Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bubble Watch X

The title of this post is pronounced, "Bubble Watch Ten", not "Bubble Watch Ex". So don't sound uncool in public by calling it Bubble Watch Ex...

So the bears keep saying we are in overvalued territory and we will see a huge correction soon. On the other hand, we got guys like Dan Loeb really bullish. As usual, there are a lot of smart guys on each side.

This got me thinking a lot about why the bears have got it so wrong for so long (so far... they will eventually be right! I remember (before my time, but I read about it) how Joe Granville, one of the prominent technicians of the 1970's called for a crash in the market with the Dow at 800. He was proven correct; only problem is the market crashed from 2700 to 2200, so it didn't help at all that he was short from 800. Oops.)

What bubble? 
One of the first things that come to mind when hearing all this bubble talk is that, to me, the stock market still doesn't feel at all like a bubble. OK, there may be some pockets of excess. But in general, I'm not getting the sense of a bubble. Nobody asks me about stocks. Nobody brags about their stock winnings. I am not reading about people quitting their jobs and playing the market to make a living (one of my biggest dollar wins on the short side ever was when I short Apple a while back when articles about people quitting their jobs and living off of their Apple stock gains started popping up, and they were on TV laughing at the skeptics saying that they 'just don't get it' (I am hearing/reading that now about Bitcoin, though! Japanese housewives, young people doing nothing but trading bitcoin and convinced they will never have to work again).

I don't hear any of that talk relating to the stock market. At all.

Plus, here's the other thing. People keep talking about how great the market has performed in recent years as another sign of a bubble.

But the problem with that, to me, is that a lot of that is just regaining what we lost during the crisis. If a stock tanks 50% and then doubles the next day, is the stock really overbought?  I dunno.

Check out this long term chart of the S&P 500 index. I made it a log chart so we don't go, oh my god, it's parabolic! I do believe that parabolic patterns tend to collapse, but it is useless over long time periods.



And ignore the font and background color stuff... I was just playing with Excel, which I haven't used in a long time. But due to various issues (OneDrive being one of them), I have gone back to using Microsoft products and am trying to relearn this stuff. Google sheets is great, but very buggy and frustrating to deal with.

Anyway, if you look at the 1929 bubble, the market went far above it's previous peak. Just eye-balling, the market sort of peaked out at around 10 in 1910 or so, and then rallied to 31 in 1929. That's more than a triple of the old high. Before black monday the S&P 500 rallied to 330 before crashing, and the old high was around 100, so again, the market more than tripled before tanking. During the 1999/2000 bubble, the market went to 1500. If you use the old high of 330, the market rose by 4.5 times. if you use the 1993/1994 area high of 500, the market basically tripled that.

During the Nikkei bubble, the Nikkei rose from 8,000 (the early 1980's high) to 40,000 for a five-bagger in less than a decade. But a five-bagger off the old high, not bear market low.

Where are we now? The previous high was around 1,500 for the S&P, and it's now at close to 2,600. So it hasn't even doubled. And that's a high from 17 years ago. Even using the recent pre-crisis date of 2007, that's more than 10 years.

S&P 500 Index -> 4500!
I am no expert on bubbles, but to me, this is not a bubble. I would call this stock market a bubble if we tripled the old high, or if the S&P went to 4500 or something like that.

Yeah, you heard it hear first. S&P 500 index at 4500. That's what I would call a bubble.

This is sort of consistent with my idea that the market P/E would have to get to 50x for me to be convinced that the market is in bubble territory. You can read my old posts on why that is (based on interest rates. And don't forget, I use what I consider to be 'normalized' interest rates, not current levels).

So, if you ask me, I see no bubble at this point. At all.

Real Fed Funds
The other thing that popped into my head the other day was the comment, "Never short the market with negative real fed funds rate!".  For no reason at all, this comment popped into my head and I couldn't get it out. This kept bugging me. The idea made a lot of sense, but I wasn't sure exactly where it came from. Of course, we all know not to "fight the fed", so this is a version of that, I suppose.

So when I got the time, I decided to just plot the real fed funds rate, and below is the chart:



And here's the thing. It seems like in recent history, the market has basically never gone into a serious bear market or crash with the real Fed Funds rate in negative territory. This makes logical sense. A negative FF rate means money is easy, and when money is easy, asset prices tend to go up. Shorting into that, I guess, is like fighting a tsunami with a teaspoon. Why would anyone do that?!

People keep saying that owning stocks at these levels is speculating, not investing. And yet, some of the folks who say that lose money when the market rallies, which means they are short. I don't know about you, but for me, shorting is speculating and has nothing to do whatsoever with investing.  People seem not to understand the asymmetric risk/return involved in shorting versus just owning stocks.


Static versus Dynamic Models 
Here's the other baffling thing. Much of the world seems still to be stuck in the world of static economic models. If something goes up, they must go down. If an expected return is low, the price must eventually decrease (ignoring the fact that expected return can remain low for a long, long time).

This all reminded me of an old book that confused a lot of conventional thinkers, and I think people who haven't read it should read it.  Even now:

The Alchemy of Finance

(for some reason, my Amazon bookstore is dead... oh well. I haven't looked at it in a while and now it's just totally gone. I must have missed an email or two from Amazon (probably thought it was spam and ignored it)).

30 years later, it seems like economists still think the old way and haven't really modernized. I suppose there have been new developments in behavioral economics, but I don't really see much of it when people talk about the market and economy; they all still sound like they did back in the 1980's.

But then again, I guess it doesn't really matter all that much, because most people we see or hear about are asset gatherers and spend most of their time telling people what they want to hear. They don't really care as long as they can gather assets. The ones incorporating new models and making money won't talk about it.

