Interest rates

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.

Thirty years ago

Thirty years ago this week I was beginning what was then a very novel business model: fee-only, no commissions. I was working at Christopher Weil, Inc, after a few years at E.F. Hutton. The consensus among the veterans was that fee-only could never work. Now it’s the industry standard, and I was present at the beginning.

Much to the chagrin of some of my managers, I had moved my clients’ accounts to safer positions because I thought the stock market was overvalued. As the Quotron…a primitive computer…kept posting lower and lower numbers, I looked over at the office manager. His face registered horror. We turned on a speaker from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where the trading was done with paper and voice, and we could hear a roar from the crowd. Everyone was trying to sell.

After that, I bought stock mutual funds for my clients and for myself at bargain prices. The market fully recovered within months. Our portfolios benefitted much more than any losses hurt us. Black Monday 1987 was the first time that awareness of overvaluation produced a big win for us.

Since then, calling out overvaluation has been much harder. In the 1990’s we were right but it took YEARS before the 2000 Tech wreck, and many clients became discouraged before it happened. The 2007/2008/2009 Financial Panic was different because recovery took a long, long time. Many clients were discouraged by that as well.

Now the financial markets are overvalued again, but the central banks have changed the game by stimulating. We don’t really know what will happen. Eventually I expect that a correction must occur, but it may or may not replicate the sheer terror of Black Monday 1987. Meanwhile, all we can do is pay attention and stay diversified. As my life illustrates, patience pays.

 

60% of a bag full of slow

The stock markets of the world appear to be impervious to every current geopolitical event, including the threat of nuclear terrorism and serial hurricanes, while a growing number of writers are shrieking that the end of the financial world is nigh. (Read the latest apocalyptic broadcast here.) Hmmm. I have my doubts, but there’s a lot of smoke in the air. Conditions being what they are, last week I moved 5% in many clients’ accounts from stocks to short term bonds. That’s very unusual for me. I’ve learned the hard way that even the best-calculated predictive indicators are easily undone by Fed easing. So usually nowadays we simply stay invested. The long-term force is with equities.

However, bonds aren’t deeply attractive right now either, except as a place of relative safety. Some bonds, especially longer-term issues, are overvalued like stocks. And the perception that the Fed Will Make All Things Good is strongly at work in bond-world as well. Here’s an interesting article which details the almost nonexistent difference in three year performance between top-end bond funds. Some of our conservative clients have portfolios which are 60% bonds. Those bonds aren’t producing much. Granted, bonds are traditionally holistically safer than equities, but in terms of gains, they historically don’t do much.

Right now, because of valuations, we temporarily have clients with 60% invested in boring. My hope is to eventually get them into equity bargains, and make some real long term gains. Patience pays.

I think I’ve figured this out.

The more missiles North Korea shoots over Japan without blowing anything up, the more investors think the Federal Reserve is likely to be cautious about raising rates, and thus the more they invest in stock markets.

Absurd but there’s a logic to it.

As someone said earlier this morning as a joke, perhaps the North Korean dictator has a brokerage account or a hedge fund, and he’s doing his part to boost profits. We are only ten or twenty missiles away from Dow 30,000.

We should also consider the consequences if he’s not joking, merely insane. Read some reality here.

A problem with reality

Is that sometimes it is so irrational. The financial markets are currently radiating “market bubble” and I’m reading a very well written quarterly update by the managers of the Forester Value Fund. It captures all the data which suggests that we are currently at market highs and we are at risk of a coming downturn in both the bond and stock arenas.

But there’s a problem. Forester Value Fund TOTALLY ROCKED our stock market declines in 2000 and 2008. And they also lagged horribly while markets recovered. Why? Probably because they are rational, intelligent, insightful managers who have managed their mutual funds with thoughtful awareness of market indicators. In other words, they’ve done everything courageously, and right. We don’t own the fund now, because we couldn’t lag like that. Instead we’ve used asset allocation mutual funds and international mutual funds to successfully participate at least partially in growing markets.

Yes, Virginia, the financial markets are bat-spam crazy, and many of our politicians are beyond incompetent. But the lower interest rates delivered by central banks have trumped everything else, so markets have continued to rise. By staying diversified and partially invested we’ve accrued a substantial part of the financial markets’ gains. But even as I watch us making good money, I have to shake my head.

Read Forester Value’s superb quarterly update here.

The Biggest Iceberg Of Unrecognized Risk

It’s a ship-killer.

While we obsess about the stock market, an even-bigger financial challenge is possibly looming in the future. Yet few people are paying attention.

Debt has once again risen to outlandish proportions. Especially, state-driven debt and pension obligations may have reached a level which is impossible to pay back.

Read more about yet another state’s financial struggle here.

Why don’t we clearly know if these massive commitments are fundable?

Because we don’t know how much the economy will grow in the future.

Also we don’t know if sanity will emerge and spending will be reduced.

And, finally, we don’t know what actuaries will define as future contribution requirements for the large pension plans.

All this has deep implications for our economy and especially our bond markets. As investors, diversification is key, since we can’t really know where and when debt defaults might occur, if ever.

To help with this, we’re keep municipal bond investors diversified into nation-wide municipal bond mutual funds and not just state-of-residence-only mutual funds. Yes, you’ll pay a bit more taxes, but you’ll probably be safer.

In the taxable bond arena, we’ll keep most of our long term bonds in our asset allocation funds, so the managers have a non-bond place to run if a crisis suddenly pops up.

Most likely we’ll simply muddle by, as tends to happen. Patience, courage, and discipline.

Have a great weekend.

An even bigger bubble?

So I’m reading this morning that Snapchat, after yesterday’s booming IPO, is larger financially than American Airlines, CBS, and host of other established businesses. This is the moment when clients call me and tell me that they want to go all-in on the stock market. They may be right. But according to this chart, we are in a bigger bubble than 2000. And that ended so well….not.graph of comparative indicators

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.

Why the economy isn’t thriving: more insight

Last week we were in San Francisco listening to a presentation by Schwab’s chief economist, Liz Ann Saunders. My takeaway was that the economy is not thriving because of

a. excessive debt in the system.
b. complexity.

The excessive debt may or may not have prevented a depression but its legacy is gargantuan payments to keep from defaulting. These will only become larger as interest rates rise.

The complexity is due to technological change and off-the-charts over-regulation. Distractions have grown and regulatory uncertainty is rife.

What will happen? We don’t know. Here’s bond guru Bill Gross’ latest comment.

Is inflation the only way out?

At the end of a busy day of study and action, I’m looking at overall debt loads and interest rates. I’m wondering if, perhaps, the US government might seek to “accidentally” create runaway inflation for a short period to reduce the real cost of their soaring debt load. Otherwise, when interest rates go up, it’s going to be very difficult to repay. It worked for Germany in the 1920’s. No, wait, it didn’t work, did it? Still, it will be tempting when the bills come due.

Explore German hyper-inflation here.