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.
What are we to do? When markets move downward it is important to keep things in perspective. We are prudent investors not traders, so it is the long term that matters. Prudent investment is done from the ground-up: know what you own and why you own it. The companies we own are doing well, and ultimately their stock price will reflect that reality.
You know the saying: There are two kinds of people in this world, glass-half-full people and glass-half-empty people. Of course it is the same glass holding the same amount of liquid, but depending on his point of view one is either happy about it or grumpy about it. At the moment, Mr. Market is in…
My kids just watched the Charlie Brown Halloween special, fall weather has finally arrived in Atlanta, and our front porch is full of various types of pumpkins. It is October. So, why is the market selling off? It is October, what other reason do we need? As we said when this selloff began, this is…
It’s a bird, it’s a plane…no, it’s interest rates! Rising interest rates do not kill bull markets; they actually go hand-in-hand. I know this is counter to what you have learned from every financial media outlet and the short-term traders who often sit at their desks, but it is true. In fact, it is “textbook,” as they say.
The big question for our economy is: How much of the good done by tax reform and regulatory relief is being undone by tariffs?
Groupthink is a term first used in 1972 by social psychologist Irving L. Janis. He was referring to a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group to the point where they set aside their personal beliefs, preferring to keep the peace rather than disrupt uniformity.
Wall Street has increasingly become a giant lesson in groupthink, and simultaneously more and more disconnected from anything resembling reality. This downturn is the perfect case in point. Wall Street seems to have forgotten already that this downward movement in stock prices began in October with Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Powell making comments about the need for interest rate hikes because of the rapid growth of the economy.
The groupthink at that moment was that things are so good that the Fed would keep raising rates and this would cause stocks to fall. Then the focus went to what we believe is the real cause of this nervousness, the trade tensions, especially with China. Corporate earnings – the thing that actually matters to corporate owners (aka stock investors) – were very strong for the third quarter, and on every earnings call, CEO’s were asked about tariffs.
Here is a lesson in groupthink for you. In this most recent earnings season, analysts asked just about every CEO that I am aware of about the impact of tariffs on their business. Then analysts started talking to financial media about how every CEO was talking about tariffs…which was largely due to the fact that they were answering the analysts’ questions. The idea that CEOs are universally worried about tariffs became consensus, and this meant an economic slowdown is coming.
So now, this market downturn – which was caused because the U.S. economy is somehow too good – is being prolonged by the idea that an actual economic downturn is coming. On Friday one analyst on a CNBC panel had the nerve to be somewhat optimistic about stocks, and she then had to defend herself. She said something to the effect of, “We all know that the economy will slow next year.”
According to the website www.verywellmind.com, the top two symptoms of groupthink are illusions of invulnerability and unquestioned beliefs, respectively. We all know that the economy is going to slow next year? What happens in the future is by definition unknowable, so while we can make predictions and weigh probabilities, no one knows what is going to happen next week, let alone next year. The idea that we do is a clear sign that we have shut down our individual brains and surrendered to groupthink.
So, what is the probability that we are headed towards a slowdown? Globally we may already be in one. Japan had negative growth last quarter. China’s economy, while still growing rapidly, has seen the rate of growth slow. There have been negative indicators in Germany and some other European countries. On top of all of that, we now have a delay in the Brexit vote in Great Britain.
In the U.S., however, there is no actual data pointing to a slowdown. Unemployment is less than 4 percent and wages are growing faster than inflation for the first time in a generation. The CEO of Target recently stated that this is the best environment that he has ever seen. Are there threats? Of course there are, there are always threats. The largest right now are the tariffs. Regardless of what anyone may tweet, tariff costs, like any tax on a product, are passed onto consumers. We pay the cost of higher prices. Americans once understood that, and as a result threw a great amount of tea into the Boston Harbor.
Might the economy slow next year? Maybe. If it grew at 2.5 percent, which would approximately match that fastest pace in the last decade, then that would equal slowing. The data, however, does not point to this, and neither do the outlooks of corporate CEOs who keep telling us that real business is good. No, Wall Street is alone on this, and that is worrisome as an investor.
While tariffs represent the largest real threat, the stock market itself may become a greater threat. The stock market has the ability to become a self-fulfilling prophecy even when what its prophesizing seems so removed from reality.
