A Week In The Life

September 28, 2014

This past Monday George was out in the backyard when his wife Mabel came out on the back deck to announce that lunch was ready.  From the deciduous vines that grew on the backyard fence George was pulling leaves that had turned an autumn shade of red.

“George, what are you doing?”
“I thought I would pull these leaves off before they fall.  This way I won’t have to stoop so much a few weeks from now to pick them out of the rock garden.  The leaves are getting in the pond and clogging up the filter.”
“Well, come on, dear.  Lunch is ready.  I heard on the radio a little while ago that the market is down.  You know how I worry about that.”
“Oh, really?” George replied.  “It was down last Friday.  Did they give any reason?”
“Something about housing.  I’m sure you’ll find out all about it while you are eating.”

Mabel had set a nice lunch plate of panini bread, cheese and vegetables.  George was a tall man, a big boned man, prone to weight gain in retirement. Although George was fairly fit for his age, she worried about his health, particularly his heart, the male curse.  Mabel made sure that they both ate sensible, healthy meals.

Mabel took her lunch into the living room, leaving George alone in the kitchen.  He liked to check in on the stock market a few hours before the close to get a sense of the direction of the day’s action.  She would have chosen to keep all their savings in CDs and savings accounts but the interest rates were so low that living expenses would slowly erode their principle.

“We’ll put just 25% of our money in the market,” George had told her.  “I’ll watch it carefully and if anything like 2008 happens again, we can pull it out right away.  I’ll know what the signs are.”

George had studied a book on technical indicators which were supposed to help a person understand the direction of the market.  Despite her confidence in George’s ability and sensibility, Mabel still worried.  The stock market had always seemed to her like gambling.

At the kitchen table, George turned on the computer while he chewed his carrots and celery.  He had never been fond of vegetables but found that his likes and dislikes had mellowed with age.  He liked that Mabel cared.  The market helped distract him from the vegetables.  He paged through the daily calendar at Bloomberg, then checked out the headlines at Yahoo Finance. Existing home sales in August had fallen more than 5% from the previous August but that was a tough comparison because 2013 had been a pretty strong year.  Existing home sales were still above 5 million.

Before George had invested some of their savings in the stock market, he had bought several books on how to read financial statements but soon gave up when he realized that knowing the fundamentals of a company would not protect their savings in the case of another meltdown like the recent financial crisis.  Patient though she might be, Mabel would be extremely upset with him if he lost half of his investment in the market.

He then turned to the study of technical indicators which analyzed the behavior of other buyers and sellers in the stock market.  As an insurance adjuster, he had learned C programming back in the 1990s and found a charting program whose language was familiar to him.  As a former adjuster for the insurance of commercial buildings, he was used to making judgments based on a complex interplay of many factors.  He played with several indicators, found a few that seemed to be reliable, but got burned when the market melted down in the summer of 2011.  He got out quickly but not quickly enough for he had lost more than 10% of his investment in the market.  The market healed but at the time it seemed as though there might be a repeat of the 2008 crisis.  Had George and Mabel been younger, George could have just ridden out the storm.  Retirement had made him cautious and the 2011 downturn made George almost as leery of the market as Mabel.

Tuesday was a fine day in late September.  Mabel put her crochet down and made the two of them some soup, with fruit, crackers and cheese.  She took pride in the variety of food that she prepared.  When she walked out on the deck to call George in for lunch, a startled crow took to flight.  George was sitting on the edge of the deck where the crow had been.

“What are you doing, George?”
“I was teaching that little crow how to break open a peanut,” George replied. “I think they learn how to do stuff like that from their parents but I haven’t seen the flock in a few days and this guy was just wandering around the backyard looking for something to eat.  When I gave him a peanut, he didn’t seem to know what to do with it.  He’d pick it up in his beak, then drop it and stare at it.  He pecked at it a few times but that only made the peanut skitter away. “
George held up a branch.  “I carved a claw into the end of this branch and held down the peanut for him.”  George held up half a peanut shell.  “See, he got it figured out.  He flew off when the door opened but I’ll betcha he’ll be back.”
“Well, come on in then.  Lunch is ready.  The market is down again.  Something about housing again.”
“Hmmm,” George grunted and followed Mabel into the kitchen.  “Hmmm, that soup smells good.”
“A little beef vegetable that I doctored up a bit,” Mabel said with a smile.
George gave her a little hug. “I sure like your doctoring.”

He sat down to eat, wondering what all the fuss in the market was.  Checking the Bloomberg Calendar, he saw that it was the House Price index from the Federal Housing Administration that had dampened spirits.  The monthly change was drifting down to zero, a sign of weakness.  Although housing prices were still rising, the rise was slowing down.

A disappointment, George thought, but not a catastrophe.  However, the market had been down for three days in a row.  He finished his lunch and went into the living room.  Mabel was reading a book.
“You know, Mabel, I think it’s just a short term thing.  The bankers from the developed countries met last week and they kinda put out a wake up call to the market.  I think there’s a bit more caution and common sense after that.”
“Well, as long as you’re watching it, dear.”
“You know, we did good this last year,” he reassured her.
“I just worry that it was too good.  We should have taken some of that out of the market and put it somewhere safe.”
 “Well, I’m keeping an eye on it,” he said.  “I checked CD rates last week and they are paying like 1% for a one year CD.  It just ain’t like it used to be. We just have to take some risk.”

