Michael Lipper: a long-term investor's guide to beating the odds

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There are three problems about thinking about the future. The first is not to believe the future as starting with what we see today. The second is “when does the future end?” Finally, “what unpredicted events will occur?” 

Far too many investors ignore these questions. However, the best guess answers to these questions are the essence of long-term investing. We currently have the responsibility for investing for the indefinite future for institutional and family accounts and so must deal with these questions. Like all investment advisors, we need to do this well for us to be able to add new accounts.

As our present responsibilities to clients and beneficiaries require certain levels of current income, we managed balanced accounts on their behalf. Thus we need to pay some attention as to what is happening in the fixed- income markets, which leads to the first fork in the road. 

Fixed-income disruption

Usually the exploding bubble that brings down markets is caused by an imbalance of demand over supply. If the market cannot supply sufficient merchandise the demanders will increase the prices that they are willing to pay. During the ramp up the owners of supply will become hoarders in the belief that prices will continue to rise; and so it will as sellers become scarce. The bubble pops when the hoarders become insistent sellers and the buyers retreat as their only interest was higher prices.

In some respects the way fixed-income investors think about securities is the exact reverse as stock buyers. They translate their need for income into a yield calculation. Their literature is full of commentary about rising yields not falling prices which is the direct result of the fixed nature of fixed-income.

Any long-term history of bubbles will reveal that bubbles never really totally disappeared; the surviving “animal instincts” just shift their focus often with the help of governments. The speculative excesses from the “dot-com” arena morphed into the prime mortgage bubble. The way one can spot the next bubble is to look for large instances where there is excess demand over supply. In the fixed-income world that translates into higher prices for bonds and lower yields. We are currently within a huge increase in the demand for income to meet institutional and individual needs.

I have written in the past about the studies done at Caltech and other places as to how the mind accepts risk of sharp declines based on the belief that the mind will be able to execute a rapid withdrawal safely. Growing up in the investment business we used to call this “the greater fool theory” meaning one recognized that they were foolish buyers and owners of securities, but there would be always be a bigger fool who would buy the tarnished merchandise at a still higher price. Today, the nerves of the fool are quieted most of the time in the belief that the major central banks will continue to manipulate interest rates lower and in effect put a floor under these foolish bets.

The fears are not totally put to sleep as we saw this week when a single missed payment by a partially owned upstream affiliate of the largest Portuguese Bank (Banco Espirito Santo) triggered a broadly-based European stock market sell-off. This kind of market action reminds people of the unpredictability of events.

In the past, prior to government/central bank intervention, interest rates covered both the cost of money and a cushion for the cost of credit to make the loan eventually good.  The sharp drop has people concerned that what they thought was the proper attention had been paid to the question of credit repayment. Now they are wondering. This may well be the reason that in a US stock market which is hesitantly but gently rising, the stock price of its most powerful bank JP Morgan Chase* is slightly down -4.6%.

One of the lessons that stock players over the years should have learned is that the fixed-income market is much more sensitive to short-term changes in the chances of getting repaid than the stock market. Thus for stock investors, the bond market plays the role of the warning canary in a deep mine. (This is not a totally new concern. In 2013, the Investment Company Institute reported that both Citi and State Street temporarily suspended redemptions of some of their Exchange Traded Funds.)

As all analysts are essentially historians, I am concerned about the excess of fixed-income demand over high quality supply. In addition, there are two newer concerns. The Federal Reserve has announced that after October they will no longer be regular buyers of US Treasuries and Mortgages, which may reduce the supporting buyers.

My second concern is that because of more restrictive regulations most major banks around the world are finding that they must reduce their expenses in order to get a reasonable return on their equity. This translates into laying people off. Some of these people are in supervisory and/or credit reviewing positions this could hurt all of the services that the banks provide to both institutions and individuals,

Melt up before melt down

As said by Monty Python's Flying Circus “Now for something completely different;” a quantity of US stock investors is actually enjoying good returns.  I tend to look at stock returns in terms of multiples of pension fund and non-profit institutions’ funding needs. If one assumes a 7% required rate of return (which is too high), then on a year-to-date basis the owners of Apple shares* have earned more than double that rate, with an 18.8% gain. The same could be said for Merck with an increase of 16.8%. Even the bond substitute of Utilities is up 14%. (This relates to our fixed-income concerns.)

The truth about the stocks going up in price is that current prices are not drawing in sellers. As many have commented on the current bull market, it is the most unloved bull market in history. While the near-term outlook for revenue growth for most companies is modest and they already have record profit margins and are shrinking their capital base, one wonders what is driving some of these stocks higher.

I have a partial answer from my experience as a leader of a global analyst trip many years ago. I got a call late one night when we were in Australia from a brilliant international portfolio manager. He was asking how the trip was going. I started by reviewing for him our various visits. In his demanding way, he cut me off and asked whether my fellow analysts were believing or not. I asked him what his concern as to what we thought was. His reply was stocks went up on the basis of the weight of money behind each stock.

In a similar fashion I believe that the stocks that are going up are due to the weight of money. Some institutions and many individual investors are not fully committed to this stock market. (Fund net flows are larger for international funds than domestic oriented funds.) I suspect that if the S&P 500 on a price basis goes much higher than the current year-to-date gain of 6.4% (Vanguard’s 500 Index fund on a total return basis is up 7.6%), there will be a competitive rush to get fully invested. 

*Owned be me privately and/or by the private financial services fund I manage

As readers know, I have been concerned about a major top in the stock market caused by stock price acceleration. Typically for a market to get into a bubble condition, the last phase is a parabolic rise where people start talking in terms of short-term doubles and more. It was just such a phenomenon that suckered in Sir Isaac Newton, who knew better, and much later, John Maynard Keynes into participating in the collapse of their bull markets.

I hope this doesn’t happen. But both from my study of history and my research lab at the New York race tracks I cannot rule it out. I will be intently watching the action of the crowds, to see whether successful business people are giving up their well paid jobs to day trade from their home computers.

Muddle through

There is nothing axiomatic to the two extreme cases discussed above. The Wall Street Journal which started publishing on July 8th, 125 years ago created what is known today as the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Over this period it has compounded at a little more than 7%. For those who want to catch the extremes, on the same day in the heart of the depression the index bottomed at 41, compared to today’s level of about 17,000. I must deny I had anything to do with the occurrences on July 8th,  even though I was born years later on that date.

What to Do?

I don’t have the luxury of avoiding decisions to wait on clearing developments. I can neither wait until another major bottom appears nor can I be a seller at the top in a meaningful way. Thus, while I can adjust portfolios when warranted I must have a starting position everyday.

For long-term accounts that are looking well beyond ten years I express my faith in the power of well selected equities in well managed funds and would be committed to these holdings as long as I could meet funding needs through income supplemented by total return.

For accounts that for internal political requirements that cannot see beyond five years I would reduce risk assets to no more than 66% and no less than 50%. For those unfortunate accounts that will be judged on the basis of annual returns, I would own no fixed-income with maturities beyond one year. I would accept that I might underperform a recovery in small cap and technology, including health care, by focusing on large caps, with adequate balance sheets that had a reasonable amount of secular growth in revenues and mutual funds that owned these kinds of securities.

My question of the Week

As these views are somewhat extreme what are your views?

A. Michael Lipper is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and the president of Lipper Advisory Services, Inc., a firm providing money management services for wealthy families, retirement plans and charitable organizations.

A former president of the New York Society of Security Analysts, he created the Lipper Growth Fund Index, the first of today’s global array of Lipper Indexes, Averages and performance analyses for mutual funds. His blog page can be found here.