Sunday, June 29, 2014

How to Survive Banner Headlines


Investors and the public in general tend to believe in big headlines and invest in the direction of the headlines. Often this is a mistake. On the front page of The Wall Street Journal last week there was a five column banner headline trumpeting “Broad Gains Power Historic Rally.” A sub headline stated that for the first time since 1993 that six closely watched indexes rose in the first half of the year. (The indexes were two from Dow Jones - DJIA and Commodities; two from MSCI - World Stocks and Emerging Markets Stocks;  as well as indexes for Gold and Bonds.)

The financially sound investor would quickly point out that the flow into tradable elements was caused by people getting out of cash money. Institutions and individuals were recognizing that excessive borrowing to meet or prolong deficits and the central banks manipulating interest rates has caused a twenty year recognition that in today’s world cash is trash.

Those of us who have any knowledge of how people (particularly investors and voters) react will recognize that when there is a large imbalance of opinion that the majority will win for a relatively short while to be followed by major disappointments. Such may well be the case this time.

How do I know? Years ago I learned from a very sound investor who happened to be one of my accounting professors that I should read financial statements from the back forward. I should spend as much time reading the footnotes and auditor’s certificate as I would in reading the CEO’s comments even though the CEO’s comments were designed to be more easily understood. I suggest that all who wish to be informed and to have the ability to change one’s views to read the small articles at the end of the pages in most newspapers. If you do you might come up with what I am seeing.

Bits of information important to me

1.      In the last week the average interest rate paid on bank deposit accounts (MMDA) went from 0.37% to 0.43%. In most weeks there is no change or only minor moves of .01%. This 16% move could be for some technical reason or could be that banks, mostly retail banks, are starting to make loans and need more deposits.

2.      The five month increase in CCC (low credit quality) loans is up 17.2%.  At the same time there was a decrease in high quality loans being sold.

3.      Moody’s * is concerned that the combination of below trend profit growth and above trend borrowing will lead to an increase in defaults.

4.      Two very respected investors from quite different vantage points, Stephen Roach and Wilbur Ross, are worried about too much easy money. Steve is one of the leading experts on investing in China and Wilbur Ross has had a very successful career investing in distressed securities both in the US and elsewhere.

5.      Bank for International Settlements (BIS) which is the international bank that provides credit to banks globally is warning about “euphoric markets.”

Applying concerns to portfolios

As a professional investment advisor I need to be concerned each day as to how the accounts that I am responsible for are positioned. In almost all cases these accounts must be in the market to meet their long-term needs. Today, with interest rates in the range of perceived long-term inflation, (if not lower, as shown by the WSJ banner headline), the bulk of the accounts are balanced accounts with a preponderance in equities.

Regular readers of these posts have learned that I am worried about a major, once in a generation, drop in equity prices. Up to now I have been focusing on stock prices to generate sell signals. Increasingly I believe I should focus much more attention on fixed-income markets. The triggers to the last major declines were caused by the failure of Lehman Brothers ability to finance itself and the widespread fears of residential mortgage defaults. These were fixed-income problems that severely impacted stock prices.

I want to learn from other investors and investment managers. This is why I prefer in most instances to invest through funds managed by bright people. This week someone sent to me a copy of Schroders* latest investment letter. In the letter Schroders divides its outlook for the future of its accounts into scenarios. The most probable is an extrapolation of present trends. However, the letter mentions seven other scenarios which could be important. I have listed them in order of their probability according to Schroders:

  • Capacity Limits
  • G7 boom
  • China Hard Landing (Steve Roach believes the increasing codependence on China could hurt the US if we don’t come to a better relationship.)
  • Secular Stagnation
  • Eurozone Deflation
  • Trade War
  • Russian Rumble

*Owned by me personally and/or by the private financial services fund I manage

While each of these could be the problem that sets off the market decline, to me the key is the proportion that Schroders gives to the most probable outcome, the essential “muddle through” scenario which is at 65%.

Why I am limiting equity exposure

Coincidentally because of my concerns after five good market years and below average economic years, I think it would be wise to limit equity exposure in a conservative balanced account to 65%. While I expect we could have one more major, almost skyrocket selected stock price move, I would be moving lower in terms of equities, if I could find some reasonably safe fixed-income alternatives producing above inflation rates of return.

The equity exposure mentioned is for those accounts that will have funding responsibilities in the next five years. Longer-term accounts could selectively be higher, except I am beginning to worry about long-term endowment type accounts. In the past I felt that this account should be invested all in equities as the best way to get the benefits of disruptive technology and favorable demographics. I am beginning to worry that pricing competition could be too fierce. 

In terms of demographics, I believe that the US will accept more legal and if not illegal immigration. My concern is as to the quality of our young labor force today. I find it disturbing that in the US Army’s reported view, only 29% of the population could be accepted. (I don’t know what the experience is for the US Marines, but we only wanted “the few”). Without the right people our long-term returns will not match our needs.

Please share with me your views.   
Comment or email me a question to .

Did someone forward you this Blog?  To receive Mike Lipper’s Blog each Monday, please subscribe using the email or RSS feed buttons in the left column of 

Copyright © 2008 - 2014
A. Michael Lipper, C.F.A.,
All Rights Reserved.
Contact author for limited redistribution permission.

No comments: