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Signs of a Top, OR that I am a Grumpy Old Man

June 20, 2018 4 comments

I was at an alternative investments conference last week. I always go to this conference to hear what strategies are in vogue – mostly for amusement, since the strategies that are in vogue this year are ones they will spit on next year. Two years ago, everyone loved CTAs; last year the general feeling was “why in the world would anyone invest in CTAs?” Last year, the buzzword was AI strategies. One comment by a fund-of-funds manager really stuck in my head, and that was that this fund-of-funds was looking for managers with quantitative PhDs but specifically ones with no market experience so that “they don’t have preconceived notions.” So, you can tell how that worked out, and this year there was no discussion of “AI” or “machine learning” strategies.

This year, credit strategies were in vogue and the key panel discussion involved three managers of levered credit portfolios. Not surprisingly, all three thought that credit is a great investment right now. One audience question triggered answers that were striking. The question was (paraphrasing) ‘this expansion is getting into the late innings. How much longer do you think we have until the next recession or crisis?” The most bearish of the managers thought we could enter into recession two years from now; the other two were in the 3-4 year camp.

That’s borderline crazy.

It’s possible that the developing trade war, the wobbling of Deutsche Bank, the increase in interest rates from the Fed, higher energy prices, Italy’s problems, Brexit, the European migrant crisis, the state pension crisis in the US, Elon Musk’s increasingly erratic behavior, the fact that the FANG+ index is trading with a 59 P/E, and other imbalances might not unravel in the next 3 years. Or 5 years. Or 100 years. It’s just increasingly unlikely. Trees don’t grow to the sky, and so betting on that is usually a bad idea. But, while the tree still grows, it looks like a good bet. Until it doesn’t.

There are, though, starting to be a few peripheral signs that the expansion and markets are experiencing some fatigue. I was aghast that venerable GE was dropped from the Dow Jones to be replaced by Walgreens. Longtime observers of the market are aware that these index changes are less a measure of the composition of the economy (which is what they tell you) and more a measure of investors’ animal spirits – because the index committee is, after all, made up of humans:

  • In February 2008 Honeywell and Altria were replaced in the Dow by Bank of America (right before the largest banking crisis in a century) and Chevron (oil prices peaked over $140/bbl in July 2008).
  • In November 1999, Chevron (with oil at $22) had been replaced in the Dow (along with Sears, Union Carbide, and Goodyear) by Home Depot, Intel, Microsoft, and SBC Communications at the height of the tech bubble, just 5 months before the final melt-up ended.

It isn’t that GE is in serious financial distress (as AIG was when it was dropped in September 2008, or as Citigroup and GM were when they were dropped in June 2009). This is simply a bet by the index committee that Walgreens is more representative of the US economy than GE and coincidentally a bet that the index will perform better with Walgreens than with GE. And perhaps it will. But I suspect it is more about replacing a stodgy old company with something sexier, which is something that happens when “sexy” is well-bid. And that doesn’t always end well.

After the credit-is-awesome discussion, I also noted that credit itself is starting to send out signals that perhaps not all is well underneath the surface. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the S&P 500 in orange, inverted, against one measure of corporate credit spreads in white.

Remember, equity is a call on the value of the firm. This chart shows that the call is getting more valuable even as the first-loss piece (the debt) is getting riskier – or, in other words, the cost to bet on bankruptcy, which is what a credit spread really is, is rising. Well, that can happen if overall volatility increases (if implied volatility rises, both a call and a put can rise in value which is what is happening here), so these markets are at best saying that underlying volatility/risk is rising. But it’s also possible that the credit market is merely leading the stock market. It is more normal for these markets to correlate (inverted) over time – see the chart below, which shows the same two series for 2007-2009.

I’m not good at picking the precise turning points of markets, especially when values start to get really bubbly and irrational – as they have been for some time. It’s impossible to tell when something that is irrational will suddenly become rational. You can’t tell when the sleepwalker will wake up. But they always do. As interest rates, real interest rates, and credit spreads have risen and equity yields have fallen, it is getting increasingly difficult for me to see why buying equities makes sense. But it will, until it doesn’t.

I don’t know whether the expansion will end within the next 2, 3, or 4 years. I am thinking it’s more likely to be 6 months once the tax-cut sugar high has truly worn off. And I think the market peak, if it isn’t already in, will be in within the next 6 months for those same reasons as companies face more difficult comps for earnings growth. But it could really happen much more quickly than that.