They had a 3-year CD coming due in a month. He didn’t want to tell her that he was thinking about not rolling over the CD.  Maybe buy a bond fund.  She wouldn’t like that. For a time he had dabbled in some short to medium term trading but barely broke even.  He had lost sight of his original goal – to keep their savings safe while taking some risk with the money.  Fortunately, this insight had come to him toward the end of 2012.  The market had been mostly up since then, rewarding those who sat out the small downturns.

Late Wednesday morning, Mabel could hear George on the side of the house clearing brush or some such thing.  He said he was going to cut down an elm tree sapling that was growing near the house but when she went out to call him into lunch, he had cut everything but the elm sapling.

“I thought you were going to cut that down, dear.”
“Well, I was but the squirrels are using it to climb up to the old swamp cooler we have perched up there.  You remember the litter from early this spring?  Well, I think there’s another litter in there.  I haven’t seen any young ones but there’s a squirrel carrying twigs up that sapling to the cooler.  She’s even got a piece of one of my rags.  Must’ve fallen out of my pocket.”

Mabel looked up at the platform George had mounted to the side of the house years ago.  On top of the platform sat the old abandoned cooler.  George had meant to take it down and disassemble the platform but then the squirrels had used it as a nursery this winter and neither of them had been able to dismantle it while the little ones were scampering around in and out of the cooler.  Of course, George was supposed to take the cooler down during the summer but never got around to it.  Now she saw that he had tied a cord from the platform to the sapling to bend the sapling close to the platform, making it easier for the squirrel to get from the tree to the platform.

She shook her head and said “George Liscomb, I hope you don’t let that sapling get out of hand.  You know how elm trees are.  They grow faster than a puppy.”
“Well, the tree won’t grow much during the winter and I’ll cut it down in the spring.”
“Ok, well, come on it.  Lunch is ready.  I heard on the radio that the market is up a lot today.  Housing again.  Maybe you were right about it being short term.”
“Well, of course, I’m right,” he made a grand gesture.  “The squirrels will confirm that.”

His lunch plate held some broccoli spears and six, no more and no less, tater tots.  “I know you don’t particularly like broccoli so I thought a few tater tots might ease the pain,” Mabel said with a slightly sardonic smile.

He laughed.  “I’m married to a kind prison guard.”  He sat down at the table, wondering what could have buoyed the market so much.  Housing yet again.  “Holy moly!” he called out to Mabel. He went into the living room to tell her the good news. “Finally, after more than six years, new homes are selling at a rate of more than half a million a year.  That’s what’s got the market dancing.”

On Thursday, she found George working on the stream that he had built in the rock garden.  A few feet from George a squirrel cautiously sipped water from the stream.  The squirrel saw her and scampered up the nearby fence.  “It’s remarkable how comfortable they are with you,” she told him.  “I try to move slowly when I’m working,” George replied. “They seem to be less anxious.”
“What are you doing today?” she asked.
“Got a leak somewhere.  I’ve lost about 15 gallons since last night.  Still haven’t found it.”
“Well, you’re not going to like what going on in the market.  It’s way down today and it’s not about housing.”

He followed her into the house and broke into a big grin when he saw what was for lunch. “Tuna fish!”  Mabel had dressed up her famous tuna fish salad with lettuce, tomatoes, some green onions and put it open faced on some toasted bread.  It was scrumptious.  Not so the market.  The SP500 was down about 1-1/2% on several news releases.  The whopper was that Durable Goods Orders were down 18% in August from the previous month.  But most of that drop was a decline in aircraft orders after a surge in those same orders in July.  Aircraft orders were notoriously volatile. Year-over-year gains in non-defense capital goods, the core reading, were up almost 8%.

The weekly report of new unemployment claims had risen slightly but was still below 300,000.  September’s advance reading of the services sector, the PMI Services Flash, was slightly less than the robust reading of August but still very strong.  So what was causing these overreactions to news releases?  The short term traders execute buy or sell orders within seconds of a news release.  Computer algorithms trade within nanoseconds of the release.  If new unemployment claims are up even by 1, the word “up” or “rise” or some variation will occur within the release.  Sell.  New home sales up?  Up is good for this report.  Buy.  Why would the short-termers be so active this week?  Because they are trading against each other.  The mid and long termers, the portfolio managers, will take the stage at the beginning of next week to adjust their positions at quarter end when funds report their allocations.

Late Friday morning, Mabel stood out on the back deck, her mouth open at the sight of George hunched down as he came out of the shed in the backyard.  Hundreds of wasps swarmed above him.  He knelt down and closed the doors to the shed and hurried to her on the deck.

“My God, George!  Are you all right?”
“Oh, yeah, no worries.  Anything on me?” he asked.
“No.”  There were just a few wasps visible outside the closed doors.  “What on earth?!”
“Well, they’ve really built themselves a city since I was in there last,” George explained.  He sat down on the deck.  The shed was where they kept old tax records and camping gear that they hadn’t used in quite a long time but hadn’t given away or sold – just in case they went camping again.  “I should have sprayed them earlier in the summer but it was such a small hive.  Those doors get sun most of the day so they like it in there.  They’re right above the doorway so they’re not bothering any of our stuff and I was able to stand up in the shed and they just left me alone.”
“I don’t care. What if I had gone out there to get something?!” she said angrily.
“Yeh, you’re right.  I’ll take care of them this weekend.  I was kinda waiting for the cold weather to do its job.”  He held up his hands a couple of feet apart from each other.  “That hive is like this, strung out along the studs that frame the doorway.”
“Why were you out there?” she asked.
“Well, I wanted to see if we still had the box that the TV came in a few years ago.”
“Didn’t you throw it out?” she asked.
“Well, I thought that in case we had trouble with the TV but then the box was behind a bunch of stuff and it was hard to get to and I guess I forgot,” he admitted.
“Well, come on it and eat your lunch.  The market is up again today, I heard them say.”

