A Preemptive, Timeless, Portfolio Protection Strategy

A participant in the morning Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) workshop observed: I’ve noticed that my account balances are near all time high levels. People are talking down the economy and the dollar. Is there any preemptive action I need to take?

An afternoon workshop attendee spoke of a similar predicament, but cautioned that a repeat of the June 2007 through early March 2009 correction must be avoided — a portfolio protection plan is essential!

What were they missing?

These investors were taking pretty much for granted the fact that their investment portfolios had more than merely survived the most severe correction in financial market history. They had recouped all of their market value, and maintained their cash flow to boot. The market averages seemed afraid to move higher.

Their preemptive portfolio protection plan was already in place — and it worked amazingly well, as it certainly should for anyone who follows the general principles and disciplined strategies of the MCIM.

But instead of patting themselves on the back for their proper preparation and positioning, here they were, lamenting the possibility of the next dip in securities’ prices. Corrections, big and small, are a simple fact of investment life whose origination point can only be identified using rear view mirrors.

Investors constantly focus on the event instead of the opportunity that the event represents. Being retrospective instead of hindsightful helps us learn from our experiences. The length, depth, and scope of the financial crisis correction were unknowns in mid-2007. The parameters of the recent advance are just as much of a mystery now.

MCIM forces us to prepare for cyclical oscillations by requiring that: a) we take reasonable profits quickly whenever they are available, b) we maintain our “cost-based” asset allocation formula using long-term (retirement, etc.) goals, and c) we slowly move into new opportunities only after downturns that the “conventional wisdom” identifies as correction level— i. e., twenty percent.

  • So, a better question, concern, or observation during an unusually long rally, given the extraordinary performance scenario that these investors acknowledge, would be: What can I do to take advantage of the market cycle even more effectively — the next time?

The answer is as practically simple as it is emotionally difficult. You need to add to portfolios during precipitous or long term market downturns to take advantage of lower prices — just as you would do in every other aspect of your life. You need first to establish new positions, and then to add to old ones that continue to live up to WCM (Working Capital Model) quality standards.

You need to maintain your asset allocation by adding to income positions properly, and monitor cost based diversification levels closely. You need to apply cyclical patience and understanding to your thinking and hang on to the safety bar until the climb back up the hill makes you smile. Repeat the process. Repeat the process. Repeat the process.

The retrospective?

The MCIM methodology was nearly fifteen years old when the robust 1987 rally became the dreaded “Black Monday”, (computer loop?) correction of October 19th. Sudden and sharp, that 50% or so correction proved the applicability of a methodology that had fared well in earlier minor downturns.

According to the guidelines, portfolio “smart cash” was building through August; new buying overtook profit taking early in September, and continued well into 1988.

Ten years later, there was a slightly less disastrous correction, followed by clear sailing until 9/11. There was one major difference: the government didn’t kill any companies or undo market safeguards that had been in place since the Great Depression.

Dot-Com Bubble! What Dot-Com Bubble?

Working Capital Model buying rules prohibit the type of rampant speculation that became Wall Street vogue during that era. The WCM credo after the bursting was: “no NASDAQ, no Mutual Funds, no IPOs, no Problem.” Investment Grade Value Stocks (IGVSI stocks) regained their luster as the no-value-no-profits securities slip-slided away into the Hudson.

Embarrassed Wall Street investment firms used their influence to ban the “Brainwashing of the American Investor” book and sent the authorities in to stifle the free speech of WCM users — just a rumor, really.

Once again, through the “Financial Crisis”, for the umpteenth time in the forty years since its development, Working Capital Model operating systems have proven that they are an outstanding Market Cycle Investment Management Methodology.

And what was it that the workshop participants didn’t realize they had — a preemptive portfolio protection strategy for the entire market cycle. One that even a caveman can learn to use effectively.

Join My Linked In network                   Join my private mailing list

One Person’s Bond Crash is Another’s Income Opportunity

Today’s “Investment News” headline (from Bloomberg) is designed to make you shiver in your income portfolio boots:

“Big fixed income shop prepares for the worst”…

The Bond Portfolio “Window Dressing” sell-off has begun.

Bond funds in general are now holding 8% of assets in cash, the article reports…highest since the financial crisis, and 1999, even. Professional Bond Traders certainly have reason to worry; closed end fund income investors not so much.

The article is reporting fear of lower market values with respect to existing bonds, particularly the higher yield variety…. big players in the bond market are hoarding cash (even selling existing holdings at losses in the process).

Bond Traders and Fund Managers look foolish as inventory market values fall. The cash hoard is their way of preparing to buy similar paper at higher yields sometime in the future and/or to buy back “old” bonds after the fall in price.

In the meantime, they are holding zero interest rate cash in anticipation of the higher yields… and could care less about the negative impact this behavior has on portfolio yields.

This is the result of what I call “Total Return Crossover”… the absurd application of market value growth analysis, instead of income development criteria, to primarily income security portfolios. (An analytical atrocity that is reinforced and encouraged by retirement plan regulators.)

So bond and Income Mutual Fund managers choose to actually lose your money now to look less foolish than the competition later. This “panic selling” by professionals leads to irrational, “knee jerk” reactions in amateurs.