However, I recognize that this might really just mean that I am a grumpy old man and you’re all whippersnappers who should get off my lawn.

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You Haven’t Missed It

April 26, 2018 2 comments

A question I always enjoy hearing in the context of markets is, “Have I missed it?” That simple question betrays everything about the questioner’s assumptions and about the balance of fear and greed. It is a question which, normally, can be answered “no” almost without any thought to the situation, if the questioner is a ‘normal’ investor (that is, not a natural contrarian, of which there are few).

That is because if you are asking the question, it means you are far more concerned with missing the bus than you are concerned about the bus missing you.

It usually means you are chasing returns and are not terribly concerned about the risks; that, in turn – keeping in mind our assumption that you are not naturally contrary to the market’s animal spirits, so we can reasonably aggregate your impulses – means that the market move or correction is probably underappreciated and you are likely to have more “chances” before the greed/fear balance is restored.

Lately I have heard this question arise in two contexts. The first was related to the stock market “correction,” and on at least two separate occasions (you can probably find them on the chart) I have heard folks alarmed that they missed getting in on the correction. It’s possible, but if you’re worried about it…probably not. The volume on the bounces has diminished as the market moves away from the low points, which suggests that people concerned about missing the “bottom” are getting in but rather quickly are assuming they’ve “missed it.” I’d expect to see more volume, and another wave of concern, if stocks exceed the recent consolidation highs; otherwise, I expect we will chop around until earnings season is over and then, without a further bullish catalyst, the market will proceed to give people another opportunity to “buy the dip.”

The other time I have heard the angst over missing the market is in the context of inflation. In this, normal investors fall into two categories. They’re either watching 10-year inflation breakevens now 100bps off the 2016 lows and 50bps off the 2017 lows and at 4-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg) and thinking ‘the market is no longer cheap’, or they just noticed the well-telegraphed rise in core inflation from 1.7% to 2.1% over the last several months and figuring that the rise in inflation is mostly over, now that the figure is around the Fed’s target and back at the top of the 9-year range.

Here again, the rule is “you didn’t miss it.” Yes, you may have missed buying TIPS 100bps cheap to fair (which they were, and we pointed it out in our 2015Q3 Quarterly Inflation Outlook to clients), but breakevens at 2.17% with median inflation at 2.48% and rising (see chart, source Bloomberg), and still 25bps below where breakevens averaged in the 5 years leading up to the Global Financial Crisis, says you aren’t buying expensive levels. Vis a vis commodities: I’ve written about this recently but the expectations for future real returns are still quite good. More to the point, inflation is one of those circumstances where the bus really can hit you, and concern should be less about whether you’ve missed the gain and more about whether you need the protection (people don’t usually lament that they missed buying fire insurance cheaper, if they need fire insurance!).

(In one way, these two ‘did I miss it’ moments are also opposites. People are afraid of missing the pullback in stocks because ‘the economy still looks pretty strong,’ but they’re afraid they missed the inflation rally because ‘the economy is going to slow soon and the Fed is tightening and will keep inflation under control.’ Ironically, those are both wrong.)

My market view is this:

  • For some time, TIPS have been very cheap to nominal bonds, but rich on an absolute Negative real yields do not a bargain make, even if they look better than other alternatives when lots of asset classes are even more expensive. But as real yields now approach 1% (70bps in 5y TIPS, 80bps in 10y TIPS), and with TIPS still about 35bps cheap to nominal bonds, they are beginning to be palatable to hold on their own right. And that’s without my macro view, which is that over the next decade, one way or the other, inflation protection will become an investment theme that people tout as a ‘new focus’ even though it’s really just an old focus that everyone has forgotten. But the days of <1% inflation are over, and we aren’t going to see very much <2% either. We may not see 4% often, or for long, but at 3% inflation is something that people need to take into account in optimizing a portfolio. I think we’re at that inflection point, but if not then we will be in a year or two. And TIPS are a key, and liquid, component of smart real assets portfolios.
  • Stocks have been outrageously expensive with very poor forward return expectations for a long time. However, these value issues have been overwhelmed by strong momentum (that, honestly, I never gave enough credit to) and the currently in-vogue view that momentum is somehow better than value. But perennially strong momentum is no longer a foregone conclusion. Momentum has stalled in the stock market – the S&P has broken the 50-day, 100-day, and (a couple of times, though only briefly so far) 200-day moving averages. The 50-day has now crossed below the 100-day. And the longer that the market chops sideways the weaker the momentum talisman becomes. Eventually, the value anchor will take over. There may be more chop to come but as I said above, I think another leg down is likely to come after earnings season.

