"The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life" - Theodore Roosevelt.
As we discussed last week, professional investors (a very loose term), are remaining bearish on US equities, but they are by no means alone. In this market cycle, far from becoming euphoric, investors are becoming ever more concerned/worried/anxious as prices rise higher. It IS an unusual state of affairs and heightened by the financial media's constant doom-laden headlines; sometimes it appears that investors won't fully relax until there's a crash!
"If there must be madness, something may be said for having it on a heroic scale" - J.K Galbraith (The Great Crash of 1929).
There has been plenty of negative news over the last few months and an even bigger list of issues over the last year or so, but (US) markets appear blithely unconcerned; despite the litany of calls for a decline, (or a crash), nothing appears to dent sentiment and the buying continues.
One of the major problems Advisors (and ourselves) face is the expectations of clients. Fuelled by the relentless media focus on outsized gains in some individual assets, (mostly equities), investors imagine that these gains are easily made and thus they should get involved too. The fact is that they are abnormal (or they would not be news at all), but that is not what the media imply. Of course, fund managers are happy to play along, as they judge that this increases the interest in their products and this article contributes to this phenomenon, with the fund manager telling us that Inflation plus 5% is a "realistic and achievable goal". The chart below does not break down the asset class exposure, but it can be found here.
Hubris is interesting because you get people who are often very clever, very powerful, have achieved great things, and then something goes wrong - they just don't know when to stop - Margaret MacMillan (Canadian historian and Oxford University Professor).
[The following analysis focusses on equities for the sake of brevity, but the points made are equally relevant to Bond Index funds and ETFs].
“Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, Margin of Safety.” – Benjamin Graham.
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.” ― Leon C. Megginson (Business Professor 1991-2010).
The price war between asset managers has been fierce in recent years but has been more aggressively fought in the passive arena- as this article noted late last year, Active fees have fallen by less than those of Passive funds, despite starting from a higher base. Like an eye-witness to a major catastrophe, the Active managers appear to be in a state of numbed incomprehension, unable to process what is happening to them. Meanwhile "feemageddon" as it has been dubbed, rolls on relentlessly; Passive funds have taken huge bites out of Active Manager's assets, as investors wise up to the cost (as well as the returns) differentials.
“Buy not on optimism. Buy on arithmetic” - Benjamin Graham
Analysts and fund managers rarely agree, but on one thing they are united; the UK stock market is cheap, at least in relative terms. Since the Brexit Referendum, the UK All Share Index has lagged the World (ex-UK) by over 6 percentage points per annum on an annual basis and now stands on a Dividend Yield of 4.22% (as of 17th May) and a Price Earning Ratio of 16.05x compared to 2.32% and 18.63x for the World ex-UK Index. There has been a flurry of articles proclaiming that the UK share market is cheap,, with a JP Morgan fund manager declaring that they have not been this cheap since World War One! The charts below show the damage wrought since the Brexit result.
"We have to work towards free trade because otherwise we will miss out on many opportunities for cooperation, and relations amongst countries will become much more difficult" - Lee Hsien Loong (Prime Minister of Singapore).
With the S&P 500 Index having just touched all-time highs and Donald Trump deciding that now is a good time to demand a cut in interest rates by 1% and to re-start QE, contrasting their timidity with that of the Chinese Central Bank, averring that the US economy would go up "like a rocket" if they followed his advice. This would appear to be akin to fighting a fire with gasoline, but that doesn't mean the Fed won't do it anyway, (though not this week it seems!)
Outside of US markets, however, things are not quite so rosy, as indicated by the fact that the MSCI World Index ex-US Index is nearly 11% below its highs (reached in January 2018), and nearly 20% below its 2007 highs, indicating that, once again, the US is leading the charge higher.
China has become an increasingly important player in the Global economy in recent years. As the economy has grown, its effect on world liquidity has also expanded. In the middle of February, the Bank of China announced that "Total Social Financing" (a metric that includes Renminbi loans to the real economy as well as Shadow Banking credit growth), exploded by a factor of three, to 4.64 trillion Yuan ($685 billion). The amount of outstanding loans in the Chinese financial system is now $30 trillion, more than double the GDP of that country. This has more than offset the declines seen in 2018, suggesting that the Government has once more opened the credit spigot, possibly in response to the economic slowdown caused by the on-going US/China trade dispute.
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” - Woody Allen (Annie Hall).
A robot walks into a bar and takes a seat. The bartender says, “We don’t serve robots.”
The robot replies, “Someday – soon – you will.”