What are we to do? When markets move downward it is important to keep things in perspective. We are prudent investors not traders, so it is the long term that matters (long term being three- to five-year periods). Prudent investment is done from the ground-up: know what you own and why you own it. The companies we own are doing well, and ultimately their stock price will reflect that reality.
Prudent investing is also risk averse. While we perhaps have not spoken about it enough, most of our moves this year have reduced the risk in our clients’ portfolios. Most notably, we increased our asset allocation to bonds reducing our weightings toward stocks. As of this moment we have not hit any client risk threshold, but IF this downturn continues, we will take action.
Breaking out of the groupthink can lead to long-term success; not appreciating the damage groupthink can cause can lead to disaster. Balancing those two things is what makes investing more of an art than a science. Caution is in order.
Chuck Osborne, CFA
You know the saying: There are two kinds of people in this world, glass-half-full people and glass-half-empty people. Of course it is the same glass holding the same amount of liquid, but depending on his point of view one is either happy about it or grumpy about it. At the moment, Mr. Market is in a glass-half-empty mood.
The market started this correction supposedly because the economy was so good that interest rates were going to keep rising. Then it was blamed on trade tensions. Now the half-empty crowd is saying that the economy must slow and may even go into a recession in 2019. What is the data backing this up? According to the doom-and-gloomers, it is simply time. This good news can’t go one forever.
Now they are pointing overseas. Japan is the first major economy to post a quarter of negative growth. There is no doubt China is slowing and Europe seems to be losing momentum as well. Does that mean a recession here at home? Not necessarily. Unemployment is at an incredibly low 3.7 percent right now, meaning that 96.3 percent of people looking for work have found it, and perhaps more importantly, wages are growing at 3 percent, which is faster than inflation. We have not seen an employment situation this good sine the 1980’s and 90’s. Forgive me if it is hard to see that leading to a recession.
Corporate earnings were really good this quarter and it has not seemed to matter. Any company that has hinted at weakness, or even just at slowing of growth, has been punished unmercifully…which brings us to what, in our opinion, is really our greatest threat: the mood.
We keep hearing how our economy is “late in the cycle,” which is a more sophisticated-sounding way of saying that I know there is no data to back up my melancholy, but I’m in a bad mood anyway. The truth is that no one knows when the cycle changes until the cycle has already changed, so there is really no way of knowing if we are “late in the cycle.” One thing we do know is that economics can often be self-fulfilling. If enough people start to see the glass as half empty and start acting like we are in a recession, then they could make it happen.
This is what happened is 1992. We talked ourselves into having a recession. It could happen again if we are not careful.
~ I’m thankful that the real economy is doing very well, even if Wall Street refuses to see it.
~ I’m thankful for real wage growth in America.
~ I’m thankful for my children.
~ I’m thankful for my family, immediate and extended.
~ I am thankful for all of my friends.
~ Once again, I’m always thankful for Mama’s pumpkin cheesecake and my loose-fitting pants, which make enjoyment of said cheesecake possible, and are a little looser than last year.
~ Finally, I am thankful for you, our clients and friends. Your trust in Iron Capital is our greatest asset and we value it every day of the year.
Chuck Osborne, CFA
~Glass Half Something
My kids just watched the Charlie Brown Halloween special, fall weather has finally arrived in Atlanta, and our front porch is full of various types of pumpkins. It is October.
So, why is the market selling off? It is October, what other reason do we need? As we said when this selloff began, this is a buying opportunity for long-term investors, and buying is pretty much what we have been doing. Slowly and carefully, but we are still positive because companies are for the most part doing well, and companies are the things in which we invest.
Of course, the talking heads have to have something to say, so they will search for reasons. Tensions with China, rising interest rates, the eventual end of our economic expansion – the news has mentioned all of these things, so let’s address them.
China does have real problems. Are they being caused by Trump’s policies? He will take credit, I am sure, but the truth is that it is impossible to know. What we do know is that their growth rate is slowing. Their stock market is down dramatically and they have currency problems as well. Is this impacting our markets? Perhaps, but thus far it has not actually impacted American companies. Earnings reports remain strong, and guidance for future earnings has remained strong. We invest in companies, not markets, so it appears we are good here.
