The Talk

November 23, 2014

A strong wind from the southwest blew into town, chasing the cold weather out onto the great plains east of Denver.  Most of the trees had given up their leaves as the days grew shorter but the elm trees had stubbornly held onto their leaves, still green far into November.  The turning of color began during the cold snap of the previous week and now the great gnarly giants began to release their leaves to the winds.  Busy at work for many years, George had hired out the autumn cleanup.  Now that he was retired, he was becoming more attuned to the daily and seasonal rhythms of the plants and animals in the neighborhood.

“Leave me a small bag of leaves, dear,” Mabel asked.  She would dry them out, then arrange them into an autumn harvest theme.  George knew he needed to bring up the renewal of the CD with Mabel before her attention became entirely focused on the holidays.  She would set up the card table in the dining room and the season’s decorating would begin.

George had spent a lifetime assessing risk for the insurance of commercial buildings, which are dependent on the municipal services available to them – the fire, police, utilities, transportation, communications, and medical facilities that reduce either the risk or cost of damage.  George had given too many presentations at city council meetings or at the city planning board, outlining the cost benefits of municipal improvements.  Unlike the federal government with its seemingly limitless ability to borrow money, state and local governments had to live with real budget constraints.

George categorized himself as a prudent judge of risk.  However, he knew that most people he had met in his line of work thought they were prudent.  If asked, “Do you think you are more or less prudent than average?” most would answer that they are above average.  It was the Lake Wobegon effect, where everyone’s child was above average.  We couldn’t all be above average.

Mabel’s experience as a school principal had given her a firm grounding in budgets and accounting, but she was reluctant to take much risk with their personal savings, preferring CDs and savings accounts. She was not alone. In a recent Wall St. Journal blog was a study showing that 1/3 of IRA accounts had no stock exposure.

Fifty-six percent of IRA owners had either all their IRA money in stocks or absolutely none of that money in stocks in both 2010 and 2012, according to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute of data on 25.3 million accounts. (It was 33.2% at the no-equity end of the spectrum and 22.5% at the all-equity end.)

 In today’s low interest environment these accounts paid little interest but their value was secure.  If the 2008 financial crisis had happened when he and Mabel were in their thirties and had little in savings and several decades of paychecks to come,  the emotional effect probably would have lessened with time.  Coming as it did right before their retirement, the crisis had shaken their faith in anything whose principal was not guaranteed.  Their losses during the crisis had been lessened simply because Mabel had been so insistent on selling what stocks and bonds they had in September of 2008.

She had blamed the crisis on Bush, whom she thought to be one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.  George, who followed the markets and financial news more closely, made several attempts to give Mabel a more balanced assessment but she was adamant.  “No rules!  No regulations!  This dummy for a president is finding out what happens when there are no rules or regulations!  It’s like high school with no one in charge!”  As stock prices continued to sink over that winter, George was thankful that they had avoided any additional losses.  On the other hand, they had avoided most of the subsequent gains in the past seven years.

He mentally rehearsed his presentation.  The $50,000 CD was coming up next week.  It had paid a paltry 1.1%.  He checked one year CD rates.  Chase was offering 1/100th of 1%, Wells Fargo 5/100ths.  Had George read that right?  He checked the decimal points.  Sure enough, .01% and .05%.  In short, “We don’t want your money!”  A savings deposit or CD was essentially a loan to the bank, so why would any bank want money from Ma and Pa Liscomb when they could get it for almost free from the U.S. government?  So, he would start off telling  Mabel about the low interest rates.

The next part of his presentation would be a cautionary tone of risk and reward.  He would tell Mabel that the stock market was like a wagon train.  Well, maybe that was too poetic.  She might give him her “gimme a break” look.  He would hold up his hand and ask for some patience.  Different wagon trains take different paths across the country. The bond wagon train takes the southern route.  The terrain is flatter but the distance is longer.  The stock wagon train takes the more direct route across the mountains and valleys.  He’d show her the chart of the SP500 as it went up and down the hills and valleys.

