A Letter to Clients Regarding Current Volatility

A few of you have contacted me to ask about the current market downturn, which leaves me wondering what everyone else is thinking. Just in case you find the market unsettling, allow this perspective.

You might recall from my email with the 4th Quarter Reports, sent on January 2, I said, “The market appears fully valued and then some, by about 4%.” In January, the S&P 500 gained 5.62% on little fundamental change. That suggests that the market was overvalued by nearly 10%. On February 6, 2018, the market officially entered correction territory by trading at least 10% off its recent high. That puts it about where I suggested it should be.

I believe the market will trade +/- 10% of fair value about 95% of the time. That means that if a 20% correction occurs when the market is 10% over fair value, nothing extraordinary occurred. Someone who just watched a $2,000,000 portfolio lose $400,000 might not share my perspective, but it’s just math.

According to Deutsche Bank, the stock market averages a correction about every 357 days, or about once a year. The one before this was over 2 years ago. The next question is how long they last? According to John Prestbo at MarketWatch, a Dow Jones Company, the average correction (of 13.3%) lasted about 14 weeks.

For long-term investors, corrections represent an opportunity to purchase quality stocks at bargain prices. The price dip is only a problem if you are leveraged or are a short-term trader.
For now, I expect the market to struggle as the 10-year Treasury rate rises. This pattern is likely to continue until 1st quarter earnings are reported, and corporate write-offs associated with tax reform are behind us.

As the legendary North Carolina basketball Coach Dean Smith was known to say to his teams during timeouts near the end of close games, “Guys, we are exactly where we want to be.” The message was to focus on what you can control and execute.

As always, the first step in building a portfolio is to define the liquidity requirement so we are never forced to sell at a time not of our choosing.

Tax Reform and Earnings Season

If a company wants to take advantage of a tax cut, what’s the first thing they do? For starters, they should accelerate expenses and write-offs to maximize the value of deductions while higher rates are in effect. If so, one might expect some low earnings numbers in the coming 4th quarter earnings season. While weak earnings might make sense given tax reform induced accounting, uncertainty is never a good thing for investors. The take is that we might see an increase in volatility if earnings disappoint, leaving investors wondering why.

While tax reform is positive for stocks, the path forward might not be as straight as you think.

The State of the Yield Curve

The yield curve is getting a lot of attention because it has flattened 65 basis points this year. Although the yield curve is a good indicator of where we are in the economic cycle, it does not indicate a recession is likely. Fundamental data are supportive of economic expansion.

(Source: Bloomberg, NBER, GSAM, as of 11/30/2107)

The Risk of Cash

The S&P 500 is up 21.54% (Morningstar, intraday 11/8/2017) since the Trump rally began one year ago. While corporate earnings are up, price multiples have also expanded with growing optimism of policy reforms that could further improve earnings growth. This leaves many investors wondering if they should simply go to cash to lock in the gains.

For a long-term investor, someone who doesn’t plan to use the money for at least 5 years, this might not be a clever idea. To illustrate, let’s assume that we perceive an elevated risk of a 15% correction to get back in line with normal growth from where we were a year ago. From that level, we might expect 8% to 10% average annual growth. If we are correct, and the market goes down 15%, and then grows at 8% per year for 3 years, it would still be worth more than if it were left in cash.

To illustrate, a $100 investment that declines by 15% is worth $85. Then if it grows by 8% per year for 3 years (85 x 1.08^3), it would be worth $107.07. That implies cash would have to earn 2.3% per year to keep up, and that is not available in today’s low-interest rate market without material risk.

As a short-term tactical move, cash can serve as an effective hedge against a falling market, but only if an investor has the fortitude to use it and invest when fear is at its height.
Perhaps the greatest risk for a long-term investor is selling out, not taking advantage of a market correction, and then reinvesting when higher prices signal all clear. It happens all the time.

How High is too High?

What difference 3 quarters makes! The S&P 500 is up 14.2% year-to-date, and 4.5% in the 3rd quarter. After the initial Trump rally, nearly everyone, myself included, expected some type of correction. The market continues to brush-off geopolitical concerns. While North Korea might make for scary headlines, the markets are voting that it is unlikely to have a real adverse impact on corporate earnings.

Stocks sell at a multiple of current earnings. The multiple depends on how the market views future earnings. The question of how high the market can go is to ask how much the businesses in the index are worth.

