The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.
John Maynard Keynes
Our insights, reflections and musings on the most timely topics relevant to managing your investments.
Just when we thought all was safe in the markets, the White House brought out Wilbur Ross. Wilbur is the current commerce secretary and the man behind the threats of a trade war. It’s no surprise that Wilbur’s calming words on CNBC this week about “not a depression” and “not the end of the world” did not calm the markets.
Protectionism was one of the main causes of the Great Depression and helped to create an international environment that eventually led to World War II. The lesson we supposedly learned from this is that trade promotes both prosperity and peace. So, what are these tariffs really going to accomplish and how will they impact our investments?
The market is back. It has certainly been a crazy ride thus far this year. In the aftermath of the recent downturn we have learned more about what caused it, or at least what made it as sharp and quick of a downturn.
After a huge year in 2017, the market took off like a rocket in January. Now that rocket is coming back to earth. Had I told any of our clients that in early February that the market basically would be flat for the year, I believe most would have taken that as good news, considering…
2018 is off to a fast start. We actually got tax reform to end 2017, and the University of Georgia Bulldogs made it to the National Championship game for college football. Is it any surprise that much of the nation is feeling like hell must have frozen over? Well, Alabama took care of business and…
Just when we thought all was safe in the markets, the White House brought out Wilbur Ross. Wilbur is the current commerce secretary and the man behind the threats of a trade war. After the President himself scared everyone with tariffs on steel and aluminum, an idea that originated with Wilbur, he started suggesting other trade-restricting moves and the market reacted negatively. So, Wilbur went on TV to calm the nerves.
During his interview on CNBC he said things like, “This will not be the end of the world.” For context, here is a short list of things that were “not the end of the world:” the plague, the dark ages, colonialism, many wars between the French and the English, War World I, World War II…need I go on? He also said it will not drive us into an economic depression. Considering that the financial crisis and the 40 percent drop in the stock market that followed was also not a depression, I guess we are supposed to take this as good news.
I must confess, I have less than zero respect for Wilbur. Wilbur is a former attorney who made one lucky private equity deal and then created a reputation for himself by claiming that his firm’s assets represented his actual net worth. Once Forbes magazine bought that deception (they have since apologized), he used his reputation as a “billionaire investor” to make several million dollars. How that fraud did not eliminate him from serving in an administration is beyond belief. But, I digress.
It’s no surprise that Wilbur’s calming words about “not a depression” and “not the end of the world” did not calm the markets. He did say something that seems to have been missed: he said there will be a negotiation. I will not admit to fully understanding our current President, but one thing I do believe about the real estate developer is that everything to him is a negotiation. Hence, the outlandish statements. I’m guessing that Donald Trump has had a lifetime of success at the negotiating table by always starting with an outrageous position. When the other side talked him off the cliff he ends up walking away with what he was really after and perhaps even more. The trade reality is likely to be less concerning than the trade banter.
While this was going on, a British news channel has uncovered an astonishing fact: social media sites sell your data, and a lot of the stuff that is out there is fake. (Stop the presses!) My favorite part is when the executive from the “marketing” firm explained on hidden camera how they could get some Ukrainian models to pretend to be leaving a politician’s house. They would film it and post it to people who they have identified as having a poor view of the politician to begin with. The art of fake news.
So now Facebook primarily and others secondarily are in trouble for what is essentially their entire business plan. There are many analysts who have wondered when people would wake up to what these companies actually do to make money. It appears that has happened, at least temporarily. The longer-term damage of social media is likely the second part of that story: how individuals self-select the feedback loop they wish to be involved in so that only their beliefs are ever confirmed, and we become ever more polarized. For now, we seem more upset that all those tailored stories and advertisements that we clicked on were put there by people who purchased our “data.”
This brings on another issue altogether and that is our increasing habit of arguing in huge generalities. What “data” specifically? Do they know I’m bald, or do they know my social security number and bank account information? All “data” is not equal. This is a rabbit hole for another conversation.
Meanwhile, the real economy is clicking along. GDP growth just got revised up to 2.9 percent. These are the things that actually matter to investors. This volatility will pass and the bull market ride will continue. Nothing goes up in a straight line. In the meantime, let’s agree to choose more carefully what we put out in the public domain, and for Pete’s sake keep that microphone away from Wilbur.
Chuck Osborne, CFA
~How Not to Win Friends and Influence People
“We are bigger than U.S. Steel,” said Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone in the classic film, “The Godfather Part II.” That scene was placed in a Cuban hotel shortly before the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The irony being that both the mob and U.S. Steel had begun to decline in importance by the time the movie came out in 1974. Those trends have continued to this day.
Who knows, in 1959 steel production might very well have been an issue of national security, but I’m not sure how important domestic steel is in a world where our greatest threats come from terrorists and cyber-attacks while all that foreign steel comes from our arch nemesis…Canada. This I do know. Protectionism was one of the main causes of the Great Depression and helped to create an international environment that eventually led to World War II. The lesson we supposedly learned from this is that trade promotes both prosperity and peace. After all, we should want to “keep our friends close and our enemies closer,” as advised by Michael Corleone also in “The Godfather Part II.”
