2018 Q4

Happy New Year.    Last year while writing the year-end commentary, we were contemplating the Zen-like calm that had taken over the markets.  Nothing could scare investors: rising interest rates…no biggie; potential trade wars…nothing to see here; geo-political conflict with North Korea…why worry?   But we all knew the calm would not last.  In that commentary we wrote: 

We don’t know what the year (2018) will bring.  Our guess is that there will be more volatility in the markets this year.  It is hard to imagine such a calm, steady year being followed up by yet another calm, steady year.  However, just because it is more volatile does not mean it will be worse or better.  But, predictions aside, the most important thing to take from all of this is not to buy into the calm.  It will not last. 

The calm didn’t last.  2018 ended up being a volatile year with almost every major asset class ending the year at losses.  That quote is not meant as a victory lap.  There was nothing prophetical about our prediction.  It was just a recognition of investor behavior.  When markets are serenely calm, we can be certain that things will eventually turn volatile.  People will ignore bad news until suddenly they don’t.  We saw that transition in 2018.  What didn’t scare investors before became unsettling:  rising interest rates, trade wars, slowdown in corporate profit increases, and a potential recession on the horizon.  

What will markets do in 2019?  Every year we ask this question, and every year we give the same answer: we don’t know.  If you’ve been reading this commentary for a while, you know we are not big on market predictions.  “Expert forecasting” is rarely accurate (need I make the accuracy comparison to that of dart-throwing chimpanzees again?).  Last year, 85% of Wall Street banks surveyed by Fortune predicted the S&P 500 would post positive returns in 2018.   Well, that didn’t work out.  Even the banks surveyed who did predict negative returns were still over 200 points off with their projected ending points.  We don’t know why people think they can accurately predict where the markets are going to be at year end.  They crunch the numbers and somehow come up with a target, but they’re almost always wrong.  They ignore the reality that market movements from year to year have very little to do with numbers and almost all to do with investor sentiment. 

While we think predicting asset class returns for a given year is often a fruitless activity, we are confident that one thing will likely happen in 2019: the  economy will continue to slow.  Financial conditions are weakening.  Liquidity has been tight at times during the last few months.  The possibility of a recession is increasing, and indicators point to it starting sometime in 2020.  In the face of the changing conditions, the Federal Reserve is likely to slow their interest rate increases.  If history is any indicator, the markets will cheer the slowing of rate increases, but the applause won’t last long as economic activity continues to slow.  Financial markets will likely continue to exhibit volatility, but this will hopefully produce some opportunities to buy assets at cheaper prices.  Our conclusion is to remain wary of overly rosy predictions and to remain vigilant in allocating capital.  

Good Ol’ Fashioned Debt Binge

As we near the turn of the economic and credit cycles one area we are closely watching – and have been for some time – is corporate debt.  Corporations have two different methods to access financing: sell equity in the business or borrow money.  There is a cost to each method, and any time a corporation goes to financial markets for money, it assesses which market is the better option.  Over the last decade, tax law, the regulatory environment and extremely low interest rates made it very attractive for companies to finance activity through debt.  Corporations responded by going on a debt binge: total corporate debt in the US has gone from about $4.9 trillion in 2007 to over $9 trillion today.  That’s almost a doubling of corporate debt in the last decade. 

Investment Grade:
AAA
AA
A
*BBB*
Speculative Grade (Junk):
BB
B
CCC
CC
C
D

As more debt has been taken on, the overall financial condition of US corporations appears to have deteriorated. To the right is Standard & Poor’s credit rating system.  In their infinite wisdom, Standard & Poor’s and their contemporaries—Moody’s and Fitch—grant long term debt (bonds) issued by companies a rating.  This rating is meant to provide an indication of how likely it is for a company to make the scheduled interest payments and eventually re-pay its debt.  The better the rating, the more likely the lender is to get their interest and their money back. Think of the rating scale as an expanded school grading system: AAA is the best, awarded to bonds believed to be the most financially secure; head of the class.  As the chart descends, the quality of the debt decreases; i.e., the likelihood of the interest being paid and the lender getting their money returned goes down; the school drop-out, so to speak. I want to draw your attention to the BBB category.  BBB is the lowest “investment grade” category, just a step above what is “speculative grade,” which is also more affectionately referred to as “junk debt.”  Standard & Poor’s defines BBB as follows: An obligation rated ‘BBB’ exhibits adequate protection parameters.  However, adverse economic conditions or changing circumstances are more likely to lead to a weakened capacity of the obligor to meet its financial commitment on the obligation.  

Why go to lengths to point this out?  Well, because there are a few of these BBB bonds floating around in the financial system.  And by a few, I mean a lot.  And by a lot I mean 50% of all outstanding investment grade bonds…somewhere around $3 trillion.  This is very different than it has been the past.  In 1990, BBB only made up about 25% of the market of investment grade bonds.  Going back to 1980, the median bond rating was A (that’s great!), and now the median is BBB- (not so great).  On average, corporate debt is as poorly rated as it has ever been, but that’s not where the problems end.  When you dig a little deeper, things deteriorate even further: companies rated BBB have almost twice the leverage (what they owe versus what they own) than they did in 2000 (1.7x vs. 2.9x). 

Based on these ratings, overall indebtedness, and leverage multiples it is clear there has been deterioration in the financial condition of the debt market to where almost half of all investment grade corporate debt is with companies who under adverse economic conditions or changing circumstances are more likely to have a weakened capacity to pay their debt.  The terms “adverse economic conditions” and ” changing circumstances” are vague and open to various interpretations. Here are a couple scenarios that may fit those terms: recession and rising interest rates. That interpretation yields the following reality: half of all investment grade corporate debt in the U.S. is likely to have a weakened ability to pay their creditors during a Recession or while Interest Rates are Rising.

Look lower down in credit quality, down in the junk bond portion of the markets, conditions have also grown riskier.   With low interest rates the past ten years, investors sought higher yields.  On Wall Street, there is no such thing as unmet demand.  Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs), Speculative Grade loans that are broken apart and then re-bundled with other loans, were sold at a record pace.  These types of loans were typically financed by banks, and the terms of the loan contained covenants – legal parameters that are meant to protect the lender.  Over the last few years, they are increasingly being issued “covenant-lite,” meaning without many of the normal lender protections.  To make the situation more precarious, more of these loans are being financed by non-bank entities who are not as closely regulated as banks.  When lending occurs outside of the banking industry, underwriting standards tend to suffer.  Simply put, junk debt is becoming junkier.  

Given these circumstances, we can see a scenario playing out where a lot of companies struggle under their debt load during a recession.  The cost to finance with debt has been rising over the last couple of years, but it has been outpaced by the high tide of earnings growth in a positive economic environment.  When earnings turn negative during a recession, the tide will wash out, and we will see who is swimming without a bathing suit.  Default ratios will increase among Speculative Grade bonds (they always do during recessions, but we wouldn’t be surprised if defaults rise more than normal), and a lot of these BBB bonds may drop from Investment Grade to Speculative Grade.  If those things happen, there will be a lot volatility and repricing in the debt markets.

As we look ahead to these risks, we will work to structure the debt portion of our portfolio to withstand these shocks and be ready to take advantage of any repricing opportunities.  We will continue to look for opportunities to invest capital at an acceptable level of risk.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2018 Q3

Global Trade – Keeping It Brief

The last two commentaries were largely focused on the developing global trade war…which country has said what, who’s threatened who with which tariffs, etc. Trade continues to be the dominating geo-political event moving financial markets, but quite frankly, writing about it is starting to feel like writing the gossip column for a junior high school newspaper (do those even exist anymore?).  If we are tired of writing about it, you are probably tired  of reading about it. So, a quick update, and then we’ll look elsewhere for this commentary: some things have been resolved (Europe and, most recently, Mexico and Canada); others have digressed (China) and will likely deteriorate further. There is your official trade war update from we at Legacy  Advisory Group. And now for something completely different….

Emerging Markets

After two years of strong returns, emerging markets have been on a steady decline since January 26th of this year. Like domestic markets, emerging markets started the year with very strong gains, but then experienced volatility towards the end of January. Emerging markets have continued to be pressured throughout the year by global trade fears (we just can’t get away from it, can we?), a strengthening dollar and rising US interest rates.

