Sunday, August 21, 2016

Do You Need to Update Your Thinking?


Many institutional and individual investors are frustrated by the current levels of stock, bond, and commodity markets. These frustrations have led to inaction in addition to a state of anxiety. Most professional investors and many individual investors have had direct academic training and they and wealthy individual investors have had indirect or passed-along academic investment theories. With the major central bankers of the world experimenting with various forms of quantitative easing (QE) which has not had the desired effect, most of the reliable past investment measures have not been working.

As part of our responsibilities for managing accounts investing in mutual funds, we regularly have discussions with fund portfolio managers. Recently I had an in-depth conversation with the lead portfolio manager in a group that I have visited with since the 1960s. In discussing her financial services holdings she used the very same ratios and thinking that I have heard from this group for more than fifty years. I was struck that the fund's great long-term success was based on a very traditional approach that predates the current QE era and may explain why it is not enjoying its normal performance leadership position.

Recently Michael Mauboussin, now with Credit Suisse, published a list of ten attributes of successful investors which I have further edited:

1.  Be numerate (understand accounting)
2.  Understand value (present value of future net cash flow)
3.  Think probabilistically (nothing is absolutely certain)
4.  Update views
5.  Beware of behavioral biases
6.  Know the difference between information and influence
7.  Position sizing

Analysis of Financial Services Opportunities

Almost all financial services stocks are selling below their book value per share, and so the argument goes they are cheap now and will go up in price in the future. Under the current environment I am much more inclined to view their value is what they are selling for, as many traders believe. Book value is not a valuation metric but a reflection of historical costs of tangible assets. In the destructive era of QE some portion of loans not yet non-performing will become non-performing and thus their historic asset value is less by some to-be-determined amount.

The managers and owners of financial services companies claim that since the financial crisis the firms have added to their capital base and improved their efficiency and credit controls but their valuations have not improved since the crisis, even though their returns on assets and capital has. When interest rates normalize (read higher) their returns will rise, but probably won't get back to historic levels. Putting all of the current factors together these stocks are probably worth what they are selling for at the moment. However, under a higher interest rate scenario these earnings could be substantially higher. My view is that the current owners have in effect an option to benefit from normalization of economic conditions. Thus, the shares are priced right for the current environment, but with a potential "kicker" for the future.

One of the problems in using a balance sheet/book value approach is one is only dealing with tangible assets. As both a buyer and a seller of financial services companies, I recognize that the intangible assets are often worth as much if not more than the tangible. Think of this as "brand value." Among financial services stocks in the publicly traded market, I suggest that JP Morgan* has brand value and Bank of America* and Citi* do not. I would clearly pay for JP Morgan without its balance sheet, but wouldn't for the other two. Even Chase's* credit card business has brand value. Goldman Sachs* has brand value in excess of its balance sheet. Just track how well quite a number of ex-partners and senior managers have done in raising money for their new ventures after leaving Goldman. I find it difficult to say the same thing for other firms, with limited exceptions for Morgan Stanley*.

 Opportunities for Financial Services

Anytime there is a flow of money, there is an opportunity for some financial services organization to make or to lose money. Currently there are concerns as suggested by Moody's* that aggregate corporate earnings in the US is unlikely to top the record 2014 level until 2018. John Authers of the FT suggests that if one wants earnings growth, one should escape reliance on US sources. Fund money is already following fund performance. For the year 2016 through last Thursday, Emerging Market Equity mutual funds’ average is up + 18.50%, Emerging Market Local Currency Debt funds +16.62% and Emerging Market Debt funds in hard currency +13.56%. This is a worldwide trend with the second largest sales of ETFs based in Europe pouring into Emerging Markets. Cross border trades create a need for foreign exchange transactions which can be very profitable for financial services firms. In terms of the growth in emerging market debt, professional buyers conduct these through carry trades with US Treasuries and other elements as well as substantial use of margin. Most of the Emerging Market activities have been in Latin America +36.7% (Brazil + 68.4%) and the following list of countries all with gains exceeding + 20% : Russia, Colombia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hungary, Pakistan, and Chile.

* Owned personally or in a financial services fund I manage.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for financial services organizations may occur with a new Administration in Washington. While one is reluctant to believe any of the political rhetoric from any politician, it does seem that it is likely that massive infrastructure spending programs will be announced. If these get funded, it will likely mean more bond underwriting at the federal, municipal, and commercial levels. Other increased expenditures that will generate buying is likely to be on defense, education, and health.


There are substantial opportunities for the financial services organizations to make or lose money, but most of the gains will be earned by groups that have talent in excess of their financial resources. Successful investing in this arena will be based on business type analysis not solely on financial statement ratios.
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A. Michael Lipper, C.F.A.,
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