So, what are these tariffs really going to accomplish and how will they impact our investments? Now that they have been announced, not much. With Canada and Mexico being exempt this really becomes more political theatre than anything else. It does, however, bring to mind something that goes with the mindset of the tariff supporters. Those who back such policies tend to see commerce as a zero-sum game. In other words, they see day-to-day transactions as having one winner and one loser. This is how most sports work, after all, and we tend to use lots of sporting analogies. Next week we will begin March Madness, one of the best times of the year for college sports lovers. At the end of each game, one team will go home and one team will move forward.
That, however, is not how commerce works. When I go buy a new suit, it is not a zero-sum game. The store where I go wins when they sell me a suit, and I win when I have a new suit to wear and enjoy. Commerce is by nature win-win. Good business people understand that they only win over the long term if their customers win. Good customers also understand that if they want to have good service and enjoy quality products, then the companies they choose to do business with must want to have their business. It is relational, not transactional.
This is one of the many reasons tariffs are so disastrous. It just sends the wrong message, and eventually it does not work as companies find alternatives and workarounds. When I was in college many years ago we learned about the foolishness of sugar tariffs and how Americans paid far more for sugar than most people around the world. Those tariffs protected sugar beet farmers but hurt food companies. Now Americans enjoy high fructose corn syrup.
If tariffs raise the cost of steel for large manufacturers like Ford, or Boeing, they will simply ship the steel to a plant somewhere outside the U.S. and then make whatever they were going to make there. One would think an administration which just reformed the corporate tax system would understand this.
This is not the first time economic realities which have been proven over time have been ignored by politicians. George W. Bush slapped a tariff on steel, before removing it. The Obama administration used price-fixing in their healthcare law, another proven economic loser. We don’t seem to learn, do we?
This folly is yet another reminder of how important it is to invest from the bottom-up. Know what you own and why you own it. These exemption-filled tariffs should not be a factor.
Chuck Osborne, CFA
The market is back. It has certainly been a crazy ride thus far this year. We start up more than 8 percent, then drop 10 percent, and now we are riding back up. A 10 percent correction is normal in long bull markets, but how this one happened was not.
In the aftermath of the recent downturn we have learned more about what caused it, or at least what made it as sharp and quick of a downturn. Many hedge funds that are primarily being run by computers were borrowing money to purchase so-called inverse exchange traded products tracking the VIX, a volatility index sponsored by the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE). These products supposedly produce the inverse, or opposite, return of the index. So if the VIX is up 10 percent, then these products go down 10 percent. Several of these products are leveraged, meaning they will track two or more times the index return. So if the VIX is up 10 percent, these products will be down 20 percent or more.
There are so many things wrong with this it is hard to know where to start. The first issue is the issue of ETF investing in the first place. The first ETFs were based on the S&P 500 index; they are basically index funds, which can be bought and sold any time during the day, as opposed to index mutual funds that can only be bought and sold at market close. Their original purpose was to give institutional investors a place to temporarily park money while transitioning a portfolio from one money manager to another.
Wall Street quickly learned other uses, and like almost every financial crisis in history will prove, bad things happen when Wall Street starts using products for uses other than for what they were originally intended. All kinds of investors started using ETFs, and of course Wall Street started filling that demand with every imaginable flavor. The problem is, most of these products don’t actually work. It is pretty easy to track an index like the S&P 500 – just buy the 500 stocks represented. These are among the largest companies in the world and the market for their stocks is robust so they are easily bought and sold at a moment’s notice.
The further one wanders away from the S&P 500, however, the less true that becomes. Smaller companies’ stocks do not always trade frequently, and it may be hard to buy or sell on demand. The funds that try to track these indexes may not be able to buy all the stocks in the index the moment an investor wishes to buy the ETF. Likewise they may not be able to sell. The problem gets worse for fixed income or bond-related products. Remember, bonds are just loans. A company or a government that needs to borrow money will issue bonds. They only issue the number of bonds they actually need. ETFs and other products tracking bond indexes are often not able to buy the actual bonds, so they buy so-called derivative securities that will hopefully track the index.
The VIX is another problem altogether, because it isn’t real. There is nothing to buy. It is an arbitrary measure of options activity, which the CBOE claims is a good approximation of overall market volatility. Investors buy options to protect against losses in underlying securities. If more people are buying options, then the logic states that they are more worried about loss and therefore experiencing more volatility. In other words, the VIX is more akin to placing a bet on the over/under of a sporting event than it is to an investment. Gamblers – which I’m going to call them, because that is what they really are – develop wagers in the form of derivative products that track the VIX. The ETFs then “invest” in these derivatives. If that makes no sense to you, then welcome to the club.
The final problem with all the ETF-type products is perhaps easier to understand. Index investing is supposed to be passive: just buy the entire market and hold it for a long time. That is the entire theory. However, that is not how people are using these products. A passive investor has no reason to be able to trade whenever he or she wishes because he or she is, by definition, not a trader. These products are being used to trade into and out of stocks faster than ever before in history. The ripple effects mean that prices move more than ever, even when the VIX says volatility is low.