While these factors do weigh on emerging markets, we believe their ultimate impact will be small.  For one, US trade pressure has been focused on  China. This is not necessarily bad for other countries’ economies,  especially in  Asia.  As the world’s largest exporter,  China is as much of a competitor to those countries as they are to us, if not more so. The world’s largest consumer placing tariffs specifically on imports from the world’s largest exporter may open opportunities to other countries.

As to the other concerns, a strengthening dollar and rising interest rates (which are highly correlated) have been the cause of volatility in emerging
markets for 20 years now. Emerging markets are one of the few asset classes where investors have a long memory. Whenever interest rates start rising and the dollar begins strengthening, investors’ minds go back to the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997/98. Leading up to the crisis, Asian countries and corporations had acquired large amounts of debt denominated in US Dollars. In order to pay this debt, these countries would first need to convert their currency into dollars. This works out ok, so long as their currency doesn’t weaken relative to  the US dollar.  Towards  the beginning of 1997 that’s  exactly what started happening… their currency weakened relative to the dollar and it became more difficult to pay this debt. As  their  currency weakened, more investors sold the troubled currencies, which only accelerated and accentuated the problem. By the end of 1997 the International Monetary Fund had provided emergency loans to the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea  to  the tune of $1  billion, $17  billion,  $40 billion and $57 billion, respectively.

Not wanting a repeat of that disaster, those countries (and others) made significant adjustments that have made them far more resilient  to  currency market changes. They have since built up large financial reserves denominated mostly in US dollars. Of the four countries listed above, the Philippines has the smallest reserve account, at $77 billion. South Korea’s reserve account is north of $400 billion. These funds can be used  to support  their  currency and provide emergency financing to corporations, if needed. Another adjustment was that these countries now finance more of their debt domestically and denominate it in their currency. A much smaller percentage of their total debt is in US Dollars than it was in  the Asian  Financial  Crisis. Because of these changes, these countries are much better prepared to deal with currency fluctuations.

The health of many emerging market economies is often ignored by investors due to ontology. Ontology is the study of the nature of being, and more specifically, the development of categories within a subject area. Take food groups for example. Somebody somewhere at sometime considered all the properties of various foods, found commonalities among them, came up  with  the groupings  and  then  built  that  food  pyramid  we are all  familiar with. That is ontology, and it is very useful for analysis. The process of categorizing helps us better understand an object as we consider  the properties and characteristics of that object. Once categorized, we can deepen our understanding by looking at one category’s  relationship  to another.  However,  the categorization of an object can have shortfalls that can hurt analysis as well. Going back to our food example, some apparently would argue that by stuffing the breadbasket of the original food pyramid with all things grain, it failed to distinguish that whole grains are healthier than refined grains (I don’t like it either, but it’s true: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mypyramid-problems/ ). Through an inappropriate broadening of application, the pyramid implied that all bread was created equal.

A similar broad application has arguably created the same result in emerging market economies. The “Emerging Markets” moniker was coined in the  early 1980’s by economist Antoine von Agtmael, who worked at the then  International  Finance  Corporation,  an arm of the World  Bank.  His  intent was to encourage investment in countries that were between  poor and  rich and that had  publicly listed securities.  Now there’s a broad  definition for you. And that broad definition continues today.  It is used  to describe  both Kenya, with an average GDP  of $350  per person, and China, with an  average GDP of $5,000 per person, and everything between. There are huge disparities across these countries, but this broad categorization causes investors to generally view all these markets the same. When something goes wrong in one or two emerging market economies, investors act like the canary in the coal mine just dropped dead, and they go rushing for the exits.

This year’s dead canary award goes to Turkey and Argentina (Venezuela gets honorable mention). Both countries  have serious  problems.  They each have inflation in the double digits. Argentina’s inflation  is over of 40%.  Unlike many of the Asian countries listed above, Argentina has continued  to take on large amounts of debt in US Dollars and does not have the reserve funds to combat a weakening currency. This has resulted a massive budget deficit. They recently secured an emergency loan of $57 billion from the IMF to help cover their shortfall. This will only calm fears some, as Argentina has a history of default and restructuring (5 times in the last 50 years). Turkey is only two years removed from a good ol’fashioned military coup d’etat attempt. President Erdogan responded by consolidating power and just recently passed a new constitution  that  basically makes  him king.  He  has bullied their central bank to take an unorthodox approach to monetary policy, which  is arguably causing damage  to the economy.  As these countries have suffered, they have stoked the fear of contagion across emerging market and have driven the whole sector lower.

These two countries are not representative of many of the emerging market economies; rather many of them are far more stable both politically and economically. Plus, the long-term fundamentals have not changed. Virtually every estimate of GDP  growth has emerging markets growing at a faster  rate than developed markets. Emerging markets generally have far less debt than developed markets. Furthermore, almost every developed country has an aging population, which creates a drag on economic growth. At its most basic calculation, GDP growth is workforce  growth  plus  productivity growth. In short, you need more people being more productive. With a shrinking working age population, developed countries will have to rely on productivity growth to grow their economies.

Emerging economies, for the most part, do not face the same headwinds. With growing populations (China being the major exception here… their one child policy was short-sited and will cause a huge demographic drag on the economy starting in the next 15-20 years) and ample opportunities  to  improve productivity, their long-term growth perspectives are better than their developed country counterparts. Lastly, on a more philosophical note, countries classified as emerging markets represent roughly 85% of the world’s population. Many of these people are looking for the exact same thing as the developed world … higher quality of life. I recently ran across a quote from Adam Butler of ReSolve Asset Management that rings accurate: An investment in emerging markets is a bet is on tbe expanding prosperity and innovation of our species.

These markets will continue to have their ups and downs. They will continue to face challenges. They are far from risk free  but  our long-term  conviction in emerging markets remains the same. We have carefully selected funds for our portfolio that will invest consistent with the thoughts above. We believe the long-term opportunity is worth living through the ups and downs. We will diligently continue to look for opportunities to invest capital with an acceptable level of risk.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings. Asset a/location does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market. Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2018 Q2

Freeish Trade

In the last commentary we made the following comment: 

Will there be a trade war?  In our opinion, it seems unlikely.  Thus far, the Trump administration’s actions regarding almost any policy have been more measured relative to the President’s rhetoric. This trend appears to be continuing with foreign trade.

Well, the trend broke.  A lot has happened since we wrote those words, and a trade war (we’re not quite sure when a trade dispute becomes a trade war, but we’ll roll with it) is looking more likely.  The temporary exemption of the steel and aluminum tariffs granted to Canada, Mexico and the European Union (EU) expired, and the tariffs went into effect.  In response, Canada threatened to impose tariffs on several products, including ketchup, maple syrup and lawn mowers. Mexico imposed tariffs on $3 billion worth of goods, and the EU responded with tariffs against the US on $3.2 billion in goods.  China’s tariffs against the US went into effect on April 2nd, and soon after that, they listed another set of goods—worth $50 billion of imports—that it says it may place tariffs upon.   

Things don’t look to be slowing down either.  $34 billion of the original $50 billion in goods the US outlined as tariffs went into effect on July 6th, with the rest scheduled to go into effect on July 31st.  The US has now floated the idea of a 10% tariff on another $100 billion to $400 billion of Chinese imports.  If enacted those tariffs will become active sometime in September.  The US is also in the process of researching potential tariffs that would impact Europe’s auto industry. 

Trade disputes have continued and probably won’t be stopping anytime.  Yes, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is still out there trying to regulate free trade but let’s face it…the WTO is basically the home owner’s association for world trade…it works as long as everyone is on board, and right now, that’s not the case.  What will bring this all to a close?  President Trump is still looking for a deal, and until some of these countries come to the table with satisfactory offers, this will probably keep going.  

There is room for some countries to make concessions.  President Trump’s main target, China, is a serial offender when it comes to free trade.  China has used tariffs to protect developing markets.  This tactic has been used by almost every developed nation at some time in history, including the US.  Alexander Hamilton argued for the same structure of protectionism in his book, Report in Manufactures.  His argument was that American industry was up against the much more developed industrial countries of England and other European powers, and in order to build the young American economy, tariffs would need to be placed on key industries.  This concept was shelved for a time, later be resurrected by Henry Clay, and then implemented after the Civil War.  By the time the income tax was passed in the early 20th century, tariffs accounted for 90% of the US government finance.  Many European nations adopted similar policies through 19th and 20th centuries. 