And so, in neither case have you “missed it.”

Being Closer to the ‘Oh Darn’ Inflation Strike

April 19, 2018 5 comments

The time period between spikes of inflation angst seems to be shortening. I am not sure yet about the amplitude of those spikes of angst, but the concern seems to be quickening.

This is not without reason as it seems that concerning headlines are occurring with more frequency. This week the Bloomberg Commodity Index again challenged the 2016 and 2017 highs before backing off today (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Somewhat more alarming than that, to people who watch commodities, is how the commodity indices are rallying. The culprits are energy as well as industrial metals, and each has an interesting story to tell. Energy has been rallying partly because of global tensions, but also partly because US shale oil production appears to be running into some bottlenecks on production (wages, shortages of frack sand) as well as delivery (capacity constraints on pipelines), and part of what has kept a lid on energy prices over the last couple of years was the understanding that shale oil production was improving rapidly and becoming lots more efficient due to improved technology. If shale is limited, the ‘lid’ on prices is not as binding as we had thought. On industrial metals, some of the upward pressure has been due to fallout from US sanctions on Rusal, a major supplier of aluminum and alumina. Since those sanctions were announced, aluminum prices have risen around 25%, and alumina (a raw input to aluminum production) about 50%, with knock-on effects in other industrial metals.

Both of these items bear on the market’s recent fears about new pressures on inflation – capacity constraints (especially rising wages for long-haul truckers) and potential fracturing of the global trade détente.

And 10-year breakevens are at new 4-year highs, although it is worth remembering that this is nowhere near the 10-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Shorter inflation swaps look less alarming, and not at new four-year highs. However, even here the news is not really soothing. The reason that shorter inflation swaps are lower than they have been in the past is because the energy curves are in backwardation – meaning that the market is pricing in lower energy process in the future. In turn, this means that implied core inflation – once we strip out these energy effects – are, in fact, at 4-year highs (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

So there is legitimate cause to be concerned about upside risks to inflation, and that’s one reason the market is a bit jumpier in this regard. But there is also additional premium, volatility, and angst associated with the level of inflation itself. While as I have pointed out before much of the rise in core inflation to date due to optics arising from base effects, that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘oh, rats’ strike is closer now. That is to say that when core inflation is running at 1.5%, stuff can go wrong without hurting you if your pain threshold is at 3%. But when core inflation is at 2.5% (as it will be this summer), not as much “bad stuff” needs to happen to cause financial pain. In other words, both the ‘delta’ and the ‘gamma’ of the exposure is higher now – just as if one were short a call option struck at (say) 3% inflation. Because, implicitly, many investors are.

If inflation is low, then even if it is volatile in a range it can be consistent with high market valuations for stocks and bonds. But when inflation starts to creep above 3%, those markets tend to suffer in non-linear fashion.

And this, I believe, is why the market’s nervousness about inflation (and market volatility resulting from that nervousness) is unlikely to soon abate.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (Apr 2018)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guyPV and get this in real time, by going to PremoSocial. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments or Enduring Intellectual Properties. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • After a couple of weeks of relative quiet on the inflation theme, it seems people the last few days are talking about it again. Big coverage in the Daily Shot about the underlying pressures.
  • I don’t normally pay much attention to PPI, but it’s hard to ignore the momentum that has been building on that side of things. In particular, the medical care index that PCE uses has been rising rapidly in the PPI. Doesn’t affect us today w/ CPI but affects the Fed convo.
  • But back on CPI. Of course the main focus this month for the media will be the dropping off of the -0.073% m/m figure from March 2017, which will cause y/y CPI to jump to around 2.1% from 1.8%. It’s a known car wreck but the reporters are standing at the scene.
  • That year-ago number of course was caused by cell phone services, which dropped sharply because of the widespread introduction of ‘unlimited data’ plans which the BLS didn’t handle well although they stuck to their methodology.
  • Consensus expectations for this month are for 0.18% on core, which would cause y/y to round down to 2.1%. (Remember that last month, core y/y was very close to rounding up to 1.9%…that shortfall will make this month look even more dramatic.)
  • It would only take 0.22% on core to cause the y/y number to round UP to 2.2%, making the stories even more hyperventilated.
  • I don’t make point estimates of monthly numbers, because the noise swamps the signal. We could get an 0.1% or an 0.3% and it wouldn’t by itself mean much until we knew why. But I will say I think there are risks to a print of 0.22% or above.
  • First, remember the underlying trend to CPI is really about 0.2% anyway. Median inflation is 2.4% and after today core will be over 2%. So using the last 12 months as your base guess is biased lower.
  • Also, let’s look back at last month: Apparel was a big upside surprise for the second month in a row, while shelter was lower than expected. But…
  • But apparel was rebounding from two negative months before that. We’re so used to Apparel declining but really last month just brought it back up to trend. And with the trade tensions and weak dollar, am not really shocked it should be rising some.
  • Apparel is only +0.40% y/y, so it’s not like it needs to correct last month.
  • On the other hand, OER decelerated to 0.20 from 0.28 and primary rents decelerated to 0.20 from 0.34, m/m. But there’s really no reason yet to be looking for rent deceleration – housing prices, in fact, are continuing to accelerate.

