Risky Biz

December 13, 2015

How low can crude oil prices go?  Older readers may remember the Limbo, a party dance popular in the early 60s.  After breaking through the “limbo stick” of $40 per barrel, gas prices sank even lower when the IEA indicated that the supply glut will continue through 2016 (Story).

A popular energy ETF, XLE, has fallen 11% in nine trading days.  Yes, an entire sector of the economy has lost more than 1% per day this month. Some oil service companies lost more than 3% on Friday alone. The large integrated oil companies like Exxon (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) say they are committed to maintaining their dividends (Exxon now near 4%, Chevron near 5%) but investors are concerned that continuing price pressures will make that ever more difficult. This article provides a good overview of the structure, revenue and profit streams of large integrated oil companies.

So we lie around at night worried about our stock portfolio.  Why would we do that?  Because someone – who? – is going to pay us a little extra to worry about our stocks.  Or, at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to go, isn’t it? The extra return we are supposed to get for our worries is called a risk premium, or the plural – premia.  One measure of that premium is the total return on stocks minus the total return on a safe long term bond like a ten year Treasury bond.

In his book Expected Returns, An Investor’s Guide to Harvesting Market Reward,  Antti Ilmanen reviews the historical returns of several types of assets during the past century. He wrote a free summary of the book in 2012 (Kindle version  OR PDF version).  Mr Ilmanen presents an investing cube (pg. 3) as a visualization of the factors or choices that an investor must consider.   On one face are assets categorized into four types of investment.  On another face are four styles of investment.  On the third face of the cube are four types of risk.

A surprising find was that the risk premia of stocks over bonds was only 2.38% (p. 12) during the past fifty years.  Investors are not being paid much for their worry.  When the author compared the returns on stocks to longer term twenty year Treasury bonds (an ETF like TLT, for example), the risk premium has been negative for the past forty years.

The author emphasizes that “a key theme in this book is the crucial distinction between realized (ex post) average excess returns and expected (ex ante) risk premia.” (p. 15)  Historical averages of risk premia may be exaggerated by high inflation, which hurt the returns on bonds in the 1970s and part of the 1980s, and made returns on stocks that much better by comparison.  In a low inflation environment such as the one we have now the risk premia for owning stocks may be rather muted.

Ilmanen’s analysis of past returns reveals several historical trends that can help an investor’s portfolio.    Value investing tends to produce higher returns over time.  So-called Dividend stocks also generate additional return.

I was surprised at the relative stability of per capita GDP growth over 100 years.  We wring our hands in response to a crisis like the dot-com meltdown or the Great Recession but these horrific events barely show in the average aggregate output of the country over a person’s working years. Here is a table from the PDF summary.

A mutual fund QSPIX was formed last year based partly on the research in the book.  However, the minimum investment is $5,000,000.    The fund is currently 28% in cash.

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Social Security Strategies

A resource on the right side of this blog is Maximize My Social Security (MMSS), a personally tailored – and inexpensive – advisory service to guide older people to better informed Social Security choices.  The site does not use your social security number.  If you already have an online account with the Social Security Administration, you can complete the forms at MMSS and get some results in under twenty minutes.

Old people who used to talk about the latest Pink Floyd or Led Zep album when they were younger now talk about Social Security, Medicare and their aches and pains.  Always a popular topic:  hey, what do you think about waiting to file for Social Security?

Pros of waiting:

1.  Where else  can any of us earn a guaranteed 8% on our money each year?  Sign me up!  For each year we wait, our Social Security annual benefit increases by 8%.

2. Inflation adjusted:  On top of the additional 32% we get from SS when we start collecting SS at age 70, we are getting an inflation adjustment on that higher amount.

3.  If we need to borrow money to get by during the 4 years we wait, we may be able to borrow the money using our house as collateral.  Depending on our tax circumstances, the interest we pay on the borrowed money could be deductible, reducing the net cost of borrowing.

4.  If we are a guy, we will probably die before our spouse.  Wives who may have a lower benefit will get their benefit amount bumped up to what we were receiving.

Cons of waiting:

1.  We could die before the “payoff” age, between 79 and 82.  This is the age when the inflation adjusted benefits we receive by delaying our benefit matches the total we would have collected by claiming at an earlier age.  However, we often don’t factor in the advantage of the #4 Pro above in which our spouse collects a higher amount till her death.

2.  Congress could change SS payments and rules.  The institution does not have a good track record for keeping its promises.  The swelling ranks of the Boomer generation contributed far more than recipients of earlier generations took out in benefits. Congresses of the past few decades have spent all the extra money accumulated in the Social Security coffers.  After 2020 the system will come under greater cash flow pressure as the Boomers continue to retire and claim benefits.  If Congress does reduce benefits,  then those of us who waited to file for benefits will probably regret our decision.  By the way, MMSS allows users to estimate the long term impact of such a reduction.

3.  We may have to borrow to make ends meet while we wait to collect benefits.  Banks don’t usually loan money to retirees with no job income, necessitating some asset-backed mortgage. Older people may be averse to assuming any new debt.

4.  Withdrawing money from savings while we wait will reduce our savings for a time, which will lessen the “endowment” base of our lifetime wealth.  While the additional 8% per year from SS should more than offset that loss, we can never be certain.  As an example, let’s imagine a retiree at the beginning of 1995 who decided to draw down savings and wait four years to start collecting SS benefits.  The stock market had gone nowhere during 1994.  She sold some stocks and bought a 4 year CD “ladder” for the amount she would need to tide her over till she started collecting benefits.  During those next four years, the SP500 index rose from 459 to 1229, a 167% gain – more than 25% annually excluding dividends.  Even with the additional money our retiree was making each month in SS benefits because of her decision to delay, it was the worst time to get out of the stock market!

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