George settled down at the kitchen table.  A few salami slices, some macaroni salad, carrots, olives and crackers sat on the plate.  “Working man’s antipasto, hey?”
“There are some sardines in there, too” she said.
“I have the best wife and cook in the world.  Anthony Bourdain, move ovah!  Mah honey’s takin’ ovah!”
Mabel laughed.  “Now let me get back to my book.  Second to last chapter and I think the niece did it.  I haven’t trusted her since the first chapter.”

The 3rd estimate of 2nd quarter GDP had been revised up from 4.2% to 4.6%, helping to compensate for the weak first quarter.  Good stuff, thought George.  The U. of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey had risen in September to 84.6 from August’s 82.5.  Confident consumers buy stuff, a good sign.  Anything above 80 was welcome and more was better.  To round out the daily trifecta of news releases, corporate profits for the second quarter were revised upward.  The year over year gain without inventory and depreciation adjustments was 12.5%.  Not spectacular but solid.

Even with Friday’s triply good news, the market closed below what it opened at the previous day.  This was usually an indication that the short term downward trend in the market might have a little way to run.  Then he promised Mabel that he would get rid of the wasps this weekend, and yes, he would be careful.  Did she remember seeing the wasp spray that he bought earlier that summer?

Spring Fever

April 27th, 2014

Existing Home Sales

Sales of existing homes in March were disappointing, dropping 7.5% year over year.  Some analysts use the 5 million mark as an indication of a healthy housing market.

As a percent of the population, the change in existing home sales is rather small, yet the change of ownership prompts remodeling projects and home furnishing purchases after the sale, spiff ups before the sale, and commissions and fees for real estate professionals at the time of the sale.

As a percent of the total stock of homes, sales are likewise small yet determine the valuation of everyone’s home.  There are concrete consequences: a lowered evaluation of a home’s value might mean that a person cannot get a home equity loan to help start a new business.  As we discovered in this last recession, lowered valuations of a  home can mean that homeowners are upside down on their mortgages.  Low valuations “box in” a homeowner’s choices so that they may feel that they can not move to a nearby town to be closer to a new job.  These cumulative effects can promote a defeatist attitude among homeowners.  In the past several years, many of us recently found that we were worth less – $50K, $100K, $200K – because the value of our homes had dropped.  Even though many of us had no intention of moving, we felt poorer.

The methodology underlying the calculation of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) involves the concept of Owner Equivalent Rent (OER).  The CPI treats home ownership as though the family who owns the home is renting the home to themselves.  In this sense, owning a home is like a owning a U.S. Treasury bond that pays regular interest payments, or coupons.  Until the recent recession, many regarded home ownership as though it were a Treasury bond, unlikely to ever lose value.  Even better than a Treasury bond, a house was likely to gain in value.

Most of us, however, do not think in  terms of OER.  We feel poorer when the value of our home drops by 20%. Likewise, a stock market drop of 20% has a significant effect on the value of our retirement funds.  Even if we do not need that money for 10 years or more, we are poorer on paper and this affects many other buying decisions.

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Spring Fever

Other economic reports this week offset the negative news on home sales.  The flash, or preliminary, index of manufacturing activity indicates a positive report next week on the sector.  Durable goods orders were strong, reinforcing the signs that manufacturing is on a spring upswing.  New claims for unemployment were a bit above expectations but nothing significant and the 4 week moving average of claims indicates a much improved labor market.

Although UPS and 3M had disappointing earnings or forecasts, industrial giants GM and Caterpillar surprised to the upside, as did tech giants Microsoft and Apple.  Expectations for this earnings season were rather lukewarm but the aggregate earnings growth of the SP500 may come in below 1%.  Some attribute Friday’s drop in the market to accelerating tensions in Ukraine but the market was essentially flat this past week, reflecting a general lack of enthusiasm or worry.

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Buffet Investing Advice

In mid March Warren Buffet got the attention of many when he made a surprising recommendation:

Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. I suggest Vanguard’s. (VFINX) I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors – whether pension funds, institutions, or individuals – who employ high-fee managers.

Doughroller presented some good observations on Buffet’s recommendation.  Also at the same site Rob Berger offers a fresh perspective on the stock – bond allocation mix.

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Consumer Price Index and College Tuition

In a recent analysis of trends in the various components of the Consumer Price Index, Doug Short presented several graphs of the annualized growth rates of the different components.  It comes as no surprise that medical care costs have risen 70% in the past 13 years.  The real surprise to me was that college tuition costs have shot up almost twice that – 130% in the same period.  Average tuition and fees for an in state student at a public four year college are currently almost $9K per year.