  • No reason to think RENTAL costs should be decelerating while PURCHASE costs are still accelerating. Could happen of course, but a repeat of last month’s numbers is less likely.
  • Finally – this gets a little too quanty even for me, but I wonder if last month’s belly flop in CPI could perturb the monthly seasonal adjustments and (mistakenly) overcorrect and push this month higher. Wouldn’t be the first time seasonals bedeviled us.
  • I don’t put a lot of weight on that last speculation, to be clear.
  • Market consensus is clearly for weakness in this print. I’m just not so sure the ball breaks that way. But to repeat what I said up top: the monthly noise swamps the signal so don’t overreact. The devil is in the details. Back up in 5 minutes.
  • ok, m/m core 0.18%. Dang those economists are good. y/y to 2.12%.
  • After a couple of 0.18s, this chart looks less alarming.

  • OK, Apparel did drop again, -0.63% m/m, taking y/y to 0.27%. So still yawning there. Medical Care upticked to 1.99% from 1.76% y/y, reversing last month’s dip. Will dig more there.
  • In rents, OER rose again to 0.31% after 0.20% soft surprise last month, and primary rents 0.26% after a similar figure. y/y figures for OER and Primary Rents are 3.26% and 3.61% respectively. That primary rent y/y is still a deceleration from last mo.
  • Core services…jumped to 2.9% from 2.6%. Again not so surprising since cell phone services dropped out. So that’s the highest figure since…a year ago.
  • Core goods, though, accelerated to -0.3% from -0.5%. That’s a little more interesting. It hasn’t been above 0 for more than one month since 2013, but it’s headed that way.

  • Within Medical Care…Pharma again dragged, -0.16% after -0.44% last month…y/y down to 1.87% from 2.39% two months ago. So where did the acceleration come from?
  • Well, Hospital Services rose from 5.01% to 5.16% y/y, which is no big deal. But doctors’ services printed another positive and moved y/y to -0.83% from -1.27% last month and -1.51% two months ago. Still a long way to go there.

  • Oh wait, get ready for this because the inflation bears will be all about “OH LODGING AWAY FROM HOME HAD A CRAZY ONE-MONTH 2.31% INCREASE.” Which it did. Which isn’t unusual.

  • Interestingly those inflation bears who will tell us how Lodging Away from Home will reverse next month (it will, but hey folks it’s only 0.9% of the index) are the same folks always telling us that AirBnB is killing hotel pricing. MAYBE NOT.
  • Finally making it back to cars. CPI Used cars and trucks had another negative month, -0.33% after -0.26% last month. That really IS a surprise: we’ve never seen the post-hurricane surge that I expected.

  • Sure, used cars are out of deflation, now +0.37% y/y. New cars still deflating at -1.22% vs -1.47% y/y last month. But that really tells you how bad the inventory overhang is in autos. Gonna suck to be an auto manufacturer when the downturn hits. As usual.
  • Leased cars and trucks, interestingly (only 0.64% of CPI) are +5.26% y/y. Look at that trend. Maybe that’s where the demand for cars is going.