Anyway, I think the Soros book is very timely right now as we probably are in the midst of some sort of virtuous circle. I admit this can't go on forever and things will eventually turn.

But figuring out when it will turn is something nobody will be able to do. If I had to guess, you know what I would say. I already made a case in previous posts that a market P/E of 50x or more would indicate to me a clear and present danger of a serious bubble. And now with the added analysis of a S&P 500 index at 4500 (this is not a forecast or projection!), that to me would also indicate a serious possibility of a bubble.

This Time is NOT Different
The bears always say, "This time is not different. Bulls like to think this time it's different". Well, I dunno. I am not necessarily bullish (I am a market perma-agnostic!), but I too agree that this time is not different.

I believe the market would have to get to bubble levels before we are at risk of a serious bear market. Also, in addition to the market and P/E levels I mention above, I will now also keep an eye on the real Fed Funds rate as the market has never in the past entered a serious bear market or crash with negative FF rates.

So no, this time is not different at all. And if it's not different, we shouldn't see a big bear or crash any time soon (famous last words!  I know the market will start to tank right after I hit the "publish" button, but that's OK!).

p.s.
...Oh, and by the way, as I was cleaning out a bunch of spam in the comments section, I accidently deleted a bunch of valid comments. Sorry about that. As you know, I don't delete comments from real commentors, even if they disagree with me, criticize, or whatever...


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Bitcoin, Marks

It's been a long time since posting last. I've gotten comments and emails wondering where I've gone. Actually, nothing has changed and it hasn't been a conscious decision to scale back here at all. I've been wanting to post.

Part of it may be that I was a little busy. I have been getting involved in volunteering here and there and sometimes it takes up a little more time than expected, and before you know it, you have no time for other stuff. Not to mention I have so many things I like to do, like coding/programming, reading etc.

The other reason for not posting much, I guess, is that things haven't really changed all that much. Maybe I'm coasting on things that I like that are doing well. I still like most of what I've talked about here and there hasn't been any reason to change anything.

Anyway, what triggered this post is another great memo from Howard Marks. If you are curious about bitcoin, or what to do about the markets (overvalued?), you should read this. Of course, most readers here probably already read it.

Howard Marks memo

This memo is fascinating because it deals with two things that I have been thinking about a lot over the past few years (OK, I haven't really thought about bitcoin all that much, actually, but I have been getting the indicators that it is indeed a bubble; people I know telling me it is going to $100,000 and are probably already calculating their net worth based on that price. At least that's what it feels like).

The Market
I haven't really changed my mind about the market at all. I've written a lot about what I think and nothing has really changed. The market is still expensive, and interest rates are still low. I still think a reasonable 'normalized' interest rate (10 year) is around 4.0%. And in that environment, stocks are still not expensive.

A lot of smart people are saying that it is way too expensive using some long term average, like the past century. Well, my view is that to use that as the norm, one would also have to assume that the average interest rate in the next century will be like the last century, and that's not at all a given. So in that sense, we can't really say what the average P/E ratio is going to be in the next century, let alone the next decade.

One argument is that low interest rates haven't helped Japanese stocks. This is an interesting thought and I may take a close look at that at some point as I did spend some time in Tokyo this summer. It is really an interesting, fascinating place. But it can also be incredibly frustrating too.

What To Do
Howard Marks writes about the options investors have at this point in an overvalued, late cycle market. He has a problem with people saying to do nothing and invest as usual. He makes a great argument but I sort of wonder about that.

Maybe it's different in fixed income versus equities; in fixed income there isn't much upside but a lot of downside. In the stock market, there is huge upside to offset huge downside.

Marks says that we do have to do something here, whether it be to lighten up, reduce return expectations, or some of the other things he lists (I agree we have to accept lower prospective returns; there is no arguing against that).

 First of all, one problem with this discussion has to do with who you are. If you are an equity fund manager, hedge fund, pension manager, asset allocator, individual investor (IRA, 401K, young person, old person) etc.

My guess is that for most people, do nothing should be fine. As Buffett said a while back, the stock market returned 10%/year in the last century, but most people who owned stocks didn't come close to that. Why? Because they kept getting in and out of the market trying to outsmart it.

When you think about that, it makes you wonder whether getting out or lighten up when you think the market is expensive is a wise decision. As I've said often before, when you look at the returns of the folks who do try to allocate capital according to forecasts, they haven't done all that well.

You can call this discipline, to get in and out according to the risk in the market. But go back to the fifties when dividend yields dipped below interest rates, which was unheard of. It's easy to imagine someone getting out of the market promising to keep discipline and go back in only when dividends yields are higher than interest rates (they would have finally gotten back in in the past few years!).

If you are young and are 100% in stocks in your IRA, that's fine. Even if you are not so young, it should be fine too as long as you understand the markets can be volatile and prospective returns are probably not going to be as high as in the past.

Keep in mind, the difference between stocks and bonds. If you are 100% invested in a great stock, say, Berkshire Hathaway, and you are worried about the market and want some spare cash just in case the market takes a dip. Well, if you are 100% invested in BRK, you are part owner of a heck of a lot of cash (on the balance sheet) and cash flow. If the market tanks, BRK will benefit. BRK will be buying. Would you not be better off letting the folks at BRK take advantage of the dip than you? Well, if the markets really tank, it's true that you might be able to get better deals (as you are probably more nimble).

But even if you stay 100% invested in BRK, they will take advantage of the dip and you will benefit.

Think about if you own a bond. If you own a BRK bond, you may not benefit on a dip in the market. BRK's bond value probably will not increase after a dip and recovery whereas the stock may very well come out bigger and stronger (maybe BRK's credit improves afterward, but probably not so much).