But the problem the US – and much of the rest of the world – has with China is not protective tariffs.  In fact, China only imports about $150 billion of US goods.  They “tax” foreign companies through subsidizing certain industries (such as steel and solar, flooding the market with underpriced product) and requiring businesses to partner with Chinese companies if they wish to sell product in China.  Take General Motors, for instance.  They entered the Chinese markets decades ago but were required to be in joint venture with a Chinese company, where General Motors owned 50% or less. Why does China do this? One alleged reason is to steal technology.  They make the GMs of the world partner with their companies so they can learn how to make better cars.  Those processes are then (allegedly of course, wink-wink-nudge-nudge) passed on to other Chinese companies.  And they do this with virtually every industry, not just high-tech ones.  In order for a company to transport powdered milk (baby formula) into China, the company must provide regulators with the ingredients, a detailed explanation of their process, and even curricula vitae and contact info for employees in their R&D department.  While these practices were less harmful when the Chinese economy was still in its infancy, China is now the 2nd largest economy in the world and has a global presence.  These practices make it difficult for companies to compete, not only in China but also globally.  Because of its presence, China has plenty of room to make concessions regarding these practices without giving up too much. 

In the meantime, the estimated impact these tariffs have on GDP growth, both domestically and internationally, are still benign.  Domestic markets have responded by continuing to post gains for the year. More pressure has been placed on foreign markets, which are in negative territory for the year, but that isn’t just due to tariffs. The dollar has been strengthening, and several emerging market economies—Turkey, Argentina, and Brazil—are struggling right now, which tends to drag down the rest of the emerging market sector.   Regardless of the practical impact, tariffs make for good television.  As long as the rhetoric between nations remains the way it is, the “trade war” will continue to dominate the financial news cycle. While the increasing trade tension may eventually cause us to rethink some of our portfolio allocations, we believe long term trends remain the same. We will diligently continue to look for opportunities to invest capital with an acceptable level of risk.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2018 Q1

Well, look at that…the market does go both ways.    

2018 started by continuing the calm, steady, upward market climb we have experienced for the last two years.  By the end of January, the S&P had gained 6%.  Then the seemingly unthinkable happened…the market had a bad day and just days later  was in a correction (defined as 10% below the most recent market peak), the first correction since December 2015 – February 2016.  

Why the sudden and violent whiplash?  Hyman Minsky, a 20th century American economist, is remembered for his work on the relationship between stability and instability. He argued that stable environments create unstable environments, we just can’t observe the inherent instability until it is fully born.    When an environment is calm, people are comfortable and assume things will continue as they are.  In market activity, this leads people to ignore risk.  That is essentially what happened in January. 

As we noted in our 2017 Q2 commentary, the volatility index (VIX – the fear gauge, which measures investor’s expectations of future volatility) had been trending lower over the last few years and had reached its lowest point on record.  Hedge fund traders (and Target store managers – Google “Target manager VIX trader”) were taking advantage of this trend by heavily shorting the VIX (betting it would continue to go down).  As the calm continued, more and more funds piled into the trade with many using leverage to increase their returns. This provided the appearance of stability – returns were increasing, the pool of investors was widening, and the sun continued to shine.   

The thing about market parties is they only last so long and they never wind down slowly.  Instead of an organized and calm departure, it’s more like the police showing up at a college frat party…everyone rushes for the exit at once.  When this happens in the markets it results in what traders call a liquidity spiral.  There are more sellers than buyers and as people try to unwind their now losing position they take huge losses.  This is exactly what happened…liquidity dried up across markets, volatility went through the roof, and the stock market went down quickly. 

A liquidity spiral in a market the size of the VIX isn’t going to cause a lot of collateral damage.  It’s like dropping a small stone in a lake…the ripples in the water caused by the stone dissipate quickly (in contrast to what happened with sub-prime housing in 2007…that was dropping a nuclear submarine into a lake).  By the time of this writing, markets have calmed but volatility remains elevated from where it was at the beginning of the year.  We expect this to continue.  With the instability from the VIX shorting trade worked out, markets are now noticing structural issues with both businesses and the economy while also trying to wrap their minds around the introduction of tariffs.  We will briefly look at each of these concerns below.  

Corporate Profits

In our last commentary we talked about how we are likely nearing the top of the market and business cycles.  Evidence of that change is starting to appear.  Over the last few years, the factors that drove corporate profit margins to highs – low interest rates, low inflation rates, low wage growth – are starting to deteriorate: interest rates are going up, which raises borrowing costs; inflation in materials is increasing making it more costly for corporations to build projects; and, low unemployment is creating tighter labor markets, which is slowly driving up wages.  

Tight labor markets and increasing interest rates are signs of a healthy economy but once they start impacting corporate profits it points to a peaking/turning cycle.  Corporations will do what they can to pass the inflationary cost on to their customers.  Housing provides an instructive example.  Inflation in materials – particularly timber – and labor have driven up the cost of building new homes. Up to now, consumers have been willing to pay more to cover the increase. But that can only last so long before consumer habits change.  Once that starts, corporations will be forced to cut profit margins to maintain sales and compete with other players in the market. 

The harder part for corporations to deal with will be rising interest rates.  Corporations have used the low interest rates of the last several years to go on a  debt binge.  According to Standard & Poor’s, 37% of global companies are highly indebted as of 2017.  That’s 5% points higher than in 2007, just before the financial crisis (keep in mind though…in 2007 the debt was concentrated in banks, which is what caused the financial crisis.  Bank balance sheet are, generally, in a better position now).  Most of the debt added by publicly traded corporations appears to have been used to re-purchase their own shares.  While share re-purchases are good for current shareholders, it does nothing to increase revenues.  If interest rates do increase, and companies must refinance at higher rates, their profit margins will be further reduced.  For the first time in years, corporate profits are at a serious risk of declining. 

Trade Wars

Market volatility has been furthered as President Trump has announced tariffs on several industries.  The actual economic impact of the tariffs announced so far is limited.  The planned tariffs against China (as of the end of 2018 Q1…this can change fast) have an estimated impact of a .1% reduction on Chinese economic growth (as measured by Gross Domestic Product).  The industries targeted are ones included in China’s, “Made in China 2025” plan.  China’s announced retaliation tariffs appear to be more politically driven than economic.  Industries impacted by the tariffs are prevalent in congressional districts polling as toss-ups in the coming mid-term election.  Targeted groups include farming – particularly soybeans –  and the pork industry.  Also targeted were industries prevalent in Wisconsin (cranberries) and Kentucky (bourbon), the states of Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, and the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.  None of these industries are vital to US economy and the tariffs against those industries do not pose a national threat to economic growth.  So why the market brouhaha?  The market is concerned that this could be the beginning of a broader trade war.    

The World Trade Organization attempts to fairly regulate world trade.  Virtually every country in the world, except North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and Greenland, are either members or observers.  As members or observers, they agree to follow rules that limit their ability to squeeze foreign rivals with trade restrictions and they agree to adhere to processes designed to reduce dodgy trade practices.  The President’s first round of tariffs – solar panels and dish washers – utilized WTO measures.  The second round of tariffs – on steel and aluminum – did not.  To enact tariffs on steel and aluminum, the President utilized a section of US law (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962) that allows the President to protect industry in the interest of national defense.  In the eyes of the world community, the President is no longer playing by the rules.  Once he – and subsequently China –  acted outside of the WTO the possibility of an escalating trade war increased. 

Since WWII and the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947 by 23 countries the world has moved closer and closer towards global free trade.  During this time, the world’s economic growth has been extraordinary.  It is hard to determine how much of that growth has been attributable to free trade.  The benefits of free trade are theoretical (e.g., the theory of comparative advantage…David Ricardo, a 19th century Englishman) but the logic behind the theory is sound and it is hard to argue with the results. If the world were to regress to a system of protectionism and widespread trade wars, global economic growth may stagnate.   

Will there be a trade war?  In our opinion, it seems unlikely.  Thus far, the Trump administration’s actions regarding almost any policy have been more measured relative to the Presidents rhetoric. This trend appears to be continuing with foreign trade.  Within days of the announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs the Trump administration said it may allow exceptions for close allies of the US, i.e. Canada, Mexico and the EU.  Also, the announced tariffs specifically aimed at China have yet to be implemented and a meeting between Chinese and American officials has been scheduled to discuss trade.  It is likely that these maneuvers are designed to create leverage for negotiating a better deal.  This tends to be the President’s negotiation style – create leverage by being unpredictable.  For decades the US has negotiated these deals with carrots.  In the President’s public view, that strategy has resulted in bad deals.  Now he’s getting out a stick. His goal – as it always is with this President – is to make a deal.  That is ultimately what we think will happen. 