Interest rates spiked suddenly and everyone began talking about them; this is what is causing the downturn. At least that is what many have said. The problem with this theory is that rising interest rates at this point in the economic cycle indicate better growth. It means people are more optimistic about the future and therefore demand a higher return on their money if they are to loan it to anyone. It also stopped; after the one-week spike, interest rates have leveled off. This does not seem a likely deterrent to company earnings unless a particular company has too much debt. That is easily avoided by us or the mutual fund managers we may use.
We are in year nine of our economic expansion and we have to be coming to the end, right? Wrong. It is true that the average economic cycle going back many years is approximately five years. The cycle means we have a recession (which is defined as at least two quarters in a row of negative economic growth), then we have a recovery. After the recovery, we expand and eventually have another recession. We cycle. Nine years is a long cycle; however, there is no evidence that cycles know what time it is or have a stopwatch. Cycles vary; some are short, some are long, and five years is an average. Cycles have also been getting longer. The other factor to consider is that this positive cycle started and for many years remained much slower than normal. Several years into the expansion, polls still indicated that people thought we were in a recession. I know there is a textbook definition, but perhaps one could argue that if most people think it feels like a recession, then it probably is a recession. If we look at the world that way, then this expansion is much younger than the experts claim. We have to be mindful of the data and willing to accept what it is telling us, but at this point there is no sign of recession ahead.
So, what is the reason? In the immortal words of Mr. Gibbs from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “reason’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Prudent investors see market behavior like this as an opportunity. It isn’t that scary in October – it’s trick or treat time!
Chuck Osborne, CFA
~Boo! October Can Be Scary
Yesterday we were on our way home from a short family vacation when my wife looked over and informed me that the headline she had just received from the Wall Street Journal was, “Surging Yields Raise Threat of Tipping Point for Stocks.” I laughed.
If you are like my wife and you don’t understand why I thought this headline was funny, let me break it down for you. The first line of that story was, “Yields on long-term U.S. government debt moved abruptly higher last week, calling into question the durability of the more than nine-year-old bull market for stocks.”
First, rising interest rates do not kill bull markets; they actually go hand-in-hand with bull markets. I know this is counter to what you have learned from every financial media outlet and the short-term traders who often sit at their desks, but it is true. In fact, it is “textbook,” as they say.
If you wish to get full credit on the relationship with interest rates and stocks on your Level III Charter Financial Analyst (CFA) exam, you had better understand this fact. Let me make it simple: when confused, always go back to the basics. What is stock? On a daily basis it is easy to fall into the trap that stocks are just digital notations (formerly pieces of paper) that are randomly traded back and forth, but that isn’t true. Stock is ownership in a company. When a company’s business is good, the owners are rewarded. It’s that simple.
So, what are bonds? Bonds are loans. When a government or a corporation needs to borrow money, they issue bonds, which is just like you or me going to the bank to borrow money. The interest rates we pay are going to depend on our credit, and on the demand for loans. If the bank is overrun with customers wanting loans, then they can charge higher rates; if we are the only ones in there, then we can negotiate lower rates. Interest rates go up as the economy grows faster.
When the economy grows faster, people buy more products from more companies, which means companies make more money. When companies make more money, stock prices rise. Interest rates and stock prices go up together. The problem with markets is that they tend to get overheated and go too far; that is when stocks go down, and then interest rates go down. Then they do it all over again.
So, are things overheated? With interest rates this question almost answers itself. We have gone from historically low rates to low rates. We have not even really gotten back to normal, so the idea that we are overheating there really is not even being discussed.
Stocks, on the other hand, are coming up on a nine-year bull market run, right? Wrong. This headline is at best misleading and possibly just a lie. It is true that through the marvels of flawed design and questionable math the S&P 500 index has been positive for that many years, but stocks as a whole have not.
The market has corrected several times in the last nine years. We practically had a bear market (by definition, a market down 20 percent in price) in 2015 for every stock except the so-called FANG (Facebook, Amazon, NetFlix, Google) stocks. The FANG stocks then corrected in the beginning of 2016. We are in a bear market right now for Chinese companies, and international stocks as a whole have been hit hard this year. Small company stocks, which had finally come back to life after suffering for most of this nine-year period, have been hit hard of late. So, for anyone who has looked more closely than the most casual observer, this has not been an uninterrupted nine-year run.
