Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turning Disappointments into Long-Term Gains

One of my sons has called me a dedicated contrarian, and he is right. I try to look at the whole of a situation rather than accepting the popularly described middle description. Focusing on elements that others do not has yielded unusual profits in the past; and more importantly, avoided significant losses. Thus, one should treat various contrarian views with interest. I believe most deliberative bodies, particularly boards of directors and investment committees should have at least one contrarian to more fully examine decisions, rather than always expecting unanimous votes with limited discussions.

As a self-proclaimed contrarian I will focus on two initial disappointments that lead me to the opportunities to profit as others catch up with their thinking. I will start with the smaller in terms of importance of the two.

Bleak Friday

Many of the longer-term readers of these posts know that each Friday after Thanksgiving I visit the Mall at Short Hills, New Jersey. For those who have not experienced such a visit, the two level mall (which is approaching one mile in circuit), is full of high-end brand names. The appropriate term for most of the stores is “glitzy.” My visit is true market research, in that I study the difficulty in finding an unoccupied parking space, the number of shopping bags being carried and the labels on those bags. The survey is not meant to be representative of the American public, but of a sliver of the population who can afford to own common stocks outside of their tax deferred accounts. In other words, I am looking at the shopping patterns of the rich or those that are called ultra high net worth (UHNW).

This year we were able to find a convenient parking space in less than ten minutes. In past years more than a half an hour was needed, and in some cases I had to park off the property and take a shuttle bus to the stores. The ease of parking should have been a clue. Within the mall, walking was only slightly more crowded than a normal weekend. The big bag carriers were toting merchandise from Macy’s, which appeals to the low-end income buyer as well as some of the more well-heeled. My guess is that the store had advertised significant discounts and an early opening. In contrast, most other stores’ signage indicated a 25-30% mark-down. They were not the kind of discounts that lead to “binge” buying. One indicator that people wanted to buy was that a number were carrying shopping bags from home, without labels and that were mostly empty. In clothing stores, inventory was attractively displayed, but there was little depth.

In-store orders were being taken for merchandise that was going to be shipped to the buyers at home. Clearly, merchants wanted to avoid excessive inventory that would lead to large markdowns before the end of their fiscal years in January. There are three phone stores in the mall. Apple was the most crowded, but still I recognized some sales people that were waiting for new walk-ins. Verizon had normal sized traffic, and as usual, the large AT&T store was practically deserted. My initial reaction to this visit is that the prospects would have to be labeled disappointing.

This is when my contrarian thinking asserted itself. First, it is just possible that the wealthy are spending less to leave room for an eventual binge buying of equities. (After reading this, some may believe that I consumed too much Thanksgiving feast). Second, like some investors, consumers are looking for growth markets and are doing their purchases online. If your responses from office workers Monday is a little slow, it could well be that they are using their employers’ computers to participate in Cyber Monday buying. Third, and much more importantly, it is possible that people of all economic levels are acting prudently by controlling their spending in order to generate money to carry them through an uncertain period. If I am correct, consumer-focused banks will have their loans paid off more quickly and see their deposit balances rising. Possibly one should look closely to savings banks and S&Ls.

The big disappointments: the euro and the deficits

Around the world stock, bond, and commodity markets shudder as values of currencies fall, particularly against the US dollar. (A future blog post will deal with the biggest bubble, the US dollar.) Almost all of the focus is on propping up the euro through various fiat or leverage techniques. The few articles that are coming out about the potential disappearance of the euro are encouraging. As a dedicated contrarian, I am happier when I see someone considering the reverse of the current view. Some articles have made a calculation as to what it would cost in debt repayments if the euro ceased to exist. These are very high, one-sided numbers. One-sided because they do not take into consideration the gains that some companies and families would benefit. One of the more thought provoking columns appeared in the weekend edition of the Financial Times by John Dizard, who pointed out that sovereign debt is governed by each country’s own laws which are relatively difficult to change or abort. Most corporate debt in “Euroland” is governed by English law and courts, which is more difficult to change. Even if a country defaults on its debt, that does not release most of its corporate issuers. Thus in today’s mixed up world, corporate debt could be safer than the debt of various countries. I believe markets on both sides of the Atlantic are recognizing this, with more institutions owning or buying corporate debt than government debt. Perhaps the rating agencies may even change their long-term policy that corporate debt could not be rated higher than that of its own country; the markets would agree with this action.

“With all the discussion about currencies, there has been little if any focus on the root cause of the economic problem,” so says the contrarian. If one looks at currency as a price mechanism, one needs to examine the base cause of the price disequilibrium sparked by almost worldwide deficit spending in Europe, America, Japan, and China. This is not a new problem as pointed out to me by my brother who sent me the following quote:

“The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.”
–Cicero, 55 BC.

There is much controversy on this quote’s accuracy. Many claim that the original quote is: “The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall.” Others claim Cicero said nothing on the subject, and source the quote to later accounts. Whatever the case, this is an age-old series of problems.

We all know what eventually happened to Rome through authoritarian governments and the need for booty to sustain them. In the end Rome was not conquered by the barbarians but by its own corruption and inefficiencies. If there is not a willingness of the people all over to world to cut their reliance on government payments and services, then keep your eyes on military spending. Despite the political threats to the defense budget, I believe that a prudent long-term investor needs exposure to defense stocks. I suspect technology will increasingly play a role in protecting us even if we get our spending below our revenues.

All contrarians expect their views will lack popular enthusiasm, but they are willing to learn from others who represent more mainstream thinking. Thus, I ask you to communicate your views.
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