Index and Sector ETFs: Mutual Funds: Speculation X3

How many of you remember the immortal words of P. T. Barnum? On Wall Street, the incubation period for new product scams may be measured in years instead of minutes, but the end result is always a greed-driven rush to financial disaster.

The dot.com meltdown spawned index mutual funds, and their dismal failure gave life to “enhanced” index funds, a wide variety of speculative hedge funds, and a rapidly growing assortment of Index ETFs. Deja Vu all over again, with the popular ishare variety of ETF leading the lemmings to the cliffs.

How far will we allow Wall Street to move us away from the basic building blocks of investing? Whatever happened to stocks and bonds? The Investment Gods are appalled.

A market or sector index is a statistical measuring device that tracks prices in securities selected to represent a portion of the overall market. ETF creators:

  • select a sampling of the market that they expect to be representative of the whole,
  • purchase the securities, and then
  • issue the ishares, SPDRS, CUBEs, etc. that speculators then trade on the exchanges just like equities.

Unlike ordinary index funds, ETF shares are not handled directly by the fund. As a result, they can move either up or down from the value of the securities in the fund, which, in turn, may or may not mirror the index they were selected to track. Confused? There’s more — these things are designed for manipulation.

Unlike managed Closed-End Funds (CEFs), ETF shares can be created or redeemed by market specialists, and Institutional Investors can redeem 50,000 share lots (in kind) if there is a gap between the net-asset-value and the market price of the fund.

These activities create artificial demand in an attempt to minimize the gap between NAV and market price. Clearly, arbitrage activities provide profit-making opportunities to the fund sponsors that are not available to the shareholders. Perhaps that is why the fund expenses are so low — and why there are now thousands of the things to choose from.

Two other ETF idiosyncrasies need to be appreciated:

a) performance return statistics for index funds may not include expenses, but it should be obvious that none will ever outperform their market, and

b) index funds may publish P/E numbers that only include the profitable companies in the portfolio.

So, in addition to the normal risks associated with investing, we add: speculating in narrowly focused sectors, guessing on the prospects of unproven small cap companies, experimenting with securities in single countries, rolling the dice on commodities, and hoping for the eventual success of new technologies.

We then call this hodge-podge of speculation a diversified, passively managed, inexpensive approach to Modern Asset Management — based solely on the mathematical hocus pocus of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT).

Once upon a time, but not so long ago, there were high yield junk bond funds that the financial community insisted were appropriate investments because of their diversification. Does diversified junk become un-junk? Isn’t passive management as much of an oxymoron as variable annuity? Who are they kidding?

But let’s not dwell upon the three or more levels of speculation that are the very foundation of all index and sector funds. Let’s move on to the two basic ideas that led to the development of plain vanilla Mutual Funds in the first place: diversification and professional management.

Mutual Funds were a monumental breakthrough that changed the investment world. Hands-on investing became possible for everyone. Self-directed retirement programs and cheap to administer employee benefit programs became doable.

The investment markets, once the domain of the wealthy, became the savings accounts of choice for the employed masses — because the “separate accounts” were both trusteed and professionally managed. When security self-direction came along, professional management was gone forever. Mutual fund management was delegated to the financially uneducated masses.

ETFs are not the antidote for the mob-managed & dismal long term performance of open end Mutual Funds, where professionals are always forced to sell low and to buy high. ETFs are the vehicles of choice for Wall Street to ram MPT mumbo jumbo down the throats of busy, inexperienced investors… and the regulators who love them because they are cheap.

Mutual fund performance is bad (long term, again) because managers have to do what the mob tells them to do — so Wall Street sells “passive products” with controlled content that they can manipulate more cheaply.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how well passive ETFs may have performed from the turn of the century through 2013: the DJIA growth rate was about 0% per year, the S & P 500 was negative; the NASDAQ Composite has just recently regained its 2000 value.

How many positive sectors, technologies, commodities, or capitalization categories could there have been?

