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?         
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