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!

How To Be Prepared for Rising Interest Rates

I’ve seen a lot of discussions lately that erroneously conclude: “rising interest rates are something to be feared and prepared for” by buying short duration bonds or by liquidating income purpose securities entirely. Have they all gone mad!

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.

The purpose of income investments is the generation of income, and that goes for all forms of bonds, preferreds, government securities, etc. Control the quality selected, diversify properly, and compound that part of the income that you don’t have to spend. Bond prices are pretty much irrelevant since you spend the income and not 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 held — they were, after all, income purpose securities that had never failed to do their job. Market value never fluctuates (visually) if the securities are kept in the (mental) safe deposit box.

No, this is not at all what I’m suggesting to you as an investment… this is a mindset you need to embrace to become a successful income investor.

Even when your statement shows bond prices at chest-pounding wealth levels, the income generated hasn’t changed. And the profits your statement reports… really just another Wall Street illusion.

The thing dear old Dad thought about least was the market value of his bonds. This was his tax free retirement plan (one way or the other). He bought them for income, and the coupons were always redeemed without question. The only problem with the periodic decreases in market value was the inability to add to existing positions.

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 none 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 of higher rates. They didn’t sell at a premium, and now “actionlessly” watch the profits disappear.

This behavior achieves the lowest possible yields while pushing scared-silly investors into an overpriced market for short duration debt… the ultimate Wall Street “markup” machine, where brokers literally make more than bondholders.

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.

Read that again, and again, until you get mad at your advisor.

Answer this question before you throw stones. 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 you never realized you could realize so effectively.

Of course CEF market values fell during the financial crisis, but at their peak in November 2012, they had gained nearly 18% per year since 3/9/09…. 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. They can be traded quickly for exceptional results from “stodgy” income CEF portfolios.

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, for a year’s interest in advance, and reinvest in similar portfolios at higher yields? What if you could add to your positions when prices fall, increasing yield and reducing cost basis in one fell swoop?

What if you could prepare for retirement with such a powerful income engine?

Well, you ca do all four. but only if you add both higher and lower interest rates to you list of VBFs.

Can’t attend the next Income investing Webinar? Contact Steve Selengut for a FREE video.

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

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

Don’t get whipsawed by Risk Management!

Back in February of 2012, I recall a prominent CFO departing a global insurance company.  This particular individual was labelled “the highly regarded architect of a hedging strategy that proved key in rebuilding investor confidence in the wake of the financial crisis.”  The company had suffered financially during the prior market meltdown because of a huge exposure to equity-linked products;  pre-crisis the company had introduced investment products that guaranteed to return a substantial (if not all) amount of the investor’s initial investment.  The money was invested in the company’s funds which in turn invested in stock markets.  During the financial crisis, the value of these assets (stocks) held in the funds declined below the amount that was guaranteed spelling serious trouble for the company.  In response a stricter approach to risk management was adopted after-the-fact.

Sounds sensible doesn’t it?  But it just isn’t!  I’ve watched this pattern time and again over decades.  The fundamental flaw is a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes risk.

Risk is almost always equated to volatility.  For example, stocks move up and down rapidly with much magnitude so they are deemed more risky than bonds.  But are we really as averse to upside risk as downside risk?  Strangely people become more averse to volatility when they’ve suffered downside risk (and come to adore volatility when upside risk has rewarded them).  Because our internal model of risk is so much more complex than mathematics can reckon with, our efforts to ‘manage’ volatility can actually subject us to less volatility but more risk.  When we reduce risk (hedging strategies usually reduce volatility – both up and down) at the wrong times, we miss the chance to be rewarded by the kind of volatility we adore.  We are our own worst enemies.

The President and CEO of a completely different insurance company was quoted as saying this, also in February of 2012:

“We are maintaining our equity hedges as we remain very concerned about the economic outlook over the next few years. We continue to be soundly financed with year-end cash and marketable securities at the holding company of about $1 billion.”


This statement followed the company’s earnings release, having reported substantially increased losses from its investments – management had hedged the company’s equity position in 2010 (again, after-the-fact) and suffered investment losses in that year’s fourth-quarter because stock markets rose (instead of declining).  The actions designed to protect the company against volatility lost money.  Risk aversion after-the-fact caused the company to lose money and avoid potential returns from upside volatility.

Because the pain caused by the downside volatility suffered previously was still fairly recent, aversion remained at a high level causing the company to stick to its hedging strategy (in denial?) despite these huge losses, and it continued to lose money as the market continued to go higher and higher still.

The financial crisis is behind us and now that markets are hitting all-time highs, record amounts of dollars are scrambling to get some upside volatility action. Too late?  It’s hard to put a pin in it, but intuitively might one conclude that if managing risk (or ‘risk off’ as they say on business television) was a bad idea during and immediately after the financial crisis, then perhaps chasing volatility (‘risk on’) might not be such a good idea at present?