Now subtract the fees… hmmmm. Again, how would those ETFs have fared? Hey, when you buy cheap and easy, it’s usually worth it. Now if you want performance, I suggest you try real management, as opposed to Mutual Fund management… but you need to take the time to understand the process.

If you can’t understand or accept the strategy, don’t hire the manager. Mutual Funds and ETFs cannot “beat the market” (not a well thought out investment objective anyway) because both are effectively managed by investor/speculators… not by professionals.

Sure, you might find some temporary smiles in your ETFs, but only if you take your profits will the smiles last. There may be times when it makes sense to use these products to hedge against a specific risk. But stop kidding yourself every time Wall Street comes up with a new short cut to investment success.

There is no reason why all of you can’t either run your own investment portfolio, or instruct someone as to how you want it done. Every guess, every estimate, every hedge, every sector bet, and every shortcut increases portfolio risk.

Products and gimmicks are never the answer. ETFs, a combination of the two, don’t even address the question properly — AND their rising popularity has raised the risk level throughout the Stock Market. How’s that, you ask?

The demand for the individual stocks included in ETFs is raising their prices without having anything to do with company fundamentals.

What’s in your portfolio?

How will ETFs and Mutual Funds fare in the next correction?

Are YOU ready.

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.

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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!

Year End Review 2014 and 2015 Preview

Let’s Talk About the Market Numbers…

Note that this report pertains most directly to portfolios operated under the guidelines, rules, and disciplines of Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM). MCIM produces disciplined “High Quality Growth & Income Portfolios”, designed to maintain and/or to grow income regardless of the direction taken by markets or interest rates.

———————————————————-

Both markets have been good to MCIMers this year: Investment Grade Value Stock Index (IGVSI) equities produced plenty of profits and dividend income, while the income Closed End Funds (CEFs) produced much higher yields than many “experts” would admit even exist… and occasional profits.

On the negative side, new equity investment opportunities were scarce, and many income CEFs reduced their payouts slightly, reflecting more than six years of historically low interest rates. I suspect that both conditions will be reversed soon.

A recent (unaudited) review of known MCIM “Working Capital” produced some interesting numbers, even without including year end dividends:

• Roughly 35% of total realized income was disbursed
• Nearly 25% of growth purpose capital remained in “smart cash” reserves for scheduled disbursements… and anticipated lower prices on equities. (Smart cash comes from income and profits)
• Roughly 65% of total earnings was reinvested in new and old securities
• New “Working Capital” was produced at a rate somewhere between 9% and 10%
• Less than 20% of investors made additions to investment programs, eschewing income yields in excess of 6%
• None ot selected MCIM portfolios lost Working Capital… even after culling “poorest performers” throughout the year.

Working Capital” (total cost basis of securities + cash) is a realistic performance evaluation number…. it doesn’t shrink either during corrections or as a result of spikes in interest rates. It continues to grow so long as dividends, interest, profits and deposits exceed realized losses and disbursements.

Using the “Working Capital Model” facilitates preparation for future income needs with every decision made throughout the history of an investment program… MCIM working capital grows every month, regardless of changes in market value, so long as the investor disburses less than the portfolio is producing.

Year end is always a good time for investors to review asset allocation and projected income needs… if you are over 50 and haven’t considered the subject, it’s time to do so. If you expect to start withdrawing from your portfolios in the next few years, you need to determine if asset allocation changes are necessary.

If your income allocation is not generating at least 6% in spending money, or 401k balances are subject to shrinkage when the stock market corrects, it’s time to deal with these problems.

If you are not taking advantage of 6%+ tax free yields (and a higher range in taxable CEFs), you owe it to yourself to investigate the opportunities.

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So is there a “Grinch” in your 2015 portfolio performance future? What’s likely to happen?

The Stock Market is about to finish 2014 at the highest year end number ever recorded, and with each new “ATH”, the likelihood of a market correction increases… this 6.75 year rally is the longest, broadest, and most stubborn in stock market history.

So long as income investors are abused with artificially low rates, a gradual reduction in yields is likely to hold income CEFs around current prices… higher future rates are already anticipated in current market values.