What I did not read in the Bloomberg “disaster scenario” (and this should calm all the frayed nerves) was any indication or expectation of default on the interest paid by the bond issuers. This is the key issue with income investing…

Bonds are corporate and government debt securities, people… so long as they pay the interest why worry about the market value?

Wall Street is always more concerned about appearances than it is about income generation. And the Masters of the Universe really do have a problem… OMG, what this could do to those year-end bonuses…

But we (the average investors out here) can simply reinvest our current CEF income in any number of portfolios of bonds, preferred stocks, loans, notes, etc., selling at discounts, not only from their maturity value, but also from their combined Net Asset Values. Read that again please.

Remember, Closed End Income Fund portfolios aren’t influenced directly by either the fear (or greed) of individual investors… they are under a “protective dome”, if you will, that is subject to all forms of volatility for a vast array of reasons.

But an Income CEF, for example, becomes the totally liquid trading vehicle for a portfolio that could contain hundreds of totally illiquid individual securities… do you believe in magic? Be it Magic, or genius, who cares. We, mere mortals that we are, can jump on the lower prices that chill the blood of Wall Street’s Master Class.

Closed End Fund investors are uniquely positioned to take advantage of both the lower prices and the higher yields that exist right now. Market Cycle Investment Management users have done it before, right?

Remember the fall in CEF prices from early 2007 (higher rates caused these) through early March 2009 (even in the face of the lowest interest rates ever)… and the ensuing rise through October 2011?

Well, do you really think that the anticipated one percentage point rise in interest rates over the next year or so will cause Financial Crisis #2?

Isn’t it great when Wall Street’s pain becomes fuel for the small investor’s gain…. but only if you take advantage of the lower price, higher yield scenario that is staring you in the face as you read this message..

Yes, YOU can be the Master of this Universe!

Income Investing: “Feed Your Head… Feed Your Head”

Jefferson Airplane has never, ever, been mistaken for a band of financial advisors, but the White Rabbit lyrics can be incredibly instructional to the generation of investors who experienced the classic first hand — as a description of their own college days’ lifestyle. If only they had heeded the dormouse’s call to “feed your head.” For the sake of your retirement sanity and security, you just have to make income investing an intellectual exercise — not an emotional one.

The Brainwashing of the American Investor has its own tale of an Alice whose “logic and proportion” had “fallen sloppy dead”. Many years ago, when interest rates soared into double digits, elderly Alice was well advised to invest her stash in a portfolio of Ginnie Maes. Broadly smiling, she bragged to her friends about the federally guaranteed 13% interest she was receiving in regular monthly intervals — much more than she needed to cover her living expenses.

But interest rates continued to move higher, and the decreasing market value of her Ginnie Maes was more than she could tolerate. “If rates continue to go up, I’ll have nothing left” she cried to her White Knight financial advisor who suggested patience and understanding. The very same pill that made her income grow larger was also making her market value become smaller.

Yet the income kept rolling in, higher yielding unit trusts were purchased with the excess, and major redemptions were nowhere to be seen. The income kept growing, the market value kept shrinking, and Alice was seeing red from seeing red on her account statements.

So Alice went to her local bank and traded in her absolutely government guaranteed 13 per centers for some laddered, non-negotiable, 8.5% CDs. “No more erosion of my nest egg”, she toasted proudly with the hookah smoking bank caterpillar who orchestrated her move to lower income levels. Within a few months, she was liquidating CDs to pay the bills that never seemed to be a problem with those terrible Ginnie Maes.

Don’t let such uniformed thinking sabotage your retirement program; don’t let the selfish advice of a product sharpshooter send you chasing rabbits when IRE (interest rate expectations) or other temporary market conditions shrink the market value of your income portfolio. Feed your head; feed—your—head.

Income pays the bills, and if the income level is both steady and adequate, there is no need to change investments. Market value should be used to determine when to buy more (at lower prices) and when to take profits (at higher ones). It is almost never necessary to take a loss on a high quality (government guaranteed in Alice’s case) income security.

More recent experimenters in much more sophisticated potions have addressed the issue with similar results, reaching mind-numbing conclusions such as these:

  • I know the income hasn’t changed throughout the debacle in the financial sector but I don’t want to buy anymore of these securities until the prices go back above what I paid for them originally. Translation: I’d rather stick with my 4.5% tax-free yield than increase it by adding to my positions at lower prices.
  • Sure, I understand the relationship between IRE and the prices of income CEFs but individual bonds and Treasuries haven’t suffered nearly as much. That’s where we should have been. Translation: I would be much happier with a 3% than with an 8% rate of realized income.
  • I’m tired of seeing all the negative positions in my portfolio. Let’s keep all the income we receive in money market until we’re back in positive territory. Translation: I’d rather accept 0.5% or so, than reduce my cost basis and increase my yield by adding to my positions at lower prices.

Modern brokerage firm monthly statement “pills” were developed during the dot-com era, when Wall Street was trying to emphasize the brilliance of its speculative prescriptions by making us all feel ten feet tall, month after month after month.

But the geniuses on the institutional chessboard produced too many mushroom product varietals and the Red Queen of corrections lopped off many of their sacred heads. The papers that were designed to make our chests burst with pride have turned on us as a haunting reminder of the reality of markets and the cycles that push them in either direction.

