Michael Lipper: upsides are the biggest risk

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I will be the first to admit I don’t know for sure which way the current market will move. However, my clients expect me to have a useful view.

Most of the time if the majority is correct in its beliefs, prices generally reflect that accuracy and subsequent market moves are relatively small.

That is why often I take a contrarian view. If I prove to be wrong there will not be much damage, just egg on my face. However, if I am partially right I may have saved my paying clients and my pro-bono clients some money.

Two types of declines

My study of global stock markets suggests that there are two types of declines. The more normal so called “bear market” occurs at least once each ten rolling years.

These declines are on the order of 25% from top to bottom in terms of the major stocks or capitalization-weighted indices like the S&P500. Most investors will stay at least partially invested during this cyclical behavior along a secular growth trend.

Once a generation a much more dangerous decline occurs to teach new investors that markets are multiple, two way winding streets. These falls are more on the scale of 50%.

The real damage of these devastating declines is that too many investors revert back to savers, pulling their remaining money out of the market and swearing “never again” will they trust the market.

If kept, this decision means that they will not participate in the eventual recovery. More significantly, their long-term beneficiaries will be missing the future growth of capital or possible new high levels of the market.

The upside risk

As regular readers of these posts may appreciate, I have been concerned that we were setting up a pattern that was similar to the historic “once in a generation” type falls.

Before calling for such a possibility I believe we needed to see a sharp increase in prices for a narrowing number of securities sucking in all the available sidelined cash as well as various leveraging techniques; i.e., margin, futures, options, and increasingly, ETFs.

This has not happened yet. So if we now get what some so-called experts are calling for, a 20% drop, we have escaped a much worse decline.

What could cause the parabolic price tangent that would complete the standard elements of a major decline? I suggest that the answer is the very thing that is currently causing a number of stocks to rise in price, the current wave of mergers and acquisitions.

As someone who has participated in both sides of these transactions as well as a shareholder for clients and my personal accounts, I suggest that many (and some may say most) of the M&A transactions will not add value in the long run.

Definitely some can work out very well, but they need to have certain characteristics. In general, most entrepreneurs who have built companies understand the Make vs. Buy calculus. One of the big advantages to be derived from an acquisition is that if it doesn’t work it can be buried quietly.

The big disadvantage is the supposed loss of time spent on building rather than buying. Assuming that the potential acquisition is going to be integrated, the acquirer needs to believe that the acquisition brings in an order of importance, particularly the following positive elements:

  • A corporate leadership not currently being used to full potential
  • A culture of seeking excellence in people and products with an important emphasis on service levels and metrics
  • Loyal and understanding clients
  • Cost advantages gained through efficiency rather than historic accidents.

What makes the current spate of deals different is that normally the price of the shares of the acquirer goes down on the announcement.

This is in recognition of three elements:

  • A premium price to induce the seller
  • The direct and indirect costs of integration
  • The recognition of the need to do the deal.

The warning sign of excess enthusiasm is that after the announcement the prices of the shares of both sides are rising. There is also a sense that in some cases the cash and borrowing power of the acquirers are burning holes in their pockets, and the Street or the City will accommodate.

The Law of Gravity reversed

The standard law applied to prices is that what goes up must eventually come down. The reverse at times may be true such as now.

If current prices do not materially fall, the congenital bulls will trumpet that we have appropriately discounted the nasty news we have been reading.

If a small single or low double digit decline is experienced, then supposedly we can rejoin the upward secular growth trend.

We are already seeing some elements of this thinking in last week’s tumultuous market.  On Monday the price of JP Morgan Chase* closed at $59.19 not far from its high for the week of $59.26 with a volume of 12.4 million shares.

By Friday the stock closed at $56.48 up a little bit from its low for the week of $55.97 on 23.5 million shares. Almost twice as many shares were bought at slightly lower prices. This suggests to me that there are some “bargain hunters” ready to move in. They possibly believe that in the future JP Morgan will sell at record prices.

If enough buyers believe similarly, we could see a rapid advance in some prices on increasing volume which will fulfill the remaining element to a major top. Clues to watch for are both volume and cocktail party chattering to catch the surge.