If you owned a high-yield bond and there is a dip, this mechanism wouldn't really work either, I don't think. A dip might hurt high-yield bonds more so you get killed, and the issuer may not come out the other side stronger as it's credit is not that strong to start with so may not be able to take advantage of a market dip to grow.

Old Greenblatt Memo
After the financial crisis, Joel Greenblatt posted a great comment on the Gotham website. He said that the mistake was not that people didn't see the crisis and didn't get out of the market in 2007. The mistake was that people owned too much stocks so that when it went down 50%, they panicked and sold out at the bottom.

He said that you should own an amount of stocks where a 50% drop won't be too upsetting to you. If you have a $100,000 stock portfolio, and a $50,000 mark-to-market loss would upset you, then you shouldn't have $100,000 in stocks. Many people invest too much assuming the bell will ring at the top so they will be able to get out.

I think the same applies today. It is not a mistake to be heavily invested (as long as you understand that markets will fluctuate, and will not return 10%/year going forward), as long as a 50% drop (and noone can predict when this will happen) won't be too upsetting to you.

If you are worried, lighten up, but lighten up because you think you might have too much exposure to stocks, not because you think you will be able to get back in at a better price later on because that probably won't happen.

Bitcoin
The most interesting part of Howard Marks' memo is about bitcoin. He was apparently bombarded by emails after his previous memo when he said that the bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme.

Of the folks supporting bitcoin is the dynamic duo from FRMO, Murray Stahl and Steven Bregman. Marks spoke at length about bitcoin with them.

Here is the FRMO letter to shareholders where they talk about crytocurrencies:

FRMO letter

If you are on the fence about bitcoin, go read this FRMO letter, and then read the Howard Marks letter. You will get a really good overview and arguments of both sides.

I have to say as much as I love technology, I don't get this one. Jamie Dimon said the other day that this was a fraud. That may be a strong word for it. I don't know if there is really any intent to defraud; these people probably actually believe it can be a real currency alternative, in which case it's not really fraud. But maybe it is fraud. Who knows.

What I don't get is that they say that central banks can print as much money as they want, but we know the supply of bitcoin going out into the future; there can't be more than that produced.

But who said that the bitcoin is going to be the only alternative cryptocurrency? The U.S. dollar has value because it is backed by the U.S. government (but nothing else), and nobody can just buy a printer and just start printing them. You can't just print your own, private dollars either. Well, I guess you can (via gift certificates, frequent flier miles, bonus points etc.).

The whole point of something valuable is it's universal acceptance. Gold, too, has a limited supply, but it has been accepted as a store of value for centuries. I have no idea where gold prices will go, but it will probably stay 'valuable' for many years to come.

But bitcoin? People lose bitcoins because they lose their USB drive that held the code, some exchange gets hacked and people lose bitcoins. If someone hacked a U.S. bank and took people's money, the FDIC would back it up. What kind of insurance or guarantee comes with bitcoin? What if one day it just doesn't work or you can't get access to it. Who do you call? What if there is a flaw in the system? Are bitcoin fans well-versed enough in the technology to figure out what went wrong?

If I woke up and my bank's website wasn't there, I can walk to a branch. If the branch isn't there, I can go to another branch, or the headquarters office. If it's not there, I can call the State bank regulator or other regulator to ask what happened and try to retrieve my money.

What's the equivalent in the bitcoin world? Who really runs it? Yes, they say nobody (or everybody). But that too is kind of scary.

China just said they are going to shut down bitcoin exchanges, and Japan announced the other day that gains and losses from bitcoin trading/investing will count as other income (I think that's what it was) and will be taxable. They said that this includes purchases with bitcoin. If you buy something with bitcoin, then you have to pay taxes on the gain.

Now, think about that for a second. How complicated is that going to be? Every time you use your bitcoin to buy something, you are going to realize a taxable gain?! What kind of payment mechanism or currency is that? That's just crazy.

OK, bitcoin supporters would argue that this will not happen because bitcoin is not trackable. There will be no 1099 or anything like that associated with it so the IRS (or the Japanese equivalent) will never know. I don't know about that. It would be surprising if they did nothing and let it stay this way; then nobody would ever pay taxes in a few years!

It's kind of incredible that so many people have jumped on the bitcoin bandwagon before the governments around the world have figured out what to do with it. Just letting it alone is a low probability scenario, I think. More likely is something like what Japan did; make it a taxable item, whatever it is. I'm kind of surprised that people aren't looking at this also as a gambling vehicle. I don't know much about gambling laws, but bitcoin as it works now sure looks like a vehicle for gambling to me.

In any case, I haven't changed my views about bitcoin. It's an odd curiousity. Kind of interesting. But without knowing how the laws will handle it, there is no way to determine if it has any real value. At least that's what I think even though there are many people smarter than me that believe in it.

If I miss this party, well, it won't be the first. If I don't understand it, I'll just stay away.

Anyway, we'll see what happens!


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bubble Watch

Shiller said the other day that the market can go up 50% from here. OK, so I fell for it and clicked to watch the CNBC video. This was sort of a surprising comment coming from the creator of the CAPE ratio, one of the main indicators bears use to argue that the market is way overvalued.

Of course, this is not Shiller's forecast or expectation. In fact, he says that this is very unlikely, but it is possible. His point was simply that the CAPE ratio is 30x now, and in the 1990's it went up to 45x. So if that happened again, that's a 50% increase.

This is totally possible, especially now. I would not invest in the market with that expectation, of course. Actually, I would invest with the opposite expectation (when pressed, Shiller said the market is more likely to go up 50% than down 50%).