“Yeh,” she would say, “what I don’t like are the steep valleys.”  That’s when he would show her his zig-zag chart.  Do you see how bonds zig when stocks zag? he would say.  This way, bonds counterbalance some of the risks in the stock market.

“So what happened in 2008?” she would say with a healthy dose of skepticism in her voice.  “Well, that was unusual,” he would say.  “Everything fell.  Even it did happen again, it is unlikely to stay that way for more than a few months or at most a few years.  If a crisis like that happened again and stayed that way for several years, we’d be more worried about getting food and gas, not about paying for it,” he’d say.  Ok, maybe that would be an overstatement, but maybe not.

“But stocks have already gone up for the past few years,” she might say.  “Some people are saying that it’s a bubble.”  Then he’d mention all the good economic signs.  Manufacturing and services were both strong.  Industrial Production continued to rise and has been above 2007 levels for more than a year.

Sure, there were signs of weak consumer demand. The Consumer Price Index had risen only 1.7% over the past year.  Falling gas prices had helped keep a lid on raises in the CPI and was putting extra money in consumers’ pockets.  It was not only lifting airline profits but contributing to lower costs for a lot of companies.  The Homebuilders association was reporting strong confidence among their members and existing home sales were at a stable level.

George wouldn’t tell her one thing that concerned him.  It was a long term phenomenon, a growing caution that George attributed to the aging of the population.  People put money in safe money accounts like savings, CDs, money markets, and checking when they were less confident about the future or anticipated a short term need for  cash.  On the second point, it was true that as people got older, they prudently put more money in safe accounts.  Retired people in particular were encouraged to keep five years of anticipated withdrawals in a safe place, not the stock market.  The Federal Reserve tracked the amount of these safe money accounts, known as the M2 money supply.  Occasionally, George would look at this amount as a percent of GDP.  Over the past decade the percentage of M2 to GDP had been growing.

This could be a natural trend of an aging population but there was another metric that concerned George.  Over the past thirty years, people were keeping twice the amount of money in safe accounts.  In the early 1980s, it had been about $8000.  After accounting for inflation over the past thirty years, the per capita average was $15000.

George guessed that this cautious move to safety would contribute to slowing economic growth for years to come.  But he wouldn’t tell Mabel that.  He was also keeping a wary eye on small cap stocks.

If the index continued to break down below the neckline, George expected further weakness, perhaps another 10% drop as investors lost confidence in small cap stocks.  Falling oil prices and low gas prices helped small caps but the strong dollar and continued weakness in the European countries and Japan would curtail export growth.

Armed with a mental outline of his presentation, George sat down next to Mabel in the living room.  “Whatcha reading?” he asked.  If she was in the middle of a whodunit, this wouldn’t be a good time.  “It’s a series of papers, mostly statistical studies on student scores,” she said.  “Teaching models, and correlations with their socioeconomic backgrounds, their race.  Lorraine lent me her copy.  It’s very interesting but reminds me that I need to brush up on some terms.”

This was good, George thought.  Her brain was in analytical mode already.  “Hey, hon, I wanted to talk to you about that CD coming up next week,” he started.  “Oh, yeh,” Mabel responded.  “I was at the bank the other day and couldn’t believe how low the rates are now.  Why do they insult their customers by posting the rates?” she mused.

“I was thinking about that,” George stepped in.  God, she was making this easy, he thought.  “What do you think,” she continued, “maybe move that money into one of those bond index funds?” she asked.  “Uh, yeh,” George said, a bit befuddled. She was making it too easy after all the time he’d spent planning his presentation, her objections, and his persuasive responses.  “You had said you wanted to keep everything totally safe, so I thought…,” George’s voice trailed off.  “Well, I do, but this is ridiculous,” Mabel said.  “Obviously, we are going to have to take some risk.”  “And I’ve got the time to watch it,” George reassured her.  “I’ve noticed that,” she said. “I don’t have the interest to watch it.  I guess I always thought that investing was a ‘set it and forget it’ proposition.  Maybe it was never that way.  But, after 2008, I’m…” and she gave a rock-the-boat gesture with her hand.  “Ok,” George said and stood up. “I’ll have the bank close out the CD, then transfer the money.”