The good news is that there really is not a limit. If a working man puts $5 in a jar every day and does not die, how much is the jar worth? I can calculate how much you should pay for this man’s savings today, but over time, the answer is unlimited.

This is not to suggest the market can’t be overvalued because it can be. Rather, there is no number that represents an absolute limit. I believe the market is moving higher because we have an administration that is pro-business and focused on tax reform. Fiscal spending is also becoming a factor.

There is room for further gains, but corrections will happen. Volatility is the price of equity returns, and that’s been missing for the most part. Stay the course but plan for liquidity.

The Oracle of Charlotte

It’s been eight years since the market hit bottom.  As Morgan Housel of The Motley Fool wrote, “If you went back to 2008 and predicted that over the following eight years the stock market would triple, unemployment would plunge to 1990s levels, oil prices would fall 80%, and inflation would stay tame even while interest rates stayed at all-time lows — I’m telling you, not a single person would have believed you.”

Ok, I didn’t say that exactly, but I got the part right that mattered most.  It was in December 2008.  I was on- boarding a new client.  His portfolio was in cash equivalents.  I believed that while we were in the midst of a financial crisis, stocks were oversold compared to intrinsic value.  I told my new client that I believed he had a unique opportunity to triple his money in 5 to 8 years.  Few people are so fortunate as to find themselves with cash at the bottom of a market.

in April of 2009, he fired me.  My mistake was to buy equities in the last days of February, within a week of the absolute bottom.  In retrospect, my timing was nearly perfect, but he couldn’t handle it.  I called him a couple of years ago.  He told me firing me was the biggest mistake he ever made.  I’m guessing it hasn’t gotten any better for him.

Beware the Pundits

Not much has changed since my last blog post, and I don’t have any revelations to share. Trump is still talking about the same issues he mentioned in his campaign. Real change happens slowly. But the drift is real, and that has unleashed animal spirits in the markets.

The gains to-date are not purely about valuation. Currently, 70% of companies have reported 4Q earnings, and 2/3 have beaten estimates, according to Forbes. Earnings are improving and the real question is how steep and how long the trend will run.

Carnac the Magnificent

All things being equal, higher valuations increase risk. If price-to-earnings multiples expand faster than earnings growth, the risk of a correction increases. Without calling names, geopolitical risk seems to be an ongoing factor, so it seems a matter of time until a crisis scares the bejeepers out of the market and everyone scurries to cash.

A Buffet saying comes to mind, “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” I’m sensing an increase in the greed factor as investors hate missing a rally. This might be a good time to think about harvesting positions you wouldn’t buy at today’s prices, and be very picky about your reinvestment options. Dry powder can go a long way in a correction.

Longer term, the table is set for sustained, and perhaps accelerating, earnings growth. In the 90’s, everyone thought the market would average 12% forever. Now the pundits agree 8% seems ambitious. When have the pundits ever gotten it right?

Finally, recognize that volatility is the price we pay for equity returns. Plan accordingly and stay the course.

Post Election Outlook

The election is finally over.  Markets are beginning to price in the upside potential of a shift to a pro-growth government led infrastructure-led fiscal spending.  This is something I have cited over the past couple of years as the missing piece of policy that could stimulate the economy, given that monetary policy has run its course.

Trump didn’t include a lot of detail in his campaign rhetoric.  Maybe he doesn’t know the details, but we can certainly ascertain his drift.  We do know an administration is a lot more than one person, and collectively, these others will bring the expertise to Trump’s agenda.

We can expect an increase in infrastructure spending.

Trump White house, 2018

Trump White house, 2018

Trump is known for putting his name on large buildings.  Just imagine if he were President.  According to Capital Group, the spending he has suggested would add up to half a percent per year to GDP over the next four years.

Trump has pledged to lower tax rates for individuals and corporations.  One way to pay for cuts would be to expand the amount subject to tax, which points to a deal for repatriation of the estimated $2 trillion of US corporate earnings held overseas.

Trade is the area most directly controlled by the President.  Trump’s threats to bully concessions from trading partners might work, but also carry the risk of starting trade wars or worse.  However, as occurred with Brexit and Grexit, the votes and threats created leverage, and pressure for concessions.  Perhaps he can negotiate a better deal.

Trump likes to negotiate from a position of strength and has emphasized the need for a strong military.  Increased defense spending to beef up homeland security and offensive capabilities should benefit defense contractors and industrial suppliers.

