Sunday, March 27, 2016

Improve Your Returns: Watch Short-Term and Learn Long-Term


With the passing last week of Andy Grove it seems appropriate for me to consider the breadth of thinking in his book Only the Paranoid Survive. While some can be comfortable following Warren Buffett’s words (not his actions) to buy and hold forever, along with most professional investors, my insecurity does not permit me to buy and forget. We worry all the time and particularly when trends turn and accelerate in our favor. This is one of the reasons why I came up with the four increments in the Timespan L Portfolios® . These require me to focus on both the short-term to make tactical decisions and to learn what are critical lessons for successful long-term investing.

The Short-Term Operational Portfolio Worries

The timespan model for this portfolio was designed for an endowment that has to feed an operating activity over a two year duration, (in practice we will modify the timespans to meet client needs). While we think of this as a short-term portfolio, a number of individuals and institutions perceive their preferred measurement period for the entire portfolio is one year, thus for some, this is a long-term portfolio.

As longer term readers of these blogs have learned, I find a need for excessive enthusiasm to be in place before I start to prepare for a major decline, possibly of 50%.  I am beginning to see some growing enthusiasm. After all of a five week improved US stock market, and rising Chinese stocks and oil prices, I see shopping at the nearby high end mall getting crowded. Parking spaces are hard to come by, shoppers (mostly women) are carrying three or so shopping bags. Stores were reasonably crowded and both the Apple and the Verizon Communications stores have customers waiting.

As an analyst I search for negative indicators as much as positive ones. As long as there is sufficient uncommitted money to equities I know that there is spare buying power that can push prices higher. This is particularly true if the money is being guided by so-called professional, conservative money managers. In a recent asset allocation study of forty large wealth managers' recommendations, I looked at the five most aggressive wealth managers who were recommending that their clients put 60-70% in equities compared to the average of 51% for the forty. Only one manager would put 10% in Emerging Market equities and another sole manager would put 16% in High Yield debt. In both cases the average for the group was about 4%. This was the same level of group aggressiveness in terms of private equity where the five most aggressive had between 10-14%. The commitment to hedge funds on average was 9% where the leaders had 18-25% in these vehicles. Thus the wealth managers in general haven’t been swept up yet by enthusiasm.

Some of the money in hedge funds and other trading vehicles is finding its way into ETFs either on the long side or short side. For the week ending March 23rd there was a net inflow into equity ETFs of $2.8 Billion which included $1.1 Billion into Balanced ETFs. (It is important to remember that the institutional community has learned that Index ETFs are a cheaper entry vehicle than futures for their hedging and other trading purposes. I will be discussing the impacts of ETFs on the structure of the market places in early April at a meeting of the International Stock Exchange Executives Emeriti.)

I would not pay a great deal of attention to the net redemptions from conventional mutual funds in terms of future direction of the market. In the latest recorded week $1.5 Billion were redeemed, all of it from Domestic funds, almost all that from Large Cap funds. It is my contention that the bulk of these redemptions are in effect “completions” of long-term investment plans prior to funding other needs. This is an old phenomenon which in the past was offset by new purchases of funds that are not happening because it is more profitable for the distribution systems, including registered investment advisors to deal in other products including hedge funds, private equity funds, and to some extent ETFs.

There are some signs of significant enthusiasm which need to be tracked. In the last week $3 Billion went into Emerging Market equities. Some could be short covering. In a recent survey the second most crowded trade was being short Emerging Market stocks which are less liquid than our domestic stocks.

Other examples of rising enthusiasm are the quarterly hockey stick-like estimates of earnings for the S&P 500: 1St Quarter ‑6.9%, 2nd quarter ‑1.9%, 3rd quarter +5.0%, and 4th quarter +10.6%%. Certainly part of the gains is earnings from the Energy sector going from a ‑98.9% decline to a gain of +10.6. While these estimates suggest a trailing price/earnings ratio of 17.2x and a forward one of 17.0x, the real action is more towards the large and midsize companies found in the Russell 2000 with a trailing p/e of 24.9x and a forward p/e of 22.5x.

Bottom Line For Short Term Portfolios

With the above list of inputs, I still believe that the short-term portfolios should set up a price grid to begin to reduce their risks as the market moves higher. For longer term portfolios they should continue to invest for the long-term and occasionally buy into some opportunities that the market will serve up, but not attempt to market time.

