2017 Q2 letter: A threat to human civilization

posted in: Bonds, Economics, Energy, Markets, Stocks, USA | 0

Dear Friends,

The 2nd quarter saw the Fed continue its strategy of withdrawing stimulus from the US economy. Since December 2016, the Fed has raised rates three times, bringing the target rate up to 1.25%. Their most recent statements suggest the target rate will continue to rise if unemployment and inflation stay relatively stable. There have been several statements this month from Fed governors indicating the central bank plans to begin selling or rolling off the 3.6 Trillion dollars in bonds it has acquired since the financial crisis of 2008/2009. The Fed’s decision to increase its bond holdings by 400% during the financial crisis was an unprecedented action, and the reduction to more normal levels has been expected for some time.

The net effect of these moves for investors will be a rise in interest rates, a reduction in liquidity, and a less attractive environment for risky assets. Bond investors should see rates continue to rise towards more normal levels, a relief since bond yields have been historically low for the past several years. The sale of the Fed’s bond portfolio will also reduce the amount of money in circulation (the money supply) as private investors purchase the assets the Fed sells. This is expected to put further pressure on stock prices and riskier assets as funds are directed into these purchases.

Over the past few days, we have also seen the risk of political instability in the US rise to remarkable levels. It seems increasingly likely that the various investigations underway may lead to very senior members of the Trump administration and campaign facing a variety of charges.

From a valuation perspective, stock prices continue to look overvalued. Remarkably, the top five components of the S&P 500 (Apple, Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon) are all technology companies. What’s even more surprising is that with the exception of Apple, they are all trading at prices over 30 times earnings. Much of that gain has been recent, four of the  five have seen gains of over 20% in the past six months (the exception is Microsoft). Taken together, these five companies represent almost 12.5% of the index.

Overall market valuations are extraordinarily high, with the current P/E ratio for the S&P500 over 25. A longer term measure, which looks back at ten years of earnings (Cyclically Adusted or Shiller P/E) is illustrated in the chart below, alongside interest rates. Cyclically Adjusted P/E is at levels that have only been exceeded twice; before the tech-wreck of 2000 and Black Tuesday in 1929. This is partly because interest rates remain at historic lows. As discussed above, that is changing.

As a result of these factors, we continue to maintain a defensive posture and recommend clients an underweight allocation to high-risk assets.

Data source: Robert Shiller – Yale University

We would like to use the rest of our quarterly letter to discuss a longer-term risk, one that impacts not just the markets, but all of human civilization.

For several decades now, scientists focused on studying global warming and climate change have shared their increasingly dire findings about the impact of human activity on the Earth’s biosphere. It is now abundantly clear to all, except the intentionally obtuse and dishonest among us, that human activity has impacted the Earth’s climate in a significant way. Our species’ use of fossil fuels has released an extraordinary amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, raising the average temperature across the world by 0.2° Celsius (0.36° Fahrenheit) each decade.

Economists have long understood that markets can mis-price public goods or services that have concentrated benefits for a few while costs are diluted among many. Within the economic literature, this is called the “tragedy of the commons”. The classic example is shepherds grazing their flocks in a meadow that is commonly owned. In standard political and economic theory, the government is meant to intervene to enforce a solution that furthers the general good and recognizes and allocates the true costs of such activity.

At this point, we should admit that US political institutions have failed to deliver on addressing climate change. The vast majority (85%) of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere have been generated since World War II. Over that period, the United States has been, by far, the largest greenhouse gas emitter. So, much of the responsibility for climate change lies with us. Yet, we have been for decades, and still remain, the chief impediment to decisive action on climate change. The Trump administration has made a very bad situation even more dire by announcing a withdrawal from the Paris agreement.

Nature, of course, couldn’t be less concerned about human politics. The content of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane has continued to rise, driving surface temperatures higher. This has manifested itself in a variety of ways. Glaciers have retreated across the world. The five hottest years in recorded history occurred within this decade, and 2016 set a new record. Coral reefs across the world are bleaching as water temperatures rise, stressing the marine eco-system. Hotter summers are impacting humans as well, with extreme temperatures rising causing heat-strokes, dehydration and deaths.

Most climate change models have assumed a 0.2°C increase per year in surface temperatures will leave the Earth’s with an average temperature 2°C (3.6°F) higher by 2100. Those assumptions now look woefully inadequate. Since we have not measurably reduced our greenhouse gas emissions, and the Paris agreements seem to have collapsed, 2°C degrees is an underestimate and the case for a 3-4°C rise becomes stronger.