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2017 Q4

2017 was a banner year for markets.  Rarely in history have the markets displayed such consistent increases.  We first noted the calm in the market in our 2017 Q1 commentary, and that theme continued through the year.   Looking specifically at the S&P 500 through 2017, we can see: 

At no point did the market close at less than 3% of its previously achieved high.   

December 31st marked the 13th consecutive month the S&P posted a gain (the last time this happened was in 1959).  

The highest daily increase in 2017 was 1.38%, one of the lowest on record.  

In prior commentaries, we have explored at length the various factors creating the calm in the market, and honestly, not a lot has changed.  Congress did pass a tax reform bill, but that was already being figured into market expectations.  So, we enter 2018 at the same pace and with the same calm that dominated markets in 2017. 

What will 2018 bring us?  In the past we’ve written about our trepidations with market forecasts and predictions (something about expert forecasting being as accurate as dart throwing chimpanzees).  It is uncertain what will transpire over the coming year and the useful benefits of prediction are limited.  What we do find useful, especially in times where the market calm tempts us to complacency, is to consider where we are.  Markets and economies go through cycles.  Markets move from a state of absolute fear (everyone is selling) to a state of absolute greed (everyone is buying) and then back to fear.   Economies go through cycles of expansion and recession and, while separate, these two cycles are closely related.  When the economy is growing, or shows the prospect of growth, markets tend to perform well.  When economic data points to a recession and a decrease in corporate profits, markets tend to perform poorly. 

Framing our thinking within the paradigm of these cycles is a reminder that things change.  It is especially critical to remember this right now as the length of the current economic expansion and the calm, steady upward climb of the market pushes us into complacency.  It helps us resist resting on our laurels because we remember that things will change.  Thinking in terms of cycles also helps us frame some of our portfolio decision making.  There are certain opportunities and risks commonly associated with the various parts of these cycles.  Having a general idea of where we are helps inform us of how our portfolios should be positioned and what we should be prepared for in the future.  So, let’s get out our road maps and see where we are at. 

Where are we? 

We are going to start with the easier of the two cycles: the economic cycle (oftentimes also called the business cycle).  The chart to the right outlining the business cycle is one that you can find in any Macroeconomics textbook (page 11 of mine).  It is important to remember that economics is not a hard science…economists are basically philosophers with calculators and spreadsheets.  That’s not an insult (or at least isn’t meant as one).  There are far too many variables, and so much of what happens in an economy is up to human behavior.  However, some general trends, like the business cycle, are consistent.  A well-functioning economy will expand, reach a peak, then enter a recession, before it eventually troughs and then goes into expansion.     

We’ve taken the liberty, in the style of a mall map, to indicate roughly where we are in the cycle.  Please don’t read too much into the sizes of peaks and troughs and don’t focus too closely on where the little star is, because I don’t know exactly where we are in the cycle and neither does anyone else.  However, certain characteristics tend to exist in certain parts of the business cycle.  Looking at the data across the board suggests our current business cycle is nearing a peak: unemployment, credit expansion, default rates, businesses growth, and other economic activities are at or nearing places typical of a business cycle that is getting close to a peak. 

This isn’t a call for a recession in 2018.  The recently passed tax reform bill will provide stimulus to the economy.  Companies are already announcing wage increases, special bonuses, increased capital expenditures, and job creation measures that will likely lengthen the cycle.  Even with that being the case, we may see some signs of a slowdown or even deterioration in economic data sometime in the next 12-18 months. 

Determining where we are in the market cycle is less data driven and more inference driven.  Market cycles do not tend to follow the same gradual changes of economic cycles.  Much of that has to do with what is driving market cycles: it is less about reality and more about peoples’ perception of reality.  Knowing exactly where we are is difficult but there are indicators you can look to: measurements of business and investor sentiment that can provide a loose picture of where we are at in the scale of Fear to Greed. 

To the right is a chart I keep and update on a continual basis (it didn’t upload very well into wordpress).  This is not something we came up with.  This is a guide investor Howard Marks uses and outlines in his book, The Most Important Thing. He calls it the “Poor Man’s Guide to Market Assessment” because it does not require a $25,000/year Bloomberg Terminal (has 2-6 computer screens and you can get about any economic/market data set imaginable) to complete.  We like it because of its simplicity and, because it’s generally true. 

Here’s how it works: the two right columns are opposing market characteristics.  You simply work your way down the list and bold which best describes today’s environment (I highlight but the spreadsheet didn’t transfer over well to wordpress). Is today’s economy vibrant or sluggish?  Is the outlook positive or negative?  Are lenders eager or reticent?   The more bold characteristics on the left, the farther in the market cycle we likely are.    

As you can see, most of the descriptors we chose when applying it to the US Stock Market are in the left column: lenders are eager, capital markets are loose, debt terms are easy, interest rates are low, spreads are narrow, markets are crowded, there are few sellers, recent performance has been strong, and asset prices are arguably high, to name a few.  These characteristics are indicative of late market cycles.  Admittedly, there is a lot of subjectivity involved in this chart.  It is not perfect, and neither are we in its application.  Another person may take the opposing viewpoint on some of our selections.  But when looking at market characteristics it appears we may be nearing the end of a market cycle. 

Knowing where we are doesn’t tell us exactly where we are going and when we will get there.  We don’t know what the year will bring.  Our guess is that there will be more volatility in the markets this year.  It is hard to imagine such a calm, steady year being followed up by yet another calm, steady year.  However, just because it is more volatile does not mean it will be worse or better.  But, predictions aside, the most important thing to take from all of this is not to buy into the calm.  It will not last.  The economy appears to be nearing a peak and domestic equity markets are exemplifying the characteristics of an over-priced, over-extended market.  We need to vigilantly work to hold assets that are reasonably priced, limit credit exposure, and be ready for mispricing opportunities that can arise if the market does turn.  We will continue to look for opportunities to invest capital at an acceptable level of risk.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2017 Q3

Market Update

As the last quarter of 2017 begins, market sentiment continues to be overwhelmingly positive.  The calm in the markets we wrote about last quarter has proven to be resilient.  It seems nothing will scare off the unicorns grazing on the front lawn of the New York Stock Exchange. Geo-political tensions may rise (North Korea) and the Federal Reserve may tighten monetary policy (increasing interest rates and reducing the assets on their balance sheet), but the market continues its climb.  

The calm is not without some good reason.  A sober look at the details of these notable events reveals very little immediate risk to the economy or businesses. I by no means profess to be a geo-political expert, but conflict in Asia looks unlikely in the near term.  Kim Jong Un seems far too interested in staying in power to make the one decision (starting a war) that would with certainly result in him being removed.  Despite President Trump’s aggressive public stance, the US is unlikely to start another war in Asia unless it is absolutely necessary.  In addition, China has stated that it will not support North Korea if they fire first but will protect North Korea if the US or its allies takes the first action.  It looks like things will need will need more time to percolate before open war starts, if it starts at all. 

As to the monetary tightening, the members of the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) act as if they have taken the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”  The board members have no interest in upsetting the current economic recovery.  From 2008 to 2013, the FRB took unprecedented steps to stabilize and stimulate the economy by providing banks and other financial institutions with liquidity through the purchase of treasury securities, mortgage backed loans and other debt instruments.  As the chart to right shows, the FRB increased the Federal Reserve Assets from $600 billion in 2008 to around $4.5 trillion in 2013. That’s an increase of 7.5 times.   This wholesale purchasing of assets allowed banks to bolster their balance sheets (most of the money went back to the Federal Reserve.  See chart on the following page…how convenient) and suppressed interest rates so companies – and households – could restructure their debt at  lower rates. 

Since 2014, the FRB has cautiously withdrawn this stimulus and has now started the process of unwinding it through interest rate increases and outlining a plan to reduce the assets on its balance sheet.  Removing this kind of stimulus from the economy is no small deal.  The FRB has been committed to cautiously making adjustments when they see that the strength of the economy warrants it. They telegraph every move far in advance to give financial markets time to digest their decisions and adjust.  Markets have acclimated and become comfortable with this process. 