The growth in costs should worry parents with a son or daughter six years away from entering college.  Perhaps they may have planned on $10K – $12K a year.  However, if these growth trends remain as constant in the coming years as they have in the past, tuition and fees will be more like $15K per year when their child begins college.  By the time they graduate – if they graduate within four years – the cost could be $20K per year.  Remember, this doesn’t include any housing costs.  Higher education receives heavy subsidies from each state and the Federal government. So why the skyrocketing tuition costs?  Heavy lobbying, influence in the state capitols in the nation, inefficient and bloated administrative structures, protectionism – these are just a few of the reasons for the escalation in costs.  A spokesman for higher education won’t give those reasons, of course.  She will cite the need to attract quality teachers, investments in new technologies, aging infrastructure that is costly to maintain, and those certainly do contribute to increasing costs.  Higher education is still largely built on a framework that was suited for the sons of the landed gentry in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  As Obama and voters discovered after the 2008 elections, change comes slowly.  Like the tax system, higher education will continue to receive incremental changes, a hodgepodge of patches to fix this and that, to pad the pockets of this interest group or ameliorate a select slice of voters.

Diminished Expectations

February 3rd, 2014

The SP500 has been hovering over a support trendline in the 1760-1775 range, with buyers coming in at 1775.  At 1750, the market would have corrected 5%, a fairly normal occurrence.  Market watchers have been concerned that the market has not experienced one of these small “shaking of the tree” corrections since May/June of 2012.  Disappointing earnings and revenue reports from bellweather companies, together with selling pressure on some emerging market currencies, have made traders nervous.

The market is composed of buyers and sellers responding within varying time frames.  In a short to mid term time horizon, one person might pay more attention to turbulence in emerging markets or the latest corporate reports.  A mid to long term investor might pay more attention to rising industrial production, healthy GDP numbers, consumer spending and income, and declining unemployment.

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Apple forecast lower than expected revenues for the coming quarter in the China market.  The announcement prompted an 8% decline in the company’s stock.  Facebook reported blow out revenue growth of 63% in the past quarter, causing the stock to rise about 16%.  FB’s active user base has more than doubled in two years.  Despite the robust growth, the sky high valuation of the company reminds me of some internet stocks in the late 1990s.  The stock has a Price to Sales – not Price to Earnings – ratio of about 15 to 1.  Google has a track record of strong revenue and earnings growth and sports a richly valued price to sales ratio of 6.4.  Does Facebook’s short track record deserve a valuation that is more than twice Google’s?  In 2000, Microsoft had a price-sales ratio of 23 to 1. Fourteen years later, Microsoft’s stock sells for 30% less than it did in 2000.  In 2000, Cisco had a price to sales ratio of 30 to 1.  Cisco’s revenues were growing 50% a year.  “The stock is cheap,” some said.  Fourteen years later, Cisco sells for less than a third of what it did in the heady days of rapid growth.  A word of caution to long term investors.

Amazon reported “only” a 20% increase in quarterly revenue during the busy 4th quarter Christmas season. This is five times the sales growth of the overall retail industry so a casual observer might think that the stock enjoyed a healthy bump up in price, right?  Wrong. After rising 50% over the past year, the company’s stock was priced to perfection. The disappointing growth particularly in overseas markets prompted a lot of selling and an 8% decline in price on Friday.

As I noted last week, many retailers will report quarterly earnings in February.  Many companies get a sense of the bottom line that they will report before the official release of quarterly data.  If there are material differences between consensus expectations and forecast results, a company will issue a revised forward guidance.  Wal-Mart did so this past week, revising its revenue and earnings forecast down for the fourth quarter and lowering earnings projections for the coming year.  The company cited a much greater than forecast impact from November’s reduction of the food stamp program.  The severe storms in December also had a material impact on sales.

In the past two months, Wal-Mart’ stock has declined 8%.  Let’s think about that for a moment.  The market value of Apple and Amazon declined 8% in one day.  It takes two months for Wal-Mart’s stock to decline by the same percentage.  Individuals who invest in companies like Apple and Amazon have to be able to take abrupt market gyrations in stride.  Companies are essentially stories.  Some like Apple and Amazon are stories of growth.  There comes a time when the story changes, as it did for Microsoft and Cisco more than a decade ago.  Apple’s story has been “under construction” in the past 18 months. Since the beginning of 2008, Wal-Mart’s stock has risen 56%, Apple’s is up 150%, and Amazon’s market price has soared more than 6 times.  Growth companies offer rich rewards for the investor who has the time to  follow the story, but it can be difficult to know when the story is changing.

During the past 3 weeks, Home Depot has lost about 6% after gaining 35% since the beginning of 2013.  This giant has one foot in the home construction and remodeling sectors, one foot in the retail sector.  The decline reflects lowered near term expectations for both construction and retail.  Consumer spending has risen steadily but incomes are flat.

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December’s report of new homes sold was disappointing.  After rising above an annual level of 450,000 in the fall, sales have fallen closer to the 400,000 mark.

 Some blame the particularly harsh December in the east, some blame the weak labor report released in early January, others blame the low supply, still others blame rising mortgage rates. The Case Shiller home price index shows a year over year gain of almost 14% in metro area homes, indicating relatively healthy demand.  However, the latest Consumer Confidence survey reports a decline in the number of people planning to buy a home.  On an ominous note, pending home sales in December declined more than 8%, the worst monthly decline in almost four years.  Without a doubt, the severe winter weather in the eastern U.S. was a big factor but it is difficult to assess how much of a change.  This is the second report – employment was the first – that was far below even the lowest of estimates.

The link between employment and new home sales is counterintuitive; changes in new home sales anticipate changes in employment.

