"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)?
"He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.” - Noel Gallagher on brother Liam, (Q Magazine, April 2009)
The passing of Jack Bogle this week leaves the world of investing much poorer, but his career has benefitted investors enormously (nearly $1 trillion) according to some. He eschewed the riches that most on Wall Street seem to covet and genuinely helped millions of investors get cheap access to capital markets returns. This post sums up what many of us owe to him; he has truly left an enormous legacy, which we should all try to keep alive.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” - Winston Churchill
As our clients are well aware, EBI uses "Factors" within our portfolios to "tilt" our holdings towards those areas that exhibit a premium over and above that of the market for exposure to various specific characteristics. All portfolios have a tilt towards Small Cap and Value shares, but for the World Portfolios, we also employ Momentum, via iShares and Vanguard managed ETFs. It begs the question as to why we don't use more "Factors", which we shall attempt to address here.
As the chart below describes, the growth of Factor Investing has been enormous, quadrupling in the last 6 years, as US investor interest has mushroomed.
"Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan". - John F. Kennedy
As ESG/SRI goes mainstream, with more providers offering ethical options for investors, the spotlight has fallen on those shares that do not fulfill the criteria required for inclusion in "Responsible" portfolios. As a result of the potential tracking error risk for Investors arising from wholesale deletions of a large number of firms from the mainstream indices, Fund Management firms have been cautious in what they omit from their Index funds, mostly restricting themselves to 3 main sectors; controversial weapons, Coal producers and those firms that fail to comply with the UN Global Compact on Corporate sustainability.
"The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’ — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s" - Paul Krugman 1998
If we were in any doubt as to the value of predictions, the above quote should put it to rest. One wonders how one can be so spectacularly wrong and still retain credibility, but it does not appear to have damaged his reputation - he is a Nobel Prize winner no less!
"I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody". -James Carville US Political Commentator.
Bonds, like the companies that issue them, come in a bewildering array of forms, from the plain (Government bonds etc.) to the downright esoteric (High Yield, Municipal and even PIK varieties), but investors in all of them have to ask themselves, how confident am I that I will get my money back and (more importantly for the investor's return on capital), when?
Up-Date to a previous blog; at the end of October, we discussed the recent travails of the Hedge Fund community (here). We will very shortly find out how bad it could get; this article picks up on the theme and points out that Investors who wish to redeem their HF holdings have to give 45 days notice of their intention to do so. So, November 15th is the deadline to get out (penalty-free), for year-end. After another really poor year and the likely shock of seeing October's (lack of) returns, many could decide to head for the exits, which could (theoretically) scupper any chance of a year-end rally (as Hedge Funds could be forced sellers).
Found in a church in France.
“When you enter this church it may be possible you’ll hear God’s call. It’s unlikely He will call you on your mobile. Thank you for turning off your phones... If you want to see God, send Him a text while driving”
As of Friday last week, World Equities had lost $15 trillion in value (-7%), with almost two thirds of Global stocks now in "Bear market" territory (i.e. down 20% or more). In Wall Street, talk is already turning to the possibility of the "Powell Put" being in play - the idea that, should markets fall below a certain point, the Fed will ride to the rescue with rate cuts/money printing/buying assets directly etc. or whatever else is deemed necessary to ensure that asset prices don't fall. As we pointed out a couple of weeks ago, asset prices appear to be the only relevant metric in policy decision-making - and don't the markets know it!
A teacher asks a class a question: There are ten sheep in a pen. One jumps out, how many are left? Everyone but one boy said nine are left. That one boy said none are left. The teacher said you don’t understand arithmetic and he said: "You don’t understand sheep."- Charlie Munger…
The last year of the US stock market has seen some wild swings, but one thing has remained constant - Growth has continued to outperform Value, especially in the US, but Globally too. We are still no closer to seeing Value recover its poise and in USD terms, it has now lagged by c. 3.7% per year over the last decade. So, the "Value premium" has become the value discount, or so it seems.
More recently, things have taken a turn for the bizarre; I came across this Bloomberg screenshot (from the Macro Tourist website), which shows the Factor returns over the last year from US markets, whereby the overall return is a function of the average return of the top Quintile performance minus the bottom Quintile (or top fifth of the sample versus the bottom fifth). The conclusions are rather depressing;