bye bye, QE

Yesterday the Fed made public its current assessment of the US economy, something it does on a regular basis.  It its press release, the agency said it had “decided to conclude its asset purchase program this month.”  In other words, the third round of quantitative easing (QE) by the Fed since the economy turned down in 2008 will end tomorrow.

what QE is

The Fed’s job is to foster maximum sustainable economic growth and employment, without creating inflation.  Its usual tool is short-term interest rates: it raises them when the economy is starting to overheat and lowers them during a slowdown.

The recession that began six years ago was so bad, however, that even lowering short rates to zero wasn’t enough to put the economy back on an even keel.  So the Fed also began to add extra stimulus,  pushing down long-term interest rates as well by buying Treasury bonds and government agency debt (especially mortgage-related).  QE is the long-term bond purchasing program.

The weird name apparently comes from a UK economist who lives near the shipyards where the Queen Elizabeth was built and likes the initials.

what its end means

The Fed thinks the economy is strong enough to be weaned off QE.  The labor market is improving; the economy is stronger; inflation is right around the Fed’s 2% target.

The next step, sometime next year (April?, June?), will be to start raising short-term interest rates back to normal.

The move up to normalcy is important for two reasons:

–at some point–not any time soon, but at some point–very strong money stimulus becomes bad for the economy.  It doesn’t boost output any more and starts to create runaway inflation.

–the Fed would like to be in a position to respond to a new emergency by lowering rates.  At present, other than more QE, whose effectiveness is a matter of debate, the Fed has no tools.

how high?  how fast?

Members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee periodically publish their views on, among other things, the course of short-term interest rates.  Their median projection for the Fed Funds rate is:

2014      0 – 1/4%

2015     1 1/4% – 1 1/2%

2016     2 3/4% – 3.0%

2017     3 5/8% – 3 7/8%.

FOMC members think that the end-2017 rate of around 3.75% is normal.

So: the process of normalization will take three years, and will have short rates rising by close to 400 basis points.

how right?

The current target normal Fed Funds rate of 3.75% is 50 basis points lower than when the Fed began publishing projections like this a while ago.

My sense is that financial markets think the figure is still too high.  If we were to assume, for example, that inflation would run at 2% and a short-term lender should get a 1% real annual return for the use of his money, then short rates should be at 3%, not 3.75%.

what should an equity investor think?

We know for sure only that interest rates will be going up next year.  That can’t enhance short-term economic activity.

In the past, in periods of rising interest rates stocks have gone sideways and bonds have gone down.  Maybe things won’t play out the same way this time, but past experience suggests it will.

The period of greatest uncertainty about rates will likely come before the process begins.

Positive economic energy in the US can play out either through higher stock prices or currency appreciation, or some combination of the two.  We’ve already had recent substantial appreciation of the dollar vs. the euro.  If the dollar continues to rise, it will be important not to have exposure to euro earners.  Users of euro-denominated inputs will benefit, though.

Because a higher dollar acts somewhat like a rise in interest rates, continuing dollar strength seems to me to suggest slower Fed action.

 

More about this when I write about strategy for 2015.

 

 

 

peer-to-peer lending, the next big banking innovation

the demise of the department store

The story of the big commercial banks over the last forty years is sort of like that of the department stores, only in slow motion.  In the case of the latter, entrepreneurs targeted the most profitable “departments” of the cumbersome retailing giants and competed against them with freestanding specialty store chains offering a wider selection, trendier products and lower prices.  Toys, consumer electronics, jewelry, household goods, cosmetics, and, of course, various types of apparel were all targeted.

The financial world, for some bizarre reason known only to itself, calls this process “disintermediation.”  It has been underway for almost a half-century.

Consider what a bank does for a living:

in the simplest terms, it borrows money from some people, paying, say, 2% interest, and lends it to others at, say, 8%.  It uses the difference (the spread) to cover costs and make a profit.

money market funds

The first big disintermediation came in the 1970s, with money market funds.  These substitutes for bank checking or savings accounts take deposits from customer and make short-term (meaning a few months) loans to governments and corporations.  The entire spread, less expenses, goes to the money market shareholder.  So in normal times, money market funds pay considerably higher interest than banks.  The banks’ only advantage has been government deposit insurance.