*Stock owned by me personally and/or by the private financial services firm I manage.

The potential downside is for real

Historically market cycles were primarily a reflection of agricultural and business cycles. The bringing on of excess productive capacity (often with borrowed money) forced by competitive pressures to lower prices produced dire results to the producers and in many cases the lenders.

Today we have only some of those tendencies present, mostly in the commodities arena heavily influenced by fluctuating Chinese demand. The markets could probably handle these imbalances. Currently the force that is preventing normal rules of the economy to work efficiently is government.

Going back to Lord John Maynard Keynes, if not before, a view was developed in academia that enshrined in the unwritten constitutions of many developed countries that government was responsible for the creation and maintenance of jobs.  

Keynes lost fortunes as well as made money in the market place, but he never ran a business.

The poisoned chalice

For centuries the use of fiscal (taxes) policies did an okay job for most economies. The political leaders of governments were not reasonably equipped to manage their societies without high criticism. Thus increasingly they in effect passed the buck to their servants, the central banks.

This emphasis was strengthened in the US by giving the Federal Reserve a dual mandate to keep the value of money sound (relative to inflation, not the level of governmental debt and fungible assets) plus to produce an acceptable level of employment.

Somehow the original purpose of being the window of last resort to the banking system was buried. Note that the comments by the current chair of the Federal Reserve Board are almost exclusively about the level of employment, underemployment and unemployment.

I would suggest that the politicians need to recognize that they passed a poisoned chalice on to the Fed, which is not staffed or equipped to make social policy decisions. With uncertain and inefficient tax regulations, monetary policy is insufficient to be a driver of employment.

The historic failure of using the central banks as the engine to drive policy has led to the use of bailouts to protect employee voters when commercial interests get overextended.  

The risks of a major market collapse

The fundamental risks of a major collapse of the markets are caused by the fragility created as these two unnatural forces (maintaining monetary stability plus the promulgation of social policy) collide within the financial world.

In the misguided attempt to create jobs through the use of manipulated low interest rates, central bankers have robbed the world of the traditional structure of interest rates.

Combined within a single rate there is the pure cost of money, usually the interest rate paid by governments, plus the cost of credit which recognizes the risk of failure to repay fully and on time.  (There is also an element to cover administrative costs.)

Because general interest rates are now so low there is no credit or administrative expense cushion. To illustrate this fragility, European markets slumped when it became apparent that the holding company that owned a majority of the Banco Espirito Santos** (BES) shares was having problems; one of its affiliated banks in Angola was having difficulty getting repaid on a major loan.

The concern in the market was that Spain, its home country was still dealing with its financial support from the ECB. The real concern throughout the world was whether this is an isolated event or whether there are more loan problems.

**In my opinion, BES is the source of the best global daily bond desk letter

If interest rates have sufficient credit cushions and there is no incipient bailout overhang, these problems could be isolated and not be a possible systematic problem.

Fears of credit problems

Both high yield mutual funds and loan funds are experiencing net redemptions after long periods of receiving inflows in a “TINA” (There Is No Alternative) market.

The yield spreads vs. US Treasuries have widened a bit, but are still historically too narrow. The back up in yield may be caused by a short-term rise in interest rates. However, I believe some portions of the redemptions are due to fears about credit problems.

If it weren’t for the low general rates there would be sufficient credit cushions to absorb normal defaults, but they are not at that level now.

Bottom line

Most of the money that we have a responsibility for is long-term in nature with some very long-term. Because I believe that there is an odds on chance for a meaningful decline over the next five years, I will be trimming my current risk exposure.

Utilizing my Lipper Time Span Portfolios, I would reduce the maturity in the operating portfolio to one year. In the recapitalization portfolio I would reduce risk elements to 50%.

The long-term portfolio risk elements should be 66% and the legacy portfolio 75%. I am looking forward to raising the risk components to higher levels in the future.  For descriptions of the Lipper Lipper Time Span Portfolios  email me at MikeLipper@gmail.com.

How are you prepared for the next market phase?

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.