As a prelude to this review, we revisit a theme that has long informed our research: cognitive limitations in investment analysis. Reasonable minds may differ on what is or is not a good investment, but exceedingly few of those minds study or are even aware of the many ways our brains deal — automatically and without our conscious permission — with an excess of data (which certainly defines the securities markets). The shortcuts we unknowingly take amidst this onslaught of information can lead to the most unfortunate conclusions. Herein, some of our strategies for wading through the facts to address some client questions we received about inflation, U.S. debt levels, and the potential for continued corporate earnings growth. And a couple of new positions, CACI International and Science Applications International, that we believe add functional diversification to our portfolios.Read More >
A number of clients have been asking about inflation: are the recent numbers, 2%, benign? Encouraging? Cause for concern? Some of the answer depends on whether the reported inflation data are even real. The changes, over time, in the way that the sausage that is the Consumer Price Index is made seem, repeatedly, to have the effect of lowering it. Either way, it’s well neigh impossible to avoid earning a negative rate of return from the various bond ETFs, after taxes and inflation. We provide a brief survey.
Then there is the failure with, now, a 20-year record, of the equity ETFs to provide the expected 10% rate of return. To avoid a continuous loss of purchasing power, which adds up pretty quickly, investing has to take place differently and elsewhere.Read More >
The value of the entire stock market relative to GDP – perhaps the most fundamental valuation measure – is pretty much at an all-time high; interest rates aren’t much above their recent all-time lows; the Federal debt/GDP ratio, despite one of the lengthiest economic recoveries on record, is at a high exceeded only in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Yet, despite this traffic jam of systemic risks, and for whatever reason, investors feel sufficiently at ease that they don’t require a real interest rate above zero, or lower stock valuations, as if there financial markets rest in a comfortable equilibrium.
But one of the systemic risks to the stock market, the continued rapid expansion of large scale passive investing, rests on such a faulty – and unexamined – foundation that it might raise eyebrows upon a little reflection. A basic presumption of indexation – its use of the free-rider principle, of the price discovery function that active management provides – is that indexation’s share of float, of the shares not held by insiders, remains a minority of the available shares in the market. Not so. The definition is methodologically wrong, and in a way that can (and, we’ll suggest, has already done so) seriously distort major-company share prices.
The indexation community is likewise operating under a serious methodological error in their security weighting approach. And also in a way that can (and we’ll suggest has) seriously distort major-company share prices.
Also, a review of some additional inflation-beneficiary, non-correlated holdings in our portfolios.
For the first time in quite a long while, clients have been asking about whether their portfolios contain any inflation beneficiaries, whether there’s much leverage. Really, these questions are about practical, functional diversification (as opposed to what the mind recognizes as ‘lip service’ diversification). There is a sense that all the investments are crowded into the same place and are more and more governed by a few shared risks. And perhaps there’s an unasked question, what happens when the music stops, whichever music it is that has made it all work so far.
We can’t know when the music stops or what exact shape events will take when it does. But the concentration of the crowd on the dance floor does facilitate the existence of the types of securities that answer the aforementioned questions. Our portfolios have been pre-positioned for some time in a variety of hard-asset and counter-cyclical securities that are remarkably cheap, have substantial optionality and often remarkably strong balance sheets. They can only provide these virtues because they are not popular with the dance crowd. Paradoxically — but entirely in accord with the realities of market behavior — the best time to purchase an inflation beneficiary, for instance, such as a gold royalty company, is when investors have yet to become concerned about inflation and are generally unenthused about the prospects for gold or gold mining.
This review describes the variety of less-systemic-risk securities in the portfolios, including the penultimate non-systemic exposure — because it’s entirely outside the system — consensus money (cryptocurrency), along with some Q&A around the latter topic, of which there’s been quite a bit.
In presentations to various sophisticated investment professionals, one of the most surprising revelations has been that many have far less knowledge about the systemic risks embedded in the broader markets than do our clients. While they are increasingly aware of well-respected investors voicing increasing discomfort with various structural excesses, such as the national debt, they are not cognizant of the very real and specific threats posed to them or their clients.
Unfortunately, the odds just shifted for the worse. A far greater threat has arisen: of technological disruption from outside the major indexes, with the potential to be destructive to large sectors within the indexes, in particular the Financials and Information Technology. This is the emergence of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The potential disruption to the status quo is sufficiently great, in our view, that all investors should, at the least, be exposed to this topic. It merits serious discussion.Read More >
It’s always nice to pay a lower fee for the same product. Who wouldn’t? But what if it’s not the same? The Nasdaq 100 ETF (QQQ) fact sheet says it is filled with growth companies and only trades at 22x earnings, the same as the S&P 500. They don’t tell you that they exclude any companies with losses. They don’t describe how they effectively eliminate the impact of companies with very P/E ratios, through a rather abstruse formula known as the Weighted Average Harmonic Mean. In the absence of having an MBA or statistical degree, if you calculated the P/E ratio of the Nasdaq 100 the way you know how, by simply averaging the P/E ratios of the 91 profitable companies, then the P/E is over 40x. It’s One Thing to Not Know, It’s Another to Be Told What Isn’t So.
As with every quarterly commentary, we’ll review just how indexed products that purport to be low volatility or low risk or provide exposure to a given country or industry actually are not or do not. You don’t get something for nothing, particularly on Wall Street.