A Surprise Guest

October 26, 2014

Shortly after Monday morning’s sunrise, George sat on the back deck, coffee in hand.  Some brilliant, utterly mad painter rushed around the neighborhood, dabbing the trees with what seemed like the entire palette of warm colors. Armies of invisible elves set up accent lights in the branches, highlighting the hues of rust-orange-yellow-gold.  As George absorbed the movie magic moment, a van from the local cable company pulled up on the grass alleyway behind the backyard fence. “Starting early,” George thought as he glanced at this watch.  7:30.

He opened the backyard gate to the alley, meaning to ask the service guy if repairs on the pole would interrupt his and Mabel’s service this morning.  A guy who looked too trim, too neat, and too fit to be a repairman opened the passenger door of the van and called out to him, “Sir, stay inside the yard.”  George took a step backward and looked up above.  Was there a loose wire or something dangerous?  Cable wire carried low voltage so what could be the problem?  He glanced back at the man and the van.

From the rear of the van, two men hopped out.  Like the guy in front, they were both dressed in black windbreakers over blue polo shirts, black slacks.  It was like a SWAT team of rugged fashion models.  One of the men came to the rear gate.  George stepped back another step.  The man scanned the yard to the left and right of George, looked past George at the rear of the house.  George noticed that the other two men scanned the alley, the nearby houses.  The man at the gate glanced at a phone in the palm of his hand, then looked at George.  “George Liscomb?” he asked in the commanding tone of one who routinely asks questions and expects answers.  George nodded.  “Is there a Mabel Liscomb living here?”  George nodded again.  “Is she here?” Another nod.  “Your wife?”  One more nod. “Any other residents inside the house?”  George shook his head.  The man turned his head sideways, keeping one eye on George.  “Bravo,” he called to the two other men.

From the side door another man emerged, dressed much like the others. George felt a numbness inside like he was on a movie set.  “Move back a few feet, please.”  Finally a slim figure emerged from the side of the van. The ears were the dead giveaway.  George forgot that he was still holding his coffee cup as he instinctively jerked his hand to his face.  The coffee cup clipped his lower jaw.  “Ouhhhhh,” George barked. The sudden grunt drew everyone’s gaze.  “You OK?” President Obama called out to him. The lukewarm coffee had spilled on George’s shirt but he was hardly mindful.  “Uh, yeh,” George replied.

Like four points of a compass, the four men surrounded the President as the group seemed to flow through the backyard gate.  The front man stood aside and the President held out his hand to George. “Great morning here in Denver, isn’t it,” the President said, an upbeat easygoing smile on his face. George paused briefly to figure out the coffee cup thing.  He put the coffee cup in his left hand then held out his right hand to shake the President’s hand.  What does one say to the President, George wondered.  “Good morning, President.”  Ok, that worked.  “George, is it?” the President asked? “Yeh,” George replied in a monotone.  “I was wondering if Mabel – that’s your wife? – is she here?  Is she available?”  “Uh, yeh,” George replied, “she’s in the living room.”  “May we go in?” the President asked politely. “Uh, sure.”  George had barely drunk his first coffee before spilling it.  Maybe that’s why his brain seemed to be stuck in monosyllabic mode.

The front man strode to the house.  “Maybe George should go with you and we’ll wait a moment on the deck,” the President called out.  George joined the man, who opened the rear door and glanced inside before allowing George to go through the doorway.  “Hey, Mabel,” George called out.   “Are you decent?  We’ve got company.”  He could hear her get up from her easy chair.  “Be right there,” she called back.  She appeared at the far end of the kitchen, saw the man next to George and asked, “What’s the matter, dear?”  “You’re not going to believe this,” George replied.  Already the man was moving toward Mabel.  George forewarned her.  “This guy needs to ask you a few questions.”