Trailing P/E
Let's put the CAPE aside for now and just look at regular trailing P/E's. Back in 1999, that went up to 30x, and in 1987, it went up to 21.4x (this is from the Shiller spreadsheet).

We keep hearing from the bears that the market is as expensive as it was during previous peaks, so we are in dangerous territory; they say we are in a bubble.

OK. That is possible.

But in previous posts, I argued that if 10 year rates stabilize at 4% over time (it's at 2.3% now), it is possible that the market P/E can average 25x during that period. Maybe the market fluctuates around that average, so the market can easily trade between 18x and 33x P/E without anything being out of whack. (Buffett also said at the recent annual meeting that if rates stay around this area, then the stock market could prove to be very undervalued at current levels.)

So we have a problem. This 18-33x P/E range puts the market in bubble territory according to the bubble experts. But we are saying here that if rates stay at 4%, that's the normal range the market should trade at.

So then, how can we tell when we are in bubble territory?

Since we are using interest rates to value the stock market, we will have to interest rate adjust our bubble levels too.

Interest Rate Adjusted Bubble P/E
So just looking back at 1999 and 1987, here are the indicators at the time:

               PE          EY       10yr
1987      21.4x      4.7%     8.8%
1999      30.0x,     3.3%     6.3%

Both 1987 and 1999 had the feel of a rubber band stretching and then snapping. You will see that the earnings yield was 4.1% lower than the 10 year rate in 1987 and 3% lower in 1999.

Right now, the P/E ratio is 23.4x, for an earnings yield of 4.3% versus the 10-year rate of 2.3%. So it's a full 2.0% higher, not lower. But even I think 2.3% on the 10 year is too low. I use 4.0% these days for what I think is a non-bubbled up, unmanipulated-by-the-Fed, sustainable, normalized rate.

Using this spread, long term rates would have to go up to 7-8% for me to worry about an overstretched rubber band snapping.

How about the stock market? How high would it have to go before I think we are really in bubble territory?

With interest rates at 2.3%, we can't deduct 3% or 4% from it to get a bubble-level earnings yield.
So we'll look at it as a ratio.  In 1987, earnings yield got to as low as 0.53x the bond rate (4.7%/8.8%) and in 1999 it got to 0.52x (3.3%/6.3%)

Using the current 2.3% 10-year rate, earnings yield would have to get to 1.2% for me to really think that maybe we are in a stock market bubble.  That comes to 83x P/E!  At that level, trust me, even I won't be talking much about long term investing, and would probably be net short with a bunch of put options too.

But wait, let's not use 2.3% because we all know that's too low. Let's use my normalized 4%.  Even with a 4% bond yield, earnings yield would have to get to 2% to be considered really bubble level.  That is a P/E ratio of 50x.   That's more than a double from here.

So for me, the market would have to actually more than double from here before I see it as really bubbly. (If you want to see what a real bubble is like, look at Bitcoin!)

Narrow Market
The other thing I hear a lot is that the market is up only because of the very few hot tech stocks like the FANG stocks. They make it sound like the market would be doing nothing without them. Maybe.

But just as a quick check, I compared the S&P 500 index (ETF: SPY) to the S&P 500 equal-weighted index (ETF: RSP); the super-large caps would have no more impact than the smallest S&P 500 companies.

Check this out:
  (The blue line is the RSP, green is SPY)

SPY versus RSP Long Term

SPY versus RSP 10 Years

SPY versus RSP 5 Years


In all of the above time periods, the RSP outperforms SPY, which I don't think would be the case if it was only a few of the super-large caps that is pulling the S&P 500 index up.

Just for fun, I looked at the S&P 500 index versus the Russell 2000 index too. If only a few super-large caps were pulling up the averages, then obviously, the S&P 500 index should be outperforming the Russell 2000 too.  The blue line is the Russell 2000, and the green line is the S&P 500 index.


S&P 500 Index versus Russell 2000 - 5 Years

S&P 500 Index versus Russell 2000 - 10 Year


Here too, I don't see the S&P 500 outperforming in a big way lead by the supers.  To the contrary, the S&P 500 index is behind the Russell in the 10 year period.

I had no idea what I would see when I put up these comparisons. Looking at them now, I am a little disappointed in active managers who claim that they are underperforming because they don't own the FANG stocks; the above shows that maybe that's not the issue.

Anyway, that's another ongoing topic here.

Conclusion
All of this stuff, I just do sometimes to satisfy my own curiosity; not to make any claims either way. I have no idea what the market will do, but I don't believe we are in a stock market bubble at all. OK, if interest rates got up to 7-8% and valuations are still here in the 23-24x P/E area (trailing basis), then yes, I would agree we have a valuation problem.

Otherwise, it would take a market P/E of 50-80x for me to think we are in a stock market bubble (and I would put on shorts and load up on puts! But even then, I wouldn't expect an immediate payoff. If the market took off like that, it would be very hard to pick the top).

Otherwise, we are just, in terms of stock market valuation, in the "zone of reasonableness", to borrow Buffett's phrase from a few years ago.

Also, keep in mind, this 50-80x P/E ratio range is not a target, of course. That's where it has to go before you convince me we are in a stock market bubble.

Also, this doesn't mean the market can't enter a bear market at any time. There was no interest rate / earnings yield rubber band in 1929 and 2007.

Friday, May 19, 2017

High Fees

So, I was taking to a friend who has a million dollars in a large cap stock fund. The fund happens to be the Fidelity Magellan fund. The fund is very famous for being the ship that Peter Lynch navigated. But years later, it's just another generic, closet-index/large cap fund.  I don't follow mutual funds too closely, but my initial thought was that there is basically no chance of Magellan outperforming the S&P 500 index over time.

And, of course, the expense was almost 1%.  That is kind of shocking.