As climate change and research into it has advanced, the risks of a runaway feedback loop have become clearer as well. Permanently frozen ground in the arctic regions of Asia and North America traps a large amount of methane. As the ground gets warmer, this methane leaches into the atmosphere. As temperatures rise and water becomes scarce, plant life across the world will be stressed. The risk and incidence of forest fires increases, and the loss of trees leaves more CO2 in the atmosphere. If rising temperatures, fire and drought impact major CO2 sinks like the Amazon forest, temperatures will rise even faster.

There is a reasonable likelihood that temperatures will have risen by 4-6°C (7-10°F) by 2100. 90°F days will be 100°F days. 100°F days will be 110°F days. Phoenix saw temperatures rise above 118°F last month, grounding flights. What happens when temperatures approach 128°F? If such an extreme rise in temperatures were to occur, the world is looking at a series of major catastrophies that could largely destroy human civilization.

Drought and heat would cause widespread human suffering and deaths. Food stocks would be harder to grow with much of the world’s breadbasket regions in China, India, Central Asia and North America undergoing desertification. Much of the southwestern United States could become an uninhabitable desert. Tens of millions of people would need to be resettled. This pattern would be replicated across the world. A NASA study indicates the Middle East is suffering through a 20 year drought that is more severe than any in the past 900 years. There are indications that crop failure and rising food prices have contributed to societal upheaval in the region. The Mediterranean as a whole is susceptible to drought and desertification.

The impact on agriculture worldwide would be many times more severe than seen during the dust-bowl. Marine life and fisheries would be devastated as ocean temperatures rise. And yes, sea-levels could rise 10 feet or more, making most coastal cities uninhabitable without civil works on a scale we have never seen before. Much of New York, London, Mumbai, Shanghai, Sydney, Rio De Janeiro, Singapore, Dubai, Miami, almost all of Bangladesh, and many island nations, would be lost.

It is virtually certain that such extreme conditions will lead to widespread forced migrations and fuel conflict between nations and individuals. This is one of the reasons the US Department of Defense treats climate change as the largest strategic threat to the country. Governments and political structures will undergo immense stress and opportunistic charlatans could come to power across the world.

All of this would significantly impact incomes, growth rates, earnings and most importantly health and well-being. We do not intentionally seek to be alarmist. However, the data and projections we have seen demand urgent responses and are alarming. There is a grave likelihood that we leave our children with a world in crisis. Without urgent, concerted action, large portions of our planet will become inhospitable to human inhabitation within our children’s lifetime.

Clearly, these events will impact investors and markets in profound ways. As we engage in long-term, inter-generational planning for clients, we want our clients to know that we take these risks very seriously and will continue to keep these considerations in mind.

 

 

 

Regards,

 

 

Subir Grewal, CFA, CFP                                                                                              Louis Berger

The real risk is China, not Greece – 2015 Q2 Letter

Two inflection points long in the making appear to have arrived simultaneously over the past few weeks. In Europe, negotiations between Greece and Euro-zone countries that have lent to Greece appear to have broken down; and in China, the stock market has taken a remarkable tumble. In itself, the Shanghai market’s steep fall is not surprising or remarkable (this was a market which had risen 150% over the previous year), but it is interesting in terms of what it portends for other markets and factors in China.

The various actors in the Greek/Euro crisis have indulged in brinksmanship for a number of years. The ECB, Euro-zone countries and the Greek government have stumbled from one crisis to the next, taking action only when forced to do so. And when they have acted, the result is to defer rather than reach resolution. It is clear to us that no final resolution of Greece’s sovereign debts can be made without some debt relief. The Greek economy has shrunk enormously under the weight of uncertainty and austerity policies. None of the modeled targets for growth have been met and Greece’s debts are now a larger multiple of Greek GDP (180%) than ever before, largely because of the sharp decline in GDP. A sudden growth spurt may solve that, but given high unemployment, it is difficult to see that materializing without some level of debt relief to lower the amount of the outstanding loans and interest payments. In reality, the only thing that has been achieved thus far is that Greek loans have been moved from the balance sheets of European banks to the balance sheets of European nations. European (and international) banks that lent to Greece, knowing the risks, were bailed out. There has been no such deliverance for Greece itself, and, despite frantic 11th hour negotiations, we do not expect one in the coming days.

