Follow the Leaders

January 27, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week the investment community mourned the death of John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, the mutual fund giant. He had the crazy idea that mom-and-pop investors should buy a basket of stocks and not attempt to beat the market (Note #1). In 1976, he launched the first SP500 index fund, VFINX, a low-cost “no-brainer” or passive fund. Because people did not want to invest in the idea of earning just average stock returns, the initial launch raised very little money. “Bogle’s folly” now has more than fifty imitators (Note #2).

Vanguard has over $5 trillion under management. Let’s turn to them to answer the age-old question – what percent of my retirement portfolio should be invested in bonds? Bond prices are much less volatile than stocks and stabilize a portfolio’s value. Several decades ago, people retired at 65 and expected to live ten years in retirement. An old rule was that the percentage of bonds and cash should match your age. A 50-year old, for example, should have 50% of their portfolio in bonds and cash. Few advisors today would be so conservative. Many 65-year-olds can expect to live another twenty years or more.

Vanguard, Schwab, Fidelity and Blackrock offer various life cycle funds that have target dates. The most common dates are retirement; i.e. Target 2020, or 2030 or 2040. These funds are composed of shifting portions of stock and bond index funds offered by each investment company. The funds adjust their stock and bond allocations based on those dates. For example, if a 55-year old person bought the Vanguard Retirement Target Date 2020 Fund VTWNX in 2005, it might have been invested 75% stocks and 25% bonds when she bought it. As the date 2020 nears, the stock allocation has decreased to 53% and the bond portion increased to 47%. The greater portion of bonds helps stabilize the value of the portfolio.

In the chart below, I’ve compared the stock and bond allocations of various retirement funds offered by Vanguard (Note #3). Notice that the stock portion of each fund increases as the dates get further away from the present.

vantargetfundscomp

A 46-year old who intends to retire in 2040 when they are 67 might buy a Target 2040 fund which is 84% invested in stocks. The bond allocation is only 16%. Using the old rule, the bond portion would have been 46%.

What happens after that target date is met? The fund continues to adjust its stock/bond allocation towards safety. Over five years, Vanguard adjusts its mix to that of an income portfolio – 30% stocks and 70% bonds (Note #4).

These strategies can guide our own portfolio allocation. I have not checked the allocations of Schwab, Fidelity and others in the industry but I would guess that they have similar allocations for their life cycle funds.

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Notes:

1. History of Vanguard Group
2. More than fifty funds invest in the SP500 index according to Consumer Reports
3. Vanguard’s Target 2020 fund VTWNX , 2025 Fund VTTVX , 2030 Fund VTHRX, 2035 Fund VTTHX, and 2040 Fund VFORX
4. Vanguard’s Income Portfolio VTINX 

Place Your Bets

January 6, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This will be my tenth year writing on the financial markets. As I’ve written in earlier posts, we’ve been sailing in choppy waters this past quarter. In 2018, a portfolio composed of 60% stocks, 30% bonds and 10% cash lost 3%. In 2008, that asset allocation had a negative return of 20% (Note #1). We can expect continued rough weather.

If China’s economy continues to slow, the trade war between the U.S. and China will stall because a slowing global economy will give neither nation enough leverage. Will the Fed stop raising interest rates in response? If there is further confirmation of an economic slowdown, could the Fed start lowering interest rates by mid-2019? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Thanks to good weather and a strong shopping season, December’s employment reports from both ADP and the BLS were far above expectations (Note #2). Wages grew by more than 3%. Will stronger wage gains cut into corporate profits? Will the Fed continue to raise rates in response to the strong employment numbers and wage gains? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

The global economy has been slowing for some time. After a 37% gain in 2017, a basket of emerging market stocks lost 15% last year. Although China’s service sector is still growing, it’s manufacturing production edged into the contraction zone this past month (Note #3). Home and auto sales have slowed in the U.S. What is the prospect that the U.S. could enter a recession in the next year? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

The partial government showdown continues. The IRS is not processing refunds or answering phones. If it lasts one more week, it will break the record set during the Clinton administration. Trump has said it could go on for a year and he does like to be the best in everything, the best of all time. Could the House Democrats vote for impeachment, then persuade 21 Republican Senators (Note #4) to vote for a conviction and a Mike Pence Presidency? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

When the winds alternate directions, the weather vane gets erratic. This week, the stock market whipsawed down 3% one day and up 3% the next as traders digested the day’s news and changed their bets. Interest rates (the yield) on a 10-year Treasury bond have fallen by a half percent since November 9th. When yields fell by a similar amount in January 2015 and January 2016, stock prices corrected 8% or so before moving higher. Since early December, the stock market has corrected by a similar percentage. Will this time be different? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Staying 100% in cash as a long-term investment (more than five years) is not betting at all. From a stock market peak in 2007 till now, an all cash “strategy” earned less than 1% annually. A balanced portfolio like the one at the beginning of this article earned a bit less than 6% annually. Older investors may remember the 1990s, when a person could safely earn 6% on a CD. Wave goodbye to those days for now and place your bets.

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Notes:

  1. Portfolio Visualizer results of a portfolio of 60% VTSMX, 30% VBMFX and 10% Cash
  2. Automatic Data Processing (ADP) showed 271,000 private job gains. The Bureau of Labor Standards (BLS) tallied over 300,000 job gains.
  3. China’s manufacturing output in slight contraction
  4. The Constitution requires two-thirds majority in Senate to convict an impeached President. Currently, there are 46 Democratic Senators and Independents who caucus with Democrats. They would need to convince 21 Republican Senators to vote for conviction to get a 67 Senator super-majority. 22 Republican Senators are up for re-election in 2020 and might be sensitive to public sentiment in their states.

Stormy Seas

December 23, 2018

by Steve Stofka

For the past two months, the stock market’s volatility has doubled from late summer levels. The Fed announced its intent to continue raising interest rates in 2019 at least two times, and the market nosedived in response. It had been expecting a more dovish policy outlook from Chair Jerome Powell.