It might seem as if I was picking on insurance companies earlier, but many pension funds, other financial services companies, portfolio managers and everyday investors follow the same destructive pattern.  Adoring upside risk but loathing downside risk – always at the wrong times – has ruined careers and put a serious dent in the life-savings of families.  More experienced money managers (there are fewer of us nowadays) increase risk when others are most averse to the idea, and begin to manage risk (hedging, raising cash balances) during periods of ‘irrational exuberance.’  They’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to keep all the hair on your head if you avoid circumstances that make you want to pull it all out.

Mal Spooner

Is it the 1950’s again? The financial war is over!

There is a plethora of articles and blogs out there desperately trying to find a period comparable to now, in order to get some understanding of what markets might have in store for us over the next several years.  After three decades in the investment business, the only thing I can say with certainty is that such comparisons just don’t work.

George Santayana (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952) the philosopher and man of letters, is often quoted: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

It’s true people will make the same mistakes over and again, but history never actually repeats itself.  Trying to forecast the future is absurd, and so it must be even more ridiculous to expect that the future will be similar to some time period long ago.  Nevertheless, it’s winter and all my friends are on vacation so I’ve nothing else to do.

Post-War Reconstruction: In my simple mind, we’ve just fought a global war against financial corruption.  The weapon of mass destruction?  The ‘derivative!’ These things managed to infiltrate the entire global banking system and almost brought it crumbling down.  Like most wars, it’s difficult to put a pin into when things flipped from a crisis to all out war, but let’s say the seeds were planted when the U.S. Senate tried to introduce a bill in 2005 to forbid Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) from holding mortgage-backed securities (pretend capital) in their portfolios. That first cannonball missed the mark when the bill failed to pass.  By 2007 the two government sponsored entities were responsible for 90% of all U.S. mortgages, and the fly in the ointment was the use of ‘derviatives’ instead of real capital to hedge their interest-rate risk.   Banks did the same thing but much more aggressively. What followed is a long story we’ve been living for years.

Paul Volcker once said, “I wish someone would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth — one shred of evidence.”  Well, we’ve plenty of evidence now that financial innovation led only to the mass destruction of wealth.

When the foundation fell out from under us (value of the derviatives dropped) we went to war in earnest.  The list of casualties like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (announced September 15, 2008 it was bankrupt) just kept getting longer.

I believe the war ended six years after that failed 2005 Senate bill – in the summer of 2011. You can disagree, but your opinion is as meaningless as this whole exercize. (Laughing out loud.)

Way back when World War II (1939 – 1945) ended, governments around the globe began to print money and spend to rebuild the wealth that had been destroyed.  Isn’t this precisely what we’ve been doing since our financial crisis decimated wealth on a global scale?

So maybe some of what happened in the 1950’s post-war period will happen again?

In 1949 there was a brief struggle with the threat of deflation (and again in 1954) but for most of the decade inflation remained steady between 0% to 3%. We too saw the threat of deflation briefly in 2009.  However since then inflation has been fairly steady:  1.5% (December to December) in 2010 and 3.2% in 2011 in the U.S.  Although T-bills are currently paying a negative real rate of return (yields are below the inflation rate) there will come a time soon when investors insist on earning something or they just won’t hold them.  Short term rates will climb as they did throughout the 1950’s.

Prediction #1:  T-Bills will begin to rise until their returns cover the rate of inflation (see chart).

What happened in the stock market back then?  Government spending to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs had a significant impact, because arguably the 1950’s was one of the best if not the best decade for making money in the stock market.  Unfortunately, we only have reliable data for the Dow Jones Industrial Average dating back that far (okay, there might be more data out there but I’m surely not going to go looking for it). 

At the end of 1949 the Dow was at 200.13 and by the end of 1959 it had climbed to 679.36.  Excluding dividends that equates to a (IRR) return of about 13% per year for a decade.  As always lots of volatility had to be endured in stocks, but in the long run the reward was not shabby!  On the other hand, in Treasury bonds you might have averaged a 2% return, but suffered an actual loss in 5 out of the 10 years.

Prediction #2: Global growth fueled by government initiatives will translate into healthy returns on average in stock markets for several years to come.

Are we doomed to repeat history?  Although the 1950’s turned out okay, a wild ride was to come during the following couple of decades.  Easy money and inflation would eventually get the better of us and although there were some very good years for investors in the stock market (and those invested in shorter term T-bills for sure), inflation mayhem was on its way.

All we can hope for is that today’s policy makers have studied their history.  If we allow inflation to get out of control, interest rates will skyrocket like they did through the 60’s and 70’s. Younger folks today will have to suffer rising interest rates (mortgages, car loans) of the sort that created havoc for decision-makers and choked economic growth to a standstill for us older generations back in the day.

It’s true that if we don’t learn from history, we can and will make the same mistakes over again.  But I also said history does not repeat itself.  Although we somehow managed to eventually wrestle the inflation bogieman under control before, this does not mean we will be so lucky next time around.  And it’s a wealthier more technologically advanced world we live in now….which means we’ve so much more to lose if we really screw things up.

Prediction #3:  If governments don’t slow down their spending, bond investors will really get burned.

My instincts tell me that 2013 will be a happy New Year.  And bear in mind that if none, any or all of these predictions come true it will be an unadulterated fluke.





Malvin Spooner.