Strategic Investment Mixology – Creating The Holy Grail Cocktail

So what do your Investment Manager and your neighborhood bartender have in common, other than the probability that you spend more time with the latter during market corrections?

Antoine Tedesco, in his “The History of Cocktails“, lists three things that mixologists consider important to understand when making a cocktail: 1) the base spirit, which gives the drink its main flavor; 2) the mixer or modifier, which blends well with the main spirit but does not overpower it; and 3) the flavoring, which brings it all together.

Similarly, your Investment Manager needs to: 1) put together a portfolio that is based on your financial situation, goals, and plans, providing both a sense of direction and a framework for decision making; 2) use a well defined and consistent investment methodology that fits well with the plan without leading it in tangential directions; and 3) exercise experienced judgment in the day-to-day decision making that brings the whole thing together and makes it grow.

Tedesco explains that: new cocktails are the result of experimentation and curiosity; they reflect the moods of society; and they change rapidly as both bartenders and their customers seek out new and different concoctions to popularize. The popularity of most newbies is fleeting; the reign of the old stalwarts is history — with the exception, perhaps, of “Goat’s Delight” and “Hoptoad”. But, rest assured, the “Old Tom Martini” is here to stay!

It’s likely that many of the products, derivatives, funds, and fairy tales that emanate from Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) were thrown together over “ti many martunies” at Bobby Van’s or Cipriani’s, and just like alcohol, the addictive products created in lower Manhattan have led many a Hummer load of speculators down the Holland tubes.

The financial products of the day are themselves, created by the mood of society. The “Wizards” experiment tirelessly; the customers’ search for the Holy Grail cocktail is never ending. Curiosity kills too many retirement “cats”.

Investment portfolio mixology doesn’t take place in the smiley faced environment that brought us the Cosmo and the Kamikaze, but putting an investment cocktail together without the risk of addictive speculations, or bad after- tastes, is a valuable talent worth finding or developing for yourself. The starting point should be a trip to portfolio-tending school, where the following courses of study are included in the Investment Mixology Program:

Understanding Investment Securities: Investment securities can be divided into two major classes that make the planning exercise called asset allocation relatively straightforward. The purpose of the equity class is to generate profits in the form of capital gains. Income securities are expected to produce a predictable and stable cash flow in the form of dividends, interest, royalties, rents, etc.

All investment securities involve both financial and market risk, but risk can be minimized with appropriate diversification disciplines and sensible selection criteria. Still, regardless of your skills in selection and diversification, all securities will fluctuate in market price and should be expected to do so with semi-predictable, cyclical regularity.

Planning Securities Decisions: There are three basic decision processes that require guideline development and procedural disciplines: what to buy and when; when to sell and what; and what to hold on to and why.

Market Cycle Investment Management: Most portfolio market values are influenced by the semi-predictable movements of several inter-related cycles: interest rates, the IGVSI, the US economy, and the world economy. The cycles themselves will be influenced by Mother Nature, politics, and other short-term concerns and disruptions.

Performance Evaluation: Historically, Peak-to-Peak analysis was most popular for judging the performance of individual and mutual fund growth in market value because it could be separately applied to the long-term cyclical movement of both classes of investment security. More recently, short-term fluctuations in the DJIA and S & P 500 are being used as performance benchmarks to fan the emotional fear and greed of most market participants.

Information Filtering: It’s important to limit information inputs, and to develop filters and synthesizers that simplify decision-making. What to listen to, and what to allow into the decision making process is part of the experienced manager’s skill set. There is too much information out there, mostly self-motivated, to deal with in the time allowed.

Wall Street investment mixologists promote a cocktail that has broad popular appeal but which typically creates an unpleasant aftertaste in the form of bursting bubbles, market crashes, and shareholder lawsuits. Many of the most creative financial nightclubs have been fined by regulators and beaten up by angry mobs with terminal pocketbook cramps.

The problem is that mass produced concoctions include mixers that overwhelm and obscure the base spirits of the investment portfolio: quality, diversification, and income.