It should be easy to navigate a quality income portfolio through whatever circumstances, cycles, and scandals come at you, but a clear head and a clearer understanding of what to expect is required. Most brokerage firm statements make it difficult to monitor asset allocation using any methodology, including the Working Capital Model, and I don’t think that it’s by chance.

Confusion breeds unhappiness, and unhappiness brings about change, and the masters of the universe encourage you to fritter around from mushroom to mushroom in perpetual motion. To whose benefit?

It would be wonderful if an investor’s monthly statement would organize his securities based on their class and purpose, but Wall Street doesn’t want such distinctions to be made easily. It would be great if the institutions would help investors formulate reasonable expectations about various types of securities under varying conditions, but that’s not likely to happen either.

It would be spectacular if the media would produce information and explanation instead of news bites and sensationalism, but you guessed it — not much chance of that.

Income investing can be easy. Ask your hookah-smoking caterpillar to give you the how?

Income Closed End Funds and Total Return Analysis

What are the two main reasons mere mortals invest in income purpose securities: one is their inherent safety compared to equities… a 50% income asset allocation is much safer and theoretically less volatile than a 100% equity exposure.

There is less risk of total loss in XYZ company bonds or preferred stock than there is in XYZ common stock… a major fact of investment life roundly ignored by most investors/speculators in overpriced stock markets.

Equally important (as retirement looms larger) is the income these securities produce, first for compounding and then for spending.

  • Compound interest/dividends/realized capital gains is the most powerful retirement income force known to mankind… neither total return nor market value can pay your bills, take you on vacation, or pay your grandkids tuition.

Unlike Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe”, most of us are not bond traders. If our income inventory shrinks in market value, we don’t have to sell our positions. Wall Street fixed income pros don’t care about income production… buying and selling inventory is their business model, and they set the market prices.

The “higher interest rates are coming panic” you are hearing about in the media is a real problem for MOTUs, but it may be an investment opportunity for the rest of us. If I buy an Exxon 4% debenture, a 3% 30 year municipal bond, or a 10 year treasury note, three things are inherently true:

If interest rates rise, their market values will go down and it will be difficult to add to my positions… BUT my income (and their safety vis-a-vis equities) will not change; MARKET VALUE CHANGE HAS NO IMPACT ON INCOME, in high quality securities.

It is this “Interest Rate Expectation (IRE) Sensitivity” that CEF Investors are uniquely well positioned to take advantage of. All income focus securities (and funds that contain them) are impacted by IRE:

“Market Value Varies Inversely With Interest Rate Expectations”

The Net Asset Value (NAV) of CEFs is the sum of the values of hundreds of securities, inside a virtual “protective dome”, where only the manager can trade them. BUT we can “trade” the dome itself, reducing our cost basis and increasing our yield as we choose… something totally unimaginable in any othe income investment medium.

So this is precisely what is going on “inside” income CEFs right now. Individual security prices are being forced down by the expectation of rising interest rates and a significant discount is available. Absolutely nothing has changed with respect to the quality of the securities or the income being produced “Under The Dome”. The price of the dome has been reduced, and its “IN YOUR POCKET” income is rising.

Yes, that observation is correct, we can now accelerate the growing power of our Compound Earnings Machine

No change in the securities, their quality, or contractual payments… only the price of the package has changed. So there they are, investors, opportunities just waiting for you to pad your retirement portfolio pocketbooks with income over 6.5% tax free and up to 8.0% taxable.

These sweet discounts are only available through the financial genius of CEFs. Only here can “mere mortals” turn Wall Street’s blood bath into an income portfolio worth bragging about. There has been no news that suggests there is anything wrong with the “securities under the dome”.

So don’t be concerned with the “OMG, bond prices are falling” headlines… that’s Wall Street’s problem. This is the biggest CEF sale since 2011, and… the “Call to the Mall” has sounded!

Income CEF Price Volatility… No Problem at All

Market Cycle Investment Management portfolios are different from any others you may be analyzing, and all investors analyze their portfolios most intently when their “bottom line” market values begin to crumble. This focus on market value is part of Wall Street’s Brainwashing of the American Investor.

MCIM investing is more realistic. It recognizes that investment markets (both equity and income) are cyclical. Rarely do portfolio market values trend upward as long as they have since March of 2009, and most equity investors have forgotten the five month, 22%, mini-correction that ran from May through September 2011. When will we experience the real deal?

MCIM focuses on “working capital”, a measure of the total cost basis of the securities and cash contained in an investment portfolio. Managed properly, this measure should grow in all market, economic, and interest rate environments, irrespective of changes in “market value”… really.

MCIM portfolios include 30% Income Purpose securities (based on Working Capital), and never own non Investment Grade Value Stock equities. This translates into portfolios of high quality securities, each contributing to higher realized base income than that contained in market averages and blended Mutual Funds.

Embracing the cycles, MCIM portfolios strive to grow both total Working Capital and portfolio “Base Income”steadily, regardless of what is going on in the investment markets, in either direction.

MCIM portfolio “Working Capital” will be higher now than on January 1st; and “base income” will have risen in all portfolios where cash flow has remained positive… in spite of lower CEF market values. Long term, this is the single most important of all portfolio management issues.