When you read gambling and trading books, they always tell you not to think of money as real money. When you are betting in poker and you see the $70,000 of cash in the pot as a BMW,  you will make really bad decisions and will play poorly. If you see the loss on your portfolio as two years of your kid's college education, you will freak out and make irrational moves. (Actually, if you really need that cash for your kid's education in the near future, then maybe you should freak out, and maybe you shouldn't have that cash in risk assets!)

But let's do the opposite now.  I said to the friend, gee, well, do you have a reason to believe that the Magellan fund will outperform the S&P 500 index over time? Not really. OK, then why are you basically writing a check for $10,000 per year? That's almost $1,000/month.  That's a lot of money for a retired person. Why would you write a $1,000 check every single month for nothing?

In ten years, that's $100,000 gone. Poof.  For absolutely no reason at all. That's more than most people have in their IRA's.

It's hard to notice these things as they are just deducted from the account so you don't actually write a check every month. If you did, you would probably think about it a lot harder.

1% Too High?
Mutual fund fees are too high for most funds. There are some funds that may be worth the fee, especially some of the value funds with long term track records.

But with expected equity returns of around 5-6% going forward, we have to wonder about 1% fees. It's one thing charging 1% fees in a 10% equity return world, but it's a whole different world now. Maybe fees should be restructured so that the fee is minimized to cover overhead and bulk of fee comes from outperforming a benchmark index.  I don't know. I actually don't own any funds so it's not really an issue for me, but something interesting to think about.

Speaking of high fees and having watched the Berkshire Annual Meeting video, it reminded me of a fund with really high fees.

Wintergreen
Some people believe that there is no bad publicity, but in this case, maybe it was bad publicity. David Winters of the Wintergreen Fund criticized Coke for their egregious stock compensation plan and even criticized Warren Buffett for not speaking out against the plan and even went so far as to sell Berkshire Hathaway stock in a huff saying that Warren Buffett no longer looks out for his shareholders.

This was kind of shocking for a few reasons.  First of all, when Winters talked about the massive wealth transfer, his number was totally off. I talked about it here, and Buffett said the numbers were also way off. So it means either that Winters is not a very good analyst, or is simply dishonest and threw out a huge number deliberately to get attention. I don't know which is worse, but either way is not very encouraging for his shareholders (take your pick: incompetence or dishonesty). He also sold off Berkshire Hathaway because of this. This seemed to me he was taking all of this personally and getting too emotionally involved. I don't know. But that's what it seemed like.

This lead Buffett to mention at an annual meeting that Winters charges very high fees for bad performance. Ouch. A lot of people love to go on CNBC because it's free advertising. But sometimes it backfires, particularly when you criticize a giant with no track record to back it up (and charge fees much higher than anyone else!).

First of all, this all happened in 2014. Winters sold his BRK in the 1Q of 2014. His fund is in red, BRK is blue and the S&P 500 index is the green line.


The Wintergreen Fund had assets of $1.6 billion in Dec 2007, but still had more than $1.2 billion as recently as the end of 2013. But as of the end of 2016, AUM was down to $300 million.  There is some AUM in the institutional class too but that is down a lot too.

Here is the performance of the fund:



That's a pretty huge underperformance no matter how you slice it.

OK, that's not so uncommon these days with active managers underperforming.

But here's the shocker. Look at the fees charged on this fund:


That's 2%! First of all, the fund underperforms in all long term time periods. In a 5-6% return equity world, the fund is basically charging 33%-40% of expected return!  But that's assuming the fund keeps up with the index, which historically hasn't been the case. If the fund lagged 1%/year on a gross basis that comes to more like 40-50% of expected returns going to the manager. That's truly insane.

And looking at this on a real cash basis, if you had $1 million in this fund, you would be writing a check for almost $20,000 per year! That's some real money.  Over 10 years, that's $200,000!?  You had better be sure someone will outperform the index if you are going to be writing checks that big every year.

One may argue that the benchmark is wrong; Wintergreen owns non-U.S. stocks. Actually, as an investor, that shouldn't matter. The fund doesn't have an explicit mandate that they must invest internationally or anything like that. If they invest in non-U.S. stocks, it has to be because they think non-U.S. stocks are more attractive; that they will outperform U.S. stocks. Or else why bother, right? So in that sense, benchmarking against a completely neutral S&P 500 is fine.

It's kind of crazy what people get away with.

I know people will immediately respond by saying, yeah, but you like all those alternative managers with even higher fees!  Well, most alternative guys charge too much too, but the ones I tend to like do have really good long term records.

Mutual Funds Sticky
Here's the thing about mutual funds versus alternative funds. I think a lot of mutual fund assets are really sticky due to the indifference of many investors. They just leave it and don't think about it, which is the correct approach to investing, generally. But the downside is that many don't realize how much is being sucked out of their net worth from these fees for no return.

Hedge funds, private equity funds, on the other hand, have investors who are more active in tracking performance etc. If you perform poorly, you will lose assets more quickly and go out of business as many hedge funds have seen in the last few years. Mutual funds can last forever on dreadful performance.

KO
And speaking of KO, it was also in 2014, I think, that Kent (KO CEO back then) started talking about zero-based budgeting. I was skeptical about this at the time; a lot of CEO's would just grab the latest buzzword and throw it in their presentations just to show how hip they are to the current state of the world (Now it seems to be AI, machine learning, big data etc... Well, that's all over Dimon's letter too, but financials have been big into these areas for a while...).

Anyway, KO is too big for most to make a run at it so there is no real sense of urgency there so you know nothing is going to happen, not to mention the arrogance there from a century of dominance. I have made the case that for anything to change at KO, it's going to have to come from the outside. Internal people will not be able to make big changes; they can't pull off the band-aid as it would hurt too many 'friends'.

