sense to stay in the market when the trend is against you.

For example, by selling out when the major stock market indices dip below their 200 day moving averages, and buying back only when they climb back above, one could have avoided significant damage in the worst downturns.

The problem is, one could also have avoided some really sharp recoveries from low levels. And in any lengthy test of these mechanical rules, generally they would have cost money to implement.

The key question is, what fraction of your total returns would you be willing to give up in order to get a smoother ride along the way? Would it be OK to have 30% less money after twenty years? 20% less? 40% less?

Our point is, there is a cost to the human preference for stability. There is no free lunch. The trend-following systems that save you from damage also tend to water down your results over the long term.

We believe we get paid to endure volatility. Living with the ups and downs when so few are willing to do it…that’s what we do. We seek to understand what fraction of your money can be invested for the long term, without regard to volatility—and invest for you on that basis.

The markets have had volatile spells, but year by year results have been positive since 2009 in the major averages1. We know that sooner or later, unpleasant times are going to come around.

Our principles may hope to offer some cover from overvalued markets. Avoiding stampedes and seeking the best bargains may or may not limit the damage—we have a mixed record, and no guarantees. With the uncertainties of the markets, and the impossibility of knowing the future, it is comforting to have principles by which to operate.

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

1Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, S&P Dow Jones Indices. Retrieved May 21st, 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 and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The Three Kinds of Performance

© Can Stock Photo / edharcanstock

In our recent reading, we came across another useful concept from Morgan Housel. He talks about the three kinds of investment performance:

1. Bad.

2. Overall good, but occasionally bad.

3. Always good but fraudulent.
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Many have had experience with the first one. The last one is obviously not a place to be. The key to the second one, according to Housel, is communication. Communication builds the trust required to get through the rough patches and down times.

Every day we are grateful for you, whom we believe to be the best clients in the world. You talk to us, you listen to us, we usually understand each other. We work to communicate in various ways, but it is a two-way street!

You know we won’t get mad if you ask a pointed question—if it is in your head, we want to hear it. You trust us enough to start a dialogue when you think we may not be on the same page. When there is something you think we should know, a development in your life or an investment idea, you tell us.

And we do you the honor of believing you can handle the truth. If we need to acquaint you with some aspect of changing reality as we see it, we do so.

Our mutual trust and straightforward communications seem very valuable. It is indeed the key to living with ups and downs. Our best guess is that things will turn out well, on balance, over the long haul. Of course, we can offer no guarantees.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else in more detail, please email us, call, or set an appointment.


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

Change is Still Constant

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We wrestled for a long time with the issue of how to build portfolios in a zero-interest environment. The crushing of interest rates distorted values in the investment markets. The old ways of thinking carried too much risk, in our opinion. (When interest rates rise, bond prices tend to fall.)

So about a year ago, we settled on the concept of ballast. This enables us to tailor portfolios to address individual preferences. Different clients can have differing portfolios, while retaining common elements that enable efficient management.

Ballast refers to holdings that might be expected to fall and rise more slowly than the overall stock market. Ballast may reduce the volatility of the overall portfolio, thereby making it easier to live with. And it may serve as a source of funds for buying bargains when the market seems to be low. We’ve been able to put this thinking into effect.

A little over a year ago, monetary policy in the U.S. shifted from zero interest to a plan to raise interest rates over time. As we foresaw, this has not been great for bond prices. But now U.S. Treasury securities actually have a little bit of a yield these days, with short term maturities recently reaching over 1% for the first time in years.1

The return of interest rates on lower volatility, short term, liquid balances makes it easier to hold cash and cash substitutes as part of a portfolio structure. As interest rates continue to normalize, returns on cash could increase.

We like the portfolio framework, shown above, that we developed a year ago. We will continue to assess clients that may be suitable for this strategy. As the economic environment changes, we will review the need to adjust the tactics used in each layer of the portfolio. Change is still constant.

We will update you soon on the trends we are seeing in our long term core investments. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

1Effective Federal Funds Rate. Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Accessed March 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 investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

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.

Tactical allocation may involve more frequent buying and selling of assets and will tend to generate higher transaction cost. Investors should consider the tax consequences of moving positions more frequently.

Backward Measures of Risk

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Our investing experience over the last two years vividly demonstrates the problem with confusing volatility and risk.

After years of relative stability, a certain security plunged by more than 80% in a few months. The standard model of risk would have you believe that the security was relatively safer at the high price level. And the more the price declined, the riskier it became—according to the standard methods.

Value investors seek the bargains. To them, the lower the price, the better the deal. This is exactly the opposite of the standard model of risk.