Longer Term Lessons

As much as I question the perceived wisdom from academic sources, like many analysts I am always a student of our environment. As a practical matter it is more difficult to learn from successes than mistakes. Almost every aspect of a success could be the critical element, if you will, the secret sauce that made the success. Most mistakes come from slavishly following the perceived wisdom of reported successes without looking deeper as to why they worked when they did. Probably the toughest part to learn of the art of investing is timing. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with balanced accounts, all equity accounts, private equity funds, and hedge funds. The keys are when to use each of these, in what mix, and what level of patience should be applied. Generally one should use these tool sets when others are not. Most of the time it is a mistake to follow the crowd.

This week I read about an endowment that fired its poorer performing managers after the first seven months of its fiscal year which occurred through the horrible January performance. The group couldn’t take that it was down ‑8.5% and the S&P 500 was off ‑6.6%. The endowment fired their hedge funds and moved into private equity funds. We don’t know what the future will bring but I have serious reservations on the basis of the little bit that we do know. The endowment:

  • Probably picked its managers largely on the basis of past performance
  • Accepted a popular asset allocation
  • Did not understand the cyclical nature of performance
  • Did not have sufficient patience
  • Elected to do a dramatic change all at once 
  • Chose to go into the currently most popular asset class with the proceeds of transactions.

I will attempt to follow the organization's future progress because I am always looking for decision makers who have a high percentage of mistakes. These rare negative indicators hopefully will help me and my accounts from making similar mistakes.

Secret Sauces

Far too many investors follow successful other investors and try to mimic what “the experts” do. They don’t focus on the tools the experts applied to their art.  Classic examples are Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway, who we will visit this spring. In many ways the tools, not the judgments that they bring to investing is in their annual report. The report contains 67 pages of notes and supplements to their financial statements. I do not claim to fully understand all the nuances that could be found in these pages. To fully grasp the tools that they have used, one would need individual courses in accounting, corporate finance, tax accounting/management, insurance accounting, treaties, various state/federal/foreign legal codes, and various forms of investing. Unless you have a firm understanding of these arts, don’t attempt to play their game. I benefit from both their skills and tools as a long-term share holder.

Other users of secret sauces were the late Sir John Templeton ably assisted by the late Tom Hansberger, both of who were my long-term data and consulting clients. In many respects Sir John was the leading expert on tax code differentials which he applied brilliantly to his personal and company benefit. Tom acted as symphony conductor skillfully managing different personalities as portfolio managers and analysts with global offices and people always on the move. Both understood the sales process and more importantly the sales people as well as how to motivate and control them.

Both of these pairs of artists were much more than stock pickers. Each brought much more to the process of building wealth for themselves and their companies.

Question of the Week: What are the secret sauces that you have seen?

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All Rights Reserved.
Contact author for limited redistribution permission.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Enthusiasm Now, but Little Appreciation for the Long Term


One of the reasons I developed the concept of the Timespan L Portfolios® was to be armed with a tool kit for market conditions just as we are seeing now.

Whenever I am asked whether this the right time to buy or sell a security, my immediate responses is to inquire, “What is your time horizon and what is the benchmark that you will use to judge your success?” Depending on the answers I often try to help with suggested actions or at least elements for future consideration.

All too often securities analysts think of the future only in terms of the past. For periods of a month, the range of the vast majority of outcomes is roughly plus or minus twenty percent. If the measurement period is extended to a year the range of expectations could be bound by plus 100% and minus 50%. Over  longer periods, including average lifetimes, the extreme range is over +1000% to a total wipeout. Thus selecting your time frame or better yet the timespan of your controlled actions becomes critical as to how you organize and manage your investments.

Investment Satisfaction

In many ways the choice of appropriate benchmark has much more to do with your ultimate level of satisfaction than many of your other investment decisions. Your choice of benchmark comparisons will demonstrate the thoughtfulness that you apply to the investment decision-making process. All too often most people will compare their results against the unmanaged indices published in the media. They won’t understand the selection biases that are built into every index produced, including the ones that I created for much of the mutual fund industry. But the biggest fallacy in using securities indices is they don’t capture the investor’s expenses including an appropriate allowance for the individual’s time, expertise, and worries. These drawbacks are largely answered by using mutual fund indices that are also available in most professional media. Included in the fund indices are all of the costs of operating the funds that largely address the investor’s own costs of operating an individual security portfolio.