Look at margin trends since they claimed they started using zero-based budgeting:

Analysis of Consolidated Statements of Income
Percent Change  
Year Ended December 31,
2016

2015

2014

2016 vs. 2015
2015 vs. 2014
(In millions except percentages and per share data)
NET OPERATING REVENUES
$
41,863

$
44,294

$
45,998

(5
)%
(4
)%
Cost of goods sold
16,465

17,482

17,889

(6
)
(2
)
GROSS PROFIT
25,398

26,812

28,109

(5
)
(5
)
GROSS PROFIT MARGIN
60.7
%
60.5
%
61.1
%

Selling, general and administrative expenses
15,262

16,427

17,218

(7
)
(5
)
Other operating charges
1,510

1,657

1,183

(9
)
40

OPERATING INCOME
8,626

8,728

9,708

(1
)
(10
)
OPERATING MARGIN
20.6
%
19.7
%
21.1
%


Operating margins are actually down from 2014.  So much for zero-based budgeting!

Munger indicated that a $150 billion deal would be huge for Berkshire Hathaway, so it is unlikely that BRK could make a run for KO on it's own. But in some sort of combination with BUD, KHC or some other 3G entity, who knows what will happen.


Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting Last Question
By the way, the last question on the Yahoo video was about CEO's social responsibility; should companies move jobs overseas to increase profits at the expense of local communities, domestic jobs etc.?

This was really a good question and I think about that sort of thing all the time. Do we always have to be the most efficient and lowest cost at all times? Do we really need to be increasing productivity all the time? Why can't we come to some stable status quo and not keep trying to grow or increase profits all the time?

And I always seem to go back to Japan. Japan is a country where companies usually do act responsibly and really doesn't want to fire people. And Japan is in terrible shape, I think, large due to that. Long time Canon CEO, Fujio Mitarai, explained that Japan can't compete well in many industries because they operate under the system of corporate socialism. The Japanese government won't provide unemployment and other social safety nets; Japanese corporations are expected to take care of redundant workers (by not firing them) etc.

You can protect people for a while like that, but at some point, the burden gets too big and the corporation will collapse.

Panasonic was one of those intensely socially responsible companies; Konnosuke Matsushita, the founder, strongly believed that it was the responsibility of the company to take care of their employees. He never wanted to fire anyone. It's a great concept and noble, but I don't believe it works.

McIlhenny Company (Tabasco sauce) was like that early on; they had an island they wanted to be self-sustaining. They wanted their employees to live there, they built schools, stores etc. But over time it just doesn't work. I think Henry Ford, Hershey and others tried similar things too when it was believed that if they created a company town with everything necessary for employees to raise a family and live comfortably, they can create a sort of self-sustaining utopia.

It just doesn't work. It also reminds me of the pre-Thatcher Britain; it didn't work at the national level either.

And besides, more of a threat to the domestic work force than globalization is technology. I haven't done much research in the area, but technology is probably more responsible for job losses than globalization (moving production to low wage countries).

And do we really want to limit or stop technology? Japan will make large advances in that area due to their shrinking population. They need nurses and other workers to take care of the increasingly aging (and dwindling) population.

If the U.S. slows technological progress for the sake of maintaining low unemployment, then the Japanese will ultimately rule the future and we will have a large, unemployed (and unemployable) population.

Related to all this, just by chance, I happen to be reading the new Kasparov book. I'm not done with it yet, but it is really fascinating. True, he's a former chess world champion so what does he really know? He is a voracious reader and runs around meeting and talking to interesting people all over the world so he has interesting insights into many things.

He points out that every time we have technological advancement, people fear this or that.  For example, the elevator operators union had 17,000+ members in 1920. The technology existed in 1900 but wasn't widely used (automatic elevators) until 1930 due to people's fear of riding operator-less elevators (similar to fear of driverless cars today; but people's fear is not what is holding back driverless cars today...).

Anyway, I am not a believer in holding anything back for the sake of maintaining employment; it will only delay the day of reckoning, and at that point the negative impact might be much worse.

Since technology is advancing so quickly, retraining won't be able to keep up, so something like a universal basic income is probably the only way to go at some point. I know I sound like a communist when I say that, but I can't think of any other way.

Anyway, this veers far away from the topic of this blog, so let's get back on topic.

Conclusion
If you are one of those people who have a bunch of mutual funds in your IRA/401K or whatever, I would actually go in and do the work to calculate how much you are actually paying in real dollars. Is it really worth it? Same with financial advisors. When fees are just deducted from your account, you may not realize how much you are paying. Calculate what your are paying. Is it really worth it?

Let's say you have $5 million and most of it is in tax-free money market funds and the S&P 500 index funds. With a 2% fee, that's $100,000 per year! Why would anyone pay that? Is it really worth it? Can your advisor really pick stocks and funds better than some simple passive portfolio?

I don't know. When you look at it in real dollars like that, it is really insane.




Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fairfax India Holdings (FFXDF)

This is one of those things that I looked at before and never posted, so here it is. Actually, I didn't write much about it, it was just sitting in my queue.

I know Munger likes China more than India, but I think India is very interesting. I don't think I have to say much about it as it is not a new idea. And yes, India has problems that China doesn't have (democracy that can actually hold back progress unlike in the authoritarian China where the government can just basically do what it wants). But India is still fascinating, especially with all the things going on over there now (pro-business government for the first time etc).

Anyway, as usual, before that, check this out from the Fairfax 2016 Letter to Shareholders.