Income Closed End Fund (CEF) prices have been moving lower since November 2012; the decline accelerated in May — but with barely any change in total income generated. In November 2012, you’ll recall, many CEFs were selling at premiums to NAV. The premiums are now gone, taking a whole lot of market value with them… but, again, with little or no change in income.

Stock market numbers have also weakened recently, and this 2.5 year divergence between equity and income security prices is quite normal; accelerated weakness in income security prices often signals an upcoming stock market correction, as it did in 2007..

The vast majority of income CEFs are now selling at significant discounts to the Net Asset Value of the security portfolios inside. The vast majority of income CEFs are selling at significant discounts to the market value of the securities they contain. (repetition intended)

Wall Street wants you to believe that higher prices and lower yields are better… how does that make any sense with no change in the portfolio content?

A selection universe of about one hundred taxable income CEFs and seventy tax free income CEFs is used in constructing MCIM portfolios. In the six plus years since the depths of the financial crisis, and in spite of the lowest interest rate environment in history, the vast majority of these CEFs have maintained their regular payouts to shareholders.

Lower prices now are as much a result of FED tinkering as threatened rate hikes.

Historically, in more “normal” interest rate environments, income increases have been more prevalent than income reductions. Overall, income CEF managers coped well with the lowest interest rates ever…. how have they been dealing with the specter of higher rates? Keep in mind that no actual interest rate change has yet occurred.

After six years of artificially low interest rates, many have been forced to reduce their payouts… very few have made significant dividend cuts.

Now the interesting part: at current prices, the average dividend yield on 57 taxable CEFs paying over 7.0% is approximately 8.5%; the average on 53 tax free CEFs paying over 6% is about 6.7%

The vast majority of all CEFs made their regular scheduled distributions throughout the financial crisis; more actually raised their payouts than reduced them; after six years of close-to-zero rates, higher “coupons” will eventually increase CEF dividend payouts to normal, pre-financial crisis, levels.

The current yield on the MCIM CEF Universe is well above 6% for tax free income and above 8% for taxable. Why is this bad news? Only, yes only, because professional bond traders have to realize losses when they trade… income investors do not have to sell at all…. they can take advantage of “discounts” to increase their spending money.

What’s lnside the CEFs:

• Each CEF portfolio contains hundreds of individual issues with varying qualities, maturities, call provisions, etc. The average duration is between 7 and 8 years

• Managers use short term borrowing to purchase additional securities; nothing forces them to borrow at higher rates if they can’t still invest profitably

• Managers capitalize on profit-taking opportunities; and are not forced to sell at losses.

• CEF share prices are completely “uncoupled” from NAV; shareholders are investing in the investment company as opposed to owning a piece of the investment portfolio itself.

As I see it, and this is no prediction or recommendation of any specific course of action, CEFs provide investors with the opportunity to take advantage of irrational price dislocations in the income securities market — an opportunity that is difficult for the average investor to capitalize upon using individual securities.

By adding to existing CEF positions, investors increase overall portfolio yield, increase yield on specific holdings, and reduce per share cost basis.

Thus, even if some reduced payouts are experienced, the overall level of income is likely to be at least stable, and possibly higher. Right now, the expectation of higher interest rates is probably the main force driving Closed End Fund prices lower.

BUT, particularly if the stock market corrects, higher interest rates and higher demand for safety may cause investors to seek out higher yielding and safer investments.

Never forget, all companies must pay their bond, note, and preferred stock investors BEFORE a penny goes to their Equity investors… income CEFs contain no equities, even though your (purposely) confusing Wall Street account statement tells you that they are equities…. hmmm

Is Your Investment Portfolio Prepared For Higher Interest Rates?

I’ve heard a lot of discussion lately pressing the idea that rising interest rates are something to be feared, and prepared for by: accepting the lower rates now, buying the shortest duration positions, or even liquidating the income portfolio entirely.

A rising interest rate environment is super good news for investors… up to a point. When we loan money to someone, is it better to get the lowest possible rate for the shortest period of time? Stop looking at income investing with a “grow the market value” perspective. That’s not what it’s all about. Lower market values or growing discounts to NAV don’t have to be problems… they can be benefits.

The purpose of income investments is the generation of income. YOU are NOT a bond trader. Control the quality selected, diversify properly, and compound that part of the income that you don’t have to spend. Price is pretty much irrelevant with income purpose securities; you don’t spend the market value.

Long, long, ago, many bonds were of the “bearer” variety; my father never owned any others. Each month, he went to the bank, clipped his coupons, cashed them in, and left the bank with a broad smile. If interest rates went up, he knew he could go out and buy new bonds to put larger coupon dollars in his pocket.

He had no reason to even consider selling the bonds he already owned — they were, after all, income purpose securities that (in his experience) never failed to do their job. Market value never fluctuates (visually) if the securities are kept in the (mental) safe deposit box.

No, that’s not at all what I’m recommending… And, even when your brokerage statement shows that your bond prices have risen to chest-pounding wealth levels, just try to convert those numbers into spending money. Despite the profit-taking-temptation your statement reports, the bid you get on your smallish positions is never even close to the “insider” market value…

The thing dear old Dad thought about least was the market value of his bonds. This was his tax free retirement plan. He bought them for income, and the coupons were always redeemed without question. The only problem (actually, no longer a problem) with the periodic decreases in market value was the inability to add to existing positions. The small position bond market has limited liquidity.