There are four conceptual ingredients that you need to siphon out of your investment cocktail, and one that must be replaced with something less “modern-portfolio-theoryesque”:

1) Considering market value alone when analyzing performance ignores the cyclical nature of the securities markets and the world economy.

2) Using indices and averages as benchmarks for evaluating your performance ignores both the asset allocation of your portfolio and the purpose of the securities you’ve selected.

3) Using the calendar year as a measuring device reduces the investment process to short-term speculation, ignores financial cycles, increases emotional volatility in markets, and guarantees that you will be unhappy with whatever strategy or methodology you employ —most of the time.

4) Buying any type or class of security, commodity, index, or contract at historically high prices and selling high quality companies or debt obligations for losses during cyclical corrections eventually causes hair loss and shortness of breath.

And the one ingredient to replace: Modern Portfolio Theory (the heartbeat of ETF cocktails) with the much more realistic Working Capital Model (operating system of Market Cycle Investment Management).

Cheers!

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

You want back into stocks…but should it be growth or value?

Decades ago, the academic community and financial services industry, in an effort to better understand what causes good versus bad rates of return in stock markets, began studying differing styles of investment management. There isn’t a hope of my staying awake long enough to cover even a sampling of the variety of styles that are out there, so I’ll keep it simple. Two styles in particular get plenty of attention: growth and value.

With the growth style, portfolio managers use their ingenuity to identify companies that are growing most rapidly. Since I carried around a BlackBerry (aka CrackBerry) for many years, I’ll use its creator Research in Motion (RIM) as an example. When the company was first getting its legs, it offered me and other research analysts a free trial of a little device with a monochrome screen that allowed you to send and receive text messages. We became addicted to them overnight and believed that this kind of service would catch on. Early movers can grow businesses very quickly with sufficient research depth, management expertise, and capital. We professional money managers provided the capital to RIM and the rest is history.

Early on, RIM was a growth company because even though they weren’t profitable and wouldn’t be making money for many years, the company kept selling more and more units. Revenues grew like crazy and, with some occasional disruptions (a market crisis, the technology bubble bursting), so did the stock price.

Portfolio managers who specialize in companies such as RIM are commonly called growth managers. The funds they manage are “growth funds.” The portfolio will usually have many stocks in various industries. They can be fast growing companies in slow growth industries or companies benefitting from an industry that is suddenly growing. Growth stocks can be very expensive. Investors expect the company to grow fast and so are willing to pay a higher price. However, you’ll have to buy a book explaining price/earnings (P/E) ratios, P/E to growth rate ratios, price/sales (P/S) ratios if you really want to get into security analysis yourself.

A value manager is more interested in buying and owning cheap stocks. Some companies grow slowly but pay their shareowners high dividends as compensation. A stock can be in an industry that is out of favour with the investment herd, or an industry can be out of favour entirely, making all the stocks in the sector cheaper. There are measures such as price/book ratios (P/B) and price to net asset value ratios that analysts use to gauge whether a stock is cheap or not.

Growth funds are considered riskier or more volatile than value funds. For instance, if the market is going higher because of a particularly strong economy, then the growth fund should go even higher still. A value manager might not perform as well as a growth manager in a bull market but won’t do as poorly in a bear market. A value manager is therefore considered more conservative.

A strategist friend of mine of TD Newcrest Research allows me to use his charts on occasion.  One of the most telling charts compares growth stocks in the S&P 500 Index to Value stocks.  The adjacent chart is an older one.  When the line is rising, growth stocks are significantly outperforming value stocks.  You can see vividly the technology bubble – growth stocks skyrocketing relative to value stocks – prior to the bubble bursting in the year 2000.

The shaded areas are periods of economic stimulation (US Federal Bank monetary easing).  During these periods it’s not unusual for growth funds to perform much more strongly than value-oriented funds.

Conventional wisdom says that conservative investors who can’t stomach as much volatility should use value funds and that investors who don’t mind a wild ride should use growth funds. Alternatively, you can invest most of your money into a value fund while also putting some into a growth fund so that you might occasionally get more returns in a buoyant market with at least a portion of your savings.

Why not growth when growth is performing and value at other times?