  • Oh, how could I forget the star of our show! Wireless telephone services went to -2.41% y/y from -9.43% y/y last month. Probably will go positive over next few months – a real rarity! But after “infinity” data where does the industry go on pricing? Gotta be in the actual price!
  • College tuition and fees: 1.75% y/y from 2.04%. Lowest in a long time. This is a lagged effect of the big stock and bond bull market, and that effect will fade. Tuition prices will reaccelerate.
  • Bigger picture. Core ex-housing rose to 1.23% from 0.92%. Again, a lot of that is cell phone services. But deflation is deep in the rear-view mirror.
  • While I’m waiting for my diffusion stuff to calculate let’s look ahead. We’re at 2.1% y/y core CPI now. The next m/m figures to “roll off” from last year are 0.09, 0.08, 0.14, and 0.14.
  • In other words, core is still going to be accelerating optically even if there’s no change in the underlying, modestly accelerating trend. Next month y/y core will be 2.2%, then 2.3%, then 2.4%. May even reach 2.5% in the summer.
  • This is also not in isolation. The Underlying Inflation Gauge is over 3% for the first time in a long time. Global inflation is on the rise and Chinese inflation just went to the highest level it has seen in a while.
  • One of the stories I’m keeping an eye on too is that long-haul trucker wages are accelerating quickly because new technology has been preventing drivers from exceeding their legal driving limits…which has the effect of restraining supply in trucking capacity.
  • …and that feeds into a lot of things. Until of course the self-driving cars or drone air force takes care of it.
  • The real question, of course, is whence inflation goes after the summer. I believe it will continue to rise as higher interest rates help to goose money velocity after a long time. But it takes time for that theme to play out.
  • time for four-pieces. Here’s Food & Energy.

  • Core goods. Consistent with our theme. it’s going higher.

  • OK, here’s where cell phone services come in: core services less rent of shelter. So the recent jump is taking us back to where we were a year ago. Real question here is whether medical rallies. Some signs in PPI it may be.

  • Rent of Shelter continues to be on our model. Some will look for a reversal in this little jump – not me.

  • Another month where one of the OER subindices will probably be the median category so my guess won’t be fabulous. It will probably either be 0.26% m/m on median (pushing y/y to 2.49%), or 0.20% (y/y to 2.44%). Either way it’s a y/y acceleration.
  • Oh, by the way…10y breakevens are unchanged on the day. This is the second month of data that was ‘on target,’ but surprised the real inflation bears. There isn’t anything really weird here or doomed to be reversed…at least, nothing large.
  • Bottom line for markets is core CPI will continue to climb; core PCE will continue to climb. For at least a few more months (and probably longer, but next 3-4 are baked into the cake). Even though this is known…I don’t know that the Fed and markets will react well to it.
  • That’s all for today, unless I think of something in 5 minutes as usually happens. Thanks for subscribing!!

As I said in the tweet series – this was at some level a ham-on-rye report, coming in right on consensus expectations. But some observers had looked for as low as 0.11% or 0.13% – some of them for the second month in a row – and those observers are either going to have to get religion or keep being wrong. There are a couple of takeaways here and one of them is that even ham-on-rye reports are going to cause y/y CPI to rise over the next four months. This is entirely predictable, as is the fact that core PCE will also be rising rapidly (and possibly more rapidly since medical care in the PCE seems to be turning up more quickly). But that doesn’t mean that the market won’t react to it.

There are all sorts of things that we do even though we know we shouldn’t. I would guess that most of us, noticing that our sports team won when we wore a particular shirt or a batter hit a home run when we pet the dog a certain way, have at some point in the past succumbed to the “well, maybe I should do it just in case” aspect of superstition. But there’s more to it than that. In the case of markets, it is well and good to say “I know this isn’t surprising to see year-on-year inflation numbers rising,” but there’s the second-level issue: “…but I don’t know that everyone else won’t be surprised or react, so maybe I should do something.”

By summertime, core CPI will have reached its highest level since the crisis. Core PCE will probably also have reached its highest level since the crisis. Median CPI has been giving us a steadier reading and so perhaps will not be at new highs, but it will be near the highest readings of the last decade. I believe that whether we think it should happen or not, the dot plots will move higher (unless growth stalls, which it may) and markets will have to deal with the notion that additional increases in inflation from there would be an unmitigated negative. So we will start to price that in.

Moreover, I am not saying that there aren’t underlying pressures that may, and indeed I think will, continue to push prices higher. In fact, I think that there is some non-zero chance of an inflationary accident. And, in the longer run, I am really, really concerned about trade. It doesn’t take a trade war to cause inflation to rise globally; it just takes a loss of momentum on the globalization front and I think we already have that. A bona fide trade war…well, it’s a really bad outcome.