There were also positive developments during this last quarter that appear to have further bolstered market sentiment.  Q2 GDP growth was recently revised up to 3.1% annual rate.  This is the first time a 3% growth rate has been achieved since 2015.  In addition, Congress and       the White House have re-centered their focus on tax reform.  While the details have yet to be worked out, the various proposals are favorable to economic growth, at least in the short term. Certain measures – such as the one-time preferred corporate tax rate on repatriated money and the reduction of the corporate tax rate – have the potential to push more cash into the economy, which could stimulate corporate profits and economic growth.

All-in-all, the external backdrop looks favorable for the market.  But risks are still plentiful.  North Korea is a reminder of the geo-political tensions that exist around the world, and although the near-term probability of conflict in that region seems low, things can quickly change.  The Federal Reserve Board can use caution and telegraph their every move, but they are again embarking on an unprecedented operation with unknown consequences.  And we have all seen how well Congress and the White House work together in passing a bill.  Tax reform is in the bag!  Right?  While the immediate backdrop looks calm, we remain mindful of where we’re at: as we have discussed at length in past writings, US markets continue to be at rich valuations, markets are complacent, stability tends to create instability – as the economist Hyman Minsky hypothesized – and we have experienced one of the longest and weakest economic expansions in US history.  All seems calm now but that could change fast. 

Investment Commentary – Return Free Risk

The struggle in a market like this is continuing to find assets that are priced well.  The Federal Reserve’s maneuvering has caused inconsistent price manipulations that have distorted markets and left investors with little option other than to price securities almost solely based on the decisions of the Federal Reserve.  This is clearly the case in bond markets.

In typical market conditions, a bond holder will receive more interest for bonds that mature at later dates. If you have ever purchased a CD at a bank, you have experienced this: a 1-year CD pays more interest than a 6-month CD; a 2-year CD pays more interest than a 1-year CD, etc.  Typically, it works the same in the US treasury market: a 5-year bond will pay a higher interest than a 2-year bond; a 10-year bond will pay more than a 5-year bond, etc.  When you plot these interest rates on a chart, you get what’s called a yield curve.

The chart to the below shows the yield curve as of two dates: The current October 2017 (blue line) and the beginning of year January 2017 (orange line).  What has happened over the last year is that the yield curve has “flattened”.   The interest rate on longer dated bonds – like the 30-year bond – have gone down (the end of the blue line is below the orange line), while the shorter dated bonds – like 1-year – have gone up (the beginning of the blue line is above the orange line).   This is not an abnormal phenomenon.  If fact, it is a normal occurrence in the credit cycle and is typically indicative of deteriorating economic conditions.  

However, other portions of the bond market are behaving in ways indicative of economic growth. Just as investors receive more interest for loaning their money out for longer periods of time, they also receive more interest for loaning money to less “credit-worthy” borrowers.  Companies with poor balance sheets and negative cash flow will have to pay more interest on their loan than Apple, who has $100 billion+ in the bank.  The difference in the rate these two borrowers pay is called the “spread” (I know…a lot of finance terms.  There’s a quiz at the end).  For example, if Apple is paying 2% and Sprint is paying 6%, then the “spread” is 4%.   

The chart below graphs the average spread for the last year of junk rated bonds over US Treasuries.  During this time, the spread has narrowed…the difference between what “safe” bonds are paying and what “risky” bonds are paying has decreased.  This is also not an abnormal occurrence but is indicative of improving economic conditions.  

Under “traditional” interpretations, these markets are giving us conflicting reports.  The Treasury Curve is telling us things are getting worse, and the High Yield Spread is telling us things are getting better.  Why?  I have my speculations on what the tea leaves are trying to tell me, but right now I’m more concerned with how they are making my water taste: with the curve flattening and spreads narrowing, investors are being paid less for increased risk.  That’s not very good tea.  

A good example of this is our recent experience in Senior Secured Floating Rate Bank Notes. In August of 2013, we committed a sizeable percentage (5-10%) of portfolio assets to these securities.  They offered good value relative to the rest of the bond market, the contracts were written with a lot of covenants (covenants are requirements lenders force upon borrowers to manage their risk), they offered interest rate protection, and default rates were low. This past quarter we unwound the positions. When we purchased these securities, we were earning over 5% interest.  That number is now around 3.75%. While that’s been good for us on a total return basis (when bond yields go down, prices go up), it is not much to be paid on loans given out to low credit quality companies.  In contrast, we could buy highly secure companies for 2.2% interest.  If default rates on the Bank Notes were to inch up to historical norms, then we would be receiving almost no additional compensation for the increased risk we were taking.  In addition, loans were being issued with fewer and fewer covenants, which further reduced our protection.  To steal a phrase from another portfolio manager, we were getting return free risk.  Given the changes, we sold the positions this last quarter.  The risk was no longer worth the reward.  We will continue to look for opportunities to invest capital at an acceptable level of risk.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2017 Q2

Market Update – The Great Complacency

If no news is good news, then all I have is great news for you today. The first half of this year has seen stock markets across the globe make steady upward climbs.  The indexes in the chart below represent major markets across the world.  As you can see, almost all major markets are in positive territory for the first half of the year.

The markets seem as calm as Hindu cows.  These increases have, for the most part, come steadily without a lot of fanfare or turbulence.  Investors believe this calm will continue at least in the short term.  The VIX, represented in the lower-right chart, is an index developed and maintained by the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE).  Commonly called the “fear gauge,” the VIX is the measurement of the expected volatility (how much the index will change in value) of the S&P 500 over the next 30 days.  As this chart illustrates, the VIX is at the lowest level on record since its development in 1994.  The S&P 500 is not alone in its low realized and expected volatility measures.  European and Asian markets are also at or near historical lows.    

In several markets around the globe, we would argue these market increases are warranted.  We have long held the opinion that Asian and European markets are under-valued, especially from a relative standpoint.  While the US market has continued to increase the last few years, these markets have stagnated until recently. Europe seems to be entering the stage in the economic cycle that the US began in 2009…slow yet steady growth.  Beyond foreign developed markets, emerging markets appear to have come out on the other side of another round of currency pressure in good health. This illustrates an economic resilience that hasn’t been there in the past. 

In contrast, the US economic expansion and bull stock market are getting a little long in the tooth.  The current economic expansion has lasted 96 months, the third longest expansion since 1854.  At almost 100 months long, the current US bull stock market is the second longest on record.  Neither of those facts spells near term doom, but there are other signs of frothy investment markets.  Just to cherry-pick a few:

Traditional valuation metrics are historically high – Total Market Cap to GDP ratio is around 120%, a number surpassed only at the height of the Internet Bubble in 1999/2000.  Shiller CAPE index has now surpassed the level it reached in 2007, just prior to the Great Recession.  In fact, there have been only two other times in history when it has been this high or higher – 1929 and 1999/2000.  When talking about stock markets, those are not good years to be associated with. 

Stock valuation metrics are being ignored – To site a specific stock overvaluation, during the last quarter Tesla, an electric car manufacturer, surpassed Ford in market value.  Tesla has a fraction of the revenue of Ford ($8 billion vs. $151 billion), a fraction of the assets ($22 billion vs $237 billion) and has never posted an annual profit.  This sounds familiar to the internet bubble, when everyone was banking on future revenue that was just supposed to come from somewhere. 

High Margin Debt Level – The New York Stock Exchange publishes monthly margin debt levels (borrowed money to buy stocks[i]).  It is currently the highest on record. When viewed as a relative measure to US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it is at the same level as it was in 1999 and 2007. 

Low Institutional Investor Cash Holdings – Institutional investors are almost fully invested, with 2.25% of their account holdings in cash. This is the lowest level since 2008.[ii]

Argentina’s Bond Offering – To be fair, this is example isn’t from the US market, but it shows how desperate people are for higher yielding bonds. Just a few weeks ago, Argentina successfully issued $2.75 billion in US denominated bonds that mature in…wait for it….100 years!!!.  This bond issue was oversubscribed…there were 3x more buyers than there were bonds to sell.  This is Argentina, a country that has defaulted or rescheduled payments on external debts 5 times since 1950 (1951, 1956, 1982, 1989, 2001)[iii].  Their most recent external default holds the record for the largest sovereign external default at $95 billion and, for some reason, people think it’s a good idea to lend them money they don’t have to pay back for 100 years.  It befuddles me. 

