Europe

Focus on the long term

I was reminded of that today when a client called up and asked what return he could expect on his investments. I said we really can’t predict, but a long term average of 7% has historically been both attractive and doable, with discipline. We really can’t say what the future will bring.

What does “discipline” mean? To some degree it means that we ignore the day to day noise and focus on long term realities.

Reality: Bitcoin is probably a bubble. Thus we should approach cautiously if at all.

Reality: The economy is profoundly leveraged, “in debt up to our eyeballs”. That always has negative consequences.

Reality: The financial markets are probably overvalued. A downturn in the future is probably inevitable. The downturn will probably be followed by an upturn, as day follows night.

Reality: history tells us that we really can’t guess. In the decade or longer time horizon, by buying low and avoiding bubbles, we will probably steer our investments towards attractive gains. In other words, in the long run, most of the above doesn’t matter. Stay the course. Stay diversified.  Patience pays.

Read more.

Risk Happens Fast

As last night’s 8.2 magnitude earthquake in Mexico illustrates, risk happens fast. We are now conditioned to three beliefs: things will continue as they are today indefinitely, the Federal Reserve will always save us, and we’ll be able to dodge out of the way.

Nine years ago today, that wasn’t the case. One of the largest investment banks, Lehman Brothers, was allowed to go bankrupt and default on its bonds. The stock market fell 25% in one month. The decision to let Lehman Brothers sink beneath the waves was a political choice, based on traditional attitudes towards free capital markets, and one lesson we all learned was that some corporations are “too big to fail.” The global political aftermath of the Lehman Brothers debacle was so painful that it’s doubtful it would happen again.

But the choice to rescue any and all carries risks as well, doesn’t it? We risk rescuing businesses which OUGHT TO FAIL and we reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of the global economy as a result.

It’s worth remembering also that almost nobody was able to dodge out of the way of the Lehman default. Our asset allocations going into the chaos determined our overall performance. As Mark Hulbert and Doug Kass have written, risk happens fast, too fast to dodge out of the way. Diversification has a price, but it also has a benefit.

Read more here.

We send our prayers to those damaged by the earthquake and by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. It’s a busy world out there.

Are Small Stocks Leaving the Party?

The market for small stocks just turned negative for the year. That’s big news, and you aren’t likely to hear it elsewhere because it disrupts the narrative of a rising stock market.

Why is it happening? This article provides more data to suggest stock market overvaluation. In this case, it’s the small stock markets, exemplified by the Russell 2000 Index. What’s more, this downturn is a divergence: the performance of the Russell 2000 Index is now negative for the year whereas the market for large cap stocks is up. Shades of 2000.

However, this mild decline in the small stock arena, combined with the insecurity created by terrorism in Europe, is likely to trigger a Federal Reserve stall of plans to raise interest rates. So a decline is by no means certain. We simply need to remain aware. Since we are diversified and modestly defensive, if a real downturn DOES occur, we’ll be buyers. When that will actually happen is anyone’s guess.

The Ten Year Anniversary of the day the world changed.

Ten years ago today, French mega-bank BNP Paribas announced it couldn’t place a value on its US-created collateralized debt obligations, complex toxic “derivative” investments, and thus was suspending client withdrawals from the funds which held them.

That was the first indication that the most gigantic financial panic since the Great Depression in 1929 was about to unfold.

The world has changed a lot since then. But many of the same structural flaws remain, patched and propped but not repaired by governments or by central bank intervention. Vastly greater debt loads are even more of a potential problem than they were in 2007.

The greatest lesson of the 2007 Financial Panic was that central banks transformed the investment markets by intervening. Perhaps they helped, perhaps they hurt, perhaps in a variety of ways they did both. But there’s no denying that the central banks are now involved in our financial markets in ways that would have been unthinkable before August 9, 2007.

Another key lesson of the 2007 Financial Panic was that many sophisticated investors did just fine, thank you, while others got hammered.

Yet another lesson was that we all muddle by. If you stayed invested through the carnage of that awful event, you have probably done well, despite it all.

Read more here.

We’re doing great! Now let’s stay cautious.

I’m reviewing clients’ portfolios this afternoon, and given that most of us are relatively conservative I’d say we’re on track for a nice finish for the 2nd quarter. I’m saying this while crossing all digits and holding my breath.

Our international holdings, especially our emerging market holdings, have done great so far this year, which is quite emotionally rewarding since after we bought them last year they laid down like raccoon road kill for some months, and were mostly a drag on our portfolios. Now, however, they have recovered, and more.

Likewise our decision to double down on health care has been rewarding, and our decision to stay in tech has been profitable as well.

However I remain nervous like a cat in a room full of pit bull dogs. As I wrote last week, this has been a very thin market especially domestically. Political risk remains high. Markets are overvalued.

So let’s stay cautious, please.

Read more scary stock market predictions here, hopefully with a small glass of oak-aged rum. Predictions do NOT all come true. However they ARE evidence that we should be careful.

Meanwhile we’ll stay invested and stay diversified. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

U.S. stock market gains are incredibly concentrated.

One of the hallmarks of mature U.S. stock markets is when index funds are doing better than actively managed mutual funds. That’s because the “rational” active managers are scared so they begin to avoid risk. The result is lagging returns relative to fearless, mindless index funds. I’ve seen this in 1987, 1990, 2000, and 2007. It can go on for years.

Another indicator of mature stock markets is when the market concentrates into only a few big players. This time, the big players are the FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google). Citibank broadens them out to the FANTASY stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Nvidia, Tesla, Alphabet, Salesforce.com and Yahoo). However you label them, they are up a lot so far this year, about 30% by some estimates, and account for the majority of the broader indices’ gains. Doesn’t this sound familiar to anyone?

Also according to Citibank they have an average P/E of over 60, which is way up there in the bubble zone. That’s more than overvalued. And of course they are skewing the large indices’ valuations higher.

Combine this with the cryptocurrency markets and you’ve got looneytunes right here, right now. This has bubble written all over it. But it’s NOT a bubble in the entire financial system. Yet.

What happens next?

This may go on for years. My thought is that there’s no need to rush for the exits as long as we stay diversified. And if we sell early we risk being left far, far behind.

On the other hand a political event could trigger the inevitable landslide.

Meanwhile, economies are growing and valuations are much cheaper overseas. I’m examining that option.

Stay diversified. We are sure to have an interesting year.

For more evidence, read here.

What is different about the S&P 500’s longest losing streak in 8 years…

…Is that it’s a paper cut. Most days the market has barely declined at all. We don’t know what will happen. So far, not much.

To prevent becoming too concerned about day-to-day price volatility, check out this ultra-long stock market chart here.

Fascinating! Investing works. Stay the course…even if it gets a bit bumpy.

How to create wealth which lasts generations

One of my fascinations is how to pass on wealth between generations. It amazes me how people can succeed magnificently at wealth transfers, and can even prepare the following generations for wealth which they themselves never enjoyed. Or sometimes they can blow things to shreds. Life is a lot harder than we would like to realize, and providing for future generations in terms of education and actual wealth is a profound blessing. There’s a lot to learn from the European and Asian families who have managed this successfully for centuries. Read here what billionaires do.

Flash Crash in the British pound currency!

I’m guessing this is a good time to plan a visit to England. Today’s frenzy over the British pound is a good thing for British exporters too. It also illustrates why we tend to avoid ETF’s: too many technology-driven flash crashes.At some point soon I expect to go bargain hunting. Read more about why you should plan a trip to London here.