Before I move on to the simple solution to this non-problem, a word or two on the only real benefit of lower interest rates — there is no benefit at all if you don’t already own individual, income producing, securities. If you own interest rate expectation (IRE) sensitive securities in a downward interest rate cycle, you will have the opportunity for what I call “income-bucket-gravy”.

This is the opportunity to sell your income purpose securities at a profit, over and above the income you’ve already banked. Income investors rarely are advised to do this, which is why they lament the thievery occasioned by higher interest rates. They didn’t sell at a premium, so now they just sit and watch the premiums disappear.

The only thing this behavior accomplishes is bestowing on investors the lowest possible yields while pushing them into an overpriced market for short duration debt securities. A gift that keeps on stealing investor profits.

The solution is simple, and has been used successfully for decades. Closed End Funds (scoff, laugh, and say “leverage makes them volatile” all you like) solve all the liquidity and price change problems… in a low cost, much higher income, environment.

Answer me one question before you throw stones at these remarks. Is 7% or more on a diversified, transparent, income portfolio, compounded over the past ten years and still growing income, better or worse than the 3.5% or less that most investors have realized in individual securities during the same time period… and then there are the profits that non-bond traders seldom realize can be realized.

Of course CEF market values fell during the financial crisis (the 3nd greatest buying opportunity ever), but at their peak in November 2012, they had gained nearly 65% since March 9, 2009, or 17.7% per year…. nearly outperforming the S & P 500.

But speaking of  “drawdowns”, what do you think the economic activity drawdown of near zero money market rates has been, particularly for “savings account” Baby Boomers. Did the Fed’s messing around with short term interest rates help or hurt your retired relatives… really, think about it.

Rising interest rates are good for investors; so are falling rates. Fortunately, they routinely move in both directions, cyclically, and now can be traded quickly and inexpensively for exceptional results from a stodgy old income portfolio. So much for Total Return, short duration, and leverage-phobic thinking.

  • What if you could buy professionally managed income security portfolios, with 10+ years income-productive track records?
  • What if you could take profits on these portfolios, say for a year’s interest in advance, and reinvest in similar portfolios at higher yields?
  • What if you could add to your positions in all forms of debt securities when prices fall, thus increasing yield and reducing cost basis in one fell swoop?
  • What if you could enter retirement (or prepare for retirement) with such a powerful income engine?

Well, you can. but only if you are able to add both higher and lower interest rates to you list of VBFs.

The Investment Gods Are Furious

Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) is an historically new methodology, but with roots deeply embedded in both the building blocks of capitalism, and financial psychology— if there is such a thing.

The earliest forms of capitalism sprung from ancient mercantilism, which involved the production of goods and their distribution to people or countries mostly around the Mediterranean.

The sole purpose of the exercise was profit and the most successful traders quickly produced more profits than they needed for their own consumption. The excess cash needed a home, and a wide variety of early entrepreneurial types were quick to propose ventures for the rudimentary rich to consider.

There were no income taxes, and governments actually supported commercial activities, recognizing how good it was for “Main Street” — as if there was such a thing.

The investment gods saw this developing enterprise and thought it good. They suggested to the early merchants, and governments that they could “spread the wealth around” by: selling ownership interests in their growing enterprises, and by borrowing money to finance expansion and new ventures.

A financial industry grew up around the early entrepreneurs, providing insurances, brokerage, and other banking services. Economic growth created the need for a trained workforce, and companies competed for the most skilled. Eventually, even the employees could afford (even demand) a piece of the action.

Was this the beginning of modern liberalism? Not! The investment gods had created the building blocks of capitalism: stocks and bonds, profits and income. Stock owners participated in the success of growing enterprises; bondholders received interest for the use of their money; more and better skilled workers were needed — the K.I.S.S. principle was born.

As capitalism took hold, entrepreneurs flourished, ingenuity and creativity were rewarded, jobs were created, civilizations blossomed, and living standards improved throughout the world. Global markets evolved that allowed investors anywhere to provide capital to industrial users everywhere, and to trade their ownership interests electronically.

But on the dark side, without even knowing it, Main Street self-directors participated in a thunderous explosion of new financial products and quasi-legal derivatives that so confused the investment gods that they had to holler “’nuff”! Where are our sacred stocks and bonds? Financial chaos ensued.

The Working Capital Model was developed in the 1970s, as the guts of an investment management approach that embraced the cyclical vagaries of markets. This at a time when there were no IRA or 401(k) plans, no index or sector funds, no CDOs or credit swaps, and very few risky products for investors to untangle.

Those who invested then: obtained investment ideas from people who knew stocks and bonds, had pensions protected by risk-averse trustees, and appreciated the power of compound interest. Insurance and annuities were fixed, financial institutions were separated to avoid conflicts of interest, and there were as many economics majors as lawyers in Washington.

MCIM was revolutionary then in its break from the ancient buy-and-hold, in its staunch insistence on Quality, Diversification, and Income selection principles, and in its cost based allocation and diversification disciplines. It is revolutionary still as it butts heads with a Wall Street that has gone MPT mad with product creation, value obfuscation, and short-term performance evaluation.