I don’t think that just because China has been making concessionary noises that a trade spat with China has been averted. If I were China, then I too would have made those statements: because the last half-dozen Administrations would have been content to take that as a sign of victory, trumpet it, and move on. But the Trump Administration is different (as if you hadn’t noticed!). President Trump actually seems hell-bent on really delivering on his promises in substance, not in mere appearance. That can be good or bad, depending on whether you liked the promise! In this case, what I am saying is – the trade conflict is probably not over. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the usual political dance will play out when the newest dancer is treating it like a mosh pit.

And all of this is pointed the same direction. It’s time, if you haven’t yet done it, to get your inflation-protection house in order! (And, one more pitch: at least part of that should be to subscribe to my cheapo PremoSocial feed, to stay on top of inflation-related developments and especially the monthly CPI report! For those of you who have…I hope you feel you’re getting $10 of monthly value from it! Thanks very much for your support.)

Nudge at Neptune

Okay, I get it. Your stockbroker is telling you not to worry about inflation: it’s really low, core inflation hasn’t been above 3% for two decades…and, anyway, the Fed is really trying to push it higher, he says, so if it goes up then that’s good too. Besides, some inflation isn’t necessarily bad for equities since many companies can raise end product prices faster than they have to adjust wages they pay their workers.[1] So why worry about something we haven’t seen in a while and isn’t necessarily that bad? Buy more FANG, baby!

Keep in mind that there is a very good chance that your stockbroker, if he or she is under 55 years old, has never seen an investing environment with inflation. Also keep in mind that the stories and scenes of wild excess on Wall Street don’t come from periods when equities are in a bear market. I’m just saying that there’s a reason to be at least mildly skeptical of your broker’s advice to own “100 minus your age” in stocks when you’re young, which morphs into advice to “owning more stocks since you’re likely to have a long retirement” when you get a bit older.

Many financial professionals are better-compensated, explicitly or implicitly, when stocks are going up. This means that even many of the honest ones, who have their clients’ best interests at heart, can’t help but enjoy it when the stock market rallies. Conversations with clients are easier when their accounts are going up in size every day and they feel flush. There’s a reason these folks didn’t go into selling life insurance. Selling life insurance is really hard – you have to talk every day to people and remind them that they’re going to die. I’d hate to be an insurance salesman.

And yet, I guess that’s sort of what I am.

Insurance is about managing risks. Frankly, investing should also be about managing risks – about keeping as much upside as you can, while maintaining an adequate margin of safety. Said another way, it’s about buying that insurance as cheaply as you can so that you don’t spend all of your money on insurance. That’s why diversification is such a powerful idea: owning 20 stocks, rather than 1 stock, gets you downside protection against idiosyncratic risks – essentially for free. Owning multiple asset classes is even more powerful, because the correlations between asset classes are generally lower than the correlations between stocks. Diversification works, and it’s free, so we do it.

So let’s talk about inflation protection. And to talk about inflation protection, I bring you…NASA.

How can we prevent an asteroid impact with Earth?

The key to preventing an impact is to find any potential threat as early as possible. With a couple of decades of warning, which would be possible for 100-meter-sized asteroids with a more capable detection network, several options are technically feasible for preventing an asteroid impact.

Deflecting an asteroid that is on an impact course with Earth requires changing the velocity of the object by less than an inch per second years in advance of the predicted impact.

Would it be possible to shoot down an asteroid that is about to impact Earth?

An asteroid on a trajectory to impact Earth could not be shot down in the last few minutes or even hours before impact.  No known weapon system could stop the mass because of the velocity at which it travels – an average of 12 miles per second.

NASA is also in the business of risk mitigation, and actually their problem is similar to the investor’s problem: find protection, as cheaply as possible, that allows us to retain most of the upside. We can absolutely protect astronauts in space from degradation of their DNA from cosmic rays, with enough shielding. The problem is that the more shielding you add, the harder it is to go very far, very fast, in space. So NASA wants to find the cheapest way to have an effective cosmic ray shield. And, in the ‘planetary defense’ role for NASA, they understand that deflecting an asteroid from hitting the Earth is much, much easier if we do it very early. A nudge when a space rock is out at the orbit of Neptune is all it takes. But wait too long, and there is no way to prevent the devastating impact.

Yes, inflation works the same way.

The impact of inflation on a normal portfolio consisting of stocks and bonds is devastating. Rising inflation hurts bonds because interest rates rise, and it hurts stocks because multiples fall. There is no hiding behind diversification in a ’60-40’ portfolio when inflation rises. Other investments/assets/hedges need to be put into the mix. And when inflation is low, and “high” inflation is far away, it is inexpensive to protect against that portfolio impactor. I have written before about how low commodities prices are compared with equity prices, and in January I also wrote a piece about why the expected return to commodities is actually rising even as commodities go sideways.