The first fundamental rule of prudent investing is that it is done from the bottom-up. Stock is simply ownership in a company. Investors are investing in companies, not trading pieces of paper. Companies are real; they have real products and services and real revenues and earnings. They have value, and that value adds safety to your investment.
There once was a day when the investment advisory industry was a professional service, helping clients invest for their future. It still is that way at Iron Capital. We will let others buy products, exchange-traded and otherwise. We will stick to investing in things that are real.
~Invest in What Is Real
After a huge year in 2017, the market took off like a rocket in January. Now that rocket is coming back to earth. Had I told any of our clients that in early February that the market basically would be flat for the year, I believe most would have taken that as good news, considering the year we had in 2017. However, it doesn’t feel that way when we go straight up then come straight back down.
I have said this many times, and likely will say it many more times: Those who trade in markets must be terrified. Fortunately for our readers, that is not what we do. We invest in companies. So how are companies doing?
JP Morgan reported Monday morning that revenue growth for S&P 500 companies is growing at 8.38 percent. They expect 20 percent earnings growth for the quarter. FactSet, an investment data service, tells us that half of companies have reported their fourth quarter 2017 results, of which 75 percent had better earnings than expected, and 80 percent had better revenues than expected. If that 80 percent number holds, then that would be a new record. We don’t hear much about those records, though.
Of course, if companies are doing well, it means that the consumers who buy their goods are doing well. That means the economy is doing well. In fact, all the economic data has been good – too good, according to the short-term speculators who are driving this dip. The economy is so good that interest rates will rise and the Fed will put a kibosh on the stock market party. There is just one problem with that theory.
Stocks, over the long haul, rise with interest rates. Higher interest rates mean stronger economic activity. Like everything which is driven by the masses, markets tend to overdo things. It is when interest rates peak that stocks tend to fall. We are a long way from that point. This is not the beginning of a bear market.
Stocks do not go up in straight lines. We have been saying that a correction was in order for some time now, and that when it happened it would actually be a positive thing for the longer haul. Well, now it is happening. It may continue for a short time, or it could be over tomorrow. That is why trading in markets is, in our opinion, a fool’s errand.
How do we cope with this volatility? By knowing what we own and why we own it. That can be harder than it used to be as the day traders have been replaced by computers. The computers create short-term moves that are just ridiculous. It becomes hard to keep in mind that short-term moves are exactly that.
What matters in the long haul is: how are the companies doing that I actually own? By keeping focused on this, prudent investors can not only avoid the emotional mistakes that come from focusing on daily or even intra-daily movements and instead use volatility as an opportunity. This is not a time for panic. It is a time for shopping for opportunities.
Chuck Osborne, CFA
~It Goes Both Ways?
2018 is off to a fast start. We actually got tax reform to end 2017, and the University of Georgia Bulldogs made it to the National Championship game for college football. Is it any surprise that much of the nation is feeling like hell must have frozen over?
Well, Alabama took care of business and the temperatures are moderating once again. After all, we may celebrate new beginnings every January 1, but in reality, it is just another day. Of course one would not know it if she listens to the commercials for “Wealth Managers” or watches CNBC.
Every January we go through this ritual of wrapping up the previous year and then debating what new strategy we need for the upcoming year. But why? First of all, January 1 is not all that different from December 31. Secondly, if a change is needed then it is needed when it is needed, not at some random moment on the calendar.
Imagine what would have happened if Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, had waited until next football season to change his quarterback and his game plan? UGA would be national champions. If a change is needed then it is needed now; if it is not, well then don’t fix what isn’t broken.
We have been doing this so long at Iron Capital and our clients are so loyal that I sometimes forget to remind folks what it is that makes us different. Wall Street celebrates milestones like the New Year because they are in a transaction business. They want investors to change strategies as often as possible because that means transactions, and transactions mean revenue. At Iron Capital we are in the relationship business and we make more money when your portfolio grows, not by more transactions.
The traditional financial adviser is trained as a salesperson. They spend their days servicing existing clients and prospecting for new ones. They do not spend their days reviewing every investment that their clients own and deciding if they are still appropriate. They look at the client’s portfolio when it is review time, and guess what: a change of some sort will be in order.
Will 2018 be different than 2017? There is no doubt it will; no two years are exactly alike. But, is January all that different from December? Not so much.
So what will 2018 bring in the market? In all likelihood it will be more of the same. The economy is moving ahead strongly, not just here but also globally. The stocks of international companies are still far behind their American counterparts in terms of returns, and that gap will likely continue to close. Small companies who cannot afford expensive lobbyists will likely benefit more from tax reform than large companies who benefited from loopholes. Interest rates should rise as the economy improves, but they remain low. In other words, the world did not chance substantively on January 1, and neither should your portfolio.
Nothing goes up in a straight line and it would not be surprising to see the market experience a mild correction. We would see that as an opportunity, not something to fear. If something changes then so will we, not next season but during this game. That is what makes us who we are.
2017 was a good year for our clients and 2018 is off to a great start. For all of our Alabama friends, Roll Tide, and for the rest of us, well it’s a new year!
~New Year, New Market?