Investing is a long-term process that involves goal setting and portfolio building. It demands patience, and an understanding of the cycles that create and confuse its landscape. MCIM thrives upon the nature of markets while Wall Street ignores it. Working Capital numbers are used for short-term controls and directional guidance; peak-to-peak analysis keeps performance expectations in perspective.

In the early 70s, investment professionals compared their equity performance cyclically with the S & P 500 from one significant market peak to the next — from the 1,500 achieved in November 1999 to the 1,527 of November 2007, for example. Equity portfolio managers would be expected to do at least as well over the same time period, after all expenses.

Another popular hoop for investment managers of that era to jump through was Peak to Trough performance —managers would be expected to do less poorly than the averages during corrections.

Professional income portfolio managers were expected to produce secure and increasing streams of spendable income, regardless. Compounded earnings and/or secure cash flow were all that was required. Apples were not compared with oranges.

Today’s obsession with short-term blinks of the investment eye is Wall Street’s attempt to take the market cycle out of the performance picture. Similarly, total return hocus-pocus places artificial significance on bond market values while it obscures the importance of the income produced.

MCIM users and practitioners will have none of it; the investment gods are furious.

Market Cycle Investment Management embraces the fundamental building blocks of capitalism — individual stocks and bonds and managed income CEFs in which the actual holdings are clearly visible. Profits and income rule.

Think about it, in an MCIM world, there would be no CDOs or multi-level mortgage mystery meat; no hedge funds, naked short sellers, or managed options programs; no mark-to-market lunacy, Bernie Madoffs, or taxes on investment income.

In MCIM portfolios, lower stock prices are seen as a cyclical fact of life, an opportunity to add to positions at lower prices. There is no panic selling in high quality holdings, and no flight to 1% Treasuries from 6% tax free Munis. In an MCIM portfolio, dividends and income keep rolling, providing income for retirees, college kids, and golf trips — regardless of what the security market values are doing.

Capitalism is not broken; it’s just been overly tinkered with. The financial system is in serious trouble, however, and needs to get back to its roots and to those building blocks that the Wizards have cloaked in obscurity.

Let’s stick with stocks and bonds; lets focus on income where the purpose is income; let’s analyze performance relative to cycles as opposed to phases of the moon; let’s tax consumption instead of income; and let’s not disrespect the gods, the “Bing”, or the intelligence of the average investor…

So sayeth the gods. Amen!

The “Total Return” Shell Game

No “Interest Rate Sensitive” Security is an Island…

Just what is this “total return” thing that income portfolio managers like to talk about, and that Wall Street uses as the performance hoop that all investment managers have to jump through? Why is it mostly just smoke and mirrors?

Here’s the formula:

  • Total Income + (or -) Change in Market Value – Expenses = Total Return — and this is supposed to be the ultimate test for any investment portfolio, income or equity.

Applied to Fixed Income Investment Portfolios, it is useless nonsense designed to confuse and to annoy investors.

How many of you remember John Q. Retiree? He was that guy with his chest all puffed up one year, bragging about the 12% “Total Return” on his bond portfolio while he secretly wondered why he only had about 3% in actual spending money.

The next year he’s scratching his head wondering how he’s ever going to make ends meet with a total return that’s quickly approaching zero. Do you think he realizes that his actual spending money may be higher? What’s wrong with this thinking? How would the media compare mutual fund managers without it?

Wall Street doesn’t much care because investor’s have been brainwashed into thinking that income investing and equity investing can be measured with the same ruler. They just can’t, and the “total return” ruler itself would be thrown out with a lot of other investment trash if it were more widely understood.

  • If you want to use a ruler that applies equally well to both classes of investment security, you have to change just one piece of the formula and give the new concept a name that focuses in on what certainly is the most important thing about income investing — the actual spending money.

We’ll identify this new way of looking at things as part of “The Working Capital Model” and the new and improved formulae are:

  • For Fixed Income Securities: Total Cash Income + Net Realized Capital Gains – Expenses = Total Spending Money!
  • For Equity Securities: Total Cash Income + Net Realized Capital Gains – Expenses = Total Spending Money!

Yes, they are the same! The difference is what the investor elects to do with the spending money after it has become available. So if John Q’s Investment pro had taken profits on the bonds held in year one, he could have sent out some bigger income payments and/or taken advantage of the rise in interest rates that happened in year two.

Better for John Q, sure, but the lowered “total return” number could have gotten him fired. What we’ve done is taken those troublesome paper profits and losses out of the equation entirely. “Unrealized” is “un-relevant” in an investment portfolio that is diversified properly and comprised only of investment grade, income producing securities.

Most of you know who Bill Gross is. He’s the fixed Income equivalent of Warren Buffett, and he just happens to manage the world’s largest “open ended” bond mutual fund. How was he investing his own money during other interest rate cycles?

Well, according to an article by Jonathan Fuerbringer in the Money and Business Section of January 11, 2004 New York Times, he’s removed it from the Total Return Mutual Fund he manages and moved it into: Closed End Municipal Bond Funds where he could “realize” 7.0% tax free.

(Must have read “The Brainwashing of the American Investor”.)

He doesn’t mention the taxable variety of Closed End Fund (CEF), now yielding a point or two more than the tax free variety, but they certainly demand a presence in the income security bucket of tax-qualified portfolios (IRAs, 401k(s), etc.).