A crucial factor that has made the crisis much worse for ordinary individuals in Greece is the absence of a pan-European deposit guarantee scheme. Bank customers in the US have enjoyed a federal guarantee for their deposits since the 1930s. This guarantee currently applies to the first $250,000 on deposit at an FDIC covered institution and has been the primary reason the US has avoided widespread bank runs by retail customers for the past 80 years. In contrast, deposit guarantees and guarantee funds in Europe are run at the member state level. So Greece guarantees the deposits in its banks up to 100,000 Euros. Of course, Greece (unlike the US federal government) has no ability to actually print Euros on demand. That means most bank customers treat its deposit insurance with justified skepticism. Greek banks too cannot count on the European Central Bank to lend to them freely in a crisis. There is an emergency lending facility, but it works through the member state central banks and let’s just say relations between Greece and the ECB are not exactly amicable at the moment.

These two factors taken together explain the phenomenon of Greek pensioners queuing for hours to withdraw the maximum amount permitted from their bank accounts each day (60 Euros). They do not trust the funds will be covered by deposit guarantees and Greek banks are limiting withdrawals, afraid they will run out of Euros.

As a study in contrasts, we have Puerto Rico, which is facing a similar government debt crisis, largely brought on by similar factors (mismanagement, misstatement of financial data, etc.). Yet, the impact is limited to the government’s ability to issue more debt and the value of its bonds. Puerto Rico’s bank will face no runs and will continue to function even if the government runs out of money. They are regulated and insured at the federal level. So, though Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is very serious, and will likely require some level of write downs, its banking system continues to hum along and is not at risk. If the European Union had a similar bank deposit guarantee system, we believe the Greek crisis would not have been as severe.

Lastly, what makes the Greek case significant and holds the market’s attention is not the size of Greece’s debts, which at around 300Bn are large, but not enormous. A 30% write-down of those debts would be 100Bn, some individual banks took write-downs in the 30-70Bn range during the financial crisis. Clearly Greek creditors (EU countries for the most part) could survive a 30% write-down.

What concerns the markets is that the Greek crisis lays bare an uncomfortable truth. The European Union is both unable, and unwilling to act decisively or with coordination in a crisis. The reasons are myriad, but to us, it has been particularly striking to hear World War I and II era rivalries and events repeatedly invoked by some commentators and even senior politicians. A skeptical observer might say that the institutions created to avoid the recurrence of war on the European continent seem to be hell-bent on re-living them. In contrast, though, we in the United States have had the traumatic experience of reliving civil war-era animosities over the past few weeks, those fervently invoking a North/South divide are firmly in the fringe and have been for at least a century. The same cannot be said of Europe.

We have been wary of asset prices and debt burdens within China for a number of years. Some of those concerns have bubbled to the surface in the last few weeks as the Chinese domestic market has endured a series of dramatic losses with many stocks hitting their down limits and several have halted trading entirely. Companies can also ask to suspend their own shares and many have. Most observers have expected such a crash since the on-shore Shanghai market has risen over 75% this year. What was underappreciated is how much of this rise has been driven by large numbers of first-time retail investors, many of them buying stock on margin (borrowed money). The conditions appear to resemble the state of the US market on the eve of the 1929 and 2000 stock market crashes. In certain ways, there are broader parallels with 1929. China is at roughly the same stage of relative development with the US that the US was to the UK in 1929. China has also seen massive investment in capital infrastructure with declining returns, not unlike the US investment in railroads in the 20s. Lastly, there are large quantities of questionable loans on the books at Chinese banks. Taken together, this story is much bigger and could have much wider repercussions than that just a few down days in a large emerging market.

The final consideration is political. Though there is a lot of tittering at the prospect of the Communist party attempting to support the stock market, this is driven by legitimate fears of political unrest if a severe downturn were to materialize. Coupled with factionalism within the party, such a downturn could make for a very volatile period in China, politically speaking. The impact is likely to be felt across commodity sectors (where China remains a major consumer), and a risk of contagion to other markets. In the short term, we expect the US markets will be seen as a relative safe haven. Though clearly, as one of the three largest economies in the world, any Chinese downturn will affect global market values.

On balance, we view the bursting of the Chinese equity bubble and antecedent effects as more significant than the Greek debt crisis. In terms of wealth impact, they certainly are — the Chinese stock market has lost over $3Tn over the past few weeks. That is ten times the amount of outstanding Greek debt. Margin balances owed by Chinese investors are larger than Greek debt. The real concern, though, is that the stock market bubble in its rise and fall, may lead to a bigger reckoning of Chinese financial institutions which are holding real-estate and provincial debt. As the real-estate sector has slowed, demand for land, which constituted a crucial source of funding for Chinese provinces, has dried up. Both real-estate developers and Chinese provincial government debts are looking very weak and they are widely held by Chinese banks and investors.