Health care is another area of focus.  Trump campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act.  It is unlikely the 20 million people added to health insurance rolls will be dumped, but the program will be rebranded and modified to reduce the worst imbalances.  Insurance companies will muddle through changes and pharmaceutical companies will still contend with pressure for price regulation.  While more positive than we would have expected a Clinton administration, the outcome is not clear.

He says he wants to repeal Graham-Dodd.  Banking regulation has placed serious regulatory burdens on financial companies.  Some question whether the regulations are adequate, but there is evidence of overreach and unnecessary compliance overhead.  It would be nice to see fewer rules based institutional regulations and more principles-based enforcement of laws to control individuals that compromise the public interest.

It might be best to view the Trump impact as a change in drift, not a full overhaul.

Managing Volatility in Growth Portfolios

In normal times you might own bonds for either of two reasons.  You might enjoy the regular Buckle Upincome from interest payments, or you might own them for the stability they add to an equity portfolio.

Neither of those reasons carry the usual appeal with today’s ultra-low interest rates.  If you’re counting on bonds for income, you are going to need to own a lot more bonds.  While bonds add stability, the total return will be reduced when interest rates eventually move to higher, normal levels.  Neither reason is particularly compelling these days, although the stability factor is more compelling given stability in a quick equity correction.

The bond market is not uniform.  Some parts of the bond market have less exposure to interest rate risk.  Additionally, the proliferation of alternative strategies offers investors a wide array of tools for managing risk in today’s macro driven investment climate.

Much has been written about various types of risk, and that is not the focus of this essay.  My purpose is to explain an approach to managing equity market risk in the current low-interest rate environment.

Liquidity is important.  Let’s take the case of the Brexit induced market decline that began last Friday.  Over two days the Dow lost about 900 points as stunned markets went into “sell first, ask questions later” mode.  If you believed, as I did, that the world economy was not poised for mass suicide, and that cooler heads would prevail as hysteria faded, you might have been inclined to sell some of those bond positions to buy equities at distressed prices.

If those bond or alternative positions were in mutual funds, the cash would not be available for trading until the next day.  Using margin is not a bad strategy, since you can execute a purchase locking the price before the bond fund sale is complete.  If you wait until the next day, the price could be higher.  It could have gone lower too, but that’s speculation.  If you want to control the trade, you want to make timely buy and sell decisions.

Using hedge positions in ETF format eliminates the liquidity problem.  Unfortunately, many of the better bond funds and hedge strategies are based on active management, and hence not available in ETF format.  There is no perfect solution.  If the main objective is performance relative to a benchmark, for a fixed/alternative portfolio component, then the mutual fund liquidity problem can be overcome with judicious use of margin.  If the objective is to hedge a richly valued market in a world fraught with macro risk, then bond sector ETF’s can fit the bill.

Then again, in a rich market, cash is an attractive asset class.  To paraphrase Charlie Munger, a good way to get rich is to put $5 million in a checking account and wait for a good crisis.

When Regulations Become Tyranny

The U.S. Treasury Department introduced new regulations targeted at theHammer and Sickle Pfizer – Allergan deal, which was designed to capture tax benefits by inversion. Pfizer planned to adopt Allergan’s domicile for tax purposes. The new regulations are crafted to specifically address this deal, using a 3 year look-back to qualify how capital is represented for the purpose of qualifying for the inversion.

Regulations with look-back provisions are typically not retroactive, but give guidance for future decisions. The U.S. Treasury is going after, and trying to publicly humiliate, 2 companies that are making rational decisions in the legal framework the Government established. Pity investors that invested in these companies based on the legal, economic and regulatory framework only to have the Government change the rules (without due process)!

Sure the incentive for the deal was tax reduction. Obama says the companies want the benefits of being in the U.S., but don’t want to pay their fair share. Maybe the broken tax code is the problem? Why do we have to pass regulations to keep companies in the U.S? Isn’t that the way totalitarian governments operate? If the laws aren’t working, fix the laws, or the tax code; but don’t pass retroactive regulations to persecute specific companies. THAT, seems un-American.

As noted by Ian Reed, Pfizer CEO:

If the rules can be changed arbitrarily and applied retroactively, how can any U.S. company engage in the long-term investment planning necessary to compete? The new “rules” show that there are no set rules. Political dogma is the only rule.

– Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) CEO Ian Read