The man went through the same procedure with Mabel.  She answered curtly as though she were about to throw this impudent intruder out of her house.  “You have a holstered weapon.  Are you with the police?”  she asked after answering the first two questions.  From a few incidents at the high school, she recognized the bulge at the man’s side.   “Secret Service, ma’am,” the man answered. “Secret what?” Mabel asked and the man opened his windbreaker enough to see the ID badge hanging from his neck.  She looked past the man and spoke to George, “What the hell is going on, George?”  He could tell she was upset.  “It’s OK, just answer the questions,” George called back to her.  No, there was no one in the house.  Yes, she was Mabel Liscomb.  She leveled her gaze directly at the man when he asked her birthdate.  She responded quickly but in a slightly menacing tone.  “You have the audacity to ask me to identify myself in my own home!”  Then the man’s voice softened as though he were an actual human being.  “Sorry, ma’am.  Have to do my job.”  He stepped back to where George stood at the rear door.   The man opened the screen door and nodded, “It’s allright.”

George joined Mabel in the kitchen as the group on the deck flowed through the rear doorway, keeping the President protected.  “Mrs. Liscomb,” the President greeted her with a warm smile, “good to meet you.  You wrote me a letter a few months back, didn’t you.”  Mabel stuttered.  Had he ever hear Mabel stutter, George wondered.  “I-I-I-I-did I?  I can’t muh-member,” Mabel answered.  “You had some good ideas that I’d like to talk to you about, if you have time?”  Mabel nodded.  George could see that she was recovering quickly from her shock.  She was good at that.  The habits of a high school principal asserted themselves and Mabel told the President, “I’m flattered that you are interested, of course.  Why couldn’t your staff make an appointment?”  Geez, George thought, she’s using the command voice with the damn President of the U.S.  He noticed that each member of the security detail had moved to a window.  George glanced to his right and saw that one had gone into the living room.  The fourth guy – had he gone up the stairs to check the bedrooms?

“I was supposed to be golfing with your Senator Udall but he had to cancel,” the President explained.  “I offered to appear at a fundraiser with Diana DeGette but her staff said she’d have to get back to us.  I don’t seem to be too popular for this election.”  Mabel made a brushing gesture.  “Don’t worry about it.  Same thing happened to Eisenhower ,Reagan and Bush at the midterm of their second terms,” Mabel told him.  “With a recession still going on, Mamie Eisenhower was a lot more popular on the political circuit leading up to the ’58 mid-terms.”  “Oh, Michelle is on everyone’s dance ticket,” the President replied.  “Me, not so much.  The quarterback takes the blame when things go wrong.  When things go right, it’s the offensive line that gets the credit.  Just part of the game, I suppose.”

“Well, come on in and sit down,” Mabel turned toward the living room.  In a brief exchange, Mabel and the President had become buddies of a sort.  George still wasn’t sure how it happened but each of them had recognized something in the other that they both had in common.  Mabel sat down in her favorite chair, then motioned the President to sit on the couch nearby.  She turned to George and said, “Do you want to make some coffee? I think I took the last of the first pot.”  George nodded. “Yeh, I haven’t even had my first cup.”

The President was different in person.  When interviewed on 60 Minutes, he had showed a casual aloofness that George didn’t like. The folded legs, the studied composure didn’t ring true for George.  Now, here in this living room, he sat, legs unfolded, leaning slightly forward in an attentive pose, earnestly having a conversation with Mabel.

For the next hour Mabel discussed education policies with the President. She didn’t like the implementation of educational standards. Yes, she understood the desire for uniformity.  No federal department can understand local educational needs. Too much politics in education already.  Washington makes it worse.   “How did you come to read my letter?” she asked.  “Kind of a mistake,” the President replied. “It should have gone to Arne’s people but it got in my pile by mistake. I left it on the table and Michelle saw it.  She told me, ‘you need to hear this.  This woman’s been there her whole life.  She understands.  You’re not hearing this in Washington.’  And, to tell you the truth, it’s just been sitting in the policy pile for months.  The first thing I found out as President – probably every President faces this quickly – is that there is never enough time to get to everything on his plate.”