What does it mean when someone says the Fed is dovish, or hawkish? Congress has given the Fed two mandates: to manage interest rates and the availability of credit to achieve low unemployment and low inflation. That goal should be unattainable. In an economic model called the Phillips curve, unemployment and inflation ride an economic see-saw. One goes up and the other goes down. To rephrase that mandate: the Fed’s job is to keep unemployment as low as possible without causing inflation to rise above a target level, which the Fed has set at 2%.

There are periods when the relationship modeled by the Phillips curve breaks down. During the 1970s, the country experienced both high unemployment and high inflation, a phenomenon called stagflation. During the 2010s, we have experienced the opposite – low inflation and low unemployment, the unattainable goal.

Convinced that low unemployment will inevitably spark higher inflation, the Fed has been raising interest rates for the past two years. The base rate has increased from ¼% to 2-1/2%. The thirty-year average is 3.15%. Using a model called the Taylor Rule, the interest rate should be 4.12% (Note #1).  After being bottle fed low interest rates by the Fed for the past decade, the stock market threw a temper tantrum this past week when the Fed indicated that it might raise interest rates to average over the next year. Average has become unacceptable.

FedFundVsTaylorRule

In weighing the two factors, unemployment and inflation, the Fed is dovish when they give greater importance to unemployment in setting interest rates. They are hawkish when they are more concerned with inflation. The Fed predicts that unemployment will gradually decrease to 3.5% this coming year. Unemployment directly affects a small percentage of the population. Inflation affects everyone. The Fed’s current policy stance is warily watching for rising inflation.

The stock market is a prediction machine that not only guesses future profits, but also other people’s guesses of future profits. As the market twists and turns through this tangle of predictions, should the casual investor hide their savings in their mattress?

These past five years may be the last of a bull market in stocks; 2008 – 2012 was the five-year period that marked the end of the last bull period that began in 2003 and ran through most of 2007. Here are some comparisons:

From 2014-2018, a mix of stocks returned 7.7% per year (Note #2). A mix of bonds and cash returned 1.96%. A blend of those two mixes returned 4.91% per year.

From 2008-2012, that same stock mix returned just 2.66% per year. The bond and cash mix returned 5.5%, despite very low interest rates. A blend of the stock and bond mixes returned 5.26%.

For the ten-year period 2008 thru 2017, the stock mix earned 7.7%. The bond and cash mix returned 3.54% and the blend of the two gained 6.35% annually. On a $100 invested in 2008, the stock mix returned $13.5 more than the blend of stocks and bonds. However, the maximum draw down was wrenching – more than 50%. The $100 invested in January 2008 was worth only $49 a year later. Whether they needed the money or not, some people could not sleep well with those kinds of paper losses and sold their stock holdings near the lows.

The blend of stock and bond mixes lost only a quarter of its value in that fourteen-month period from the beginning of 2008 to the market low in the beginning of March 2009. The trade-off between risk and reward is an individual decision that weighs a person’s temperament, their outlook, and the need for to tap their savings in the next few years.

A rough ride in stormy seas tests our mettle. During the market’s rise the past eight years, we might have told ourselves that our stock allocation was fine because we didn’t need the money for at least five years.  If we are not sleeping because we worry what the market will do tomorrow, then we might want to lower our stock allocation. Sleeping well is a test of our portfolio balance.

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Notes:
1. The Atlanta Fed’s Taylor Rule calculator
2. Calculations from Portfolio Visualizer: 30% SP500, 30% small-cap, 20% mid-cap, 20% emerging markets. Bond mix: 70% intermediate term investment grade bonds, 30% cash. The blend of the two was half of each percentage: 15% SP500, 15% small-cap, 10% mid-cap, 10% emerging markets, 35% bonds, 15% cash.

Not Trading

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”― Gertrude Stein

September 16, 2018

by Steve Stofka

As the U.S. market grinds higher, emerging markets are in bear territory, off 20% from their highs at the beginning of the year and selling at 2007 prices. After nine years of recovery, the U.S. economy is in the late stages of the cycle. Warnings of an impending market fall will come true at some point. If the market falls in 2020, those who called for a fall in 2014 will say, “See, I called it. Buy my book.” This year, hedge funds, the smart money, have underperformed index funds, the dumb money. For several years, passive index funds have outperformed active fund managers, a phenomenon that some warn will lead to a catastrophic meltdown when it happens.

For the average retail investor, it is difficult to beat buy and hold. An investor who bought the SP500 index 25 years ago would have earned 9% per year in price appreciation alone. Adding in dividends would have raised the annual gain to 9.58%. That is what is called a “Buy and Hold” (BnH) strategy. It’s not a strategy. It’s a strategy of no strategy, and yet it is surprisingly difficult to consistently beat a no-brainer no-strategy like BnH over several decades. The stock market earned this while riding through two downturns that erased half of the market’s value. Even a middle of the road strategy of 60% stocks and 40% bonds earned 8.3% annually during the same period.

Traders develop rules that work in one decade, but don’t work in the next. A strategy that worked well in the years 1998-2007 didn’t work well in the period 2008-2017. Why? Because they were two different time periods, with different events and circumstances (Note #1).

Here’s a rule that could have earned an investor twenty – yes, twenty – times BnH in the period from 1960-1993. The rule did not work in any timing frame other than daily. Each morning at the open, buy the SP500 index if the previous day was up, sell if it was down. Huge profits even after trading costs (Note #2). 1993 – 2018? It was a losing strategy. It would have been better to do exactly the opposite – sell after an up day and buy after a down day.

Every year thousands of people will shell out good money for a winning strategy that promises to best the market. Most strategies don’t beat the market consistently. Those that do are guarded like the nation’s gold at Fort Knox and are not shared. For the rest of us, the winning strategy is a few rules: save money and invest in a balanced portfolio that is appropriate for our age and needs in the next five years.

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Notes:

  1. From 1998-2007, an emerging market index fund (VEIEX) earned 15.08% annually. From 2008-2017, that same fund earned 1.13% annually. For the combined twenty-year period, the annual gain was 7.87%.
  2. Until the SPY exchange traded product was created in 1993, there was no product that enabled a retail investor to trade daily and frequently. Mutual funds that mimicked the index restricted the frequency of trades. I used the daily SP500 index numbers as though there had been such a product created in 1960.

Spring Cleanup

March 11, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Today time springs forward. Tufts of grass turned green, and some trees are beginning to bud. It was still light after 6 P.M. even before the time change. Great flocks of cranes fly north. In the springtime evening we can hear the siren call of the booby headed tax deadline.  2017 IRA contributions are due by April 15th.

This is a good time to check our game plans. Are we saving enough? In the accumulation, or pre-retirement, phase, 10% or more of our income is a good savings goal. 5% is an absolute minimum. Savings should be used to pay down any debt that has an interest rate more than 5%. High interest rate loans are a weight we must drag around with us. Consider working part time for a while and using that money to pay down high interest rate debt.

New car loans now average over $30K with an average maturity (length of payment period) of 67 months. The average interest rate is 4.21% but anyone with less than a FICO score of 690 is paying 5% or more. This article has breakdowns by credit score, lending institution, length of loan, and other factors.

Of the money we have saved – any annual portfolio realignments to be done? This is a good time to not only think about it but to do it.

In the distribution phase of a portfolio, we begin to withdraw funds from the portfolio that we have accumulated through a lifetime of saving.  Using Portfolio Visualizer, I’ve compared two portfolios with a 60/40 mix – 60% stocks, 40% bonds and cash.  These backtests include an annual rebalancing that may be more difficult for funds in a taxable account because buying and selling may generate taxable capital gains.

Let’s pretend a person retired in May of 1998 at the age of 68 and just died last year. During this twenty years, there were two times when the stock market fell 50%. The beginning year 1998 is near a high point in the stock market. The ending year 2017 was the 8th year of the current bull market. The test begins and ends at strong points in the market cycle, a key feature of a test like this.  Beginning a backtest with a trough in the market cycle and ending with a peak only distorts the results.

Portfolio

At the time of retirement, our retiree had a $1 million portfolio, although the amount could have been $100,000 or $10 million.

Portfolio6040

Although the stock allocation is the same for both portfolios, Portfolio 2 is totally simple. Put all the money in Vanguard’s Total Stock Market fund and forget about it. Portfolio 1 manually diversifies the 60% stock portion of the portfolio among four classes: Large capitalization, mid cap, small cap value stocks in the U.S., and European large cap stocks. Think of Goldilocks sitting down to a table with four bowls of soup – big, medium, small and European.  If that person retired today, a diverse stock portfolio would include an emerging markets index fund like Vanguard’s VEIEX.  In 1998,  emerging markets were not part of a core portfolio as they are today.  For this test, I left out emerging markets.

The bond portion of the portfolio is an index fund of the total bond market. Both portfolios hold 10% in cash for emergencies and living expenses.

Income

A portfolio is like snow in the Rocky Mountains that melts and flows toward the Pacific Ocean. Will the water make it to the ocean? Each year this retiree withdrew 4% of their portfolio balance for expenses. That percentage is considered safe during most twenty-year retirement periods. Note that some advisors are using a thirty-year retirement period to test a portfolio mix. As the years go by and the purchasing power of a $1 erodes, will 4% be enough to meet a retiree’s income needs? The more diverse portfolio allowed the retiree to withdraw a larger amount every year, and the annual withdrawal did keep up with inflation.  Secondly, the ending balance was about the same as the beginning balance after adjusting for inflation.

PortfolioWithdrawal6040

Return

The more diverse Portfolio 1 (marked complex in graphic below) has a better return over this twenty-year period. See the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) column, which adjusts for the withdrawal amounts each year.

PortfolioReturns6040
The drawdown, or greatest decline in value, in the time series is a critical test of a portfolio mix. The retiree needs that portfolio to generate a certain amount of income every year. If the portfolio falls to zero, the income stream has dried up. In the chart below, look at the dip in the portfolio value during the 2008 Financial Crisis. The more diverse Portfolio 1 (blue line) dipped below the starting $1 million figure, but not by much. The investor who was 100% invested in the stock market, the 500 Index portfolio (yellow line), fared the worst during most of the twenty-year period.  In a sign that the bull market has matured, the 500 Index has overtaken the simple 60/40 mix (red line) and is about to overtake the diversified 60/40 mix (blue line).

PortfolioGrowth6040
The diverse portfolio is not complex. There are no gold or commodity assets, no energy or natural resource funds, and no real estate REITs to manage.  If emerging markets were added to the Goldilocks mix, there would now be five equal bowls of soup, each of them taking 12% of the portfolio. This portfolio would have earned 4/10% better each year.

PortfolioEM6040

We could add a Pacific stock index like Vanguard’s VPACX to the mix, but when do we stop adding indexes? In this time period, that index had a slight negative effect on returns. As the number of indexes grow, we are less likely to adjust our allocation.

Our portfolios can get cluttered and too complicated to be effective and easily managed.  Can we simplify?  It’s worth a look see. In taxable accounts, de-cluttering and re-balancing can generate taxable capital gains, so it might not be advisable to make any changes.

Stress Test

February 11, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The recent market correction, defined as a 10% decline, has been a real time stress test for our portfolios. There hasn’t been a stock market correction since the 11% drop in December 2015 to January 2016. Because the end of January was near the height of the stock market, you can more easily find out how much your portfolio declined relative to the market. As of the close Friday, the SP500 had fallen 7.2% since the end of January. That is your benchmark. Later in this blog, I’ll review a few reasons for the decline.

You can now compare the decline in your portfolio to that of the market.  If you use a personal finance program like Quicken, this is an easy task. If you don’t, then follow these steps:
1) Write down your January ending balances at your financial institutions, including any savings accounts or CDs that you own.
2) Write down the current balances and calculate the difference in value since the end of January.
3) Divide that difference by the balance at the end of January to get a percentage decline.

For instance, let’s say your balances at the end of January added up to $100K and your current balance is $95K (Step 1). The difference is $5K (Step 2). Your portfolio has declined 5% (Step 3) compared to the market’s 7.2%, or about 70% of the market. If the market were to fall 50% as it did from 2000-2002 and 2007-2009, you could expect that your portfolio would fall about 35%. Are you emotionally and financially comfortable with that? A safety rule of investing is that any money you might need for the next five years should not be invested in the stock market.

The next step is to compare the gains of your portfolio in 2017 to the market’s gain, about 24%. The gain should be approximately the same as the loss percentage you calculated above. If the gain is slightly more than the losses, you have a good mix.

The chart below compares two portfolios over the past ten years: 1) 100% U.S. stock market and 2) 60% stocks/ 40% bonds (60/40 allocation). Notice that the best and worst years of the 60/40 portfolio are nearly the same while the best year of the 100% stocks is 10% less than the worst year.

StressTest2008-2017
The 60/40 portfolio captured 80% of the profits of the 100% stock portfolio ($101,532 / $128,105) but had only 60% of the drawdown, or decline in the portfolio. Compare that with the chart below, which spans only nine years and leaves out most of the meltdown of value during the Financial Crisis. There is no worst year! La-di-da! Investors who are relatively new to the stock market may underestimate the degree of risk.

StressTest2009-2017
The 60/40 portfolio captured 58% of the profits of the 100% stock portfolio ($152,551 / $262,289) but the drawdown was 63% (11.15% / 17.84%).  If the drawdown is more than the profits, that doesn’t look like a very good deal for the 60/40 portfolio, does it?  That is how bull markets entice investors to take more risk than might be appropriate for their circumstances.  Come on in, the water’s fine!  An investor might not see the crocodiles. Markets can be volatile. This has been a good reminder to check our portfolio allocation.

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Why?

So, why did the market sell off? Let me count the ways. It began on Friday, February 2nd, when the monthly labor report showed an annual gain of 2.9% in hourly wages. For much of this recovery, economists have been asking why wage growth was sluggish as unemployment fell. Economists who like their idealized mathematical models don’t like it when reality disagrees with those models. Finally, wage growth showed some healthy gains and the market got spooked. Why?

As wages take more of the economic pie, profits decline. Companies respond by raising prices, i.e. higher inflation. As interest rates rise, there are several negative consequences. Companies must pay more to borrow money. Fewer consumers can afford mortgages.  Homebuilders and home improvement centers like Home Depot and Lowe’s may see a decline in sales. Car loans become more expensive which can cause a decline in auto sales. There is one caveat: even though hourly wages increased, weekly earnings remained stable because weekly hours declined slightly.  Next month’s reports may show that inflation concerns were overestimated.

This past Monday, ISM released their monthly survey of  Non-Manufacturing businesses and it was a whopper. 8% growth in new orders in one month. Over 5% growth in employment. These are two key indicators of strong economic growth, and confirmed  the fears stirred up the previous day’s labor report. Inflation was a go and traders began to sell, sell, sell.

For the past year, market volatility was near historic lows. Volatility is a measure of the predictability of the pricing of SP500 options. A profitable tactic of traders was to “short” volatility, i.e. to bet that it would go lower. There were two exchange traded funds devoted to this: XIV and SVXY. Traders who bought XIV at the beginning of 2017 had almost tripled their money by the end of the year. When volatility tripled this past week, the whole trade blew up. People who had borrowed to make these bets found that their brokers were selling assets to meet margin calls.  Within days, XIV was closed and investors were given 4 cents on the dollar. SVXY may soon follow. Investors had been warned that these products could blow up. Here’s one from 2014.

The stock market is both a prediction of future profits and a prediction of other investor’s predictions of future profits! The prospect of stronger interest rate growth caused traders to reprice risks and returns. Much of the impact of the selling this past week was in the last hour on Monday and Thursday, when machine algorithms traded furiously with each other. The last hour of trading on Monday saw an 800 point, or 3% , price swing in just a few minutes. In the closing ten minutes of that hour, Vanguard’s servers had difficulty keeping up with the flow of orders.

Contributing to the decline were worries over the government’s debt.  The new budget deal signed into law this week will likely increase the yearly deficit to more than $1  trillion.  There was soft demand for government debt at this week’s Treasury bill auction.  Even without a recession in the next ten years, the accumulation of deficits will increase the total debt level to about $33 trillion.

This correction is an opportunity for the casual investor to make some 2017 or 2018 contributions to their IRA. Profit growth is projected to be strong for the coming year. The correction in prices this week has probably brought the forward P/E ratio of the SP500 to just below 20, a more affordable level that we haven’t seen in few years.

 

Ten Year Review

January 14, 2018

by Steve Stofka

To ward off any illusions that I am an investing genius, I keep a spreadsheet summarizing the investments and cash flows of all my accounts, including savings and checking. Each year I compare my ten year returns to a simple allocation model using the free tool at Portfolio Visualizer. Below is a screen capture showing the ten-year returns for various balanced allocations during the past several years.

10YrReturn20180112
The two asset baskets are the total U.S. stock market and the total U.S. bond market. A person could closely replicate these index results with two ETFs from Vanguard: VTI and BND. Note that there is no exposure to global stocks because Portfolio Visualizer does not offer a Total World Stock Asset choice in this free tool. An investor who had invested in a world stock index (Vanguard’s VT, for example) could have increased their annual return about 1.3% using the 60/40 stock/bond mix.

I include my cash accounts to get a realistic baseline for later in life when my income needs will require that I keep a more conservative asset allocation. An asset allocation that includes 10% cash looks like this.