This can’t be the end of the nine-year bull market because it has ended and then started again three or four times already. The economy is good; in fact, it is very good. That means rates will rise and companies should continue to report stellar earnings. Any market fluctuations in the meantime are just an opportunity for the long-term investor.
One final thought: Bubbles never burst when people are fretting about this possibly being a bubble. Bubbles burst when everyone is saying, “This time it is different.” In 1999 I was told by a colleague at Invesco that, “valuations don’t matter anymore.” In 2007 I was told by a hedge fund manager that one could “buy mortgage-backed securities and use as much leverage as you need to achieve any return you wish to earn and it is all risk-free.” When people start to talk that way, then we will be nearing the end of the run. Until then, when you see panicky headlines, do what I do and laugh and get ready to go shopping.
Chuck Osborne, CFA
~Up, UP and Away!
I don’t speak often about the size of Iron Capital because to me we are a small, close-knit team and I like it that way. The world, however, judges investment firms by assets under management, not headcount or office space, so Iron Capital is consistently listed as one of the larger firms in the Southeast. That achievement and five dollars gets me a coffee at Starbucks. But, while that is usually much ado about nothing, every once in a while it can be helpful.
For instance, I get the occasional invitation to visit the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (Fed). The last time was about two weeks ago, when I went to hear a presentation from Steven Durlauf, economist and public policy professor at the University of Chicago. He was speaking on inequality. I was interested because I’m not sure if there is a more important subject for the long-term viability of the American experiment in self-government. I found his talk disappointing because he offered no real policy solutions. Oh well.
Even when the speaker disappoints, these evenings are worthwhile because one often gets to talk directly to some of the economists at the Fed. I love talking to the people who actually do the work. That is true when I visit our corporate clients, and it is true at the Fed. Talking to the rank and file is how you find out the truth.
In this case, we spoke about what the Fed was hearing from the front line. For those who are not familiar, the Fed is mostly known for controlling short-term interest rates. Lots of analysis goes into these decisions, and they have teams of economists whose primary job is to collect data. Mostly, they talk to business owners and corporate managers and ask them how things are going. The conversations of late were all surrounding trade.
The big question for our economy is: How much of the good done by tax reform and regulatory relief is being undone by tariffs? From what I heard, quite a bit. It is important to understand that the goal of the tax reform was to stimulate corporate investment. In other words, make it more attractive for companies to expand their businesses through new facilities or even just new, updated equipment. This corporate investment leads to growth in productivity, which leads to wage growth. These are precisely the elements that have been missing from our economy since the dot-com bust.
All the data show that tax reform was beginning to show signs of working. One example I learned of that night was a company headquartered out of New Orleans that was about to break ground on a brand-new factory. They were putting their tax savings to work, just like the policymakers had hoped. Then came the talk of tariffs; construction cost for the factory rose with the tariffs on steel and aluminum. The company in question was a chemical company which, although small, sells most of its goods overseas. They are now concerned about retaliatory tariffs on their products. The factory is back on hold.
That means lost jobs and lost wages to their employees. This is the real-world impact of trade wars. The huge multinationals have locations everywhere and can work their way around almost any web of trade barriers; it is the small, locally owned and operated companies who will not be able to compete. The companies that can’t afford the rise in steel prices and the ones that can’t just shift production from one plant to another. These are the companies that really spur growth, the ones who finally thought they saw a light in the end of the tunnel with the first market-friendly policy shift in almost twenty years. Then the rug was pulled right from under their feet.
The Trump administration assures us that these are just negotiating tactics and that we may have to live with short-term pain to achieve long-term gains. Perhaps they are right; we certainly hope they are. In the meantime, second-quarter GDP growth came in at 4.1 percent, which is actually very good, but almost a full percent lower than what many had been predicting. A percent may not sound like a lot, but in an economy the size of the U.S., that is a lot of growth to leave on the table.
What does this mean for our investments? It means uncertainty and volatility. Hopefully, as long-term investors we can take advantage of this, but the second half of this year is likely to be a bumpy ride. We still think it will be mostly up, but it certainly won’t be smooth. We remain vigilant, as always.
Chuck Osborne, CFA
~An Evening at the Fed