In a 2007 paper presented at a Federal Reserve conference, economist Ed Leamer demonstrated that changes in residential investment, a relatively small component of the economy, indicate coming recessions and recoveries.  The National Assn of Homebuilders estimates that each new home generates a bit more than three full time jobs.

Residential investment includes new homes, remodels, furniture and appliances.  Eventually residential investment reaches a point where it is contributing too much to the economy. As that percentage begins to correct to more normal levels, the contraction tugs on the total of economic growth.

As you can see in the chart above, a sustainable “sweet spot” is in the 4 to 4-1/2% of GDP range but residential investment is still less than 3% of GDP.  In past recessions, residential investment has helped recovery.  This time is different.  Housing’s less than normal contribution to the nation’s GDP has dampened overall growth.

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The first estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter was a rather remarkable 3.1%.  Although this was in line with estimates, I was concerned that the severe winter weather in the east might have more of a negative impact.  A version of GDP that reflects domestic consumption, Final Sales of Domestic Product, showed a modest 2.1% growth in the 4th quarter, reflecting the impact of the weather, I think. The third quarter growth rate was revised to 4.1%, up substantially from the initial estimate of 2.8%.  The hope is that this is now a 4% growth economy and the first quarter of this year may hold some welcome surprises as delayed economic activity in the 4th quarter is rolled into this year’s first quarter.  As I noted a few weeks ago, the wave like trend of the CWI composite index of manufacturing and non-manufacturing indicated a slight lull in these winter months before another peak in early to mid-spring.

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Consumer Confidence rose to 80, the lower bound of what I consider healthy.  This index fell below 80 in the early part of 2008 and did not get above that mark till this past summer, then fell back in the fall.  A separate Consumer Sentiment survey from the U. of Michigan showed a similar reading at slightly above 81.

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January’s monthly employment numbers will be released next Friday.  I ran a chart of those not in the labor force as a percent of those working.  Thirty years ago, the economy was coming out of the most severe employment recession since the Depression.  It is rather disturbing that this ratio continues to climb to the nose bleed levels of that recession thirty years ago.

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The harsh winter weather may be affecting consumers more than businesses.  Chicago and the upper Midwest region got creamed with cold snap after cold snap in December yet industrial production figures for the month are still robust, declining somewhat from the incredibly strong readings of the past few months.

Market Bumps

January 26th, 2014

In a holiday shortened week, the market opened higher than the previous Friday but fell a bit more than 3% by week’s end.  On this same week in 2012, the market lost 2.5% in 3 trading days.  As I mentioned last week, there were few economic reports this past week to detract from the focus on corporate earnings.

IBM opened up the week by beating profit estimates but missed revenue estimates by $1 billion, or about 3%, and were about $1.5 billion less than the final quarter of 2012.  The 4th quarter is usually IBM’s strongest quarter each year; lower revenues from this giant indicate a cautious business investment outlook.  IBM is selling for the same price now that it did in mid 2011, a price earnings ratio of 12.

The following day, China announced that the country’s industrial production has fallen just below the neutral mark.   The reaction to the news was exaggerated by sharp declines in some emerging market currencies, which started a cascade of selling. See SoberLook blog for some charts. Similar weakness out of China last summer prompted a much more subdued reaction.

On Thursday, McDonald’s reported weak sales growth, which added to concerns.  After a run up of 30% last year, many traders were on high alert for any negative news.  The U.S. stock market has enjoyed a tail wind from Federal Reserve stimulus policy, but a global economy is largely outside of the Fed’s influence.

A 14 month support trend line that has been in place since November 2012 sets a mark at about 1760.  Dropping below that would signal a short to mid term shift in market sentiment.  The SP500 index closed at 1790 on Friday, 1.7% above that support trend line.  The 10 month average of the index is 1700.  A drop below that mark would signify a change in mid to long term sentiment. A few weeks ago, I noted that the market was close to 10% over its 10 month average.  This week’s decline puts that percentage at a bit over 5%.

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Existing home sales notched up a bit in December but the yearly percent gains were relatively flat.  The 4 week average of new claims for unemployment declined to 331,000.  Several weeks ago it was close to the psychological 350,000 mark.  Mitigating the decline in new claims, continuing claims have been rising lately and are approaching the 3 million mark.

To put that 3 million people in historical perspective, take a look at the chart below.

The number of long term unemployed is ever a concern.

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In early October I noted the relative sluggish performance of retail stocks vs the larger market index of the SP500 ahead of the Christmas buying season.  Below is an updated chart of a retail index ETF vs the larger market.

Shortly after that post, renewed hopes for a strong Christmas season led to higher prices for the group.  Disappointing sales gains announced as the season ended deflated that balloon.  Since the new year began, a composite of retail stocks has lost 8%.

Typically retailers report their earnings in mid to late February.  Traders have already priced in a rather disappointing earnings season for the retailers.  In the context of a longer time frame, retail stocks are still up 25% year over year.  If an investor had bought this composite on this date seven years ago when the economy was strong and retail stocks were at a high, she would still have doubled her money, easily outpacing the 38% gains in the larger market since then.  The resilience of consumer demand, despite an extremely severe downturn when unemployment and falling house prices put a brake on consumer spending, has helped make this sector a sure footed long term winner.  

Year In Review

January 5, 2013  2014

The start of any year presents an opportunity for reflection on the past year as well as the upcoming one.  At the start of the year, few, if any, analysts called for such a strong market in 2013.  The S&P500 closed the year at 1850, a 30% gain. After a correction in May – June of this year, the index rose steadily in response to better employment data, industrial production, GDP increases, and the willingness of the Federal Reserve to continue  buying bonds and keep interest rates low.