George stayed out of the living room for much of the time, preferring to give Mabel the opportunity to discuss her ideas with the President.  He actually served coffee to the President. The kids wouldn’t believe it when they told them. There was a woman out on the deck, talking into the air.  “Do you want some coffee,” George asked. Had she been there all along?  “No, thanks.  You’re Mr. Liscomb?” she asked.  “George,” George nodded.  “Sherry, personal assistant,” she shook his hand.  George started to invite her in but she held up her hand and started talking to the air again.

After too short a time, the assistant came in, excused herself, leaned over and whispered something in the President’s ear.  The President stood up. “I’ll have to go.  It was wonderful meeting you and talking with you, Mrs. Liscomb,” he said and bowed slightly.  Mabel rose up from her chair, “A great pleasure, Mr. President, and thank you for your insights,” Mabel responded and – you gotta be kidding me, George thought – did a slight curtsy.  The President laughed.  George shook hands with the President, then they were gone.  “Holy mackeral,” George said as he sat down on the couch. “I’m sitting in the same seat as the President of the United States.  It’s still warm.”  Mabel gave him a look.  “Oh, damn!” George remembered.  “We forgot to take a picture!”  They both laughed.  George ran out on the back deck, hoping that they had not driven away yet but the van was gone.  The story of a lifetime and no picture to prove it.

Then George remembered that he had hit the buy button the past Friday.  He sat down at the computer. The market had opened up that morning slightly lower but several earnings reports were positive.  Apple and IBM were scheduled to announce earnings after the close.  Later that day, Apple’s earnings and sales were above consensus estimates. To offset Apple’s upbeat numbers, IBM announced a chilling quarterly report. For the 10th consecutive quarter, revenue at the technology giant had declined.  The death blow: earnings for 2014 were projected to be less than 2013’s earnings, something that hadn’t happened since 2002.  This stalwart of so many institutional portfolios was continuing to stumble.  If September’s Existing Home Sales, due to be released the following morning, declined any further, Tuesday could be a seriously down day.

George woke up again before sunrise on Tuesday.  Mabel was already awake as usual.  Thankfully, sales of existing homes  showed a bounce back in September to an annual pace of close to 5.2 million homes, the benchmark for a healthy churn.

George checked earnings stats at Zacks.  Before the opening bell, the staffing giant Manpower, announced better than expected earnings.  Although sales declined in some areas, McDonald’s earnings were 10% more than expectations.  Aircraft giant Northrup Grumman reported better than expected earnings as well. Yahoo reported earnings that were more than double the consensus.  Most of the extra profits came from the sale of shares that it owned in Alibaba’s IPO.  The market opened up sharply, closing the day with a 2% gain.  Their son, Robbie, called that evening and they told him all about the visit from the President. “How many pics did you get?  You should put them up on Facebook,” he told them. “We forgot,” George informed Robbie. “Daaaad,” came the exasperated reply.  “Well, we’re old people. We’re not used to recording every event in our lives, I guess.”

On Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that inflation had grown 1.7% in the past year, in line with expectations.  The Federal government closes its fiscal year at the end of each September.  Each October, the Social Security Administration sets the inflation adjustment to Social Security checks for the coming calendar year.  A 1.7% increase meant an average $20 increase in monthly benefits.  For too many seniors depending on Social Security as their primary source of income, the low annual increases in payments did not keep up with increases in drug and food costs.  Retired folks on the lower rungs of the economic ladder then had to apply for food stamps to make up for the low yearly increases in benefits.

Dow Chemical surprised to the upside as did industrial manufacturers Graco and General Dynamics.  The positive mood on Wall Street was interrupted by the news of an attack on the Canadian Parliament.  George was cleaning leaves out of the front gutter when Mabel opened the door to tell him the news.  The market reacted negatively to the news but did not give up all of Tuesday’s gains, a positive sign.

On Thursday, the BLS reported that new claims for unemployment had risen slightly the previous week but that the four week average had fallen to the lowest level in 14 years.  Positive earnings reports from 3M and Caterpillar, both of whom had a large international customer base, propelled the market higher, trading above the range of Tuesday’s rally.

