Friday, August 12, 2011

ThisTime it Actually is Different

By Larry Swedroe

The massive market swings we’ve experienced this week have brought back fears of a swoon like the one we experienced in 2008. Thus, I thought it important to look at why this crisis is very different from that one.

The 2008 bear market was caused by a financial crisis that led to the financial markets “seizing up” and eventually to a severe recession. Today’s crisis isn’t even an economic crisis, let alone a financially driven one. U.S. banks are in much stronger shape today, having been forced to raise huge amounts of capital as part of the government’s “bail out” program.

A good indicator of how different things are is the TED spread, or the difference between the rate of Federal debt and the rate that banks charge to lend to each other (called the London Interbank Rate or LIBOR). LIBOR is currently around just 0.2 percent, and one-month bills yielding just 0.02 percent, meaning the spread between them is currently less than 0.2 percent At the height of the 2008 crisis, the difference between the two was nearly 4.5 percent. Such a wide spread indicated significant stress in the financial system. The capital markets had seized up, banks had to turn to the Federal Reserve to get funding, and the commercial paper market had virtually shut down. The situation was so desperate that the government had to provide guarantees on money market funds.

We don’t see any such signs of liquidity problems today, even after the downgrade. The interbank market, the commercial paper market and the repo market (which all function as ways for banks and other corporations to get the capital they need to conduct operations) are all functioning well. Each of those functioning well serves as an indicator that we’re not experiencing a financial crisis, which should be reassuring as we saw in 2008 what can happen during financial crises.

Today the financial system is much stronger as banks and investment banks alike were forced to raise large amounts of capital, the large investment banks converted to banks, and there is much less leverage in the financial system and among hedge funds as well. The reduction in leverage reduces systemic risks.

The difference in conditions helps to highlight that the problem we have today is not an economic one, but a political one. The market just needs to be convinced that our elected officials will take the necessary steps to prevent the crisis from becoming an economic one. It’s the uncertainty about the political will to act that has caused the equity market to crash, not an economic crisis.

However, just because this crisis is of a political nature, that doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous. There’s no guarantee that all will end well. With that in mind, let’s look at some good news which you should keep in mind.

The Japanese economy has rapidly recovered, eliminating the headwinds that slowed economic growth around the world in the first two quarters.

Oil prices are down around 25 percent since hitting an intraday high of $114.83 on May 2.

Municipal Bonds
The municipal bond debacle infamously forecasted by Meredith Whitney hasn’t occurred.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don't Panic About the Stock Market

'The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" Chicken Little's admonition may strike many observers as particularly apt today. I disagree. This is not the market meltdown of 2008 all over again. And panic selling of U.S. common stocks will prove to be a very inappropriate response.

The sharp decline in stock prices last week has renewed fears that the economy is headed for a double-dip recession. Economic growth has been reduced to stall speed, with gross domestic product rising at less than a 1% annual rate during the first half of 2011. Real consumer spending has been negative over the past two quarters. Just as a rider risks falling over when his bicycle slows sharply, so the economy is dangerously close to slipping into recession even before a real recovery has taken hold. And now Standard & Poor's has downgraded the U.S. credit rating, citing inadequate progress in Washington on long-run budgetary problems.

The headwinds restraining the economy are many. Consumers are still over-indebted and household finances are perilously balanced. House prices, after sharp price declines, threaten to fall further. The effect has been a big hit to households' net worth and has prevented any recovery in construction activity, which normally plays a big role in the early stages of any economic expansion. The unemployment rate is stuck above 9%, and even optimistic economic forecasters see little chance of a meaningful decline, even if a tepid economic recovery resumes in the second half.

Making matters worse, Europe has not really fixed its economic problems. Growth prospects there are gloomy. In the United States, government policy is dysfunctional and powerless to help reduce unemployment. While any restraint on spending from the recent budget agreement is back-end loaded, fiscal policy is scheduled to be significantly less stimulative over coming quarters. Monetary policy, which has driven short-term rates to near zero and 10-year Treasury rates to 2.5%, appears to be out of ammunition. And, of course, the sharp decline in stock prices has a negative wealth effect and a pernicious effect on consumer confidence.