10YrReturnStkBondCash20180112
In the trade-off between return and risk, a balanced portfolio including cash earns a bit less. In 2017, the twenty-year return was not that different from the ten-year return. From 2009 through 2011, ten-year returns were impacted by two severe downturns in the stock market.

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The Hurt

Falling agricultural prices for seven years have put the hurt on many farmers. This decade may turn out to be as bad as the 1980s when many smaller farms went belly up because of declining prices. Remember the Farm Aid concerts?

The Bloomberg Agriculture Index has fallen about 40% over the past five years. While farmers get paid less for their produce, the companies who supply farmers with the tools and products to grow that produce are doing reasonably well. A comparison of two ETFs shows the divergence.

DBA is a basket of agricultural commodity contracts. It is down 33% over the past five years.
MOO is a basket of the stocks of leading agricultural suppliers. The five-year total return is 31%.

The large growers can afford to hedge falling prices. For family farmers, the decline in agricultural prices is a cut in pay. Imagine you were making $25 per hour at the beginning of 2017 and your employer started cutting your pay bit by bit as the year progressed? That’s what its like for many smaller farmers. They work just as hard and get paid less each year.

A Decade Of Change

June 25. 2017

This week I will review a decade of change to help illustrate a fundamental fact about investing:  most of us are clueless about the future because we are bound by comfortable habits of thinking.

Ten years ago this month, June 2007, Apple launched the iPhone. The touch screen was innovative but I found the keyboard had a lack of responsiveness. The ability to use the internet was cool but the connection was slow. There was no camera built into the phone. Cameras took pictures, not phones.  Apple did not introduce the App Store till July 2008 so users got whatever Apple thought they needed. Apple controlled both the hardware and software. People stood in line when the first phone was released because Apple people are a little bit nuts. The phone was suitable for geeks who had money to burn.  Or so it seemed.

Phones were tools, not toys. People who used their phones for work used a Blackberry, a phone with a keyboard that kicked butt over the iPhone and had a great email interface to boot. The low cost workhorse phones were Nokia models. They stood up to daily wear and tear and the little screen was adequate for reading text messages.

The previous year, a relatively new company called Facebook notched 12 million monthly users (Guardian) and their user count was growing fast. Facebook was a social networking site for people who had time on their hands and the desire to connect with their friends. A passing fancy for the kids, no doubt, just like rock and roll was to an earlier generation of parents.  Or so it seemed.

That same year, the internet search company Google developed a beta version of a phone operating system (OS) that could compete with Apple’s iOS.  In the fall of 2008, a year later, Google released version 1 of the OS.  It was built with an open source code that Google called Android. That same month, the wheels came off the global economy. As millions of people lost their jobs, they worried more about paying their bills than a phone operating system.  By November 2008, both Google and Apple had lost half of the value they had in the summer.  Blackberry lost 2/3rds of its value.

In June 2009, two years after the launch of the iPhone, the electronics division of the conglomerate Samsung introduced the Galaxy smartphone.  The phone used the new Android OS and, to compete with Apple’s App Store, hundreds of apps were available for the phone.

Clickety-click as we turn the time dial to the present.  At $10, Blackberry’s stock sells for 7% of its price in June 2008.  Hillary Clinton likes her Blackberry but too many people switched. Until the fourth quarter of 2016, Samsung sold more phones than Apple, but Apple makes more profit on their phones and is the largest company by market capitalization.   Since the iPhone launch Apple’s stock price has soared 900%. Together the two companies account for almost half of all smartphones. They have become wearable computers and cameras and music players and podcast devices.

The iPod was the marriage of a CD player and a portable radio – a consolidation of two functions. Following its introduction in 2001, the iPod became the dominant music player.  Umpteen million songs were available on the device through the iTunes store.  In April 2007, Apple announced that they had sold 100 million iPods in 5-1/2 years, and by the end of 2014, that figure stood at 390 million.  But smartphone users were now using their phones to play music.  In 2014, sales of the iPod fell by half to 15 million. In 2015, Apple stopped reporting the number of iPods sold.  Consolidation had been the key to the iPods success and its demise.

The iPhone and the various Android models of smartphones have depended on increasing network availability and quality – “can you hear me now?” – and the thousands, or millions, of apps available for the phones. I can read email on my phone as well as my newspaper, a book or magazine. Students can read their textbooks on their phones. In addition to music, I can listen to podcasts or radio stations from far away.

The sophistication and accuracy of Google maps is science fiction made fact. I was recently in the middle of beautiful Idaho. The topographic map published a few years ago indicated that a particular county road was improved but unpaved. Google maps marked the road as paved for about ten miles. Google was right. Portions of Nevada that were blurred a few years ago on Google maps now show roads that lead to where? Maybe some alien city in the middle of the desert.

As I mentioned last week, the top 5 companies in the SP500 are tech companies. Ten years ago, the top 5 were Wal-Mart, Exxon, GM, Chevron and ConocoPhillips (Fortune), a mix of retail, automotive and oil sectors. Now there is only one sector at the top: technology. As a rule, concentration is not a good thing.

Let’s turn from tech to banks.  Since 2007, America has lost a third of its banks, a continuation of a trend that began after the Savings and Loan crisis in the late 1980s. The number of commercial banks in the U.S. is about a third of what it was in 1990. New York has lost half of its banks in that time. California has lost about 60% of its banks. You can check your state at the Federal Reserve Database  and search for [postal abbreviation for state]NUM. As an example, Colorado is CONUM. New York is NYNUM. California is CANUM. The U.S. figures I mentioned earlier come from the series USNUM.

Consolidation is spreading throughout the economy. In the last 12 months, more retail stores closed than during 2008, the year of the financial crisis. The stocks of the retail sector (XRT) have fallen 20% from their highs.