The emergence of the money market fund produced a massive shift of customer deposits away from banks.

junk bonds

The second was  junk bond funds.  The first junk bonds were “fallen angels.”  That is, they were issued with low coupons by companies whose businesses subsequently deteriorated.  As a result, their bond prices had dropped sharply (and therefore the bonds’ yields had risen to high levels).  Careful credit analysis would turn up either companies that were on the cusp of a favorable turn in their fortunes or others where the market had considerably overestimated the chances of default.

As they become popular, junk bond funds soon faced a shortage of suitable bonds to buy. This led to the creation of an original-issue junk bond market–or junk bonds as we know them today.  These bonds were direct competitors to the corporate lending operations of banks.  However, junk bond issuers offered lower interest rates plus fewer restrictive covenants to borrowers and they delivered the entire spread, less expenses, to the fund shareholders.

Again, there was a massive shift of profitable business away from banks.

peer-to-peer lending

We’re in the early days of a third big disintermediation.  Peer-to-peer lending is, I think, will end up replacing banks as makers of small personal and commercial loans.

As things stand now, P2P lenders are simply internet-based intermediaries.  They do credit analysis to determine an interest rate for a given loan, put potential lenders and borrowers together and take a fee.  As I see them, they’re very much like the creators of money market funds or junk bond funds, only targeting a different “department” of the banks.  In the junk bond case, though, the “department” quickly morphed into something else.  That could easily happen with P2P, as well.

What’s most interesting about peer-to-peer to me is that the leading firms are preparing to go public by issuing common stock.

More when IPO dates are closer.

 

oil at $80 a barrel–a Saudi plot?

I don’t think so  …and if the Saudis are trying to keep oil prices low in order to drive American shale oil out of business, it’s a pretty pathetic one  (Tom Randall of Bloomberg, for example, recently wrote an otherwise excellent article in which he supports the plot view).

Here’s why:

Any oil project starts with geology work to locate prospective acreage for drilling.  The oil firm then purchases mineral rights from the owner of the land where it intends to drill.  Next comes the actual drilling, which can cost $5 million – $10 million a well.  The driller also needs some way of getting output to market, which may entail building a spur to the nearest pipeline, or at least paving the local roads so that trucks he hires can get to the wellsite.

All that outlay comes before the exploration company can collect a penny from the oil or gas that comes to the surface.

In other words, the project costs are significantly front-end loaded.  This is important.  It means the economics of the situation change dramatically according to whether you’ve already made the up-front investment or not.

An example:

I took a quick look at the latest 10-Q for EOG Resources, a shale oil driller.

Over the first six months of the year, EOG took in $6.5 billion from selling oil and gas, and had net income of $1.4 billion.  That’s a net margin of 21.5%.  At first blush, it looks like a 20% drop in prices would put EOG in big trouble.

Look at the cash flow statement, however, and a different picture emerges.  The $1.4 billion in net comes after a provision of $1.9 billion for depreciation of some of those upfront expenses and after another provision of $479 million for deferred (that is, not actually paid yet) income taxes.  So the actual cash that came into EOG’s hands during the period was $3.8 billion.  That’s a margin of 58.4%–meaning that prices could be more than cut in half and EOG would still be getting money by continuing to operate existing wells.

Yes, at $70 a barrel, new shale oil projects are probably not sure-fire winners.  But oil companies will continue to operate oil share wells, even at prices below this in order to recover capital investments they have already made.  The right time for Saudi Arabia to throw a monkey wrench in to the shale oil works would have been three or four years ago, not today.

The wider point:  once a new entrant has made a big capital investment to get into any industry, it’s very hard to get the newcomer out.  Even if incumbents make the new firm’s position untenable, the latter’s goal just shifts away from making money to minimizing its mistake by extracting as much of its capital as it can.  It will be willing to destroy the industry pricing structure if necessary to do so.