TIPS breakevens are also reasonable. While 10-year breakevens have risen from 1.70% to 2.10% over the last 9 months or so, that’s still below current median inflation, and below where core inflation will be in a few months as the one-offs subside. And it’s still comfortably below where 10-year breaks have traded in normal times for the last 15 years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

It is true that there are not a lot of good ways for smaller investors to simply go long inflation. But you can trade out your nominal Treasuries for inflation bonds, own commodities, and if you have access to UCITS that trade in London there is INFU, which tracks 10-year breakevens. NASA doesn’t have a lot of good options, either, for protecting against an asteroid impact. But there are many more plausible options, if you start early, than if you wait until inflation’s trajectory is inside the orbit of the moon.


[1] Your stockbroker conveniently forgets that P/E multiples contract as inflation rises past about 3%. Also, your stockbroker conveniently abandons the argument about how businesses can raise prices before raising wages, meaning that consumer inflation leads wage inflation, when he points to weak wage growth and says “there’s no wage-push inflation.” Actually, your stockbroker sounds like a bit of an ass.

Historical Context Regarding Market Cycles

February 5, 2018 4 comments

I really enjoy listening to financial media outlets on days like this. Six days removed from all-time highs, the equity guys – especially the strategists, who make their money on the way up – talk about “capitulation,” and how “nothing has changed,” and how people need to “invest for the long-term.” If equities have entered a bear market, they will say this all the way down.

It helps to have seen a few cycles. Consider the early-2000s bear market. In 2000, the Nasdaq crested in March. After a stomach-churning setback, it rallied back into August (the S&P actually had its highest monthly close for that cycle in August). The market then dropped again, bounced, dropped again, bounced, and so on. Every bounce on the way down, the stock market shills shrieked ‘capitulation’ and called it a buying opportunity. Eventually it was, of course. But if there is a bear market, there will be plenty of time to buy later. This was also true in ’09, which was much more of a ‘spike’ bottom but let’s face it, you had months and months to get in…except that no one wanted to get in at the time.

If it is not a bear market, then sure – it’s a buying opportunity. But what I know from watching this drama play out several times is that you cannot tell at the time whether it’s a buying opportunity, or a dead-cat bounce. It does not help at all to say “but the economy is okay.” Recalling that the Nasdaq’s peak was in March 2000: the Fed was still hiking rates in May of that year, and didn’t cut rates until 2001.  In late July 2000, GDP printed 5.2% following 4.8% in Q1. In October 2000, GDP for Q3 was reported to still be at 2.2%. Waiting for the economy to tell you that all was not well was very costly. By the time the Fed was alarmed enough to ease, in a surprise move on January 3, 2001, the S&P was down 16%. But fortunately, that ended it as stocks jumped 5% on the Fed’s move. Buy the dip!

By mid-2002, stocks were down about 50% from the high. Buying the dip was in that case precisely wrong.

Then there is the bear market of a decade ago. The October 2007 market high happened when the economy was still strong, although there were clearly underlying stresses in mortgages and mortgage banking and the Fed was already easing. Yet, on January 10, 2008, Fed Chairman Bernanke said “the Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession.” On January 18, he said the economy “has a strong labor force, excellent productivity and technology, and a deep and liquid financial market that is in the process of repairing itself.” In June 2008, he said “The risk that the economy has entered a substantial downturn appears to have diminished over the past month or so.” Stocks were already down 19%. It got somewhat worse…and it didn’t take long.

So the thing to remember is this: equities do not wait for earnings to suffer, or for forecasts of earnings to suffer, or for everyone to figure out that growth is flagging, or for someone to ring a bell. By the time we know why stocks are going down, it is too late. This is why using some discipline is important – crossing the 200-day moving average, or value metrics, or whatever. Or, decide you’ll hold through the -50% moves and ignore all the volatility. Good luck…but then why are you reading market commentary?

I don’t know that stocks are going to enter a bear market. I don’t know if they’ll go down tomorrow or next week or next month. I have a pretty strong opinion about expected real returns over the next 10 years. And for that opinion to be realized, there will have to be a bear market (or two) in there somewhere. So it will not surprise me at any time if a bear market begins, especially from lofty valuation levels. But my point in this article is just to provide some historical context. And my general advice, which is not specific to any particular person reading this, is that if anyone tells you that price moves like this are ‘capitulation’ to be followed by ‘v-shaped recoveries,’ then don’t just walk away but run away. They haven’t any idea, and that advice might make you a few percent or lose you 50%.

