Sunday, March 22, 2015

Nervous Investment Instincts and Cures


One of the basics in US Marine Corps training is to develop survival instincts which should kick in during battlefield conditions. These are meant to save the lives of individual Marines, but more importantly for the other Marines he/she are responsible. As Ben Graham wrote in The Intelligent Investor, “We are in the battle for investment survival every day.” (Warren Buffett, wrote a subsequent Preface, and called the work 
By far the best book on investing ever written.” Jason Zweig added commentaries and additional documentation to the latest edition of this landmark title.)

An early warning

One of the frustrating emotions that comes from any long-term intensive study of stock markets around the world is that markets move differently than current economic trends and are not particularly good forecasters of economic movements. What appears to me a better forecasting device is extreme indications of sentiments. Remember that large drops in stock prices occur after large rises. Thus, an increasing level of enthusiasm may be interpreted as an early warning sign that some Marines would sense as a possible ambush.  

Bailouts not the answer

While I was preparing to give a US stock market view to a very experienced group of former stock exchange leaders, the Institute of Stock Exchange Executives Emeriti (ISEE), I was approached by a somewhat  sophisticated investor wanting reassurance that the market is safer now since the financial crisis. The mere question instinctively put me on my guard. (Perhaps I was reacting to my Grandfather's instinct. He had a high carriage trade NYSE brokerage firm that according to family folklore, got all of the his clients’ investment accounts out of the stock market before the 1929 crash.)

Since the 2007-09 "crash," various governments have been trying to build a defensive doctrine against "Too Big to Fail" bailouts. If anything these moves have increased the risk to long-term investors. The real purpose of the Too Big to Fail doctrine was to protect the politicians from their own folly. The
public was incensed by the use of taxpayers' money to bail out commercial activities that created their own problems over many years if not decades. In the US the federal government bailed out Chrysler twice, one of the biggest commercial employers in the important electoral college state of Michigan and bailed out General Motors once. (DuPont bailed GM out of its over-leveraged position a long time ago.) In all cases a weaker company evolved while maintaining high relative prices for their merchandise. But the labor unions delivered the votes to elect Democratic presidents.

Mortgage underwriting debacle

When the financial community expanded the mortgage base as directed by Congress through the loosening of the underwriting standards of the federal mortgage companies, the somewhat expected financial crisis occurred. Instead of letting the private sector rescue the borrowers and some of the better servicers, the government elected to bail out the existing financial service companies. If they had not, following the tradition of financial bankruptcies, almost immediately new banks and mortgage companies would have been established taking over the loan books. They would have been populated by experienced middle managers from existing shops. Most of the equity owners would have lost almost all of their risk capital and some of the fixed income holders would have had meaningful haircuts. For the most part the depositors would have come out either whole or almost whole. Since this series of bailouts was directed to the hated Wall Street, the populists were particularly upset. They wanted to ensure that never again would there be a bailout of a large financial institution.

None of these bailouts added any value to existing or future stockholders. As a matter of fact because of their restrictions on some money making activities; (e.g., trading) and the requirement to have large amounts of underutilized capital, the big banks operating under the new rules became less attractive as investments. Large money center banks currently have lower price/earnings ratios than mid size or smaller banks.

As there are bound to be future crises, the existing big banks or insurance companies are likely to have sizeable excess capital available to buy a large worthwhile financial in trouble. Thus future prospects around the world are less safe for equity investors than prior to 2007.

Additional signals

Recently at an institutional investment committee meeting, the main point of discussion was a hedge fund that was making unexpected moves partly due to their success but beyond the expected portfolio discipline. Overwhelming the professional members of the Investment Committee,  the meeting was concentrating on the expected further capital appreciation. There was only one member who was concerned about the risk that was generated by exposures beyond the expected.