These factors – steady increases in market value, low volatility, and a general disregard for risk and valuation – are indicative of a complacent market.  Complacency tends to create instability in furthering misallocations of capital. In other words, people feel safe so they ignore risk.  When you add to those factors a very long bull market by historical standards and investors who are fully invested and even leveraged (margin debt) then you have a scenario where things will likely change quickly when they change. 

The timing of the change is impossible to know. Equity markets could continue to go up.  The last time the Shiller CAPE ratio was this high, the market continued to go up for another 2 years.  Economic data continues to be generally positive and corporate earnings are still improving.  These factors could continue to support an overvalued market.  However, with the above risk factors we will maintain our conservative approach to US market exposure. 

Investment Theme – Water

For a midwestern boy, the concept of “water shortage” is completely foreign.  I grew up not far from the Missouri River.  Most of my Saturdays from the time I was 13 until I turned 20 were spent fishing on the large lakes of central Missouri – Truman, Stockton and Pomme de Terre.  As an adult, I’ve spent countless hours fly-fishing in streams.  One of these, Bennett Springs, has a daily flow of over 100,000,000 gallons that, as the name suggests, comes out of a hole in the ground. I’ve spent several weeks fishing in Canada, where you can’t seem to drive 3 minutes without passing a lake.  For the last few years, my family and I have vacationed several times at Lake Michigan.  In my world, water is everywhere and in abundance.

I – and all of you, except our west-of-the-Rockies clients – live in one of the richest water locations in the world.  The Mississippi River Valley stretches from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains.  Hundreds of rivers and streams contribute to the system as it meanders its way from as far north as Montana and Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The Amazon and the Congo Rivers are the only river systems in the world with larger drainage basins.

Reality is much murkier in other places in the world, even some places in the US.  The graph to the right illustrates that much of the world is going to be under stress to provide enough water to support their populations[iv].  Global population growth over the last century has placed a lot of stress on water systems.  In most developed parts of the world, water infrastructure has been able to keep up with growth.  For example, during the 20th century, 45,000 dams were built around the world, which increased the world reservoir capacity by 4x, and aquifers were discovered and tapped to supply water to otherwise water poor regions[v].  But the efficiency of those measures is starting to hit their limit.  The number of dams that can be effectively put on a river is limited, and aquifers replenish at a very slow rate. 

In addition, current water infrastructure is aging and will need extensive replacement and repairs in the next 10 to 20 years.  The American Water Works Association (AWA) claims the US is hitting the “Replacement Era” of water systems.  The type of piping used in water infrastructure has changed over the last century, but oddly enough, newer pipes have less longevity than older ones.  In an almost perfect storm, 3 different types of piping will be hitting the end of their “life expectancy” within the next decade.  This same scenario is being played out in other areas across the globe.  For example, Mexico City loses 40% of the city’s potable water through leakage of old pipes every day[vi]

Developing economies face even greater challenges.  Having frantically thrown together water systems to meet the increased demand from industrialization and urbanization, many developing or recently developed countries are facing pollution problems.  It is estimated that half the surface water in China and India is contaminated to an unusable point.  In 2016 a report from the Chinese government, it was stated that 80% of underground well water was unfit for drinking or bathing[vii]

All of these varying issues will need to be solved, and solving them will cost money.  As global populations continue to increase, new systems and technologies will be required to meet demand.  Since water cannot be created, this will have to be done through increased efficiencies in use/reuse and delivery (desalinating ocean water is another potential). As to the aging infrastructure, the AWA estimates that the cost for replacing drinking water systems will be $13,500 per household (sorry…. your water bill is going up)[viii].  To stem the pollution of their waters, developing countries will need to increase regulations on industries on the water they release into the system, which will cost money to implement.

We like the investment opportunity this presents.  Besides oxygen, water is the most basic necessity in life.  People need access to it, and they want it to be clean.  Recent experiences in Flint, Michigan have demonstrated just how important it is to get right.  A lot of money is going to be spent on water over the next 10 to 20 years.  We currently have a small position committed to this area and will be likely be increasing it over the coming months. 

We will continue to look for opportunities to invest capital at an acceptable level of risk.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

References:


[i] Data can be viewed here: http://www.nyxdata.com/nysedata/asp/factbook/viewer_edition.asp?mode=tables&key=50&category=8

[ii] http://www.businessinsider.com/stock-traders-look-dangerously-overconfident-cash-holdings-2017-7

[iii] This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff

[iv] Chart from World Resource Institute http://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/water-stress-country

[v] Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Stephen Solomon

[vi] ibid

[vii] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/world/asia/china-underground-water-pollution.html?mcubz=0

[viii] Water 4.0: The Past, Present & Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource by David Sedlock

2017 Q1

I don’t know if we could pass a Mother’s Day Resolution right now.

–     Representative Matt Gaetz as quoted in the Wall Street Journal March 25th, 2017

Easier Said than Done

Since the election of Donald Trump to the office of the President of the United States, the US stock market has been on a steady upward climb. From October 11th, a few weeks prior to the election, till March 21st the S&P 500 did not experience a greater than 1% drop on any given day – the longest such streak since 1995. It is always speculation to attribute market movements to a single factor but the relative calm and optimism of the market appears, at least in part, to be due to President Trump’s plan to grow the economy. However, during the week of March 20th the realities of implementing legislative agendas began to set in as the Repeal and Replace bill for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was to come to a vote.

Repeal and Replace, as it is commonly called, has been on the minds of Republicans for several years. It seems most – if not all – Republican candidates running for election since the passing of the ACA ran on a platform that included its repeal. During the Obama administration, the Republican controlled Congress sent several Repeal bills to the President knowing his veto was a certainty. One would think after so many years of campaigning for the Repeal of the ACA and after passing several bills at the congressional level  to Repeal the ACA that the Republican Party would have a readymade, passable bill. However, now that the vote was for a bill that would become law building consensus became more difficult. The Republican Party fractured and the bill failed.

The Repeal and Replace bill was the first in a set of legislative dominoes to affect change in the US economy. The tax savings achieved through Repeal and Replace would make room for greater adjustments to the tax code which would in turn guide infrastructure spending. These items were intended to stimulate the corporate and economic growth the market has been banking  on. The failure to Repeal and Replace the ACA does not spell certain doom for the other items on the legislative agenda. As Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz’s quote indicates it does demonstrate the difficulty in building consensus in a ruling party.

Building consensus will not get easier as the President and the House move on to the next item in their agenda, tax reform. One of the major pieces of the GOP proposed tax plan (http://abetterway.speaker.gov) is to add a Border Adjustment Tax (BAT…an unfortunate acronym but we’ll go with it). To keep things moving along here we won’t go into the inner workings of a BAT. We’ll just say the intended consequence is to reward US based companies for exporting goods and penalize them for importing goods. Sounds great, right? Well, if a BAT is implemented you will find your next trip to COSTCO quite a bit more expensive. Retail items are largely imported. If importing goods suddenly costs companies more money that extra cost will get passed on to you.

The proponents of a BAT argue this increase in cost to the consumer (you) will eventually be quickly because it will cause the dollar to  strengthen in value relative to  other global currencies  thus making goods  from other  countries cheaper   we are  not  convinced the cause and effect connection is fully there. There are far too many variables impacting the value of the dollar relative to other world currencies to rely on one factor to account for a massive shift in currency valuations.  We are not alone in our skepticism   no fewer than 19 Republican Senators have expressed concern over adding a BAT and several of those are strongly opposed. Even the White House, and President Trump specifically, have expressed concerns regarding implementing a BAT. When you have Senate majority by two seats and vice presidential tie breaker you only have two votes to give up…there is not a lot of wiggle room there to lose votes. As the administration proceeds with its agenda to overhaul the tax code and implement the other changes the market seems to be banking on it finds itself looking up at another set up hurdles while still lying on ground from the last hurdle it just failed  to clear.

Though any tax reform bill is at least 7 months away we remain mindful of the impact tax codes changes can have on financial markets. One such instance, the Tax Reform Act of 1986, caused massive shifts in the real estate market. While the current proposed tax plan does not appear to make any changes that would so directly affect one specific asset class there are a few provisions that will impact markets. The BAT tax discussed above will have drastic impacts on certain market sectors: retail, auto and aviation to name a few.

