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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

gamblingI saw a question posted on a popular social network. The question was: ‘What is the difference between gambling and investing?” I’m inspired to reproduce (edited with permission) the following excerpt from A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook (Insomniac Press, 2011) which I believe provides as good an answer as one might find.

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

“How do you develop ‘smart thinking’ and when do you know you’ve got ‘avarice’?”

My instinctive response would be: “You always know when you’re being greedy. You just want someone else to say that your greed is okay.” Well, I’ll say it then: greed is okay. The proviso is that you fully understand when greed is motivating your decision and live with the consequences. Avarice is driven by desire, which is not a trait of an investor.

Remember, it’s best if investment decisions are rational and stripped of emotion. Greed is associated with elation on the one hand, and anger (usually directed at oneself) on the other hand.

When decisions are motivated by greed, I call it gambling. In my mind, there are different sorts of gamblers. Some gamblers place modest bets, and if they win, they move along to another game. For me this might be roulette. There are those who enjoy playing one game they’re good at, such as blackjack or craps, hoping for a big score. Finally, there are those who are addicts. I can’t help those folks, so let’s assume we’re just discussing the first two types.

It’s okay to do a bit of gambling with a modest part of your disposable income. In fact, investors can apply some of what they know and have fun too. Unlike the casinos, financial markets have no limits or games stacked in favour of the house. It’s the Wild West, and if an investor understands herd behaviour and the merits of contrarian thinking, and does some research, the results can be quite lucrative. Whether using stocks, bonds, options, hedge funds, domestic mutual funds, foreign equity or debt funds, or commodity exchange-traded funds (if you don’t know what these things are and want to know, buy a book that introduces investment theory and the various types of securities), applying investment principles will help you be more successful.

gamblerTo put it plainly: counting cards may not be allowed in a casino, but anything goes when it comes to markets. Just don’t forget that most of the financial industry is trying to make your money their money. There’s a reason why a cowboy sleeps with his boots on and his gun within reach.

The fine line between gambling and investing is hard even for old cowhands to pinpoint. Investing also involves bets, but the bets are calculated. Every decision an investor makes involves a calculated bet—whether it’s to be in the market or not at all, biasing a portfolio in favour of stocks versus bonds, skewing stock selection in favour of one or several industry groups, or picking individual stocks or other types of securities.

I met a lady once in line at a convenience store. She bought a handful of lottery tickets, and I asked her, “Aren’t the odds of winning pretty remote for those lotteries?” Her reply was, “The odds are good. There’s a fifty/fifty chance of me winning.” Confused, I asked, “How do you figure?” I laughed aloud when she said, “Either I win or I lose; that’s fifty/fifty, isn’t it?”

A maverick investor knows there’s always a probability that any decision to buy or sell or hold can prove to be incorrect. The objective is to minimize that probability as much as is feasible. It’s impossible to make it zero. This is why financial firms have sold so many “guaranteed” funds lately. People love the idea, however impossible, of being allowed to gamble with no chance of losing. Whenever there’s a promise that you won’t lose or some other similar guarantee, my senses fire up a warning flare.

There’s usually a promise of significant upside potential and a guarantee that at worst you’ll get all (or a portion) of your original investment back. Many investors a few years ago bought so-called guaranteed funds only to find that the best they ever did receive was the guaranteed amount (extremely disappointing) or much less after the fees were paid to the company offering the product. If you think this stuff is new, trust me, it’s not.

guaranteedA fancy formula-based strategy back in the ‘80s called “portfolio insurance” was popular for a brief period. An estimated $60 billion of institutional money was invested in this form of “dynamic hedging.” It isn’t important to know in detail how the math works. Basically, if a particular asset class (stocks, bonds, or short-term securities) goes up, then you could “afford” to take more risk because you are richer on paper anyway, so the program would then buy more of a good thing. If this better-performing asset class suddenly stopped performing, you simply sold it quickly to lock in your profits. The problem was that all these programs wanted to sell stocks on the same day, and when everyone decides they want to sell and there are no buyers, you get a stalemate.

The “insurance” might have worked if you actually could sell the securities just because you wanted to, but if you can’t sell, you suffer along with everyone else—the notional guarantee isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Remember these are markets, and even though you see a price in the newspaper or your computer screen for a stock, there’s no trade unless someone will step up to buy stock from you. The market crash that began on Black Monday— October 19, 1987—was, in my opinion, fuelled by portfolio insurance programs. The market was going down, so the programs began selling stocks all at once. There weren’t nearly enough buyers to trade with. By the end of October ’87, stock markets in Hong Kong had fallen 45.5%, and others had fallen as follows: Australia 41.8%, Spain 31%, the U.K. 26.4%, the U.S. 22.7%, and Canada 22.5%.

Minimizing the Probability of Stupidity

If you’re gambling, follow the same steps you would as if you were investing. If it’s a particular stock you are anxious to own, do some homework, or at least look at someone else’s research available through your broker or on the Internet. When I was a younger portfolio manager, there were limited means to learn about a company. I would have to call the company and ask for a hardcopy annual report to be sent to me. When it arrived after several days, I’d study it a bit so I didn’t sound too ignorant, then I’d call and try to get an executive (controller, VP finance, or investor relations manager) to talk to me. If asking questions didn’t satisfy my need to know, then I’d ask to come and meet with them in the flesh. Nowadays, you have all the information you need at your fingertips.

Money.ca is a PRIME example of just one such source of valuable information available to investors today!

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner