Michael Lipper: lessons from a 107 year-young investor

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·       Debt, a four letter word
·       Killing off the Individual Equities Investor
·       Asset Allocation: Correlations?
·       Learn from today’s investors

Investment analysis is like a narcotic or a very difficulty habit to kick.  At the beginning of the week, I may not have an idea about what I will post the following Sunday night.  Though I am exposed to a myriad of communications, in many ways the most valuable inputs are the conversations I have with investors and investment professionals.  This week I will focus on four suggestive thoughts, or quandaries for 2013.

The worst four letter word

Growing up I was told that it wasn’t nice to use certain four letter words like F*@k or S*#t. What my Mother never told me was the worst four letter word of all; a word that has bedeviled mankind for centuries. That great economist William Shakespeare put the following words into Polonius’s mouth, giving guidance to his son Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” The four letter word is debt.

There are three essential problems with debt. The first is that it must be paid back, often at inconvenient times. The second is the additional payment of interest, which can be either fixed at the time of the loan or flexible, but each is based on the assumption that the rate is high enough to pay the lender to forgo spending and has a sufficient risk premium that is an accurate gauge of the odds on getting repaid in full and on time.
The issue here is what appears to be the appropriate lending rate at the beginning of the period may not be the right rate at the end of the period when conditions have changed.
The third problem is collateral that in theory guarantees to the lender that he will get his money back in full and on time. Securities can often provide the margin for a loan. Of course, if the securities go down in price the value of the collateral may become less than the size of the loan. Some upstanding people, companies, and nations have been able to borrow based on their good names. J.P. Morgan is reported to have said that he loaned money on the basis of a man’s character.
There is a problem with this as fittingly portrayed by Shakespeare again, in “The Merchant of Venice,” in the legally sanctioned, but inhumane attempt to collect on the collateral on a defaulted loan.

The main purpose of debt is time-shifting. The borrowers want an asset that at present they cannot pay for, and the lenders are willing to delay their own spending if they get paid for this indulgence. Unfortunately what has become the custom is that new debt is raised to pay off expiring debt.

Debt capacity around the world

The question facing both the borrowers and the lenders is what is the optimum level of debt that can be added on top of a given level of assets? This is called debt capacity. It is usually calculated on the basis of assets and/or income that are not encumbered by other debt. What is usually done for nations is to compare their outstanding debt, most often without concern for future debts, to the their Gross Domestic Product or GDP.
This number is the estimated annual generation of goods and services within the country. (Two weeks ago, I blogged on the approach of looking to a more complete analysis of both the assets and liabilities for the US.) Nevertheless I will stay with the convention of looking at a nation’s debts as a ratio of its GDP. Europe’s deficit as a unit is now 131% of its GDP. China has a 120% ratio, all of Asia excluding Japan is 104%. (Hong Kong 275%, Singapore 137%, Malaysia 117%, Indonesia 33%) These reported ratios include personal and corporate debt as well as sovereign debt. Thus globally there is too much debt. 
 
In the US, as is often the case, the private segments of the economy are moving differently than the government sector. The private sector is deleveraging its debt structure whereas the federal government is adding to its debt by issuing bonds that are largely being purchased by the Federal Reserve System to neutralize their impact on the level of interest rates.
The combination of the private sector deleveraging and the Fed’s increased borrowings leaves the US debt level, according to one source, at 62% of the GDP which is down slightly from prior readings. 
Translating the economic figures into the bond market, the following three facts are of interest:
1.    Some Investment Grade (corporate) debt is yielding less than some sovereign debt. This would indicate that the market believes that corporates are safer than some nations. One possible reason for this is that Europe, with 7% of the global population,  spends 50% of global social spending.
2.    The yield on the S&P 500 is higher than an index of BAA bonds. Again, the market is suggesting that lower investment grade credits are safer than dividends on the S&P 500 stocks. At the same time this represents an unusual opportunity to view large cap stocks as a more productive source of current income than investment grade bonds.
3.    We may not be out of the sub-prime mortgage mess. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), is by far the largest guarantor of conventional mortgages. Not only does it already in effect own a number of defaulted mortgages, but there is pressure from Congress and the Administration for the FHA to loosen its underwriting standards. Only a significant recovery in house price and possible individual incomes will bail out the taxpayer liability.