There are other provisions of the proposed tax code which have the potential of causing major shifts in the markets as well. One provision will allow US based companies to repatriate dollars held overseas at a tax rate of 8.75%. Another provision removes company’s ability to deduct interest expense on money it borrows. While seemingly unrelated the combination of these two provisions would fundamentally change the math behind corporate finance and could cause large shifts in the bond market. Given these potential impacts we will closely monitor the tax bill as it works its way through the legislative process.

Oil Markets Settle into a Range

For years, the oil market has been run by a cartel…the OPEC nations. The price of the commodity shifted based on their production levels. However, their influence over the price of oil appears to be waning. New technology developed over the last decade or two has allowed for oil to be extracted from shale fields which resulted in a large increase in United States oil

production. The Saudis’ recent experiment to slow this growth of US oil production by over-supplying the markets has resulted in a consolidation of the US oil market but not a lessening of capacity. If indeed this was the Saudis’ intent they underestimated the ingenuity of American oil producers. As we stated in our 2016 Q1 Commentary US oil companies have been making money in oil for 150 years in many different environments. Given time they would adjust to the new normal and that’s what has happened. Over the last few years the break-even point for US oil producers operating in shale fields has dropped through technology and innovation.

What this likely means for the oil market going forward is a pricing system more defined by market forces and less by a cartel. OPEC will continue to have influence on oil markets…they’re still the 900 lbs. gorilla. But limiting demand to drive up oil prices, as they have done in the past, will now be met with greater production from US producers. This very scenario has played out over the last year. As oil prices returned to the $40-$50/barrel range US producers picked up production.

The 2015 – 2016 turmoil in the oil markets provided us with some opportunities to over-weight our energy portfolio with assets at reasonable values. In our opinion, the market forces described above would keep the price of oil in the $40 – $60 range for some  time limiting the near-term upside potential in the price of oil. In response, we unwound or reduced some of those positions in January 2017 and shifted our energy portfolio to be more sensitive to oil production levels (which we believe will continue to increase regardless of price) and less sensitive to the price of oil. While this will limit our upside if the price of oil unexpectedly goes up it should also limit our downside should the price return to the low levels we saw in 2015.

Conclusion

The US market is not alone in its relative calm. European and Emerging Market economic data is being read as overwhelmingly positive (there is some good, bad and ugly in emerging markets) and global markets are responding with steady upward climbs. Events that once shook the market – fed interest rate increases, talk of a wind-down of Federal Reserve assets, geopolitical uncertainties – no longer seem to carry the weight they once did. It is during these times of calm when our awareness of risk needs to be at its greatest. Not because risk is inheritably greater in times of calm but because the calm can cause a dangerous sense of ease. We will continue to look for opportunities to invest capital at an acceptable level of risk.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings. Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market. Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2016 Q4

President Donald Trump

Does that look right to you yet?  The day after the election I sent a good friend of mine a message….”President Elect Donald J. Trump.  There.  Just had to give it a go and see if it feels more real.”  It didn’t really help.  Whichever side of the election you were on I think everyone can agree the concept of “President Trump” seems strange.  Yet on Friday, January 20th, 2017 Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America.  

In the weeks leading up to the election the news media was overwhelmingly predicting a Hilary Clinton victory.  Simultaneously, the financial news media was reporting that a Hillary Clinton election would be viewed positively by the financial markets whereas a Donald Trump election was sure to cause market chaos.  The actual results of the election and the subsequent reaction of the stock market were a reminder of how poorly the prognosticators prognosticate. As election night unfolded and the possibility of a Trump election became greater the futures market on the Dow and the S&P sank lower and lower.  But by the end of election week the Dow had posted its best week since 2011.  

By their fruits you will know them

It seems that a good portion of the news these days is spent on what “will” happen instead of what has happened.  Nowhere is this truer than in the financial media.  This time of year is full of forecasts: where the market will be at the end of the year; what direction interest rates will go; what sectors will out-perform, under-perform, etc.  After being an observer of these forecasts for more than a decade I can tell you the vast majority of them turn out wrong.  My favorite from last year: Bloomberg interviewed 65 analysts asking where interest rates would be at the end of 2016.  Every one of them said the yield on the 10 year treasury would be below 2%.  It closed the year out at 2.45%.  65 experts…all wrong.   

Every year I see similar forecasts from the experts and every year they fall short of being right.  When it comes to accurately forecasting the future the experts do not have a good track record.  But don’t just take my word for it…. Philip Tetlock is a professor who authored the book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.  He spent over 20 years interviewing 284 experts while tracking the accuracy of their forecasts along the way.  After compiling 20 years of data, here’s what he found in his own words: “the average expert was roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.”

To be fair, Dr. Tetlock’s discovery does not disqualify all expert forecasting, as he makes clear in his book. What it does illustrate is the rarity of good forecasters.  Arriving at a correct understanding of current events is hard enough.  Then to take that and extrapolate what will happen next is extremely difficult.  There are always unknowns and there is always a human element, which is impossibly hard to predict – just ask the Baseball Prospectus guys.  Every year they run a simulation based on player and team statistics to predict each major league baseball team’s record.   In 2015, a team the system said would lose 90 games won the World Series (I’m not still bitter about that prediction…really, I’m not).  

In 2016 there was no shortage of incorrect forecasting.  The Presidential election, the Brexit Vote results and the subsequent market reaction from each of those events were all forecasted incorrectly by the vast majority of pundits on TV and the experts in the fields.  This brings us to a stark reality: most of the pundits on TV and the experts do not have a clue what is going to happen whether it regards the economy, politics or financial markets.  At the end of the day, all their running commentary is just a lot of noise.  

As investors, it is important to recognize the limitations on our ability to foresee future events.   We can’t predict with any accuracy where the market will be in six months or how we will get there.  Nor can we predict how one event – like the election – will impact the markets.  Pretending we can will result in making imprudent short-sighted investment decisions.   

However, that does not leave us blind and without a road map.  There are things we can know or have varying degrees of conviction through which we can make good decisions.  We can gather a lot of current factual information: economic growth rates, demographic trends, and government and private sector debt levels just to name a few.   We can have a general sense of where we are.  Economies and financial markets tend to move in cycles.  Economies move from contraction to expansion and vice-versa.  Markets move from euphoria to fear and back again. We cannot identify when a cycle will change but we can have a general idea of where we are. We can identify and evaluate various risks: geopolitical risk, economic risk, market risk, valuation risk, interest rate risk, and many other forms of risk.  

What this information will not do is tell us exactly what will happen over the next few months.  We cannot accurately forecast from this info where the S&P will be at the end of the year or what the yield on the 10 year treasury will be 6 months from now or how First Solar will perform over the next 3 months.  What we can do is use this information to make decisions regarding long term economic trends, current valuation levels, long term growth trends, short-term mispricing opportunities, conviction levels, allocation percentages, hedging needs and many other factors that go into building a diversified investment portfolio.  

Trumps Impact on Investing

As we look ahead to a Donald Trump Presidency the most important question we ask ourselves is not what impact President Trump will have on the stock market.  We don’t know how his presidency will ultimately impact the market and anyone who says they do is not being honest with you or themselves.  The real question to ask is what changes now that Donald Trump is President?  We would argue that the facts largely remain the same: the developed world is mired in too much debt; despite accommodating monetary policy of central banks (low interest rates and Quantitative Easing) economic growth is slow; productivity growth is stalled; the best long term growth opportunities still appear to be overseas; domestic assets – stocks and bonds – are at historically high valuations; and people will continue to eat food, drink water and use oil.  

What we will likely see from President Trump are policies that will have definite short term impacts.  For example, the tax policy proposed by the incoming administration will likely have a short-term benefit to corporations by lifting their profitability.  In addition, the administration is planning on infrastructure spending, which could have a positive impact on the general economy.   His foreign policy looks to be very different from past presidents which will adjust geopolitical risk.  His strong language against current trade policy and, more specifically, China will certainly have impacts on foreign markets.  But will any of these things substantially move the needle on the big picture items I stated above?  Probably not.  In our view, the Trump presidency does not completely change the landscape of investing.  It just shifts the shrubs around a little bit.  