I was one of many who were mildly bullish at the beginning of the year but got increasingly cautious as the index pushed past 1600.  Yet, month after month came not only positive or mildly positive reports but a notable lack of really negative reports.  Leading economies in the Euozone, teetering on recession, did not slip into recession.  Fraying monetary tensions in the Eurozone did not explode into a debt crisis.  China’s growth slowed then appeared to stabilize.  Although the attention has been on the Eurozone the past few years, the sleeping dragon is the Chinese economy, its overbuilt infrastructure, the high vacancy rate in commercial buildings in some areas of the country and the high housing valuations relative to the incomes of Chinese workers.

A year end review is an exercise in humility for most investors.  Some fears were unfounded or events unformed which confirmed those fears.  People are story tellers – stories of the past, imaginings of the future.  An investor who keeps all their money in CDs or savings accounts is predicting an unsafe investing environment for their savings.

Perhaps the best strategy is the one that John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, advocates.  He doesn’t try to predict the future or be the best investor.  He aims for that allocation of stocks, bonds and other investments that, on average, forms a suitable mix of risk and reward for his goals, his age and the financial situation of his family.  He looks at his portfolio once a year.  I do think that a good number of individual investors had adopted the same outlook as Mr. Bogle advocates – until the 2008 financial crisis.

Since the financial crisis, too many investors have adopted a paralyzed strategy, a “deer in the headlight” reaction to the financial crisis that has been hugely unrewarding. Part of this year’s rise in the stock mark can be attributed to individual investors moving cash back into the stock market but I would guess that many of those investors are ready to pull it back out at the first sign of any trouble.  This shows less a confidence in the market but a frustrating lack of alternatives.

Long term bond prices took a significant hit in the middle of the year on fears of an impending rise in interest rates.  Bond prices had simply become too high, driving down the yield, or return, on the investment. Lower bond yields and meager CD and savings rates provided little return for investors, leaving many investors with little choice but to venture back into the stock market.

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The Coincident Index of Economic Indicators remains level and strong.  A decline in this index below the 1% average growth rate of the population indicates the start of or an impending recession.

Note the index in 2002 – 2003 as it fell back, never rising above the 1% level.  I have written about this economic faltering before.  Much of the headlines were focused on the lead up to and start of the Iraq war.  The recovery from the recession of 2001 and 9-11 was very sluggish.  Fears that the country was entering a double dip recession similar to that of the early 1980s prompted Congress to pass the Bush tax cuts in 2003.  It was only the increased defense spending of 2003 that offset what would have been a decline in GDP and another recession.

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A worrisome rise in new unemployment claims has puzzled some analysts.  Typically, new claims for unemployment decline at the end of the year, particularly in a year such as this one when reports of strong economic growth have been consistent.  Since 2000, rises in claims at the end of the year have been a cautionary note of things to come.  Mid-term investors and traders will be paying attention to this in the weeks to come.

However, the decline this year may be more of a leveling process that has been forming for most of the year.  On a year over year basis, the long term trend is down – which is up, or good.

In March 2013, I wrote “when unemployment claims go up, the stock market goes down … On a quarterly basis, this negative correlation has proved to be a reliable trading signal for the longer term investor.  When the y-o-y percentage change in new unemployment claims crosses above the SP500 change, sell.  When the claims change crosses below the SP500 change, it’s safe to buy. ”  The percent change in SP500 is still floating above the change in unemployment claims.

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Sales of motor vehicles in November were above even the most optimistic expectations.  The ISM manufacturing index showed a slight decline but is still in strong growth mode and the already robust growth of new orders continues to accelerate.  The manufacturing component of the composite index I have been following since last June is at the same vigorous levels of late 1983 and 2003 when the economy finally breaks free of a previous recession.  I’ll update the chart when the non-manufacturing report is released this coming Monday.

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In a healthy economy, the difference between real GDP and Final Sales Less the Growth in Household Debt (Active GDP) stays above 1%, which incidentally is the annual rate of population growth.  As the chart below shows, this difference dropped below 1% in late 2007.  Finally, six long years later, the difference has risen above 1%, indicating a healthy, growing economy.

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And now a brief look at the year in review.

At the end of 2012, the price of long term bonds had declined slightly from the nose bleed levels of the fall but there was more to come.  I wrote “As this three decade long upward trend in bond prices begins to turn, bond prices can fall sharply as investors turn from bonds to stocks and other investments. We are approaching the lows of interest yields on corporate bonds not seen since WW2. Investors are loaning companies money at record low rates and companies are sucking up all that they can while they can. Sounds a lot like home buying in the middle of the last decade, doesn’t it?”

During the past year, long term bonds declined another 10%.  They seem to have formed a base over the past several months.  Intermediate term bonds are less sensitive to interest rate changes so they are the safer bet.  They lost about 6% in price over the past year.  Short term corporate bonds are a good alternative to savings accounts.  They pay about 1% above the average savings account and they usually vary very little in price so that the principal remains stable.

At the end of 2012, I wrote “the underlying fundamentals of the economy give reason for cautious optimism.” A month later, “As the saying goes, ‘The trend is your friend.’ When the current month of the SP500 index is above the ten month average, it’s a good idea to stay in the market.”  In January 2012, the monthly close broke above the 10 month average. This is a variation of the Golden Cross that I wrote about in January and February 2012.