Similarly, the article explains, Mr. Gross advises against the use of the non investment grade securities (junk bonds, for example) that many open-end bond fund managers are sneaking into their portfolios.

But true to form, and forgive the blasphemy if you will, Mr. Gross is as “Total Return” Brainwashed as the rest of the Wall Street institutional community — totally. He is still giving lip service validity to speculations in commodity futures, foreign currencies, derivatives, and TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities).

TIPs may be “safer”, but the yields are far too dismal. Inflation is a measure of total buying power, and the only sure way to beat it is with higher income levels, not lower ones. If TIPS rise to 5%, REITS will yield 12%, and preferred stocks 9%, etc.

No interest rate sensitive security is an Island!

As long as the financial community remains mesmerized with their “total return” statistical shell game, investors will be the losers.

  • Total Return goes down when yields on individual securities go up, and vice versa. This is a good thing.
  • Total Return analysis is used to engineer switching decisions between fixed income and equity investment allocations, simply on the basis of statements such as: “The total return on equities is likely to be greater than that on income securities during this period of rising interest rates.”

You have to both understand and commit to the premise that the primary purpose of income securities is income production. You have to focus on the “Income Received” number on your monthly statement and ignore the others… especially NAV.

If you don’t agree with the next three sentences; if they don’t make complete sense: you need to learn more about Income Investing:

  • Higher interest rates are the income investor’s best friend. They produce higher levels of spending money.
  • Lower interest rates are the income investor’s best friend. They provide the opportunity to add realized capital gains to both the total spending money and total working capital numbers.
  • Changes in the market value of investment grade income securities, Yogi says, are totally and completely irrelevant, 97% of the time.

Wall Street’s Even Dirtier Little Secret

As of Close of Business May 8th, no less than 57 multi-year experienced, Taxable Income, Closed End Funds (CEFs) were paying 7% or more in 401k and IRA eligible income to their shareholders.

31 issues (54%) paid 8% or above, and the average for the Heinz-like group was 8.56%. All of these portfolios are professionally managed by this long list of well respected, long experienced, investment companies… their purpose is dependable income production.

Blackrock, Nuveen, Pimco, Putnam, Invesco, Alliance-Bernstein, MFS, Calamos, Eaton Vance, Deutsche, Pioneer, Western Asset Management, Wells Fargo, Flaherty & Crumrine, 1st Trust, Brookfield, John Hancock, KKR, Babson Capital, Allianz Global, Neuberger-Berman, & Cohen & Steers

The investment portfolios include all forms of Bonds, Preferred Stocks, Mortgages, Senior Loans, etc, domestic and global, high yield and normal…

How difficult could it be to put together a well diversified, retirement income portfolio? If you only knew…

Most of these funds have paid steady, dependable, income for more than fifteen years, even through the financial crisis… several have been around since the ’90s

Yet your financial advisor has probably never mentioned them to you as a viable alternative to low yielding income Mutual Funds or stock market dependant funds and ETFs… she probably isn’t familiar with them either.

The DOL (and other retirement plan “specialists”) have effectively banned these programs from 401k Plans, and it’s likely that you have never heard them advertised or even mentioned in the most popular financial newsletters…

One could conclude that Wall Street (even the CEF providers themselves) would prefer that you didn’t even know that they exist.

Now here’s “the rest of the story”: 

A May 15th data search at cefconnect.com reveals that nearly 90% of all Taxable/Tax Deferred Closed End Funds (CEFs) were selling below their net asset values (NAVs), and of those, 63% were available to all (yes, IRA and 401k investors, too) at discounts above 8%.

Income Mutual Funds (I believe) are never available at discounts from NAV, and how many discounted securities has your advisor suggested to you since 2012 or earlier? ETF prices, I understand, are manipulated by their creators to present within pennies of their NAV.

But tax-deferred/taxable CEFs historically sell at discounts as often as not, and this morning, nearly 62% of them were available to MCIM taxable, IRA, and self-directed 401k account investors at discounts of 7% and higher.

SO, WHY THE WALL STREET COVER-UP? 

And, why aren’t you asking for more information?

Interest Rates Rising – the sequel

Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.
Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.

No doubt you’ve noticed about half the industry pundits cautioning that the US Federal Reserve is closer to ‘tightening’ monetary policy.  What this implies for us regular folk is that they will introduce monetary measures that will allow interest rates to rise.  We have enjoyed a very long period of inflation and interest rate stability following the financial crisis (a crisis almost forgotten by many).  Despite a recent slowdown in come economic indicators, efforts by governments around to world to jumpstart an economic recovery did bear some fruit.  The rebound in profitability, employment and growth has been particularly robust in the United States.  Both Europe and China are now making efforts to replicate this success by bolstering liquidity in their financial systems as the US did.

So what’s to worry about?  Savvy investors will have already noticed that interest rates in the world’s strongest economy have already begun to rise, even before the FED has taken any action.  This is what markets do – they anticipate rather than react.  Some forecasters predict that although interest rates are bound to trend upward eventually, there’s no need to panic just yet.  They suggest that there’s enough uncertainty (financial distress in Europe, fallout from falling energy prices, Russia’s military ambitions, slow growth in China) to postpone the threat of rising rates far into the future.