Here's the long term investment performance of Fairfax (not the India entity):


And what happened in 2016:


...and the summary overall for the period 2010-2016:



Their equity hedge has been very costly, basically a total disaster.  Their hedges cost them $4.4 billion since 2010. Since it was a hedge, you have to look at it on a net basis with the longs; that's a $1.7 billion loss.  Still pretty awful. This is during a period the S&P 500 index went up 12.5%/year. In 2010, they had $4.5 billion in stocks. If this was unhedged and their stocks kept up with the market, it would have added $4.5 billion to their net value instead of losing $1.7 billion; that's a swing of $6.2 billion!  That's huge given their common equity in 2010 of around $8 billion ($8.5 billion at end of 2016).

It's fair to say, though, that if the portfolio wasn't hedged, it might have been smaller than $4.5 billion; the portfolio might have been sold down for risk management purposes.

Since 2007, Fairfax has still outperformed (price basis) the S&P 500 index and all of the so-called Berk-a-likes:


This chart (and other charts), by the way, are updated every day at the Brooklyn Investor website.

Anyway, over the long term, they have done well, so it's not fair to focus just on this one mistake (even though it's a huge one). Many CEO errors cause their companies to go bust, and that hasn't happened here, or anything even close to that.

Here is the other 'bet' Fairfax has on:


This bet doesn't look so interesting these days, but the important point is that the downside in these bets are known and small. It's one of those "if you're wrong you don't lose too much but if you're right you can make a ton" deals. Needless to say, the equity portfolio hedge was not that kind of bet!

Expensive Market
Anyway, I still have conversations about this sort of thing and hear all the time about the markets being expensive, people being confused as to what's going on.

One hedge fund executive (wasn't clear what position was; not sure if he had investment experience/responsibilities) was on CNBC the other day and it was stunning because the comments were based on such extraordinarily static analysis, talking about the uncertainties in the market, how things were expensive etc.

Reflexivity
And it reminds me of a book that I plan to reread (if I can find it!). When I read it years ago, it was incredibly eye-opening, and it feels like a lot of people have forgotten about this sort of thinking. The book is by George Soros, one of the greatest of all time:

   The Alchemy of Finance

He talks about reflexivity, and it sort of differentiates the traditional economists viewpoint based on static analysis versus his more dynamic view of the world based on reflexivity. (This book is more of interest to traders than long term investors).

For example, if the market goes up, most people assume it must go down because it is overvalued. Economists base their views on supply/demand balance so they think things must trend towards equilibrium. Most comments I hear these days tend to be in this camp.

Soros' view is that in fact, an expensive market can make a market even more expensive.  Why? Because if markets go up and gets overvalued, then financing costs go down and can encourage more profit-making and increased earnings, which can drive prices even higher. Economists wouldn't consider this factor. This is in fact what happened in Japan too in the late 1980's.

I think Soros talks about the REIT boom/bust of the 1970's in this book; maybe it was somewhere else. But the above is exactly what happened.

Anyway, I am going to dig up a copy of this; it must be somewhere around here in one of these boxes or piles of books.

Mean Reversion
Sort of related to the above, here's another thing I hear all the time: mean reversion. I too believe in mean reversion. But there are tradable/investable mean reversions and untradable/uninvestable mean reversions.

Values mean revert, usually. As a value investor, we can buy undervalued stocks and assume mean reversion will enhance our returns. This is investable mean reversion. As long as you are not leveraged, you can just wait for the market to prove you right.

Shorting overvalued stocks is also a mean-reversion trade, but it is untradable.  Ask anyone who was or is short Tesla, Amazon, Netflix. Oh, remember L.A. Gear? Or U.S. Surgical? Anything in 1997-2000? Those are untradable because you will get killed trying to short that stuff even if mean-reversion will eventually kick in. Nobody has that kind of staying power.

So what kind of mean reversion do you want? You want mean reversion that happens OFTEN. You want mean-reversion that is tradable.

Not exactly a mean reversion trade, but take index arbitrage. You go long stocks and short future against it (or vice versa). You know from history that the premium/discount fluctuates over time. But you also know that this spread will not diverge too far apart, and you know that at expiration, your long and short will offset and you can realize the spread perfectly with very little risk. That's a spread you can trade safely. (In fact, one of Soros' early strategies was to arb gold prices between New York and London. I think a long distance phone connection was that era's version of a direct optical fiber connection to exchanges today)

How about options volatility? For shorter dated options, trading volatility works too. You may or may not make money, but volatility cycles are often not that long so you can capture volatility by trading options. You may need some staying power, though, because sometimes you sell volatility at 30% and it goes to 40% or 50%. But you know that eventually, these panic levels will subside at some point for much lower volatility.

What about stat arbs?  These guys too, especially the high-frequency guys, are trading mean-reversion. The one mentioned in the Thorp book, I think, was based on 2-week returns in stocks. Stat arbs these days turn over their portfolios multiple times in a day (I am guessing, but we had high turnover a long time ago; I am assuming it's much faster now), which implies a high level of mean-reversion; each trade is not expected to last very long. Things diverge and revert very quickly.

This has two big advantages (well, probably more but let's keep it simple); first, with so much frequency you have that many more data points. With that many trades, you are that much more likely to make money. With time span so short, the risk of divergence, or spreads widening out even more, is minimal.

Imagine trying to trade inefficiencies in the stock market based on tick data where trades last for minutes. What is the risk?  Hint: tiny on each trade, and since you do so many trades, you are well-diversified and if your data is correct, you are more likely to realize the 'edge'.

Now imagine trying to trade inefficiencies in the stock market where people misprice P/E ratios on individual stocks. The expected duration of a trade can be years (the P/E ratio inefficiency probably will not correct within the next week or even month. Unlikely even in the next year; how many years have TSLA, NFLX and AMZN been overvalued?). Now think of the range of stock prices that a mispriced stock can trade at over that time span.  Now you see how huge the risk is.

Of course, sometimes you can see some sort of deterioration in a company, some manic blowoff or some other 'timing' device that might help you nail a short of an overvalued company. But you see how trading just on valuation on the short side is going to be tough game.

The Market
Let's take all of the above thoughts and apply it to the overall market. People always talk about mean reversion of the market P/E ratio, profit margins and things like that.

Are these factors tradable? If the stock market went to 20-30x P/E and then went down to 8-10x and then went up to 20-30x and kept doing that many times over the years (averaging out at 14-15x), then it turns into a tradable idea. You can set ranges too and calculate probable outcomes and manage risk accordingly.

But looking at long term data, that's not really the case. It's more like these things happen very rarely and over long periods of time. Most people talk about what happened in 1929, 1968, 1987, 2000 or whatever. I think it was Buffett (but may have been Munger) who said that to bet on something that happened just a few times over the last 100 years does not sound like a good idea.

Again, the same questions apply: when is the expected reversion? What is the risk? If the reversion is not expected in the short term (next week, next month, within the year etc...), then what is adverse move against you going to cost?

Interest rates mean revert too, but look at the rates in the past 100, 200 years. If you want to realize any 'edge' in the long term mean-reversion of interest rates, you have to play for decades, and the reversion may not even occur within a single generation.

Back to Fairfax India
Emerging markets haven't been so hot in recent years, but I don't think there is any doubt that that is where a lot of growth is going to come from over the next few years. Much of that growth will be captured by global firms to be sure, so owning global companies will give you exposure without having to invest in emerging markets.

But it's fun to have some direct investment overseas when there is an interesting opportunity. I don't think FFDXF is a unique opportunity right now in terms of value/pricing, but it is an interesting opportunity in that you can co-invest with a successful manager in an investment vehicle focused on India that combines listed stocks and private investments. There are not too many of those ideas.

The option to invest in private deals expands the universe of potential investments so increases the odds of finding winners. The closed nature of this vehicle (not an ETF, mutual fund or hedge fund/partnership) allows them to focus on the long term and not worry about liquidity and short term performance.

With these advantages and with a management that we understand that agrees with out own views on investing makes this an interesting opportunity.

Of course, the value approach to investing is not universally accepted, and Fairfax has its own fair share of long-time critics.  So this is only interesting to those who appreciate the Fairfax track record and what they are trying to do in India.

India Macro
Here are some charts from the FFXDF marketing slides from a couple of years ago. You can get all of this at the SEDAR website:  


Nothing really new here, but just to refresh: 

One huge headwind in the global economy is demographics; this is a problem everywhere, Japan, China, Europe and even the U.S. to a lesser extent than the others. 

And this is India:



A lot of potential for growth in India, and recently trending well:






Singapore II?
Watsa compares what can happen in India going forward to Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore starting in the 1960's. Singapore is a great example of a successful nation, and Munger brings it up all the time too. But we have to remember that Singapore was a tiny island city-state with a population of less than 2 million (in the early 1960's), and a current population of less than 6 million. The area of Singapore is smaller than New York City.

It's one thing to rebuild and lead a nation of 2 million, but it's an entirely different matter to try to do the same with a country with a population that exceeds a billion. Try banning chewing gum in a huge country like India with a 1 billion+ population!

But OK, we get the analogy. Maybe India can't repeat Singapore's performance, but with the right policies, they can still do really well.

Past Performance
These things may not be as indicative of future performance as we'd like to think, but here is the track record of Watsa's India investment management team. They have done really well, but we have to keep in mind that the results are very volatile. We are talking about an emerging market, and a highly concentrated portfolio. Plus not much has happened since 2007 (a lot of volatility!).






One thing that Fairfax fans may not like is the management fee structure. This seems kind of normal in the investment world; 1.5% management fee and 20% incentive fee (but only after 5% hurdle). In this day and age, it might sound a little steep. Maybe it's not so bad when you consider that it is partially a private equity fund.



Why not ETF?
Well, if India is so interesting (and I don't mean in the timing sense, by the way. I don't follow India closely enough to tell you even what the sentiment is like, but I think emerging markets overall here has been out of favor), and the fees are too high, why not go with and indexed ETF?

That may be a good idea. I haven't looked in detail at any of the India ETF's, but emerging market ETF's tend to be packed with large, inefficient, formerly state-run enterprises. Plus who knows when the government dumps (IPO's) a large, stodgy, bureaucratic, inefficient state-run organization onto the market for non-differentiating index funds to blindly buy into (this could be one of your funds!).

I think the inefficiencies in these markets tends to favor the active investor.

Plus, here, you are betting on the continued success of the Fairfax/Watsa investment approach. You don't get that in an index.

Speaking of emerging market funds, it seems like emerging markets have grown at a higher pace than mature economies for decades, and yet how come there aren't really any good emerging market funds with good long term track records? Mark Mobius was a big star back in the 1990's. Last time I looked, his funds' performance was not very good. I wonder about that.  Maybe it's something I should look at in another post. I am always intrigued by the idea of emerging markets, but am almost never sure what to do about it!  (uh oh... reading too many Watsa reports... the exclamation point is contagious!).

There was a time in the late 1980's and early 1990's when all you had to do was to own the telephone companies in each of the emerging markets and you could earn hedge fund-like returns (any ADR with a 'com' (not '.com') in the name would have worked).

Conclusion
Anyway, this may not be for everybody, and it will probably be pretty volatile but it's an interesting thing to keep an eye on, or tuck into your portfolio somewhere and just forget about it and check back in a few years.