Once higher rates become reality, there are several reasons why CEF prices should firm and, over the longer term, rise, with increased income production…

But even if the correction starts tomorrow, what has nearly 40 years of financial history taught us about the MCIM “much-higher-quality-and-income-than-any-other-form-of-investment-portfolio” methodology?

The IGVSI universe, high quality ADRs, REITS, MLPs, Royalty Trusts, plus Equity and Income CEFs should logically have been expected to fare better than the stock market averages during the three financial crises of our lifetimes. Many MCIM users can attest to this, but the logic is clear.

Every security produces income, and reasonable profits are always realized. New equity investments are only made when prices have fallen 20% or more; income securities are added to at lower prices to reduce cost basis and increase yield. Not to mention the fact that MCIMers invest only in the highest S & P quality ranked companies, filtered further by dividend history, NYSE, and profitability.

MCIM users were low on equities in August 1987 but fully invested by November; they owned no mutual funds, no NASDAQ securities, and no IPOs in 1999; they lost virtually no working capital, reinvested all earnings, and rebounded quickly from the financial crisis.

Most investors, particularly Mutual Fund owners and 401k participants were blindsided, not once, but on all three occasions. The S & P 500 has gained only 3% per year in the 15 it has taken to get to its current level!

So if the rally continues, Working Capital growth will continue right along with it. But when the correction comes along, cash reserves and continued income will likely be available to takes advantage of new opportunities that arise in the MCIM select group of potential investment securities.

The longer the correction (the financial crisis took roughly 20 MCIM months to reach bottom on March 9 2009), the more Working Capital will be available when the next round of stock market all time highs is upon us.

And again, most importantly I believe, all programmed income payments will be made on time and without dipping into capital…

DATELINE: New York Stock Exchange, Valentine’s Day, 2015

Alternative A: Valentine’s Day Massacre Highlights Frenzied Five Month Downturn!

Alternative B: Valentine’s Day Champagne Toasts Spectacular Six Year Rally!

No matter which of these scenarios plays out, your primary concern should be preparedness… a case could certainly be made for either. Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) investors have little reason to worry.

Equity Portfolios are lean and mean, augmented in recent months by a selection of “defensive” issues whose higher yield and business models make them less likely to erode as seriously as overpriced, lower yielding derivatives.

As usual, absolutely no reasonable profit has been allowed to go unrealized, and several non-performers have been removed from portfolios. Equity Bucket cash positions are abnormally high as a result of profit taking and a shorter than normal “buy list”.

Income levels in all portfolios are at an historical high for two reasons: the Equity Bucket REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) and MLP (Master Limited Partnership) additions mentioned above and the continued cash flow dependability of both Income and Equity Closed End Funds.

The fact that income purpose securities are at lower market valuations (while generating about the same level of income) is an excellent income investing opportunity, but you need to add to your holdings to take advantage of it.

If you have a 5 year or less retirement window, it’s time to make some decisions.

If there is any portfolio where you have not harvested at least some of your profits (particularly in your 401ks and other self-directed retirement vehicles), why not do so while you can still obtain Tax Free 6% and Taxable 7.5% CEFs?

If you have been holding money in low yield guaranteed vehicles, it’s time to smell the roses… you’ve seen your CEFs pay their normal distributions, month after month after month… regardless of market conditions.

Talk to your 401k advisor and insist upon higher yielding, Collective Trust income options.

So which of the headliner scenarios is more likely? and should you really care?

No one really knows when the correction will begin, but everyone agrees that it will… eventually, and stealthily. And no, it shouldn’t really upset an MCIM user’s plans significantly.

Whenever the correction happens, your income purpose securities are likely to fall much less than in the financial crisis. Your equity positions (Investment Grade Value Stocks, REITS, and MLPs) historically do not fall as far as stocks of lesser quality… during the dot-com fiasco, they didn’t fall at all.

…and, after both the October ’87 “crash” and the more recent financial crisis, IGVSI stocks rebounded to new highs years before the S & P 500.

Of this I am certain, your 401k is not ready.