Adding to the pressure on brick and mortar retail stores, Amazon recently announced that they were buying Whole Foods. Amazon’s sales have grown by more than 1000% since 2007, and America’s stores have felt the pain.

The consolidation in the retail space has been going on since the 2001 recession and the demise of the dot-com boom. The population has grown 14% since then but the number of employees in retail has grown less than 3%. Inflation adjusted sales per employee have grown by 61% in the past 16 years but the inflation adjusted wages of retail workers have declined 1%.

We ourselves are concentrating. For the first time in the nation’s history, more people live in urban areas than rural areas. That concentration has pushed home prices up in the larger metropolitan areas. The S&P/Case-Shiller 20 city home price index has doubled since 2000, easily outpacing the 45% gain in prices, averaging 2% better than inflation.
Smaller cities and rural areas have not done as well. Below is a 40 year chart of inflation adjusted residential prices for all of the U.S. The average yearly gain is 1.7% above the inflation rate, slightly below the 20 city gains of the past 16 years. But the ten year average tells a story of crisis, erratic recovery and migration. The 20 city price index has lost only 1/4% per year since the highs of 2007. The country as a whole has lost 2% per year.

ResPricePctGain

(Sources: National sources, BIS Residential Property Price database)

Where will this consolidation lead?
Less competition
Less responsiveness to customer needs
More political power to create a regulatory environment which guards against competition.

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Performance

Mutual funds and ETFs usually specify their historical performance for several time frames, i.e. 1 year, 3 year, 5 year, 10 year, Lifetime. Four years ago, I noted the diffiiculties of getting a reasonable appraisal of performance if the comparison period begins with a trough in price and ends near a peak.

It is best to disregard the five year performance of many large cap stock funds this year because they include the 13% gain of 2012 and the 33% gain of 2013. A more honest appraisal is the ten year performance. Comparisons start in 2007, near the highs of the market before the start of the 2007-2009 recession and the financial crisis.

Vanguard’s SP500 index fund VFINX reports a ten year average annual return of 7.39%.  Their blended corporate bond fund VBMFX has an annual return of 4.12% over the past ten years.  If I had nothing but these two funds in my portfolio since 2007, my portfolio of 60% stocks, 40% bonds would have gained about 6.1%.  With a conservative allocation of 40% stocks, 60% bonds the annual return was about 5.5%.  The .6% percent difference in returns is slight but it adds up over ten years.  In the first case, a $100,000 portfolio would have grown to $181,000.  In the second case, about $171,000.

Let’s compare those returns to two actively managed blended funds that Vanguard offers.  VWINX is a balanced fund oriented toward income.  The mix is about 40% stocks, 60% bonds and it has earned 6.7% per year over the past ten years.  The Wellington fund VWELX has a mix of 65% stocks, 35% bonds and cash and earned 7.13% each year since 2007.  Both funds have fees that are slightly higher than Vanguard’s index funds but are relatively low at .22% and .25%.  Depending on allocation preference, either fund could serve as a core “gone fishing” fund.  You can use these as a basis for comparison with products that your fund company offers.

Next week I’ll put my ear to the ground and listen for….

The Price of Mispricing

June 11, 2017

In an April 2016 Gallup poll  52% of Americans said that they had some stocks in their portfolio. In this annual survey, the two decade high occurred in 2007 when 65% of those surveyed said stocks were a part of their savings. Asked what they thought was the safest long term investment, surveyed respondents answered: stocks/mutual funds. The stock market hit a high in the fall that year.

Turn the dial to April 2008. The market had declined 10% from its October 2007 high but there was still five months to go till the onset of the financial crisis in September. Americans surveyed by Gallup said that savings and CDs were the safest (Poll ). At that time, a 5 year CD was paying 3.7% according to Bankrate . What happened to turn sentiment from rather risky stocks to safe cash and CDs? The decline in the SP500 might have been responsible. A more likely cause was the recent headlines concerning the failure of the investment firm Bear Stearns. The Fed provided a temporary bailout, then arranged a sale of the firm to JPMorgan Chase.

When real estate prices were rising in the early 2000s, people thought real estate was the safest long term investment. Each of us should ask ourselves an honest question. Do I treat relatively short term shifts in asset pricing as though they were long term trends?

Here’s another thought. Do we mentally treat changes in asset pricing as though it were cash income? If I see that the value of my stock portfolio has gone up $10,000 since my last quarterly statement, do I think of that as kind of a dividend reward for my willingness to take a bit of a risk? The statement confirms that I’m a prudent investor. Do I mentally “pocket”  that $10,000 as though someone had sent me a check?

On the other hand, if my statement shows a decrease in value, I have not only lost money but now I may question my prudence. Am I taking too much risk? I might even think that “the market” is wrong. Can I trust a market that could be wrong? What if there’s another financial crisis? Should I sell my stocks and put the money in CDs? A 5 year CD is only paying a little bit above 2% but at least I won’t lose any money.

Let’s crawl out of our heads and into the pages of history. In the early 1950s, two people published ideas that have come to dominate the investment industry.

In 1951, John Bogle wrote his Princeton college thesis “The Economic Role of the Investment Company.” The paper was an in-depth analysis of mutual funds, a product that was less than 30 years old. (Excerpts). At that time, only 8% of individual investors owned stocks.

Two decades later, Mr. Bogle would go on to found Vanguard, the giant of index mutual funds.  Contrary to the founding principle of Vanguard, Bogle’s 1951 paper did not champion indexing.  In Chapter 1, he objected to the portrayal of a mutual fund as settling for the average returns of an index of stocks.  Bogle touted the active management that a mutual fund provided to an investor.  In a quarter century after he wrote the paper, Mr. Bogle’s conviction in the superiority of active management shifted toward passive indexing. Indexing is the averaging of the decisions of all the buyers and sellers in a particular marketplace.