One only has to watch financial TV for a few minutes to hear some pundit or other lower their voice and intone sagely, that "markets hate uncertainty". But when exactly was anything about markets NOT uncertain? What the speaker is actually saying is that market participants hate losses, (which is why they were so keen to see the Fed bail them out in 2008-09, a habit that both parties have since found hard to break).
"When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact" - Warren Buffett.
In recent years, the role of the Chief Executive has become increasingly high profile. They are widely recognised (at least in the media) and feted as veritable supermen, taking a firm by the scruff of the neck and leading them to greater glory. They are interviewed by business media with a reverence that borders on awe and they wield a great deal of influence on governments - the near-universal belief in their judgment on the part of MPs, for example, may help to explain why the latter are (mostly) against Brexit. A "loss of confidence" is often a precursor to an economic slowdown (and job cuts), which may also justify parliamentarians' attentiveness.
"Reversion to the mean is the iron rule of the financial markets" – John Bogle.
Last week it finally happened; the US Yield curve inverted (i.e. interest rates for longer-dated bonds went below those of shorter-dated ones). The rates available on 10-year bonds are now the same as those of 3-month bonds and the premium for investing over 30 years is now just 0.38% per annum. As the chart below shows, market expectations for interest rates now expect declines rather than rises in 2019. Last week, equities sold off sharply as recession fears intensified, amidst a big slowdown in Global Trade.
“Still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” - Simon and Garfunkel (The Boxer).
Ten years ago last week (March 9th, 2009), the S&P 500 hit a low point of 666.79, from which it has subsequently risen to 2,940 in October of last year, for a gain of 441%. A recurring theme throughout this time has been the degree of skepticism, cynicism and general disbelief that accompanied this rise. After a sharp fall into year end 2018, global markets have recovered and currently stand just 3% or so off those highs, as once again, bearish US investors have been "forced in" to the market, as their selling in early January 2019 has led to nothing but frustration.
"Successful investing is about managing risk, not avoiding it" - Benjamin Graham.
This phenomenon describes the adverse selection / knowledge asymmetry between buyers and sellers in, for example, the used car market. As prices (or in this case, standards) fall, the only willing sellers at a given price will be those that have “lemons” (defective goods) to sell. Thus, the average quality of goods available in the market gradually falls, leaving only poor quality goods left, which is a form of Gresham’s Law.
“When stock can be bought below a business’s value it is probably the best use of cash.” - Warren Buffett (at the 2004 Berkshire Hathaway AGM).
We covered this issue previously in June of last year, primarily from the economic angle, but recent events have appeared to politicise the issue. Several prominent Democratic Senators (Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders) want to prevent firms from buying back their shares unless they also increase worker pay and benefits, implying a link between low wage growth and high share buybacks. Marco Rubio, a Republican Senator has joined in. He wants to end the favourable tax treatment afforded to share buybacks (so that they are treated the same as Dividends for tax purposes). Thus, it is believed, firms may be more inclined to either pay out higher dividends or invest more in their businesses.
A common saying in finance is that “markets take the stairs up and the elevator down.”
We are often asked by clients to explain the reasons for the dramatic fall from grace of UK equities relative to the rest of the world. Many suppose that it is a function of the fall in Sterling as a result of Brexit (and the political paralysis that has followed). In fact, all other things equal a fall in Sterling would serve to raise UK plc's earnings due to the translation effect (i.e. a lower value of the pound would mean a higher return on the overseas income, once that money is converted into Sterling) and as domestic revenues for FTSE 100 firms are fairly low (c.22%, meaning 78% of the revenue is generated overseas),a fall in Sterling is seen as good news for UK share prices.
[The above appeared on the window of a Bookshop, "Bookends of Fowey" in Cornwall].
We don't often do market commentaries in this blog, but after the biggest January gain for 32 years, it might be useful to look at what drove asset markets to such giddy heights, whereby nearly ALL asset classes went berserk. Once one pores over the fine print regarding performance, some interesting pictures emerge.
The first is the economic backdrop, which does not appear overly helpful. Interest rate markets imply no more rate hikes, as the US economy appears to be slowing substantially, potentially taking the global economy with it.
You may not have heard of Modern Monetary Theory, but you soon will do; it is becoming increasingly popular in the US as the "democratic left" searches for an alternative narrative to that of Donald Trump and a way to harness popular discontent with the way capitalism appears to be working. As we have discovered recently, economic illiteracy is no barrier to popular acceptance and though this ideology is clearly of that idiom, it does look set to go mainstream in the run-up to the next Presidential election, set for November 2020. I will not attempt to debunk the theory itself (as my view of it is entirely independent of the likelihood of its' coming to pass) but instead look at the consequences for asset prices in general should it do so. Forewarned is most definitely forearmed.
So what is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)?