Sunday, December 18, 2011

Using News for Investment Gain

Investors get the bulk of their actionable investment news from paper or electronic means, either with the volume on or off. Because of the squeeze on both the profits of agency brokerage and to some extent hedge fund net compensation, less and less original long-term research is being conducted. Thus many investors are reduced to reacting to various elements of so-called news from media sources. If one learns to search the news for longer-term investing implications, often written between the lines, this limitation might not be so bad. This week’s blog is devoted to several thoughts that I have had from my reading and in one case from an out of town investment committee meeting.

The bulk of our management responsibilities is investing in portfolios of funds; in addition we manage a financial services fund. Please keep that last responsibility in mind when reading this blog post.

Research & Development spending

The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) this week previewed an annual review by the Battelle Memorial Institute. There is some good news and some less happy news which was reported. The headline trumpeted that R&D spending was continuing to grow. A couple of disturbing elements were buried within the article. First, the rate of R&D growth will be less than what was achieved in prior periods, in part due to lower government spending, which might be partially caused by planned lower military spending. Second, if one adjusts the growth figures for inflation, R&D spending is essentially flat. While the US remains by far the global leader in R&D, its share is slipping from 32.8% to 31.1%. Of a global total of $1.4 trillion in 2012, China’s share is estimated to rise to 14.2% from 12%. The smaller Asian countries of Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are increasing their R&D spending, and are attracting (or re-attracting) many of our better scientific graduates who are being forced to leave the US due to visa issues.

The investment implication from this WSJ article is how one can translate news into potential investment gains. For example, R&D is usually focused on personnel spending. Also, a significant portion of R&D will not produce products that can be produced in large scale production. However, some R&D spending will cause substantial investing in new plant and equipment. Counting competitive reactions, it is my guess that the $1.4 trillion in R&D spending will create several multiples of that amount, and most of it will have to be financed. Thus, in the long run, R&D spending will be good for the financial community that will gather the funding for these projects. The interesting question is, where will this spending take place? I am increasingly of the belief that a good bit of the plant and equipment spending will take place where there is a large population base, educated young workers, and already-established scientific communities with their own fine universities. This thinking is leading me to increase the Asian exposure of many of our portfolios, with a focus on the production and consumption of technology.

MF Global

Though Jon Corzine used to live only two streets away from me, I do not have any special insight as to what happened at MF Global. However, I can focus on the long-term implications of this tragedy. The news is somewhat similar to the ongoing saga of the Lehman Brothers and Madoff bankruptcies, both in terms of the ways that the firms conducted their customers’ business, and the fact that ultimately the costs to the customers will rise. The apparent heart of the MF Global set of problems was the normal hypothecation and re-hypothecation of client funds and securities. As I understand it, the bulk of the clients of the firm borrowed money (margin) against the assets of their accounts. Securities firms loan money at very low interest rates to their clients individually because they can pledge the clients’ accounts against the loans provided by financial institutions, normally banks. In opening a margin account, clients sign a hypothecation agreement that permits this. Also, the agreement permits the institutional lender to itself borrow against the client money and so on without limit. This is called re-hypothecation. What may have happened in this case is that the trail locating the original clients’ securities and money was lost. Just as the aftermath of the Madoff bankruptcy caused business practices and regulations to change, I suspect that in the wake of MF Global they will be “reformed” again, in at least the futures markets, if not the broader securities markets. These changes, which are yet to be worked out, will probably raise the interest costs on margin accounts and reduce the amount that can be borrowed. As a result, firms will be required to have more compliance, risk management, and administrative personnel. All of these changes will cost money that the client will pay, and in a dynamic, integrated economy, pass on these costs to the ultimate consumer. Thus, in some sense we are building additional inflation into our future.

Reverse what forecasters say

In the latest edition of Barron’s (subscription required) magazine, ten stock forecasters were asked what sectors they would invest in and which they would avoid. Please remember my previously-stated bias. I was delighted to see that six out of the ten would avoid financials, and only one would buy them. As an identified contrarian, a six to one bet is a bookmaker’s dream. Clearly the negatives are well known: low short-term interest rates, some exposure to Europe, slow domestic economy, and adverse changes in regulations, etc.

The smartest man

Earlier in the week I was out of town visiting an institutional client we have had the privilege of serving since 1981. I was reminded that Byron Wien occasionally writes about his conversation with a long-term fiend who he has named the “World’s Smartest Man.” My equivalent of Byron’s friend is the chair of this investment committee, who has spent a lifetime being a successful investment leader. Toward the end of our meeting, he intoned that he could not see the stock markets around the world going up without the banks participating, if not leading. As many of the regular readers of this blog know, I credit my securities analysis skills to what I learned handicapping race horses and being a US Marine. With my background, and adding the wise words of my “smartest man,” or put another way, an experienced trainer and six-to-one odds, a bet on the recovery of the financials seems warranted.

Please share with me how you extract investment intelligence from the news media and/or whether you agree about the potential of rising costs for those who utilize futures.

My wife Ruth and our family join me in wishing all a very happy and healthy holiday celebration. This is the time of year when we are most thankful for each other.
Did you miss Mike Lipper’s Blog last week? Click here to read.

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