When Bogle wrote his paper, two types of funds competed for an investor’s attention. The earliest funds were closed end (CEF) and date back to the middle of the 19th century. The Adams Diversified Equity Fund was founded in 1854 and continues to trade today under the symbol ADX. After the initial offering a CEF is closed to new investors. The shares continue to trade on the market like a company stock but investors can no longer buy or redeem shares with the company that manages the fund.

A mutual fund is an open end product, meaning that the fund is open to new investors and investors can redeem their shares at any time. The early mutual funds touted this feature but it was not statutory until the enactment of the Investment Act of 1940.

When Bogle wrote his thesis, the market was still in what is called a secular bear market. The beginning of this period was marked by the brutal crash of 1929 and would not end till 1953, when the price of the SP500 finally rose above the highs set in 1929. The 1920s had been a decade of rapid growth in the new radio industry and manufacturing. The automobile and stock markets were fueled by easy credit. In response to this short era of explosive growth, investors elevated their long term expectations. From 1926 to 1929 the stock market doubled in price, a rapid mispricing that finally corrected in the October crash of 1929.

In 1951, Bogle summarized the previous two decades:
“The depression and the great capital losses to investors which resulted from it caused a greater desire for safety of principal, but gradually confidence in stocks (and especially in a diversified group of them) returned, and during the same period bond rates fell. The combination of high income and safe principal thus shifted in favor of the common stock element. In spite of the fact that many funds urge that part of the investor’s capital should be devoted to bonds, after he has cash reserves and insurance needs filled, it seems doubtful that this advice has been widely followed. “[my emphasis]

In his analysis, Bogle identified several metrics that gave open-end mutual funds superiority over closed-end funds: prudent management to keep the fund attractive to new investors, diversification, liquidity, and income.

Bogle concluded his thesis with a caution that is timeless: “That the market will fluctuate is certain, and merely because it has experienced a general upward trend in the decade of the investment company’s greatest growth may have made many investors fail to realize that the share value, like the market, is liable to decline.”

He looked toward the future of mutual funds, and expressed what would become the business plan of Vanguard: “perhaps [the mutual fund industry’s] future growth can be maximized by concentration on a reduction of sales loads and management fees.”

In the past 15 years, only 15% of active large cap managers have beat the returns of the SP500 index.  The performance is even weaker for small cap stock managers.  Only 11% beat their index.  Individual investors have withdrawn money from actively managed funds and put that money to work in their passive counterparts.  As more money flows to index funds, the danger is that those funds will be averaging the decisions of a smaller pool of active managers. That objection is raised by advocates for active management but it seems unlikely that the pool of active managers will diminish to the point that a few remaining managers will essentially control the direction of the market.  Although recent flows of money have favored passive indexing, actively managed mutual funds and ETFs still control two-thirds of all assets (Morningstar).

In the following year, Harry Markowitz, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, wrote a paper titled “Portfolio Selection” which proposed a systemic approach to diversification called Modern Portfolio Theory. Bogle had noted the prudent rule of thumb that an investor should devote some capital to bonds as well as stocks to stabilize a portfolio. Markowitz mathematized this rule of thumb. The key to portfolio stability was a strategy of asset selection that minimized risk in the face of uncertainty. Any two assets, not just stocks and bonds, that were normally non-correlated would provide stability. When one asset zigged in value, the other asset zagged. Both assets could be risky but if one asset responded opposite the other, then the net effect of owning both assets was to lower the risk.

The key word in any talk of historical correlation is “normal.” There is no theory which can explain investor trauma, a total lack of confidence in most assets. In October 2008, every asset but one fell. Both stocks and gold fell 16%, commodities sank 25% and REITs fell a whopping 32%. Even bonds, a safe haven in times of uncertainty, fell 3%. In a world where every asset class was losing value, investors bought short term Treasuries, which rose 1%, but avoided long term Treasuries, which declined 2%. There was no safety to be found outside of the U.S. Emerging markets fell 26%, European stocks sank 23% and international real estate nose dived 32%.

But the correlation in normally non-correlated assets could not last. During the following two months, bonds rose 9%, and gold shot up 20%. Stable or defensive stocks like health care continued to lose value but at a slower pace. Some investors stepped in to pick up quality stocks at bargain prices. The stock market continued to stagger to a bottom until the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009, soon after the inauguration of Barack Obama.

50% market repricings are relatively infrequent. That we experienced two such events in less than a decade in the 2000s caused millions of investors to abandon risky assets entirely. The SP500 index did not recover the ground lost till January 2013, more than five years after the high set in October 2007. The recovery after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 lasted a similar time, 5-1/2 years.

When was the last time we had back to back severe downturns? We need to turn the dial back to the fall of 1968 when the market began a 1-1/2 year decline of 33%. After a few years of recovery, stocks fell again. Provoked by the Arab-Israeli war, the oil embargo and high inflation, the market began a repricing in 1973. The recovery lasted almost seven years.

In 1975, Bogle founded Vanguard, what some called “Bogle’s Folly.”  Four years later, the SP500 was barely above its high in 1968. Investors had so little confidence in stocks as a long term investment that, in August 1979, Business Week declared that stocks were dead. Since that declaration, the price of the SP500 has gained about 8-1/2% annually.  Add in 2 – 3% in dividends and the total return exceeds 10% annually.

Bogle and Markowitz have had a profound influence on the investment industry by developing two deceptively simple ideas for investors who can’t know the future.  Bogle’s thought: don’t bet on which chicken can lay the most eggs.  The complimentary idea from Markowitz: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Next week – what’s so special about market averages?  They’re not your average average.

Surprises

May 14, 2017

Surprises, the good, the bad and the ugly. When we are in retirement, we are less resilient when the bad or ugly surprises happen. There are event surprises and process surprises. An event surprise might be the damage and loss from a weather related event. A process surprise can be even more deadly because it happens over time.