Is it time to sell all your stocks, which are still well above their lows of 2009? I think not. No one can predict what the stock market will do in this and coming weeks. Stocks may continue their decline, but I believe it would be a serious mistake for investors to panic and sell out. There are several reasons for optimism that in the long run we will see higher, not lower, market valuations.

First, I believe that stocks today are cheap. Price/earnings multiples are just over 14 and forward P/E multiples, which use forecasted earnings, have shrunk to less than 12. These multiples are low relative to historical precedent and are especially low when considered in comparison to a 10-year Treasury yield of 2.5%. Dividend yields of 2.5% also compare favorably with 10-year Treasurys. Multiples do not look cheap relative to average 10-year earnings (the so-called Shiller P/E multiples), but today's earnings are so much higher than average earnings that a 10-year average is not a good estimate of today's corporate-earning capacity.

Moreover, the structure of U.S. corporate earnings increasingly reflects economic activity abroad—including the rapidly growing emerging markets—rather than activity in the U.S. This is why corporate earnings have been growing so rapidly even though U.S. economic growth has been so tepid. For large U.S. multinational corporations, the continued growth in emerging markets will be the most important determinant of the future growth of corporate earnings. For many companies, what happens in China, India and Brazil is more important than the inability of Europe to get its house in order and the paralysis in the U.S. and Japan.

There is no doubt that our economy is in a deep hole. The huge amount of deleveraging that is necessary after the housing bubble of the early 2000s can only be accomplished over time. Fortunately, household balance sheets are improving. Debt-to-income ratios have improved considerably since 2008, though they still have far to go. Household debt-service payments relative to income have fallen sharply to levels existing in the 1980s and '90s. The recent decline in oil prices should also help consumers' financial situations. And corporate balance sheets are unusually healthy today.

Simply working off the excess housing (including the shadow inventory of foreclosure property) will take a long time to accomplish. But if there is a bright spot in the housing picture it is that housing affordability is at an all-time high. With some real improvement in the labor market we could see a substantial uptick in housing sales.

Yes, we have problems, but the current situation bears no resemblance to 2008. And for those who believe that the decline in the stock market reliably predicts a new recession, remember the famous dictum of the late economist Paul Samuelson: "The stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions."

A strong dose of modesty is clearly in order. We all need to be aware of the limits of our ability to forecast future stock prices. No one can tell you when the stock market will end its decline, but there are some things that we do know. Investors who have sold out their stocks at times when there have been very large declines in the market have invariably been wrong. We have abundant evidence that the average investor tends to put money into the market at or near the top and tends to sell out during periods of extreme decline and volatility. Over long periods of time, the U.S. equity market has provided generous average annual returns. But the average investor has earned substantially less than the market return, in part from bad timing decisions.

My advice for investors is to stay the course. No one has ever become rich by being a long-term bear on the fortunes of the United States, and I doubt that anyone will do so in the future. This is still the most flexible and innovative economy in the world. Indeed, it is in times like this that investors should consider rebalancing their portfolios. If increases in bond prices and declines in equities have produced an asset allocation that is heavier in fixed income than is appropriate, given your time horizon and tolerance for risk, then sell some bonds and buy stocks. Years from now you will be glad you did.

Mr. Malkiel, professor emeritus of economics at Princeton University, is the author of "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" (10th edition, W.W. Norton, 2011).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Living With Volatility

By Jim Parker

The current renewed volatility in financial markets is reviving unwelcome feelings among many investors—feelings of anxiety, fear, and a sense of powerlessness. These are completely natural responses. Acting on those emotions, though, can end up doing us more harm than good.

At base, the increase in market volatility is an expression of uncertainty. The sovereign debt strains in the US and Europe, together with renewed worries over financial institutions and fears of another recession, are leading market participants to apply a higher discount to risky assets.