Within the Timespan L Portfolios often there is a mix of fixed income securities and stocks. That is why many of our managed accounts are primarily benchmarked against the Lipper Balanced Fund Index. For some investors who are managing their portfolios against specific spending plans, an absolute measure is useful; e.g., “Don’t lose money,” which was my informal instruction from the late Executive Director of the NFL Players Association in terms of their defined contribution assets. A further refinement to an absolute return requirement is one reasonably adjusted for long-term inflation.

Thus, I believe the selection of time periods and benchmarks are of critical importance. This brings me to my dilemma today, seeing risk and opportunity in different time frames.

Potentially Rewarding Long-Term

Various market commentators focus their comments on current valuations without regard to the flows into and out of the market. In effect, they are looking at the size and weight of a boat on the sea, whereas I believe they should include the long-term flows and evaporation of the water in their outlook. Some focus is currently being addressed to buy-backs, hopefully net of issuance expenses.

The principal reason that I am bullish in the long-term is the global deficit in retirement capital at the government, corporate, and individual levels. Using the US as a model (which is paralleled elsewhere in 2016) US corporations are expected to add $15.6 Billion to their pension plans. (I expect an even larger amount will flow into their defined contribution plans which are growing faster than their defined benefit pension plans.) The 2016 funding is under 4% of the S&P500 underfunded aggregate of $403 Billion.

Pension plans are shrinking as the major US corporations are not fully replacing retiring employees. A similar trend is likely to happen to the earlier adopters of 401(k) plans, but they will grow through market appreciation.

I expect that we will see some significant adjustments to both IRAs and 401(k) plans that will allow retirees to continue to accumulate assets in these vehicles on a tax deferred basis rather than mandatory distributions.

I also expect many governments around the world will move out of reliance on defined benefit pension plans and into defined contribution plans.

The political, social, and tax implications of creating a new class of focused investors could be a bigger benefit to all than the funding of defined contribution plans.

Short-Term Concerns may be Warranted Soon

After a very trying first six weeks of 2016, global stock markets have entered five surging weeks with current expectations of more to come in spite of the belief that market indices will have a decline in overall reported earnings per share in the first half of the year, including Energy. Current estimates for the S&P 500 as published by ThomsonReuters is for fourth quarter per share earnings to rise by +10.6% led by Financials +21.8, Materials +20.1%, Energy +11.9%. (I have some doubts about analysts’ estimates in general, particularly those that extend too far out.)

As some of the longer term readers of these blogs know, I was not concerned about a major market break because I did not see a great deal of enthusiasm being expressed for market prices. I am, however, starting to get a little bit nervous now. One of our holdings in our private Financial Services fund and personal accounts is the well respected T Rowe Price, a firm that has entered into something of a flat period. On March 14th the stock traded 1.05 million shares. By the end of the week the company traded 2.45 million shares. During this period closing prices went from $71.67 to $73.54. (I am detecting enthusiasm because I believe in the thesis that people and societies will address the retirement capital deficits. One of the logical solutions will be good for mutual fund management companies, however I am not beginning a gradual reduction program that I might do to be an inverse participant in the market.)

There are other signs of bullish market actions. Following a technique that friends of mine used during the Cold War to triangulate the truth they read in Pravda and the Christian Science Monitor, I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. In the Sunday edition of the NYT on page 2 of the Business section there are two tables of interest which are quite bullish. In the first table of the twenty largest traded stocks, eleven were up on the year to date. On the negative side there was only one approaching the normal guideline suggested, -20%. The stock was Amazon ‑18.3%.

From my vantage point the second table of the fifteen largest mutual funds was more revealing. Nine out of the 15 were up on the year. Also nine were actively managed. Six actively managed funds were on both lists and if you include the two that were flat on the year, there were eight out of nine that showed progress or were flat. With all the media hype as well as various pundits pushing index funds, it is nice to see that some active managers are earning their fees in what has been a very difficult market.