 

 

 

Tesco, Coke and IBM, three Buffett blowups

Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway fame is perhaps the best-known equity investor in the United States.

What made his reputation is that Buffett was the first to understand the investment value of intangible assets like brand names, distribution networks, training that develops a distinctive corporate culture.

Take a soft drinks company (I’m thinking Coca-Cola (KO), but don’t want to dig the actual numbers out of past annual reports).  Such a company doubtless has a secret formula for making tasty drinks.  More important, it controls a wide distribution network that has agreements that allow it to deliver products directly to supermarkets and stacks them on shelves.  The company has also surely developed distinctive packaging and has spent, say, 10% of pretax income on advertising and other marketing in each of the past twenty (or more) years to make its name an icon.  (My quick Google search says KO spent $4 billion on worldwide marketing in 2010.  Think about twenty years of spending like that!!!)

Presumably if we wanted to compete with KO, we would have to spend on advertising and distribution, as well.  Maybe all the best warehouse locations are already taken.  Maybe the best distributors already have exclusive relationships with KO.  Maybe supermarkets won’t make shelf space available (why should they?).  And then there’s having to advertise enough to rise above the din KO is already creating.

 

What Buffett saw before his rivals of the 1960s was that none of this positive stuff appears as an asset on the balance sheet.  Advertising, training, distribution payments only appear on the financials as expenses, lowering current income, and, in consequence, the company’s net worth, even though they’re powerful competitive weapons and formidable barriers to entry into the industry by newcomers.

Because investors of his day were focused almost totally on book value–and because this spending depressed book value–they found these brand icons unattractive.  Buffett had the field to himself for a while, and made a mint.

 

This week two of Mr.Buffett’s biggest holdings, IBM and KO, have blown up.  They’re not the first.  Tesco, the UK supermarket operator, another firm right in the Buffett wheelhouse, also recently fell apart.

what I find interesting

Every professional investor makes lots of mistakes, and all of the time.  My first boss used to say that it takes three good stocks to make up for one mistake.  Therefore, she concluded, a portfolio manager has to spend the majority of his attention on finding potential blowups in his portfolio and getting rid of them before the worst news struck.  So mistakes are in themselves part of the territory.

Schadenfreude isn’t it, either.

Rather, I think

1.  Mr. Buffett’s recent bad luck illustrates that in an Internet world structural change is taking place at a much more rapid pace than even investing legends understand

2.  others have (long since, in my view) caught up with Mr. Buffett’s thinking.  Brand icons now trade at premium prices, not discounts, making them more vulnerable to bad news, and

3.  I sense a counterculture, Millennials vs. Baby Boom element in this relative performance, one that I believe is just in its infancy.

 

 

 

ARK Investment Management and its ETFs

ARK

I was listening to Bloomberg Radio (again!?!) earlier this month and heard an interview of Cathie Wood, the CEO/CIO of recently formed ARK Investment Management.  I don’t know Ms. Wood, although we both worked at Jennison Associates, a growth-oriented equity manager with a very strong record, during different time periods.  Just before ARK, she had been CIO of Global Thematic Strategies for twelve years at value investor AllianceBernstein.  (As a portfolio manager I was a big fan of Bernstein’s equity research but I’m not familiar with her Bernstein output.)  She’s been  endorsed by Arthur Laffer of Laffer Curve fame, who sits on her board.

ARK is all about finding and benefiting from “disruptive innovation that will change the world.”

Ms. Wood was promoting two actively managed ETFs that ARK launched at the beginning of the month, one focused on industrial innovation (ARKQ) and another the internet (ARKW).  Two more are in the works, one for genomics (ARKG) and the last (ARKK) an umbrella innovation portfolio which will apparently hold what it considers the best of the other three portfolios.