On Friday, September’s new home sales of 467,000 were the best of the recovery.  August’s robust sales figures were reduced by almost 50,000 to a revised 466,000, giving George a WTF frown.  A 10% revision?  The drug manufacturer Bristol Meyers and consumer giant Colgate reported higher than expected earnings.  Ford surprised with significantly higher than expected earnings but the details in the report were not encouraging.  Revenues in both North and South America had declined and Ford expected flat earnings growth for the full year.  The market gained almost 1%.  In the past seven trading days, it had gained back all the ground lost the six days prior, closing near the level of October 8th.

For 2-1/2 years, each decline had been followed by a sharp upturn.  “Buying on the dip” had become a often used phrase.  Anticipating a bounce with each dip, investors had been coming back into the market after a short decline.  Since mid-September, investors who had bought in on the bounce had been disappointed when the market continued to decline.

Despite all the positive earnings reports, George was still concerned that stock valuations were just a bit on the high side.  Earnings gains, as well as the growth in profit margins, were becoming slower.  There had been two brief fallbacks in 2013, and already three fallbacks and a correction of more than 5% in 2014.  Frequent small fallbacks were healthy for the market, shaking out excess optimism.  The last real correction – a 10% decline in price – had last occurred in May 2012.  The market of the mid-2000s had gone for several years without a 10% correction and that did not end well.  George worried that the Feds low interest policy, kept in place for almost six years, gave investors too few choices and herded them into the riskier stock market. Gotta stay watchful, he thought.


July 27, 2014

This week I’ll take a look at the latest home sales reports, a few trends in Social Security, and the latest reading in the Consumer Price Index.  Lastly, I’ll ask whether a home should be included in an investor’s bond allocation.


Home Sales

Existing home sales rose in June, topping 5 million but are still down 2.3% on  a year over year basis.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency reported that home price increases have slowed slightly, notching a 5.5% year over year gain.

The bad news this week was the 12% year-over-year drop in single family new homes sold in June, falling from 459,000 in June 2013 to 406,000 in June of this year.

The comparison was a tough one because June 2013 was the best month for new home sales in the post recession period.  However, the year-over-year comparison of the three month moving average of new home sales shows a falling trend as well, down 6% from last year.  The decline began in January and shows little signs of improvement.

I will remind readers of a 2007 paper presented by economist Ed Leamer in which he demonstrated that falling new home sales tends to precede a recession by three to four quarters.  I wrote about it in February this year.


Jobless Claims

In contrast to the disappointing report on new home sales, jobless claims fell unexpectedly to 284,000, dropping the 4 week moving average to a post-recession low of 302,000.  No doubt this will raise expectations for a strong employment report next Friday.

Social Security Trust Funds

When the U.S. Treasury collects more in Social Security taxes than the Social Security Administration (SSA) pays out in benefits, the Treasury “borrows” the money from the Social Security Trust Fund by selling it non-marketable Treasury bonds that the SSA holds.  The interest rate for each new bond is an average of the yields on intermediate and long term Treasuries. The Treasury credits this interest to the trust funds every month.  SSA has a web page where a reader can select a year and month and see the average interest rate that the trust funds were earning on that date.  In December 2013, the average annual yield was about 3.6%, down significantly from the 5.25% being credited at the end of 2005, when interest rates were higher.  At the end of 2012, the trust funds had a balance of about $2.7 trillion, earning about $100 billion annually, enough to make up the $75 billion shortfall each year projected by the Trustees of the fund.

The Disability Insurance (DI) portion of the trust fund is projected to run out of money by 2016.  This Do-Nothing Congress will not resolve the problem in this mid-term election year,  promising to make the issue a contentious one for the 2016 election cycle.  If the problem is not resolved by then, current law requires that benefits be reduced accordingly.  The Trustees estimate that Disability beneficiaries will get about 80% of their scheduled benefit.  Democrats will likely use the issue to paint Republicans as Meanies who care only about the rich and big corporations while Republicans portray Democrats as tax-and-spenders who buy votes with government charity.  It’s all coming to a TV screen in our homes.  Can’t wait.