In general, we recommend appropriate caution for investors. Though the US markets may appear to be isolated from events in Europe and China, and might even benefit from some short-term “flight to safety”, they will eventually be impacted, and current valuations stateside do not bode well for that reckoning.

We continue to believe that investors will be well served to reduce exposure to risk assets in their portfolios and move some money into short term bonds and cash while awaiting a better buying opportunity.

2012 Themes: The More Things Change…

Here are our top 10 investment themes for 2012.  These are the topics we think will have the biggest impact on client portfolios in the coming year…

 

1.  Steady as she goes: We think it unlikely the Fed will raise rates in 2012, largely due to the presidential election. With the ongoing crisis in Europe, the Fed would normally be engaging in further monetary easing, but there is nowhere to go below the current 0.00% target overnight rate. In most presidential election years, the Fed is hesitant to make large moves in either direction, to avoid appearing politically biased. That instinct is especially heightened in an election cycle where Fed policy action and arcane monetary policy debates have unexpectedly become contentious, emotional political issues.

2.  Risk Off: We believe risk assets (stock, real-estate, long-dated and high-yield bonds) will have a difficult 2012. Stocks have benefited from a sharp rebound after the credit crisis and are now back to the higher end of the historical range. Bonds meanwhile, are trading at yields that are lower than any seen in two generations. During the course of 2012, we would expect both to correct towards the mean. This should provide some interesting buying opportunities, especially for dollar-based investors.

3.  Break-Up or Make-Up, Brussels is good for both: 2012 should be the denouement for the European sovereign debt crisis.  Though it has been over a decade in the making, things have finally come to a head. All the dominoes (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy) are lined up, and we wait to see which the two players (France and Germany) will allow to fall before they stop the carnage. We believe a Greek default is extremely likely this year. Even if there is a pre-negotiated haircut with some lenders, the market will treat it with the seriousness that the first default by a “developed” economy in a generation should. In either case, Greek bondholders should be prepared for losses on the order of 60% of par value.

4.  Euro Trash: We expect the Euro to bear much of the burden of the European sovereign crisis, and the currency to weaken significantly against the dollar. We would not be surprised if the Euro approached parity with the dollar over the course of the year. When we discussed a Euro break-up last year, it seemed like an outlier scenario. We have been amazed at the speed with which events have moved and a potential Euro-exit for one or more peripheral economies is now being openly discussed.

5.  Blue States/Red States: The US presidential election cycle should be the major story in the US in 2012. US and individual state debt burdens will be the most important topic of debate, as the European sovereign debt crisis plays out in the background. American politicians will have to negotiate some cut in benefits for the charmed baby-boomer generation to ensure the financial burden of these programs in coming years does not doom the economic prospects of their children and grandchildren. This negotiation of a new social compact between the generations is the most important issue of our times.

6.  Chinese Math: At the 18th Communist party congress to be held this year, we expect power to be transferred to a new generation of Chinese political leaders. We have no doubt that the enormous state apparatus will be fully utilized to ensure economic stability during the transfer. However, we believe these efforts will ultimately be for naught. The structural shift required as China moves from an investment driven economy to a consumption driven one will make for a tumultuous year in Chinese markets. The stock market has been depressed for almost five years, GDP growth is slowing as labor costs rise, and we expect Chinese real-estate is beginning to make the first moves in an unavoidable decline towards more reasonable levels.

7.  Revolutionary Times: We were surprised to see the speed at which the political structure of the Middle East has been transformed in a remarkable series of revolutions. Though we have been aware of the demographic pressures that created the basis for these changes, their rapidity has astounded us. As events unfold in the Arab world, something perhaps even more remarkable has begun to happen in Russia. A previously apathetic Russian electorate seems to be flexing its muscle in opposition to a renewed Putin presidency.  We expect to see more political turmoil in Europe and the Middle East in 2012. This coupled with major elections and power-transfers in the US and China make for a very uncertain 2012 politically speaking. In our view, this will make for very jittery markets throughout the year.

8.  Oil Slicks: The events in the middle-east will of course have an impact on energy prices. We expect political tensions to keep oil prices artificially inflated in 2012, but longer-term we think $100 oil is unsustainable as alternative energy sources approach cost-parity with conventional sources. And while we’re talking about oil, we would like to reiterate our skeptical view of gold prices, which we believe would be well under $1,000 an ounce if the political and economic future were not as muddy.

