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

The swarming of AAPL.

Understanding how the shares of Apple Inc. managed to get squashed so badly has much to do with knowing a bit about investor psychology and modern market dynamics. It wasn’t very long ago that shares in AAPL were universally loved – about a year ago now, CNN made it known that Poland, Belgium, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan all had GDPs that were less that Apple’s market value (around $500 billion at the time).

It’s all about probabilities. If absolutely everything is going well, encouraging publicity abounds and everyone you know has both the iPhone and owns the stock, then the only thing that is left to occur is suddenly something (sentiment, earnings disappointments, hurricanes) not-so good-happens which cools investor enthusiasm. When a stock is widely held, the subsequent selling can prove disastrous for all shareholders.

In September of 2012 AAPL traded a tiny bit north of $700 per share and is now in the neighborhood of $420 give or take. Losing 40% of one’s investment in a bull market is painful.

On business television you’ll hear lots of Apple pundits (who still own the stock in their portfolios) say the company is worth far more than the share price would suggest. This may or may not be true, but the fact of the matter is that the share price does represent what it is worth to investors right now! Doesn’t it?

The answer used to be yes, but with the increase in the popularity of short-selling it is difficult to determine nowadays what a company is really worth. In many instances there is absolutely no connection between the actual economic value of a business and its stock price.

Swarming is the term now applied to the crime where an unsuspecting innocent bystander is attacked by several culprits at once, with no known motive. Because swarming at street level involves violence, it is criminal. However in financial markets it is perfectly legal and different because there definitely is a motive. The motive is to rob shareholders of their invested dollars.

In a recent (April 6th, Thomson Reuters: Reuters Insider) interview Bill Ackerman, founder of Pershing Square Capital Management and who is described as an ‘activist’ investor, admitted “There is something inherently shadowy or evil about short-sellers.” Ackerman gained notoriety when he publicly claimed the company Herbalife was nothing more than a pyramid scheme, suggested the stock was worth zero and admitted his company had an enormous short position.

When any company today stumbles (or is perceived to have stumbled) it ignites something akin to a swarming. For example, this quote is from CNBC.com on November 10th, 2012:

“The question has been asked by nearly every Apple watcher following a brutal two-week stretch that began with a worse than expected earnings report, quickened after the ouster of a high-profile executive and culminated with news this week that it had fallen behind competitor Samsung in the smartphone wars.”

Although one might expect the stock to decline under the circumstances, the subsequent pummeling of the share price seems a bit cruel. What happened? Have a gander at this graph of the short interest (the total number of shares that were sold short) since about a year ago. To gain perspective, in April of 2013 the short interest has grown to 20,497,880 shares. The dollar value of this is about the same as the Gross Domestic Product of the entire country of Malta.

In English, short-sellers detected vulnerability, and swarmed AAPL. The irony is that short-sellers borrow the stock from real shareholders (via third parties) in order to sell it on the market. After the selling pressure wreaks havoc on the stock price, the short-seller then buys shares at a much lower price, returns the ‘borrowed’ shares to those real shareholders and keeps the profits.

The irony is that short-sellers claim to be providing a public service. Bill Ackerman was simply exposing a company that he believed (discovered) was misleading its shareholders. He even went so far as to say he didn’t even want the profits – they would be donated to charity. The problem is that it isn’t just some big bad corporation that is punished, but its shareholders and in due course even its employees.

I’ve never claimed to be all that smart, but I just can’t figure out how aggressively attacking a company’s share price, selling stock that the seller doesn’t even own, for the sole purpose of transferring the savings of innocent investors into one’s own coffers (whether it goes to charity of not) is a noble thing. Isn’t it kind of like a bunch of thugs beating someone up and stealing his/her cellphone declaring it was the loner’s own fault for being vulnerable?

How can you stay clear of being a victim?

  • Avoid owning stocks that have become darlings. When it seems nothing at all can go wrong, it will ,and when it does there’s sure to be a swarming.
  • If there’s evidence of a growing short interest in a company, best not own the stock.
  • Instruct your financial institution that your shares are not to be available for securities lending purposes.
Mal Spooner