Consumer Price Index

June’s inflation numbers from the BLS notched a 2.1% year-over-year gain, slightly above the Fed’s 2% target.  The core CPI, which excludes more volatile energy and food prices, is up 1.9% y-o-y.  Gasoline jumped 3.3% in June but year over year gains are at target levels of 2%.

Over the next few years, we will hear increasing calls for a switch to what is called a chained consumer price index, or C-CPI.  The chained index attempts to more closely replicate a cost of living index by taking into account the substitutions that consumers make in response to changes in price.  The CPI may calculate that the Jones Family bought the same amount of hamburger meat even when it rises 20% in price.  The Chained CPI calculates that the Jones Family may buy a little bit less hamburger meat and a bit more chicken if chicken remains relatively stable in price.  The two indexes closely track each other but the CPI tends to be slightly higher than the Chained CPI.

At various times in budget negotiations with the Republican controlled House over the past two years, President Obama has said that he was open to a discussion on transitioning from the CPI as it is currently calculated to the chained CPI.  Social Security payments are one of the many benefits indexed to the CPI.  The current political climate and the upcoming mid-term elections undermine the chances of any adult conversation on the topic.   Republicans are likely to retain the House and want to take the Senate.  A discussion of the CPI invites accusations from Democrats that Republicans – yes, The Cold Heartless Ones – are going to throw seniors under the bus if Social Security payments are decreased by even $5 a month because of a change in the calculation of the CPI.

The reason younger people don’t vote much may be that they hear the rhetoric of most political campaigns and realize that the discussions are much like those they heard in middle school.


House = Bond?

Let’s crank up the wayback machine and travel to those heady days of 1999 when the stock market was booming.  Current profits did not matter.  New metrics were invented. Customers were revenue streams whose future value could be used to justify the present value of customer acquisition costs. Investments were made to position a company as the dominant player in the sector space of the internet frontier.  These metrics have some validity but the stumbling block was the simple fact that current profits do matter.

About that time some finance professors made the case in a Wall St. Journal editorial (sorry, no link.  WSJ doesn’t go back that far) that most households were overweighted in bonds. How so? A house is like a bond, they argued, relatively stable in price and pays the owner the equivalent of 6% – 7% annually.  House prices do average about 15 – 16 times annual rents according to the real estate analytics firm Jacob Reis.  At the height of the housing boom in the mid-2000s, houses were selling for 25x annual rents.

Secondly, it did not matter whether the house was paid for or not.  To illustrate this rather dubious viewpoint, let’s consider a renter who pays $12,000 annually in rent for an apartment.  She has a $500,000 portfolio, $300,000 of it in stocks, $200,000 in bonds, a 60/40 allocation split.  The bonds generate a 6% annual return of $12,000 which she uses to pay her rent.  A responsible financial advisor would not say “Oh, those bonds don’t count to your allocation mix because the income they earn is used for rent.”

Now, let’s look at a homeowner with the same $500,000 portfolio and the same allocation, 60% stocks, 40% bonds.  She owns a home valued at $200,000 which, if she rented it out, would net her $12,000 annually.  Her PITI  (mortgage payment and taxes) and maintenance repairs is also $12,000 annually.  Like the renter, the homeowner uses the $12,000 in income from her bonds to pay the house costs.  Unlike the renter, she is building some equity in the house by paying down principal.  On average, the value of her house is gaining about 3 – 4% per year based on historical patterns.  In short, the house is generating an unrealized gain that is ignored in conventional allocation models.

So, how would one compute the asset value of the house?  By imputing it from the income and unrealized gains that the house generated.  So, if a homeowner paid $3000 annually toward principal reduction and the house appreciated 3%, or $6000, the house generates a value to the homeowner of $9,000.  Using the historical 6% average return on a house, this would make the asset value of the house $150,000.  Adding that to the stock and bond portfolio gives a new total of $650,000, $350,000 of which is in bonds and the house, a bond-like asset.  Using this method, the allocation mix is 46% stocks, 54% bonds, perhaps more conservative than the homeowner desired.