There are portfolio managers like me who hate being pigeonholed into either one of these styles. However, it is inevitable that one label or the other will be associated with a money manager because of the way consulting services are compensated and the way mutual funds are marketed (when growth is sexy, it only makes sense to promote the growth manager).

A maverick investor who understands the ebbs and flows of market sentiment will want to be invested in their favourite growth fund at the right time and to switch into a value fund at other times.

Whenever I’ve recommended a more active approach to selecting mutual funds in print or on television, such as using a growth fund and switching into a value fund when appropriate, I always get the same question: “How do you know when to switch?”

There is an easy answer, but nobody likes hearing it. The answer is: “You will know!” You should switch when your intuition or emotions tell you not too. It is that simple. If the fund you own has been doing extremely well and drifted up towards the top quartile or is now in the “best performing funds” category (rankings are available from a wide variety of publicly available services) and so you’ve begun to love it dearly, it’s time to switch into a different style of fund.

Here is a more current chart.  In this case the shaded areas are periods of recession, and we are all aware that for the past few years monetary stimulus has been the norm.  Not surprisingly then, growth stocks – avoided by most investors like the plague – have been outperforming value stocks.

As investors divest their income biased stocks (and bonds) they will naturally be tempted to move the money into the better performing growth style.  However if history (and experience) is any guide, they’d be well advised to focus their attention on stocks and funds that have not yet participated in the recent market rally.  In the event that government policy, encouraged by the rebound in the housing market, strong corporate earnings and slowly improving employment outlook, becomes less stimulative then value will in all likelihood become the place to be.

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

Investing Is Tough Stuff

By: Don Shaughnessy

Profit is a poor proxy for success and investors should not rely on the number without considering other facts.
Strangely a business can become bankrupt while it is profitable. This profit ambiguity causes problems for business owners, managers, policy makers and investors.
What do you mean by profit?
Suppose an incorporated business earns $1,000,000 using the tax rules and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) In Ontario, the tax bill would be $220,000 leaving $780,000 to invest. Clearly profitable!
BUT, only within the system of GAAP and taxation. In the real world, the result might well be very different.
Suppose the business must invest $1,500,000 to remain competitive in its industry, (same market share and same technology as the leaders in the industry.) Did it really make a profit or did it really lose $720,000?
The economic answer is it lost $720,000, and even that is not simple.
By investing the profits and borrowing, the business continues to exist and possibly a weak entrant in the industry will become weaker still and succumb. So the true long-term economic loss is actually somewhat smaller. Maybe a lot smaller and possibly not a loss at all. Some of the cash loss is an investment in future market share.
Management faces the task of deciding if they will survive long enough to benefit. Especially true if the government bails out the weak ones.
For those looking at profit alone, other expenses matter too. Marketing, advertising, R&D, employee training and more, pay off over long periods but have immediate cost. Good for tax expense but hard for the analysts to validate. Some other expenses, like pensions, have a visible price today but an unknowable future cost.
In both accounting and taxation, profit is not the result of facts but rather is the result of rules and opinions. Things like depreciation rate, inventory and product obsolescence, bad debts, investment rate to be earned on the pension fund, future technology effects and more.
As an investor, is there anything at all to be gleaned from the financial statements?
Maybe.
In most cases, it makes sense to pay attention to the management letter. I know a high performance fund manager who looks for the words challenge or challenging in that letter. If he sees either he throws the statement away. In his words, “I have only limited resources, so why would I invest with people who have challenges?”
When looking for an investment, use commons sense first. I like the product, I like management, I like the industry and so on. Then look at the numbers.
• “Cash is real, profit is opinion.” Or at least cash is more likely to be real because you go to jail if you fool with it. Not so much with profit.
• Look for dividends. They impose a discipline on management and the cash paid out reduces the homeless dollar problem. When management finds that problem, some pretty dodgy projects get funded.
• When things go wrong, quit quick. Holding losers and waiting for recovery is a losing tactic. The price of tulip bulbs, which peaked in Holland in February 1637, has, as yet, not returned to that high.
Good look!
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.  don.s@protectorsgroup.com