So, developed world equities, oil and industrial commodities, emerging markets, and commodity-related currencies like the Australian dollar are weakening as risk aversion drives investors to the perceived safe havens of government bonds, gold, and Swiss francs.

It is all reminiscent of the events of 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the sub-prime mortgage crisis triggered a global market correction. This time, however, the focus of concern has turned from private-sector to public-sector balance sheets.

As to what happens next, no one knows for sure. That is the nature of risk. But there are a few points individual investors can keep in mind to make living with this volatility more bearable.

  • Remember that markets are unpredictable and do not always react the way the experts predict they will. The recent downgrade by Standard & Poor's of the US government's credit rating, following protracted and painful negotiations on extending its debt ceiling, actually led to a strengthening in Treasury bonds.

  • Quitting the equity market at a time like this is like running away from a sale. While prices have been discounted to reflect higher risk, that's another way of saying expected returns are higher. And while the media headlines proclaim that "investors are dumping stocks," remember someone is buying them. Those people are often the long-term investors.

  • Market recoveries can come just as quickly and just as violently as the prior correction. For instance, in March 2009—when market sentiment was last this bad—the S&P 500 turned and put in seven consecutive months of gains totaling almost 80 percent. This is not to predict that a similarly vertically shaped recovery is in the cards this time, but it is a reminder of the dangers for long-term investors of turning paper losses into real ones and paying for the risk without waiting around for the recovery.

  • Never forget the power of diversification. While equity markets have had a rocky time in 2011, fixed income markets have flourished—making the overall losses to balanced fund investors a little more bearable. Diversification spreads risk and can lessen the bumps in the road.

  • Markets and economies are different things. The world economy is forever changing, and new forces are replacing old ones. As the IMF noted recently, while advanced economies seek to repair public and financial balance sheets, emerging market economies are thriving.1 A globally diversified portfolio takes account of these shifts.

  • Nothing lasts forever. Just as smart investors temper their enthusiasm in booms, they keep a reserve of optimism during busts. And just as loading up on risk when prices are high can leave you exposed to a correction, dumping risk altogether when prices are low means you can miss the turn when it comes. As always in life, moderation is a good policy.

The market volatility is worrisome, no doubt. The feelings being generated are completely understandable. But through discipline, diversification, and understanding how markets work, the ride can be made bearable. At some point, value will re-emerge, risk appetites will re-awaken, and for those who acknowledged their emotions without acting on them, relief will replace anxiety.

1. World Economic Outlook, IMF, April 2011.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Discipline, Your Secret Weapon

By Jim Parker

Working with markets, understanding risk and return, diversifying and portfolio structure—we've heard the lessons of sound investing over and over. But so often the most important factor between success and failure is ourselves.

The recent rocky period in financial markets has brought to the surface some familiar emotions for many, including a strong urge to try to time the market. The temptation, as always, is to sell into falling markets and buy into rising ones.

What's more, the most seemingly "well-informed" people—the kind who religiously read the financial press and watch business television—are the ones who feel most compelled to try and finesse their exit and entry points.

This suspicion that "sophisticated" investors are the most prone to try and outwit the market was given validity recently by a study, carried out by London-based Ledbury Research, of more than 2,000 affluent people around the world.1

The survey found 40 per cent of those questioned admitted to practicing market timing rather than pursuing a buy-and-hold strategy. Yet the market timers were more than three times more likely to believe they traded too much.

"On the face of it, you might think that those who were trading more actively would be more experienced, sophisticated and able to control themselves," the authors said. "But that seems not to be the case—trading becomes addictive."

This perspective has been reinforced recently by one of the world's most respected policymakers and astute observers of markets—Ian Macfarlane, the former governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia and now a director of ANZ Banking Group.

In a speech in Sydney2, Macfarlane made the point that the worst investors tend to be those who follow markets and the financial media fanatically, extrapolating from short-term movements big picture narratives that fit their predispositions.