Misestimates and unrealistic expectations are two types of process surprises. Let’s look at the first type – misestimates. In a recent survey, Boomers were asked to estimate the percentage of income they would have to spend on healthcare. The average estimate was a bit less than 25%. The actual average is a third of retirement income. Let’s say a couple gets $4000 in monthly income from Social Security, interest and dividends. If they had budgeted $1000 (25%) of that for healthcare costs, then discover that they are spending over $1300 a month, that extra cost will slowly eat at their savings base.

A good rule of thumb is to estimate that, in the first few years of retirement, we will spend as much if not more than we spent before we retired. If we are wrong and we spend less, that’s a good surprise. In those first years we may find that we are spending more in one area of our lives and less in another.

The second type of process surprise – unrealistic expectations. Let’s say I expect to make 8% per year on my savings with a small amount of risk. People with a lifetime of experience in managing money struggle mightily to accomplish this and all but a few fail. Either they must take on more risk or lower their expectations of return.

Vanguard and other financial companies provide the expected risk and returns of several different allocations over many decades. Here‘s a chart at Vanguard that does not include a cash allocation in its calculation.  These long term calculators have another drawback: they include rather unusual times in history – the 1930s Depression era and World War 2.

We could use the last twenty years of actual returns to guide our expectations for the next twenty years. In past articles, I have linked to the free tools available at Porfolio Visualizer and there is a permanent link on the Tools page.

I select 1997 for the starting year and 2016 for the ending year. I leave the default settings at the top of the screen alone for now. If I input 40% into the U.S. Stock Market, 40% into the Total U.S. Bond Market, and 20% into Cash, I have chosen a conservative allocation – 40/40/20. I click the Analyze Portfolios button and see that the return was a bit over 6% in the CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) column. How likely am I to achieve 8% over the next 20 years? Not very likely.

I’ll input a moderate allocation of 60% stocks, 30% bonds and 10% cash. The result is an almost 7% annual return so I am getting close to my 8% but there was a nasty time when I lost 1/3 of the value of my portfolio. If I am 70 years old, how comfortable would I be if I watched my portfolio sink almost 33%? I think I would have some restless nights worrying whether I would have to go back to work. How up to date are my skills? Would my prospective employer allow me to take a short nap in the afternoon? I feel so rested and ready to rock and roll after a nap. Well maybe not.

Wait a minute, I tell myself. The past 20 years included the busting of a tech bubble, 9-11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Two of those were rather extraordinary events. So I pick a different 20 year time period, 1987 – 2006. That still includes some serious shocks like the tech bubble and its pop, as well as 9-11. My conservative allocation of 40/40/20 made 8-1/2% CAGR and the moderate allocation of 60/30/10 made 9-2/3%.

But I’m not happy with the risk. I could even decrease my risk and make my 8% return by choosing a very conservative allocation of 30% stocks, 50% bonds and 20% cash. My portfolio lost less than 10% in its worst year ever – the maximum drawdown. If I go to Vanguard’s risk return chart they estimate a 7.2% average return over 90 years, which included a horrible depression that lasted a decade and a world war. It’s to be expected that my 20 year period 1987 – 2006 would do a bit better than the 90 year average because the catastrophic shocks are not included.  I think my 20 year period is more representative of the risks I will face in the next 20 years.

I could have picked the 20 years from 1981-2000 and that would have been unrealistic. The conservative allocation earned more than 10% and the annual return on the moderate allocation was almost 12%.

So I have now set what I think is a realistic 20 year time frame that gave me the historical risk and reward that met my expectations. But that’s not realistic. Not yet. I am going to be taking money from this portfolio to supplement my retirement income. So now I go back up to the top of the screen where the defaults are and under “Periodic Adjustments” I select the “Withdraw fixed percentage” option and under that I input 4.0%. This is supposed to be the safe withdrawal percentage. The next row is the “Withdrawal frequency.” I’ll select Annual.

Since I am now taking cash out this portfolio, I will turn to the IRR column of the results because the Internal Rate of Return calculation considers cash flows. My very conservative allocation of 30/50/20 has an IRR of almost 8.5% with a drawdown of less than 15%. The column that says “Final balance” shows that I have more than double the money I started out with and I have been able to withdraw 4% per year. I would have liked to get the drawdown below 10% but I think I can live with 13-1/2%. I’ll be worried but I don’t think I will lose sleep over it. So now I have made what I think is a reasonable expectation of risk and reward based on historical returns.

There’s one last thing I need to do. I know that the 20 year period from 1929 to 1948 was bad but I can’t check that in Portfolio Visualizer because the year selection only goes back to 1972. So I select a really bad ten year period, 2000 – 2009. This was from the heights of the dot.com boom to a short time after the financial crisis. After taking 4% per year, the IRR on my very conservative allocation was 4% and I still had the money I started out with at the beginning of the ten year period. I could probably withstand a 20 year period like this as long as I stay true to my allocation.  But, the maximum drawdown (see here) was 21%, something that I am not comfortable with.

I am left with some hard choices.   In the case of another bad ten year period, I can lower my withdrawal percentage a bit or I can learn to have faith in the allocation process and accept the drawdown.  I have done this with a free tool. I could pay for more sophisticated tools that gradually transition from one allocation to another allocation over a 20 year period.  That would be more realistic still since I will probably get more risk averse as I get older. At least this gets me started.

We often can’t avoid the suprise events. Some surprises are both event and process like the diagnosis of a  life-threatening illness. We can understand and be alert to the process surprises that we may inflict on ourselves. Understanding involves some frank self-assessment and difficult questions. Am I prone to wishful thinking? Do I overestimate my tolerance for risk? How well do I live with the consequences of my decisions?

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CAPE

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I might calculate a 20 year CAPE ratio. The CAPE that Robert Shiller uses is a ten year period. As of the end of 2016 the 20 year CAPE was 31 vs the 70 year average of 21. Whichever calculation we use, the market is priced a good deal above average. The 20 year CAPE first crossed above the average in the late summer of 2009.

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California

Over the past 5 years California’s economy has grown faster than any other developed country except for China. Bloomberg article