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?

Wall Street’s Dirtiest Little Secret

As of Close of Business May 8th, no less than 53 multi-year experienced, Tax Free Income, Closed End Funds (CEFs) were paying 6% or more in federally tax free income to their shareholders.

18 issues (34%) paid 6.4% or above, and the average for the group was 6.35%. All portfolios are professionally managed by this dozen, well respected, long experienced investment companies.

Blackrock, Nuveen, Pimco. Putnam, Invesco, Alliance-Bernstein, MFS, Dreyfus, Eaton Vance, Deutsche, Pioneer, & Delaware Investors.

How difficult could it be to put together a well diversified, retirement income portfolio?

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 never mentioned them to you; you have never heard them advertised or reviewed in the financial press… Wall Street, it seems, would prefer that you didn’t know they exist.

But there’s even more to this story. These readily-available and much-higher-than-you’ve-been-led-to-believe-even-exist tax free yields can be purchased at bold discounts to their Net Asset Value, or NAV in Mutual Fund Terms.

A May 15th data search at cefconnect.com reveals that 85% of all Municipal Bond Closed End Funds (CEFs) were selling below their net asset values (NAVs), and of those, 20% were available to all investors at discounts above 10%.

Mutual Funds (I believe) are never available at discounts from NAV, and how many discounted munis has your advisor suggested to you since 2012 or earlier?

Municipal CEFs regularly sell at discounts, and this morning, nearly 60% were available to MCIM taxable account investors at discounts of 5% or more.

WHY THE WALL STREET COVER-UP?

Why aren’t you asking for more information?

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.