"Most people experience loss aversion," he said. "They experience more unhappiness from losing $100 than they gain in happiness from acquiring $100. So the more often they are made aware of a loss, the unhappier they become."

Because of this combination of hyper-activity, lack of self-control and loss-aversion, investors end up making bad investment decisions, Macfarlane noted.

These behavioural issues and how they impact on investors are well documented by financial theorists. Commonly cited traits include lack of diversification, excessive trading, an obstinate reluctance to sell losers and buying on past performance.3

Mostly, these traits stem from over-confidence. Just as we all tend to think we are above-average in terms of driving ability, we also tend to over-rate our capacity for beating the market. What's more, this ego-driven behaviour has been shown to be more prevalent in men than in women.

A study quoted in The Wall Street Journal4 showed women are less afflicted than men by over-confidence and are more likely to attribute success in investment to factors outside themselves – like luck or fate. As a result, they are more inclined to exercise self-discipline and to avoid trying to time the market.

The virtues of investment discipline and the folly of 'alpha'-chasing are highlighted year after year in the survey of investor behaviour by research group Dalbar. The latest edition showed in the 20 years to the end of December 2010, the average US stock investor received annualized returns of just 3.8 per cent, well below the 9.1 per cent delivered by the market index, the S&P 500.5

What often stops investors getting returns that are there for the taking are their very own actions—lack of diversification, compulsive trading, buying high, selling low, going by hunches and responding to media and market noise.

So how do we get our egos and emotions out of the investment process? One answer is to distance ourselves from the daily noise by appointing a financial advisor to help stop us doing things against our own long-term interests.

An advisor begins with the understanding that there are things we can't control (like the ups and downs in the markets) and things we can. Some of the things we can control including ensuring our investments are properly diversified—both within and across asset classes—ensuring our portfolios are regularly rebalanced to meet our long-term requirements, keeping costs to a minimum and being mindful of taxes.

Most of all, an advisor helps us all by encouraging the exercise of discipline—the secret weapon in building long-term wealth.

1. 'Risk and Rules: The Role of Control in Financial Decision Making', Barclays Wealth, June 2011

2. 'Far Too Much Economic News for Our Own Good', Ross Gittins, Sydney Morning Herald, June 13, 2011

3. Barberis, Nicholas and Thaler, Richard, 'A Survey of Behavioral Finance', University of Chicago

4. 'For Mother's Day, Give Her the Reins to the Portfolio', Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2009

5. '2011 QAIB', Dalbar Inc, March 2011

Thinking in Real Terms

By Bryan Harris

Since the onset of the financial crisis in late 2007, the Federal Reserve has used interest-rate cuts and other policy tools in an effort to fuel economic growth. Economists can debate the effectiveness of these policies, but everyone can agree that today's low interest rates are a two-sided coin.

Consumers, businesses, and government all benefit from low borrowing costs. But on the other side, savers and investors earn almost nothing on their cash balances. This has been the case in most months since 2008, when the Fed cut short-term interest rates to near zero. Worse yet, investors are actually losing wealth in real terms. The inflation-adjusted yields on short-term Treasury securities have been negative in most months since October 2010. (Nominal yields reflect the stated interest rate, while real yields are adjusted for inflation.)

Earning negative real yields on short-term fixed income is not unprecedented, as shown in Figure 1. In fact, inflation has exceeded nominal interest rates in several post-war periods. This graph plots nominal and real yields of one-month Treasury bills, which are considered the equivalent of cash. The gap between the two lines is the inflation rate.

Figure 1: One-Month Treasury Bills

Nominal vs. Real Yield (April 1953–June 2011)

The real (inflation-adjusted) yield is computed using trailing 12-month changes in the Consumer Price Index. Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data

Negative real yields have occurred during periods of high interest rates (early 1980s) and during periods of low interest rates (2010–11). Regardless of the scenario, negative real yields cause investors to lose purchasing power. Keep in mind that the graph shows yields only and not total return, which also would reflect price changes resulting from interest rate movements.