“Who killed Cock Robin”

The somewhat shotgun wedding of the New York Stock Exchange and IntercontinentalExchange (ICE) publicly demonstrates the fact that while derivative trading particularly not based on stocks is very profitable for an exchange (and therefore broker/dealers), trading in individual stocks is not.
As an analyst and owner of brokerage firm stocks, for some time I have taken the position that listed equity agency business for brokerage firms is not profitable. Try to get a brokerage account opened to buy 100 shares a quarter of General Motors. What you will quickly find in a broker (if one will talk to you at all), he or she will attempt to sell to you some complex structured product or a high fee fund or possibly introduce you to using a margin account (interest bearing and securities loan revenues).
This reaction by the peddlers of our business has been successful in discouraging individual investors from buying and holding individual stocks. Thus, the title to this section, “Who killed Cock Robin” is an English nursery rhyme, but the real killer of interest on the part of individual stocks is the regulatory agencies, particularly the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
In 1968 the Commission forced the beginning of the end of fixed-rate brokerage commissions, which were totally replaced in 1975. Prior to those dates there was a vibrant and useful retail research and individual sales business by brokerage firms. Institutions received tons of reasonably high-quality research and other services from “Wall Street.”
Continuing this trend of not understanding the impacts of its actions, the SEC permitted multiple locations where a trade could take place which denuded the central marketplace’s liquidity. Carrying this approach further, the substitutions of penny decimals for fractional prices made professional traders withdraw their capital from the marketplace. The way all markets work is that there has to be a perceived profit potential for the professional participants to play. Without the professionals in the game the market will shrink in size and its use as an important economic indicator will be vastly reduced.

I do not mean to be negative on the announced deal, because the holders of my private financial services fund and I benefited. Our holding in NASDAQ OMX rose 3% on the day of the announcement. My guess, the thinking is that NASDAQ itself may be in a merger situation or that the change in control of the NYSE means that it will be a less fierce competitor for new listings and daily trading. While this may benefit my fellow investors and me, it won’t do anything positive for the individual investor and could hurt.

Is asset allocation really about correlation?

At this time of year, institutional investment committees have meetings to decide on the appropriate mix of assets for their portfolio responsibilities. Historically this was a decision made for them in that the initial funds in both the US and UK were balanced funds with a reasonably fixed percentage in bonds and stocks.
Balanced Funds and their modernized versions are still an important part of the mutual fund business. The whole excitement about asset allocation was generated by a flawed study of corporate pension funds that showed that funds with a higher percentage in equities did better.
For the most part there were only two asset class accounts, bonds and stocks. Later on other classes were added in terms of venture capital, private equity, international securities, commodities, gold, timber and various forms of real estate. Then 2008 came along, with the exception of US Treasury Bonds all the other asset classes declined and often in roughly the same percentage declines.

My approach to this question is first to have an opinion as to how closely the correlations of the asset classes will be over time. Using US mutual fund investment objective averages over ten or more years, most fall within 100-200 basis points in terms of annual returns which suggests to me that on a long term basis it is difficult to pick winning asset classes.

Jason Zwieg’s latest piece in the Wall Street Journal on a young 107 year-young investor and manager, Irving Kahn, takes a different point of view.
At his age he is invested approximately 50% in well-researched global small caps and the rest in cash. I have worked with Irving for many years on analyst society activities. He and his late wife Ruth were on an analyst trip with my wife Ruth and me in Italy more than 25 years ago. They both set a blistering pace which was a challenge for us younger types to keep up.
Out of all of these experiences, I have developed a real respect for his acumen; besides he is one of the very few people alive that remembers my grandfather’s Wall Street firm. If the committees have Irving’s research skills, I would approve of their allocation if not some other forward looking approach was warranted. We should be watching and listening.


Learn from today’s investors
 
Most individuals do not have CFA certificates or have logged more than 50 years as an investor, but we can learn from what they are doing as shown in the following examples:

1.    As already indicated, on a personal level they are paying off their debts. If one disregards student loans, consumer debts are declining. Savings as calculated by the government is rising a bit. Individuals are slowly, but I believe surely are going through their own austerity program particularly in terms of being more astute shoppers.
2.    While retirement flows are continuing to benefit from 401(k) and similar salary savings plans, the purchase of mutual funds for individual retirement accounts through directly marketed mutual funds is well off  peak gross sales. This may be in response to investors' own actual or feared employment picture. Possibly they are using what would have gone into their IRAs to reduce their debts or to improve their homes for a future sale.
3.    The most intriguing demographic trend of all is that there is a substantial increase in the number of singles. In many cases these are, according to Gary D. Halbert, white women who have made the decisions at least temporarily to forgo Children and Marriage.

The young appear to be worried about their future and they should be. Our debt burden and less than wise investing will make their lives more difficult. However, after worrying in American fashion, they will find innovative ways to improve their condition. This is one of the major differences between Americans and Europeans.

You can’t agree with everything I have said.  Please discuss your thoughts with me by reply email.

I hope on Tuesday you can relax with family and friends, not worry about these quandaries and that the rest of the week won’t be too eventful.
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