What really caught my ear in the interview was Ms. Wood’s discussion of the domestic automobile market (summary research available on the ARK website).  Most cars lie around doing nothing during the day.  What happens if either ride-sharing services like Uber or the Google self-driven car, which make more constant use of autos, catch on as substitutes?  According to Ms. Wood, until these innovations reach 2.5% of total miles driven (based on the idea that on a per mile basis ride-sharing costs half what owning a car does), there’s little effect.  But at 5% penetration, the bottom falls out of the new car market.  New car sales get cut in half!

Who knows whether this is correct or whether it will happen or not   …but I find this a very interesting idea.

about the ETFs

The top holdings of ARKW are:  athenahealth, Apple, Facebook, Salesforce.com and Twitter.  These comprise just under 25% of the portfolio.

For ARKQ, the top five are:  Google, Autodesk, Tesla, Monsanto and Fanuc.  They make up just over 24% of the portfolio.

Both will likely be high β portfolios.  Both have performed roughly in line with the NASDAQ Composite since their debut.

The perennial question about thematic investors (I consider myself one) is whether the high-level concepts are backed up by meticulous company by company financial research.  This is essential.  In addition, it’s important, to me anyway, that the holdings be arranged so that they’re not all dependent on a single theme–the continuing success of the Apple ecosystem, for instance.

I’m not familiar with Ms. Wood’s work, so I can’t say one way or another (Fanuc and ABB strike me as kind of weird holding for ARKQ, though).  But I think her research is worth reading and her ETFs worth at least monitoring.  For us as investors, the ultimate question will be whether Ms. Wood can outperform an appropriate index.  The NASDAQ Composite would be my initial choice.

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Gross: a wave of (self-) destruction?

As even casual readers of the financial press know, Bill Gross, the bond guru, recently left PIMCO, the firm he founded, for smaller (everything is smaller than PIMCO) rival Janus.  Two aspects of his departure strike me as particularly noteworthy:

–Gross has been saying very emphatically, both at PIMCO and Janus, that he has absolutely no intention of retiring or of ceding any measure of control over his portfolios to colleagues.  This is despite an extended period of poor performance.  If he’s thinking at all about the impact of his statements on clients, he surely believes he is reassuring them.  However, it seems to me that the opposite is most likely the case.

What clients are likely hearing is that although he’s been charting a losing course for his portfolio for an extended period, he refuses to consider any changes or even to take any input from his 700+ professional colleagues. The way he’s delivering his stay-the-course message also makes him sound like an adolescent having a tantrum.  It’s hard not to connect this unusual behavior with the fact of extended underperformance, raising further issues about his temperament and his judgment.  This it’s-all-about-me attitude is very scary for anyone how has bet on Gross’s management prowess.

–PIMCO as a firm clearly made a terrible strategic mistake in making the idea of continuous outperformance by a single manager the exclusive focus of its marketing to clients for so many years.  Yes, the message is powerful and simple to understand, but one that’s also very risky and that invests a huge amount of power in a single individual.

PIMCO would probably have imagined any possible parting of the ways with Bill Gross to be somewhat akin to Derek Jeter’s final season as a Yankees.   …that is to say, a nostalgic feel-good farewell tour for a player who may be a shadow of his former self, but which validates both personal and institutional brands and generates large profits for both sides.  What PIMCO got instead was the unflattering glare of tabloid coverage of a messy divorce.

Bad for PIMCO.  But bad for Gross, too, I think.

As a client, how eager are you going to be to hitch your star to an apparently erratic 70-year-old who has weak recent performance, no longer has access to PIMCO’s extensive information network and whose assets under management are too tiny to have much clout in the brokerage community?    The default reaction of the pension consultants who advise institutions seems to be:  PIMCO without Bill Gross isn’t good enough; Bill Gross without PIMCO isn’t good enough.  It seems to me that PIMCO has a much better chance of changing consultants’ minds than Bill Gross does–it already has infrastructure, other managers with strong records and huge assets under management.

If I’m correct, absent a return to his form through the long period of interest rate declines, Mr. Gross appears to be in a much more difficult position than his former firm.  Much of this is his own doing.

 

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