To be sure, don’t panic and abandon whatever plan you had, simply because other people are nervous. As Frank Herbert wrote, “fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” This is why having a plan is so important! And I also think that plans should focus on the long term, and on your personal goals, and matching your long-term investments to those goals. Rebalancing and compounding are powerful tools, as is a value ethic of buying securities that have a margin of safety.

And, of course, diversification. Bonds today did what they’re supposed to do when ‘risky assets’ take a tumble: they rallied. As I noted on Friday: “I am not saying that interest rates are going directly from 3% to 6%. Indeed, the rates/equity ecosystem is inherently self-dampening to some degree (at least, until we reach a level where we’ve exceeded the range of the spring’s elasticity!) in that if equity prices were to head very much lower, interest rates would respond under a belief that central bankers would moderate their tightening paths in the face of weak equities.” The problem with nominal bonds at this point, though, is that they’re too expensive. At these yields, there is a limit to the diversification they can provide, especially if what is going to drive the bear market in stocks is rising inflation. Bonds will diversify against the sharp selloff, but not against the inflation spiral. (I’ve said it before and I will say it again. If you haven’t read Ben Inker’s piece in the latest GMO quarterly, arguing why inflation is a bigger risk for portfolios right now than recession, do so. “What happened to inflation? And What happens if it comes back?”)

Which brings us to commodities. If the factor driving an equity bear market turns out to be inflation, then commodities should remain uncoupled from equities. For the last few days, commodity indices have declined along with equities – not nearly as much, of course, but the same sign. But if the problem is a fear of inflation then commodities should be taking the baton from stocks.

So there you go. If the problem is rising interest rates, then that is a slow-moving problem that’s self-limiting because central banks will bring rates back down if stocks decline too far. If the problem is rising inflation, then commodities + inflation bonds should beat equities+nominal bonds. Given that commodities and inflation bonds are both relatively cheaper than their counterparts, I’d rather bet that way and have some protection in both circumstances.

Retail Investors Aren’t As Stupid As They Tell You

December 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Let’s face it, when it comes to the bullish/bearish argument about equities these days, the bears have virtually all of the arguments in their favor. Not all, but almost all. However, I always think the bears hurt their case with certain poor arguments that tend to be repeated a lot – in fact, it’s one way to tell the perma-bears from the thoughtful bears.

One of the arguments I have seen recently is that retail investors are wayyy out over their skis, and are very heavily invested in stocks with very low cash assets. This chart, which I saw in a recent piece by John Mauldin, is typical of the genre.

Now, bears are supposed to be the skeptics in the equation, and there is just nowhere near enough skepticism being directed at the claim that retail investors are being overly aggressive. Gosh, the first place a person could start is with asking “shouldn’t allocations properly be lower now, with zero returns to cash, than they were when yields were higher?”

But as it turns out, we don’t even have to ask that question because there’s a simpler one that makes this argument evaporate. Consider an investor who, instead of actively allocating to stocks when they’re “hot” (stupid retail investor! Always long at the top!) and away from them when they’re “cold” (dummy! That’s when you should be loading up!), is simply passive. He/she begins in mid-2005 (when the chart above begins) with a 13% cash allocation and the balance of 87% allocated to stocks. Thereafter, the investor goes to sleep for twelve years. The cash investments gain slowly according to the 3-month T-Bill rate; the equity investments fluctuate according to the change in the Wilshire 5000 Total Market index. This investor’s cash allocation ends up looking like this.

How interesting! It turns out that since the allocation to cash is, mathematically, CASH / (CASH+STOCKS), when the denominator declines due to stock market declines the overall cash ratio moves automatically! Thus, it seems that maybe what we’re looking at in the “scary” chart is just the natural implication of fluctuating markets and uninvolved, as opposed to returns-chasing, investors.

Actually, it gets better than that. I put the second chart on top of the first chart, so that the axes correspond.

It turns out that retail investors are actually much more in cash than a passive investor would be. In other words, instead of being the wild-and-woolly returns chasers it turns out that retail investors seem to have been responding to higher prices by raising cash, doing what attentive investors should do: rebalancing. So much for this bearish argument (to be clear, I think the bears are correct – it’s just that this argument is lame).

Isn’t math fun?

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