Yield Curves 2015-05-02_15-28-30

What they are ignoring is that the bond markets will anticipate the future, and indeed bond investors out there have already begun to create rising interest rates for longer term fixed-income securities.  The graph illustrates that U.S. yield curves have shifted upward.  The curve shows market yields for US Treasury bonds for various maturities back in February compared to rates more recently.  So what’s the issue?  If investors hang on to their bonds while rates are rising, the market value of those bonds declines.  This often comes as a surprise to people who own bonds to avoid risk.  But professional bond traders and portfolio managers are acutely aware of this phenomenon.  So they begin to sell their bonds (the longer term-to-maturity bonds pose the most risk of declining in value) in order to protect themselves against a future rise in the general level of interest rates.  More sellers than buyers of the bonds pushes down the market price of the bonds, which causes the yields on those same bonds to increase.

Many money managers (including me) have learned  that despite how dramatically the world seems to change, in many respects history does repeat itself.  For example, while writing my CFA exams back in the mid-1980’s, I was provided with sample exams for studying, but they were from the most recent years.  I figured it was unlikely that questions on these sample exams would be used again so soon, and managed to do some digging in order to find much older previous exams.  I reasoned there are only so many questions they could ask, and perhaps older exam questions might be recycled.  I was right! In fact several of the questions on the exam I finally wrote were exactly the same as the ones I’d studied from the old examination papers.

In my experience recent history is not useful at all when devising investment strategy or trying to anticipate the future, but often a consideration of historical events further back in time – especially if trends in important economic drivers are similar – can be very helpful indeed.

The consensus is that interest rates will rise eventually.  But it is human nature to stubbornly hang on to the status quo, and only reluctantly (and belatedly) make adjustments to change.  What if what’s in store for us looks like this:  Consistently increasing interest rates and inflation over the next decade?  This has happened many times before (see graph of rising 10-year Treasury bond yields from 1960-1970).

US Treasury Yields 1960 - 1970

Before you rant that things today are nothing like they were then (and I do agree for the most part) consider the following: Is the boy band One Direction so different today compared to The Monkeys then?  And wasn’t the Cold War simply Russia testing the fortitudes of Europe and America just like the country is doing today?  Weren’t nuclear capabilities (today it’s Iran and North Korea) always in the news?

Yes there have been quantum leaps in applied technology, brand new industry leaders in brand new industries.  China’s influence economically was a small fraction of what it is today.  So where is the commonality? The potential for rising interest rates coming out of a recession.  The US government began raising rates in 1959, which caused a recession that lasted about 10 months from 1960 – 1961.  From that point until 1969 the US economy did well despite rising interest rates and international crises.  But which asset classes did well in the environment?

Growth of $100 - 1960 to 1970

Could the disappointing 1st quarter economic data be hinting that we might also be entering a similar transitioning period?  Inflation is bad only for those unable to pass higher prices along to customers.  If the economy is strong and growing then real estate and stock markets provide better returns.  Since the cumulative rate of inflation between 1960 and 1970 was about 31%, investors essentially lost money in constant dollars (returns below the rate of price inflation) by being invested in the bond market.  They would have done better by simply rolling over short-term T-Bills.  An average house in the US cost about $12,700 in 1960 and by 1970 cost $23,450 – beating inflation handsomely.

Do I believe we will see a repeat of the 60’s in terms of financial developments?  Yes and no!  There will be important similarities – especially in terms of stock markets likely performing well enough and the poor prospects for the bond market. There will be differences too.  The outlook for real estate is clouded by the high level of indebtedness that has been encouraged by extremely depressed interest rates over the past few years.  Higher rates mean higher mortgage payments which might serve to put a lid on real estate pricing, or cause prices to fall significantly for a period of time before recovering.

Companies that have substantially financed their acquisition binges with low-cost debt will soon find that unless they can pass along inflation to their customers their profit margins will be squeezed.  Who will benefit?  Commodity producers have had to significantly reduce their indebtedness – commodity prices tend to stagnate when inflation is low, and even decline when economies are growing slowly.  In a global context, these companies have had a rough time of it.  It is quite possible that their fortunes are about to improve.  If Europe and China begin to enjoy a rebound then demand will grow and producers will have more pricing power – perhaps even enjoying price increases above the rate of inflation.

Do I believe any of this retrospection will prove useful?  I hope so.  The first signs that a different environment is emerging are usually evident pretty quickly.  If there were a zero chance of inflation creeping back then why are some key commodity prices showing signs of strength now?

recent aluminum price recent copper price data

If we begin to see inflationary pressures in the US before Europe and Asia, then the $US will depreciate relative to their currencies.  In other words, what might or might not be different this time is which countries benefit and which countries struggle. Globalization has indeed made the world economy much more difficult to come to grips with.  Nevertheless, there are some trends that seem to be recurring over the years.

There will be recessions and growth spurts.  In recessions and periods of slower growth, some formerly stronger industries and companies begin to lose steam as a paradigm shift takes place, but then other industries and companies gather momentum if the new reality is helping their cause.  This is why I’ve biased my own TFSA with commodity-biased mutual funds (resource industries, including energy) and a European tilt.  You guessed it – no bonds.

Any success I enjoyed while I was a money manager in terms of performance was because exercises like this one help me avoid following the mainstream (buying into things that have already done well) and identifying things that will do well.