The rest of the story is that the security turned on a dime at the low point, and rose back to its original level in the following months. At the very point the standard model of risk viewed this investment in the worst light, it was preparing to embark on a rise of more than 400%.

There is a good reason why people (including professionals) confuse volatility with risk. In the short term, volatility IS risk. If you have wealth to pay the bills due within a few days, you cannot afford to have the value bouncing around from day to day. If it goes the wrong direction, you might not have enough money to pay the bills.

Therefore, whether volatility is risk depends on the time horizon. In the short term, volatility is risk. In the long term, perhaps volatility is opportunity, not risk. We work hard to understand your time horizon so we can get this right for you.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this in more detail, or have other things on your agenda, 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.

Value investments can perform differently from the market as a whole. They can remain undervalued by the market for long periods of time.

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

The Monster Under the Bed

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When we were small, some of us had older brothers who tried to convince us there was a monster under the bed. You may be surprised to know there is a corollary in the world of investing.

The monster promoted by some is generally called “the arithmetic of losses.” The arithmetic of losses is a simple mathematical observation that from a given number, if you take a certain percentage decrease, and then an equal percentage increase, you wind up lower than you started–even though your increase and decrease were proportionately the same. For example, if you start with $100, and lose 20%, you are at $80. If you gain 20% of $80, you’re still only back to $96. But we are here to tell you, there is no monster under the bed.

Consider that when a major stock market index declines by 50%, it then does need a 100% gain to get back to even. This is just arithmetic. But consider: whenever a stock market index is at an all time high, that is conclusive proof that the “arithmetic of losses” is a bunch of baloney.

Each all-time high means that the index has successfully come back 100% from every 50% loss, 50% for every 33% loss, 25% for every 20% loss… and MORE. Every time, every loss thus far. The long-term history of major United States stock market averages speaks for itself, and incorporates all the losses and all the gains.

Some fearmongers say investors cannot live with the ups and downs that are a necessary and integral part of long term investing. Clients, you know we work hard to ascertain whether you could be suited to our philosophy.

Part of that philosophy is that temporary declines, no matter how sharp, are not losses unless you sell out. It is not always easy, but it has worked out. No guarantees about the future, of course.

If you can be turned into a chicken, then some operator who claims to ‘control risk’ or promises short-term stability AND long-term returns may get your money. Please keep in mind that every chicken, sooner or later, gets eaten.

The fearmongers are right about one thing: markets go up and down. You and we know this. We work hard to manage the money you need without having to sell out at a bad time. This is one of the keys to being able to get through the downturns.

Clients, we are striving to find bargains, avoid stampedes, and own the orchard for the fruit crop. These principles will not prevent volatility. But there is no monster under the bed. Email us or call if you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length.


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.

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.

Change is the Only Constant

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The ability to adapt to changing conditions is what sets those who thrive apart from those who merely survive.

Our portfolio theory evolves over time as economic and market conditions unfold. The problem with the textbook approach in a changing world is that a textbook, once printed, never changes. Looking at the world as it is and doing our own thinking, we see things in a new way.

We believe that central bank intervention and counterproductive monetary policies have distorted pricing in the bond market and for other income-producing investments. By crushing interest rates and yields to very low levels, the old investment textbook has been made obsolete.

Therefore the classic advice about the proper balance between stocks and bonds brings new and perhaps unrecognized risks, with corresponding pockets of opportunity elsewhere. Yet the classic advice met a need which still exists: how to accommodate varying needs for liquidity and tolerance of volatility.

Our adaptation to this new world is the portfolio structure you see above. Our classic research-driven portfolio methods live in the Long Term Core. We believe our fundamental principles are timeless, and make sense in all conditions.

But people need the use of their money to live their lives and do what they need to do. So a cash layer is needed, tailored to individual circumstances.

The layer between is ballast. This refers to holdings that might be expected to fall and rise more slowly than the overall stock market. Ballast serves two purposes. It dampens volatility of the overall portfolio, thereby making it easier to live with. Ballast may serve as a source of funds for buying when the market seems to be low.

The client with higher cash needs or who desires lower volatility may use the same long term core as the one who wants maximum potential returns. One may want a ‘cash-ballast-long term core’ allocation of 10%-25%-65% and the next one 4%-0%-96%.

The adaptations we’ve made have generated efficiencies and therefore time—time to work individually with you on your plans and planning, time for more frequent portfolio reviews, time for more intensive research.

Clients, if you would like to discuss how this structure might fit your needs, please email us 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.

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.