You may note that some negative real yields have occurred during recessionary periods, when the Fed was cutting interest rates to spur a recovery. These times also may be when investors are most tempted to flee the capital markets for the perceived safety of cash. Investors may have a host of reasons for their flight—some might want to avoid economic uncertainty or stock market volatility, while others might fear that impending higher interest rates will cause bonds to lose value.

This is the case for many individual investors and professional money managers today. They are reportedly shifting their portfolios to money market funds and other cash instruments with the intent to return to stocks and bonds when the economy shows signs of improvement.1 The problem with this strategy is that no one can consistently time markets, and the signs are never clear. So while investors sit in cash, their purchasing power quietly erodes.

Investors may have good reasons to hold cash—for example, to keep a portion of their assets liquid. But they should understand that holding cash has a price in real terms. Investors ultimately may lose wealth even as they try to protect it.

1. Jonnelle Marte, "The New Cash Hoarders: Smart or Not-So-Smart?" SmartMoney, June 29, 2011.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Seven Headlines to Beat the Gloom

By Jim Parker

Debt crises, sovereign risks, double dips and banking strains: Page One headlines can make for depressing reading these days. But being a smart news consumer—and smart investor—means keeping an eye on the lesser headlines. Here are seven you may not have seen:

  • Robust Growth in Germany Pushes Prices—Analysts see a strong chance that German inflation will head towards 3 per cent by the end of the year against a backdrop of robust growth in Europe's biggest economy. (Reuters, July, 27, 2011)

  • Brazil Domestic Demand Still Strong—The Economist Intelligence Unit says economic growth in Brazil surprisingly picked up speed in the first quarter, challenging the government’s efforts to cool the expansion. (EIU, July 6, 2011)

  • Japan Retail Sales Top Estimates—Japan's retail sales rose 1.1 per cent in June, exceeding all economists' forecasts and adding to signs the economy is bouncing back from an initial post-disaster plunge. (Bloomberg, July 28, 2011)

  • No Fear in China—Traders betting on gains in China's biggest companies are pushing options prices to the most bullish level in two years. The Chinese economy is projected to grow by 9.4 per cent in 2011. (Bloomberg, July 28, 2011)

  • Southeast Asia Booms—Southeast Asian markets are the world's top performers in 2011 thanks to strong economic and corporate fundamentals. Thailand's index hit a 15-year high in July and Indonesia's a record high. (Reuters, July 22, 2011)

  • Australian Boom Keeps Rate Rise on the Agenda—The Australian dollar hit its highest level in 30 years in late July as traders looked to the prospect of another rise in interest rates on the back of a resource investment boom. (WSJ, July 27, 2011)

  • NZ Bounces Back—The New Zealand economy has grown more strongly than expected after the Christchurch earthquake, helped by improving terms of trade. The Reserve Bank signals it may raise interest rates soon. (Bloomberg, July 28, 2011)

Standing back from all this, the picture that emerges of the world outside North America and southern Europe is of robust economic conditions. If anything, policymakers in many parts of the world, particularly in Asia, are seeking to pull back demand, rather than stoke it.

Australia, for instance, is enjoying its best terms of trade in more than 50 years. An unprecedented investment boom in mining is injecting extraordinary wealth into the economy and has helped to push the Australian dollar to levels not seen since it was floated in the early 1980s.

Likewise, China, India and much of South-East Asia are seeing strong investment flows and worrying more about over-heating than anything.

This is not to say that all is right with the world. The aftermath of the global financial crisis has created severe problems, particularly in terms of public sector debt and deficits. But we know that that news is in the price. Meanwhile, economic activity in much of the world is thriving.

For equity investors, that means opportunities for wealth building are increasing, not decreasing. Moreover, the global economy is becoming multi-polar, rather than overly dependent on the US, which means the potential benefits from broad diversification are even greater.

That's why focusing too much on the day-to-day headlines with the US debt ceiling or European sovereign issues risks missing many of the good stories out there.

Sometimes, the best advice is to read the newspaper from the inside out.