Let’s look at this crossing above and below the 10 month average.    When this month’s close of the SP500 index crosses above the 10 month average of the index, it indicates a clear change in market sentiment.  I have overlayed the percent difference between each month’s close and the ten month average.

As you can see, the close near the end of December is near 10% above the 10 month average.  If the above chart is a bit too much information for you, here is a graph of the percent difference only.

Is the market overheated?  As you can see the market has sustained a robust (or some might call it exuberant) 10% for 6 – 9 months in 2003, 2009, and 2010-2011.  From 1994 to 1999, the market spent a lot of time in the 10% percent range. Some pundits are talking about this market as a bubble but we can see that this market has not penetrated the 10% mark.  At the end of January 2013, the market closed at more than 7% above it’s 10 month average, over the 4 year positive average of 5.6% (the average when the difference is positive).  The market is 20% up since then.

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In March I introduced the “Craigslist Indicator,” the number of work trucks and vans for sale in a local area, as a gauge of the health of the construction industry.  It was a funny little indicator that indicated a growing strength in the construction industry at the beginning of the year.  Now for the amended version of the Craigslist Indicator: when there are a lot of older work trucks and vans advertised for sale on Craigslist, that indicates a robust construction market.

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On March 24th, 2013 I wrote ” For the past year, the Eurozone has been in or near recession, yet some are hopeful that increased demand in this country and some emerging markets are helping to balance the contractionary influence of decreased demand in the Eurozone. Let’s hope that this surge in the first part of the year does not fade as it did in 2012.”  Instead, emerging markets began to contract and the Eurozone expanded slightly. Investors who bought emerging markets in March 2013 witnessed a more than 10% decline during the summer but the index ended the year at about the same level as nine months ago.

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I thought that home prices in the early spring has reached a peak and wrote on March 31st, “The upturn in home prices is still above the trend line growth of disposable income and until personal income can resume or surpass a 3% growth rate, any rise in home prices will be constrained.” The Purchase Only House Price Index (HPIPONM226S) rose steadily throughout the year.
In late summer, I noted the falloff in single family home sales that began in the spring.  But prospective buyers were incentivized to make the deal as interest rates began to climb from their historically low levels.  Home sales surged upward; a lack of inventory in many cities also formed a support base that propped up prices.

A sobering note in September, “Rising home values are good for those who own a home but increasing valuations make it that much more difficult for buyers trying to buy their first home.  People in their twenties and early thirties who are most likely to be first home buyers have been hit hard by the recession.”

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After a decline in the stock market in June, I wrote “For the long term investor, periods of negative sentiment can be an opportunity to put some cash to work.”  Although I took my own advice, I wished I had acted with more conviction.  Of course, if the market had declined 10%, I would have been patting myself on the back for my cautious stance.  Smiley Face!!

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In July I noted the rather dramatic decrease in the value of securities held at the nation’s largest banks “Recently rising bond yields have contributed to banks’  operating profit margins but the corresponding value of banks’ bond portfolios has fallen quite dramatically.  This decline in asset value affects bank capital ratios, which makes them less likely to increase their lending … [and] will be an impediment to economic growth.”  The rising stock market and a respite in the decline of bond prices helped stabilize those portfolios in the second half of the year.

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In September, I noted “Despite all the daily and weekly responses to political as well as economic news, the SP500 stock market index essentially rides the horse of corporate profits.”  Profits have more than tripled in the past ten years.  We should stay mindful of that stock price to profit correlation as we look out on the investment horizon.

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From time to time I comment on the venality of our elected representatives.  Although they might appear to be idle rants to some readers, they are a caution.  Politicians make promises to get votes.  People become more dependent on those promises.  Inevitably, the day comes when the promises can not be met – as promised.  Those nearing or in retirement become increasingly dependent on political promises and should leave themselves a cushion – some wiggle room – if possible, when they make income and expense projections.  This Washington Post article on proposed budget cuts to military pensions is a case in point.  As long as “they” come for the other guy, we don’t pay too much attention – until they come for us.  Over the next ten to twenty years, we can expect many small cuts to promised benefits.  The cuts have to be small or target a small sector of the population so that they don’t anger voters too much.  In several blogs, I have shown how a simple recalculation of the Consumer Price Index eats away at the incomes of workers and retirees.  Expect more of these “recalculations” in the future as politicians follow a long standing tradition of making promises to win votes and bargain patronage to gather financial support for their campaigns.

We have the midterm elections to look forward to this year!  OK, calm down. Republicans will be hoping to take the Senate and make President Obama’s life miserable for the following two years.  I am guessing that the political campaigns for some Senate seats will vacuum in more money than the GDP of a lot of small and poor countries.

Investment Allocation and Housing

December 1st, 2013

While cleaning up some old files, I found a 1999 “Getting Going” column by Jonathan Clemens in the Wall St. Journal.  That year was rather turbulent, rocked by Y2K fears that the year 2000 might play havoc with older computers still using a two digit date,  and a intensifying debate about the valuation of stocks.  Looking away from the hot internet IPOs of that year,  Clemens interviewed several professors about the comparatively mundane subject of home ownership.

 “A house is not a conservative investment,” says Chris Mayer, a real-estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’sWharton School. “Any market where prices can fall 40% in three years is not a safe investment.” 