Bottom Line

For our second or Replenishment Portfolio in the Timespan Portfolios I would start to plan gradual risk reductions in inverse proportion to signs of enthusiasm. For the Endowment and Legacy Portfolios I would continue to selectively add well managed funds and advisors.

Question of the week: What are your personal indicators of too much market enthusiasm?         
Did you miss my blog last week?  Click here to read.

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Time Horizon Decisions Require Different Skills


The essential question facing investors this Monday morning is whether this just a rally in a trading/bear market or possibly the beginnings of a new bull market.  Only time will tell, but having the right skill sets and time frame focus will improve your odds. This is similar to the race track when a knowledge of various jockeys' preferred race tactics, the training and pedigree of the horse, the conditions of the race and those of the competitors’ may improve, but do not guaranty the gambler’s chance of success.

The Conditions of Today’s Race

We have had six years of generally rising US stock markets followed by six weeks of falling prices through mid February and four weeks of rising prices. Different patterns are affecting different major markets. Europeans seem to translate the latest multiple moves by the ECB as a reaction to a fear of a business slowdown. China is being pumped up by various governmental moves. Many emerging markets have suffered by negative currency comparisons and a sharp drop off of their exports to China and a cut back in the funding of various projects by the Chinese. Japan’s negative interest rate policy has hurt the value of the yen, but has not released constrained consumer and corporate spending. Clearly the almost 50% recovery in the posted price for crude oil is being treated as a symbol of recovering global demand in contrast to some beliefs that we are heading into a recession, forgetting that there is only a tangential connection between economic cycles and market cycles.

Misreading the Evidence

Many investors and traders are being pitched so-called value stocks. Others are being reassured that disruptive corporate and consumer spending will only be felt in a limited number of industrial sectors. Finally others are relying on flows into Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) representing long-term bullish investment demand.  All three of these beliefs should be challenged and some or all will be found to be wanting.

Value is not a Trap, but some Value Stocks are a Trap

True value is defined when a knowledgeable unconstrained buyer meets a knowledgeable troubled seller and can agree on terms and price. One should be wary of pitches by a sales force that is part of an investment banking chain that focuses on book value or tangible book value.  I have been a buyer, a seller, and an adviser to buyers and sellers of transactions that produced values to all or almost all involved. In my blog discussion of Warren Buffett’s annual letter I agreed with him in terms of the validity of book value as a measure of investment value.

As someone who is long financial services securities both personally and in my private financial services fund, I do not start my investment process with the financial data. I start with an understanding of the relationships with clients, employees, regulators, and media. I attempt to calculate the cost and the time involved to reproduce the target under investigation. I then look at what would be a reasonable estimate of the costs involved of exiting various elements of real estate and other leases. Severance costs need to be determined as well as crystallizing all of the expected contingent liabilities. A good example of this I heard about recently is a financial operator taking over an upscale supermarket chain and before the deal even closed, selling a meaningful number of stores in a geographical region to a national company who was not really into the same local markets. This buyer was valuing the locations, management and shoppers and not the financials of the stores, assuming that the purchase of these supermarkets would be close to the dollar for dollar shown on its internal statements.

When I sold my data-based operations, I was transferring respected customer relationships with numerous major financial institutions. My people, most of whom had worked for our clients, were a particularly prized asset in my opinion. At the time we were able to expense practically all of our software development thus these assets were not represented on our balance sheet in a transfer of operating assets. I bought a number of modest US and non-US acquisitions, in each case acquiring management was the real goal. I couldn’t have hired them without buying their operations. While the investing public, be they institutions or individuals, may buy on book value-related trades, the professionals don’t.

Most Opportunities are “Disruptable”

A major investment banking organization recently published a well written thirty page report entitled “The Age of Disruption” which did a good job of describing the ongoing process of many companies and sectors that have been or are being disrupted. What caught my eye was that the report listed five sectors that have been the least disrupted with the presumption that they will continue to be protected from disruption. Two of those sectors were business services and real estate. I believe well within a generation if not well before that many of these sectors’ ways of doing business will be distorted if not totally eliminated. One of the major concerns for the taxing authorities in New York State and to a lesser degree in New Jersey and Illinois is that many organizations within the financial trading communities are reporting record revenues with decreasing profit margins. The number of employees is dropping due to technological replacement and greater concentration. I suspect that these trends are happening throughout the business service sector.