While in this particular instant we were talking about investing domestically in the US, the institutional community appears to be betting on foreign stock prices but not on foreign currencies. In the week that ended Wednesday, March 18, three times the number of net dollars were invested in non-domestic ETFs than domestic ($18.4 Billion vs. $5.4 Billion, according to my old firm, Lipper, Inc.).  Most of the money going into the international ETFs went into two country index funds with their currency hedged by WisdomTree* and one other ETF invested into the MSCI un-hedged. These to me, are short-term trading type of judgments.
*Held by me personally and/or by the private financial services fund I manage

More conservative investors are also showing signs of becoming additionally comfortable with assuming risk. Domestic Health Care funds are up on a year to date basis +15.69 % and Global Health Care funds are up +13.0%, a continuation of last year's performance leadership that has benefited from spectacular M&A prices, though it raises some risk concerns.

Even in the high quality bond market we are seeing yields dropping much more than normal this week and for the latest 12 months. The lower yields translate to higher bond prices which is unsettling given the general view that eventually there will be a significant interest rate rise/bond price decline.


The best cures for nervous investors are:

1.  Understand the hyped enthusiasm
2.  Focus on the more important longer term, and
3.  Remember the implications from history.

One of our readers, Teddy Lamade, a fellow weekly blogger and an investment professional with Brown Advisory suggested reading Michael Mauboussin's More than you know: Finding Financial Wisdoms in Unconventional Places. The thoughtful book is a compilation of unconventional approaches to understanding problems from many walks of life-financial, sports, science, politics, and gambling. Below are thoughts from the first part of the book that I felt were particularly relevant to the nervous concerns expressed above:

You are better off focusing on decision-making than outcomes. (This applies to my concern about judgments of managers and therefore risks of repeated poor judgments as distinct from the potential of capital appreciation.)

Robert Rubin is quoted in a commencement address saying, “The only certainty is that there is no certainty...decisions are a matter of weighing probabilities...despite uncertainty we must act.”

In selecting investment managers it is important to understand both portfolio turnover and concentration. (The numbers themselves are the beginning of the discussion not the answer appearing on a screen.)

What is generally good for investors is not the same as what is good for the owners of the investment management businesses. Investors improve their odds by focusing on long-term horizons, (timespan portfolios should help), low fees and expenses, plus consideration of contrarian views as distinct popular choices.

Mr. Mauboussin also mentions one of my favorite investment anecdotes, that the year Babe Ruth set the home run record he also had a record number of strike outs. This highlights the concept that the frequency of correct decisions is less important than the magnitude of correctness. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have translated this into investment decision terms.
The probability of loss times the amount of possible loss vs. the probability of gain multiplied by the amount of possible gain is the way to make a judgment. (This is why in the long run Dedicated Short-biased portfolios underperform Long-only funds.)

Investors feel the impact of a loss 2½ times more than a similar gain. (Destruction of investment capital reduces the capital that can grow.)

One of the key differences between gambling and investing is that the more one wagers the greater the odds of losing; in investing the longer you invest the greater the odds that you will generate positive results. (Two reasons for this: first the more fees and expenses one pays, the smaller the capital in play. The second is that at least in the US equity market there is a long-term secular growth rate, which is why Mr. Buffett urges people not to bet against the US. However, he is increasingly willing to hedge that stake with international investing, a position we should all consider.

More insights

Another Michael, Michael Cembalest of J.P. Morgan Asset Management has written a very useful piece on his ten years of authoring market insights, three items of which are especially instructive.

1.  Mr. Cembalest expects a marked increase in the level of volatility. (We don't hear much about volatility during rising markets. The prevailing wish is that every price increase is fundamentally based and not a reaction to a trading imbalance.)

2.  Sentiment indicators are better forecasting devices than price/earnings ratios. He quotes five separate surveys each currently reporting at 90%+ of past records.   (As regular readers of these posts may remember, I am tracking the levels of market enthusiasm, which eventually builds to a peak prior to a major decline.)

3.  Central banks are determined to re-inflate their economies no matter what the long-term costs to their societies.

Question of the Week: what is your level of enthusiasm?
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