After reappraising their portfolio in this manner, the professors suggested that homeowners might sell some bonds and buy more stocks to get the desired allocation mix.  To achieve a true 40% bond mix in this example, the target total would be $260,000 in the house and bonds.  Subtracting the $150,000 house value, the homeowner would want to have $110,000 in bonds.  To achieve this, the homeowner would sell $90,000 in bonds and invest in the stock market.  The investor would then have $390,000 stocks and $110,000, slightly above a 75/25 stock/bond allocation mix.  Older readers may shudder at this mix, thinking that it is quite risky.

So, let’s come back to the present day, after the housing bubble.  The calculations are not based on the actual price of the house but 1) on the income that it would generate if it were rented out and, 2) the principal pay down.  The finance professors did not factor in homeowners who were “under water,” i.e. owing more on the house than its current market value, because the debt on a house or any asset did not count in this model.

Let’s say that a homeowner bought at the height of the market in 2005, paying an inflated $300,000 for a house that would later be valued for $200,000.  The principal paydown is so small in the early years of a mortgage that it has only a small effect on the calculation.  Secondly, rent prices were under pressure during the housing boom, making the calculation of the asset value of the house lower.  In fact, a person using this method and contemplating the purchase of a house at that time might have asked themselves “Why am I paying $300,000 for an asset whose income and unrealized gain generates an asset value of $200,000 at most?”

As to the timing, whoa, boy!  What a bad call, selling $90,000 in bonds and putting it into the stock market right before the dot-com bubble popped.  By June 2001, long term bonds (VBLTX as a proxy) had gained almost 10% in value and were paying about 6%.  Our homeowner was not a happy camper.  Over two years, she had lost about $9K in value and another $10K in dividends on that $90,000 in bonds that she sold.  At mid-2001, she had lost an additional  $4,000 in value on the $90K that she invested in stocks near the height of the dot-com boom.

By the end of 2013, twelve years later, she still had not made up for those initial losses.

By including a housing value in the allocation calculations, our investor had an approximately 75/25 mix of stocks and bonds.  During those 14 years, a 75/25 stock/bond mix had about the same total return as a 60/40 stock/bond mix.  There is one clear advantage to the 60/40 mix, however: the risk adjusted return is much better.  The average annual return as a percentage of the maximum drawdown, or the CAR/MDD ratio,  was much higher and the higher the better.

This ratio could be called the sleep ratio.  Let’s say an active investor makes $50K profit in a year on a $500,000 portfolio, but during the year, the investor’s portfolio lost half its value before recovering.  Then the sleep ratio is $50K/$250K, or .2.  Not much sleep for all that activity.  As a benchmark, a buy and hold strategy in the stock market had a CAR/MDD ratio of .2 from 2001 – 2013.

The conventional 60/40 mix had a sleep ratio of .6 during this period.  The 75/25 mix had a sleep ratio of .35, making it the poorer risk adjusted model.  Interestingly, a buy and hold strategy in long term bonds had a sleep ratio of .48, showing that some balance between bonds and stocks produces a better risk adjusted return.

While the rationale for including a house in one’s bond portfolio mix might seem to be a good one, there was a timing disadvantage over this 14 year period.  Long term investors should remember that the past 15 years have been a rather unique combination of two severe downturns in the stock market and a housing bubble.  Such a combination is sure to test even the soundest theory.



New home sales are down while existing home sales continue their moderate growth trend.  Jobless Claims are at a post-recession low.  Fixes to the Disability trust fund and any transition to a chained CPI are off the discussion table till 2015, at least.  An allocation model that includes a home’s value in an investor’s bond portfolio may have merit over a long time horizon.

Next week come four reports that are sure to fire up the market if any of them surprises to either the upside or downside:  GDP growth for the 2nd quarter, Employment gains, Motor Vehicle Sales, and the Purchasing Manager’s Index for the manufacturing sector.