In terms of Real Estate the banks and others in the mortgage business have drastically reduced their head count through better controls and technology. Good creative real estate people who can quickly deliver transactions and provide other services should be in high demand well into the future. However, those that troll for listings can be easily replaced through technology. There will be increasing pressure on all costs involved with real estate including title insurance and closing costs. 

Surge in ETF Flows

I believe individuals and the media misinterpret the flows into and out of ETFs and also mutual funds. Most of the volume is essentially a beta play for or against an index. It is my belief that the bulk of the flow comes from traders; e.g., hedge funds and other fast market participants. Occasionally one sees brokerage firms and registered investment advisors committing discretionary or near discretionary money into ETFs. In almost all cases these transactions are part of complex trades (often carry trades) with the use of ETFs on the short side vs. individual securities on the long side. We see very few ETF holdings that are meant to be a permanent holding. Thus their flow data is for trading consumption not investment attributes.

Most mutual fund redemptions are, in effect, completions of self-administered investment programs to meet life’s needs. What gets reported is the net flows out of funds and into ETFs which are not related. As already indicated the ETF flows are principally from the trading community. The net redemptions of mutual funds (until last two weeks) is essentially a function that intermediaries have suitability and churning constraints with mutual funds they don’t have with ETFs. There are numerous undisclosed ways that the investment firms are better off dealing with ETFs than mutual funds. I hope to find out more in a panel that I will chair at the International Stock Exchange Executives Emeriti summit conference in April.

Investment Timespans and Skills

As the regular readers of these blog posts may recall, I have suggested that investments should be allocated to different time horizons by using the matrix of the Timespan L Portfolios® to cover various time horizons between the immediate cash needs all the way out beyond our current lifetimes.

In building these custom portfolios there are different investment skills required to buy, hold, and sell securities. A good buyer is a prudent believer, often of changing conditions both within a particular security and its market environment. A good holder is someone who diligently follows trends and is quick to determine whether any variation is acceptable under the conditions. A good seller is essentially a skeptic that views the present and the future looking for any sign of contrary elements which should alert a sale process.

Applying Investment Skills to Timespans

1.  The first task is to identify whether the security, mutual fund, or investment manager is already on board or just one under consideration. (If you already own it you may have to do something, if you don’t you have the luxury of not doing anything.) In the case of the short-term operational portfolio one is very concerned as to whether on a total return basis the principal will be substantially intact during the short-term duration of this portfolio. Liquidity becomes very important in this analysis. One probably should not add to this portfolio unless it makes this portfolio more liquid and stable.

2.  In terms of the replenishment portfolio which is designed to provide capital to the exhausted operational portfolio, this portfolio has a limited duration in the four to seven year range and presumes at least one if not more down years. The critical skill for this portfolio is the diligent holder who is very alert to any variation to the outlook for any part of this portfolio. An appropriate risk balance is necessary to insure that the replenishment portfolio can and does perform its job well.

3.  The third portfolio type is the endowment which has a timespan from the end of the second portfolio to the end of the power base of those who are in command at the time and would be often in the ten to fifteen year range. All three of the investment skills  (buy, hold and sell) should work on the third portfolio.

4.  For  the fourth portfolio both the buyer and seller skill sets are important. One wants only those investments in this portfolio that look in the long-run to perform materially better than the market and when they don’t they should be replaced.

How Do I Come Out?

Recognizing that t the only thing I can promise my accounts is that I will be wrong time from to time and hopefully that I will correct quickly enough so that the client is not fundamentally hurt. With that as a caveat:

For my conservative clients, I would be reducing risk in the operational portfolio as markets became more enthusiastic.

For the replenishment portfolio, I would use periodic dips to raise  my market risk exposure a little bit.

The Endowment portfolio should not be particularly market trend oriented, but should focus its attention on viable quality leaders.

The Legacy portfolio should look for the survivability of disruptive companies.

Question of the Week: How are you addressing the market as a temporary rally, the beginning of a market upsurge, or a distraction?
Please let me know
Did you miss my blog last week?  Click here to read.

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A. Michael Lipper, C.F.A.,
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Contact author for limited redistribution permission.