Remember, this is 1999.  At that time, what 40% decline is he talking about?  It would not be till 2009 or 2010 that house prices tumbled down the hill.  In the past, declines of this magnitude were confined to particular areas of the country where a fundamental shift  in the economy occurred.  The Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, the Pueblo area of Colorado and the Detroit area of Michigan come to mind. In the first two examples the collapse of the steel industry had a profound effect on home prices as people moved to other areas to find work.  In case a homeowner thinks “it can’t happen here,” I’m sure many homeowners in Detroit felt the same way during the 1960s when the car industry was at its peak.

“William Reichenstein, an investments professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, suggests treating your mortgage as a negative position in bonds.”  

What does this mean?  Let’s say a person has $100K in stock mutual funds, $100K in bond mutual funds, owns a house valued at $200K with $100K still left on the mortgage.  Subtract the remaining balance of the mortgage from the amount in bonds and that leaves $0 invested in bonds.  Why do this?  When we buy a bond we are buying the debt of a company, or some government entity.  A mortgage is a debt we owe.  So, if a person were to pay off the mortgage, trading one debt for another, they would sell their bonds to pay off the mortgage.

Should the house be included in the investment mix?  There is some disagreement on this.  An investment portfolio should include only those assets which a person could access for some cash flow if there was a loss of income or some other need for cash.  An older couple with a 5 BR house who intend to downsize in five years might include a portion of the house in the portfolio mix.

For this example, let’s leave the house out of the investment portfolio to keep it simple. Using this analysis, this hypothetical person has 100% of their assets in stocks, not a 50/50 mix of stocks and bonds.

Now, let’s fast forward ten years from 1999 to 2009.  An index mutual fund of stocks has lost a bit more than 20%.

A long term bond fund has gained about 100%.

[The text below has been revised to reflect the above bond fund chart.  The original text presented numbers for a different bond fund.]

Let’s say the mortgage principal has been paid down $60K over those ten years.  Assuming that no new investments have been made in the ten year period, what is this person’s investment mix now?  The stock portion is worth $80K, the bonds $200K less $40K still owed on the mortgage for a total of $240K, with a net exposure in bonds of $160K.  The person now has 33% (80K / 240K) in stocks and 67% in bonds, a conservative mix.  If we didn’t account for the mortgage as a negative bond, the mix would appear to be 29% (80K / 280K) for stocks and 71% for bonds.  What is the net effect of treating a mortgage balance as a negative bond?  It reduces the appearance of safety in an investment portfolio.

Now let’s imagine that this person is going to retire and collect a monthly Social Security check of $1500.  To get a 15 year annuity paying that monthly amount with a 3% growth rate, a person would have to give an insurance company about $220K (Calculator)   There are a lot of annuity variations and riders but I’ll just keep this simple.  Throughout our working lives our Social Security taxes are essentially buying Treasury bonds that we start cashing out during retirement.

If we were to add $220K to our hypothetical investment mix,  we would have a total of $460K: $80K in stock mutual funds, $200K in bond funds, -$40K still owed on the mortgage, $220K effectively in Treasury bonds that we will withdraw as Social Security payments.  The $80K in stock mutual funds now represents only 17% of our investment portfolio, an extremely conservative risk stance.  If we have a private pension plan, the mix can get even more conservative.

The point of this article was that many people in their 50s and 60s may have too little exposure to stocks if they don’t account for mortgages, pensions and Social Security payments into their allocation calculations.

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In October 2005, the incoming Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, indicated to Congress that he did not think there was a bubble developing in the housing market. (Washington Post Source)

In September 2005 – a month before – the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a report on the rapid housing price increases of the past decade:

Between 1975 and 1995, real [that is, inflation adjusted] single-family house prices in the United States increased an average of 0.5 percent per year, or 10 percent over the course of two decades. By contrast, from 1995 to 2004, national real house prices grew 3.6 percent per year, a more than seven-fold increase in the annual rate of real appreciation, and totaling nearly 40 percent in one decade. In some individual cities, such as San Francisco and Boston, real home prices grew about 75 percent from 1995 to 2004, almost double the national average. 

Remember, these are real, or inflation adjusted prices.  Now it is easy, in hindsight, to go “ah-ha!” but it should be a lesson to us all that we can not possibly hope to consume all the information needed to mitigate risk.  There is just too much information.  A professional risk manager, Riccardo Rebonato, discusses common flaws in risk assessment in his book “Plight of the Fortune Tellers” (Amazon). Written before the financial crisis, the book is surprisingly prescient.  The ideas are accessible and there is little if any math.

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On Monday, the National Assn of Realtors released their pending home sales index. These are signed contracts on single family homes, condos, and townhomes. The index has declined for five months but is still slightly above normal (100) at 102.1.  At the height of the housing bubble, this index reached almost 130.  At the trough in 2010, the index was below 80.

This chart was clipped from a video by an economist at NAR (Click on the video link on the right side of the page).  The clear and simple explanation of trends in housing and interest rates is well worth five minutes of your time.  Sales of existing homes have surpassed 2007 levels and are growing.

Demographia surveys housing in m ajor markets around the world and rates their affordability.  Their 2012 report found that major markets in the U.S. are just at the upper range of affordable.  As Canada’s housing valuations have climbed, their affordability has declined and are now less affordable than the U.S.  Britain’s housing is in the severely unaffordable range.

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Next Friday comes the release of the monthly employment report.  I’ll also cover a few long term trends in manufacturing and construction employment that may surprise you.