The presidential administration may be changing but our focus on the long term remains the same.  The domestic portion of our portfolios will be conservatively allocated to value oriented portfolio managers or in sectors where we believe long term trends will prove out over short term volatility.  We will allocate positions to geographic areas where we believe there is good relative value, stronger growth potential and less debt.  Portfolios will have low exposure to interest rate risk.  Our focus on having non-correlating assets will also remain the same.  And we will continue to invest in areas where we see value and the greatest potential for long-term growth. 

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.

2016 Q3 Quarterly Commentary

Interest Rates are Low?  Who Knew?  

The chart below shows the change in the interest rate of the 10 year Treasury bond over the last 34 years.  The early 1980’s were the tail end of a period of high inflation and interest rates.  Many of you probably remember having CD’s paying interest in the double digits.  In 1981 policies were enacted by the Federal Reserve that started a drop in interest rates that, as the chart below shows, has not really ended since.  Earlier this year the interest rate on the 10 year treasury hit a record low…the US has never seen interest rates this low.   In fact, if you put it in a broader historical context the current interest rate environment is the lowest the world has ever seen.  We won’t bore you with the details of Grecian, Roman, Byzantine and British Empire interest rates but it is true – interest rates have never been this low.  

The real effects of this on people’s lives are clearly visible.  On the positive side home, vehicle and unsecured financing is inexpensive.  This has allowed people to free up cash flow by reducing their interest costs and households have been slowly reducing their debt the last few years.  Total household debt relative to US Gross Domestic Product is the lowest it has been in over a decade. 

However, the negative consequences of low interest rates are starting to weigh heavily on investors and the economy.  Our economy is built upon a system of credit and interest and it is becoming apparent this system is impaired in a low rate environment.  Banks rely on the ability to lend money out for more interest than it costs them to hold it (net interest margin).  As interest rates entered into unprecedented lows their margins shrank and now depositors receive little to no interest while paying fees on their accounts.  Similarly, insurance carriers rely on interest payments from a bond portfolio to reduce premium costs and increase profits.  As income received from their investment portfolios have decreased insurance premiums have increased.  Pension funds who had generally counted on – foolishly in our opinion – an 8% annual rate of return to pay future liabilities are now facing a reality where 40% of their portfolio is only earning 2% – or less – interest.  That makes it kind of hard to earn the 8% they – and their pensioners – are counting on.  While low interest rates may have assisted in the avoidance of a total economic collapse if they continue too long our economic system may slowly break down.

What we think is more likely to happen is an attempt to return to normal via central bank raising interest rates. We have been waiting for this for a long time.  Admittedly, this low interest rate environment has lasted far longer and been more extensive, than we expected.  It could continue to go on longer than we expect.  But the commentary among the “economic and political elite” has begun to change.  The US Federal Reserve is receiving a lot of pressure to normalize rates and it appears they may resume that process soon.  

A World with Rising Interest Rates

This creates a very real risk to investors.  There is an inverse relationship between interest rates and the value of a bond.  If interest rates go down – like they steadily have for 30 years – then the value of a current bond goes up.  If interest rates go up then the value of a current bond goes down. Once this process of raising rates begins bond holders will be dealing with something they have not had to deal with in 30+ years – the value of their bonds going down.    

As Jack would remind us, the way people invested when he started as an investment manager 40 years ago this would not matter.   People would purchase a bond by directly lending the US Government or a company $10,000, for example, collect interest for 10 years and then at the end 10 years the entity would give them back their $10,000.  Whatever happened to the price of the bond along the way did not matter.  The investor got their $10,000 back at maturity no matter what the value of the bond did.  

But it does not really work like that anymore.  30 years of decreasing interest rates, an industry “scaling” their business models to maximize profits, and the creation and adoption of Modern Portfolio Theory (the en-vogue investment management theory of the day) have essentially changed how individual investors access the bond market.  Investment products have been designed and built around a bond market that steadily increases in value. The principal protection element of bonds (you get your $10,000 back the end of 10 years) has been at best limited and at worst eliminated through the management style of bond funds.  Bond fund managers rarely (very rarely) hold a bond till maturity.  In fact, the execution of a portfolio following Modern Portfolio Theory results in the creation of divided bond classes grouped by the maturity date of the bond.  This grouping forces the manager to sell their bond holdings prior to maturity, even it has to be sold at a loss. 

With the winds of change upon us we are being forward thinking in how to manage a bond portfolio in a rising interest rate environment.  There are methods to mitigate this risk.  Some strategies have already been implemented in portfolios and others will be implemented as conditions warrant. 

China

In the 2016 Quarter 1 commentary we wrote the following:

The Chinese market and economy have made a lot of headlines over the past year.  The Shanghai Exchange experienced massive volatility in 2015 and the resultant conversation of the financial pundits was that the Chinese economy was headed for a hard landing.  We have never quite understood the general consensus of the financial world towards China.  They have painted a picture of a country laden with debt, lower economic growth prospects, and highly overpriced stock markets (sounds familiar).  But to every one of these arguments there exists fundamental misunderstandings about China.  In the interest of brevity, let’s examine just one…overpriced stock markets.

In the Quarter 1 commentary we addressed the overpriced stock market.  In the Quarter 2 commentary we addressed lower economic growth prospects.  And this quarter we will wrap this up by addressing the misconceptions of China being overextended in debt.  

Wait a minute…there’s actually two sides to a balance sheet?  

During the last decade total debt in China – consisting of corporate, household, government and bank debt – has increased from roughly 150% of China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to over 250% of China’s GDP.  That’s a lot of debt. In fact, when you take into consideration that the denominator in the equation has also increased significantly during that time period the increase in debt gets really big: total debt has gone up 465% in the last decade.  

Our recent experiences in western culture make these numbers very worrisome.  In the US, we have witnessed the danger of an over-leveraged economy: the 2006 housing crisis and the subsequent Great Recession beginning in December 2007.  But to every balance sheet there are two sides: assets (what you own) and liabilities (what you owe).  What is being largely ignored in the case of China is the asset side of the balance sheet.  

Let’s take a look at the household debt burden in China within the context of the real estate market.  In the last few years many pundits have expressed concern of a growing bubble in Chinese home prices.  Home prices have increased roughly 9% – on average – every year for the last 10 years.   In our economy those high increases would be troubling.  But Asian cultures tend to look at savings and debt differently than western culture.  In short, they save more and they go into less debt. A few statistics to consider:

  • Wage increases have averaged roughly 13% per annum for the last 10 years, which outpaces the home price increases.
  • In order to buy a home in China a 20% down payment is required.  That is not a banking standard.  It is a law.  That is if it is your first home.  If you are buying an investment property (second home) 30% is required. 
  • A 2014 study showed that 15% of all real estate purchases were paid with 100% cash.
  • According to a China Household Finance Survey in 2012, average household debt amounted to only 11% of home value; the median household debt was 0%.   
  • The same 2012 survey indicated that if home values fell 50% only 14% of mortgages would be underwater.  

Those stats paint a very different picture than an over-extended, over-leveraged consumer.  And a similar picture could be painted for corporate and government debt: there are assets to support their level of debt.  Even the structure of the debt (state financed in a closed system) makes the debt level more palatable.  While Chinese debt has grown excessively during the last several years it appears to be at manageable levels. 

That is not to say there is no risk here.  In our opinion this increase in debt is going to continue for some time.  China has aspirations for their currency (Yuan) to be used more heavily in international transactions and as a reserve currency.  In order for that to happen there needs to be more volume of Yuan in the market.  In a fiat currency system, money is created and put into circulation through debt.  If China wants more Yuan in circulation then more debt will be required.  Continuing to fuel this debt may put more strain on the Chinese economy.  While we do see long term value in investing in China we will be closely monitoring the situation watching for meaningful economic deterioration. 

As we examine the global landscape, China – and other select Emerging Markets – continue to have the greatest potential for long term growth.  We believe patient investors who endure the volatility often experienced in these markets will see long term gains.  We also see developed markets – such as the US and Europe – struggling to obtain meaningful economic growth.  As central banks and governments make more decisions and businesses and individuals continue to adjust to an economic environment very different than it was a decade ago we believe markets will continue to be volatile.  Throughout these developments we will continue to invest in areas where we see value and the greatest potential for long-term growth.

Blake

Past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings.  Asset allocation does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Blake A. Stanley, CFP® is an Investment Advisor Representative of Legacy Advisory Group, LLC a Registered Investment Advisory Firm.