9.  Smart Homes: The past decade has seen the widespread adoption of computing and telecommunications technology touch virtually every aspect of human activity. We expect the markets to be enamored with a couple of very high-profile IPOs expected in 2012/2013 (Facebook and Twitter). We believe some of the higher profile IPOs of 2011 will perform poorly (GroupOn for instance). The larger story will continue to be the steady march of the internet into every device and living room, placing a strain on core Internet infrastructure. We heard relatively little about a seminal event that took place in 2011, the last large block of addresses (IPv4 numbers) was assigned and there is no address space on the current infrastructure to accommodate another few hundred million devices. The public discussion has centered around the addition of new top level domain names (like .com, .org), but the addresses that sit behind these are the real concern. A new addressing scheme (IPv6) has been built into most devices for years, but adoption is minimal. We expect this will have to change in 2012, with a few hiccups along the way.

10.  Housing: Still a buyer’s market: We expect the overall US housing market to remain stagnant in2012 with pockets of strength, particularly in major urban areas (NYC, DC, San Francisco) and some suburban and rural areas that did not overbuild in the run-up to the credit crisis.  We believe there is still too much supply available and US consumers as a whole will be reluctant to financially over-commit themselves given job security concerns and how many were burned by homeownership in the past few years, despite record low mortgage rates.

 

Webinar Invitation: Tax-free municipal bonds

posted in: Bonds, Events, Markets | 0

Tax Free Municipal Bonds: Are They The Right Investment For You?

The past few months have been very eventful for the municipal bond market: the Bush era tax cuts have been extended, municipal governments are proposing massive budgets cuts, protests have broken out in states like Wisconsin and certain commentators have predicted widespread default. This uncertainty has provided an opportunity for those investors who know what to look for. In this webinar, we will provide an overview of municipal bonds, address many of the recent news events that have roiled these markets and share our approach to finding opportunities in this space.

This web-based presentation will run from 12:30-1:00 pm on Tuesday March 1st. It will include a 20 minute talk and 10 minutes for Q&A.

Please RSVP if you plan to attend as space is limited.

Presented by: Washington Square Capital Management

Speaker: Subir Grewal, CFA: Co-Founder and Principal

Date: Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Time: 12:30 pm, Eastern Standard Time (New York, GMT-05:00)

Discussion Topics:

  • Municipal bond market overview
  • The ramifications of recent legislative events
  • Our selection process and where we see opportunity

To register, please click here.

The road ahead…

posted in: Bonds, Economics, Markets, USA | 0

We read Bill Gross’ monthly letters for his thoughtful take on the big economic and financial questions of the day, mixed in with a dose of humor. The NYT recently published a profile of Gross, whose reputation has been burnished during this crisis. The June 2009 and July 2009 letters are a must read for their colorful description of the long road ahead of us, before the world economy attains some semblance of normalcy.

The ground shifts under efficient market theorists.

posted in: Economics, Markets, Stocks | 0

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, a pair of confidence tricksters sell the king a suit made of fabric so special, it was invisible…

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For years, the priesthood of academic economics had the entire world convinced that the markets conformed to the “semi-strong” form of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis. Mathematical concepts taught in introductory engineering courses entranced “social scientists” into promoting a tautology that did not conform with even a cursory knowledge of history.

It seems, though, that Efficient Markets Hypothesis might be going the way of the dodo, since it elicits amused smiles from most observers when they hear the name. The Times ran a story this week, Poking Holes in a Theory of Markets, and interviewed the inimitable Jeremy Grantham, whose market views we follow closely. The article’s worth a read if only to get a little bit of a taste of Grantham.

The two bubbles (technology stocks and real-estate) we have suffered this decade have brought into question a number of preconceived notions and assumptions about how the world works. It’s heartening for us to see a resurgence of interest in economists whose work stands apart from the Chicago orthodoxy. It’s good to see a little bit of attention being paid to behavioral economics, Keynes, Schumpeter, and Hayek.

Prices are crucial carriers of information in a capitalist economy, they tell us what the prevailing opinion is in the marketplace. Prices convey to market participants what the odds offered at a racetrack tell bettors. In general the crowd is right about the odds for companies and horses, but on occasion, it is spectacularly, violently, destructively wrong.

Asset prices are useful when they reflect the collective, informed opinion of participants who use independent judgment and analysis to arrive at an independent sense of value. The moment a large enough contingent believes market prices tell them everything there is to know about the world, that there is no purpose in doing their own analysis, and begin to trade indiscriminately, prices become less than useless. Market prices are opinion, and this opinion is meaningful and useful when your market is composed of knowledgeable investors attentive to risk. When the market is taken over by speculators and most participants are too lazy to analyze a security in an intellectually honest way, prices no longer tell you anything but how much punch has been consumed at the party.

Eventually, someone points out that the emperor is naked, and the ground shifts. EMH RIP.