Stephen King on productivity and monetary policy

The Stephen King I’m writing about is an economic advisor to HSBC who was formerly the bank’s chief economist.  He’s one of the most interesting economists I’m aware of.  For instance, he was one of the first to warn of excesses in the US housing market a decade ago, and perhaps the most vocal in doing so.

Last week he weighed in on the issue of productivity in an Opinion article in the Financial Times.  His main points:

1. The current low level of productivity–+1% yearly in the US, flat to down elsewhere–may not be due to lack of infrastructure spending (Lawrence Summers) or that most productivity-enhancing inventions have already been made (Robert Gordon).  It may be instead that we’re seeing now is normal.  It’s the generation that rebuilt after WWII, creating high growth in productivity in the process, that’s the outlier.

2.  If #1 is true, then many of the mainstays of orthodox macroeconomic policy need to be reexamined.  In particular,

–if the world is being flooded with money, then capital is equally available at cheap prices to high productivity enterprises and low ones.  The result may be that the very process thought to be increasing economic growth is neutralizing the competitive advantage of high-productivity enterprises

–in a low-inflation, low-productivity world, interest rates will be “dragged down to incredibly low levels,” meaning recession-fighting monetary expansion may be difficult to achieve

–cultural expectations built over the past half century of ever increasing prosperity may prove to be too high.  This would be trouble for, say, pension or social security schemes around the world whose ability to deliver promised benefits assumes the robust real economic growth of the past can be extrapolated into the future.

3.  The ability of governments to create inflation may become increasingly important, as a means of keeping nominal GDP growth above zero during an economic downturn.  Monetary theorists around the globe have assumed that doing so involves only the simple expedient of increasing the money supply.  The past eight years in the US, however, have shown that creating inflation is much easier to theorize about than to do.


His overall conclusion:  the Lawrence Summers idea of secular stagnation–which can be addressed through increased infrastructure spending–is a much cheerier outlook than it appears at first blush.

Warren Buffett and Dow Chemical (DOW)

Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a front page article that will be widely viewed on Wall Street, I think, as a bit of comic relief.

In times of financial stress, cash-short companies have tended to go to Berkshire Hathaway for financial assistance.  If successful, they receive both money and the implicit endorsement of Warren Buffet.

In 2009, it was DOW’s turn.  It wanted to acquire Rohm and Haas, another chemical company.   The best deal it could find for a needed $3 billion was in Omaha, where Berkshire took a private placement of $3 billion in DOW preferred stock, with an annual dividend yield of 8.5%.  The preferred has been convertible for some time now into DOW common (yielding 3.4%), at DOW’s option, provided DOW has traded above $53.72 for a period of at least 20 trading days out of 30.

DOW shares were trading below $20 each when the deal was struck seven years ago.

On July 26th, the shares breached the $53.72 barrier and traded above it for five consecutive days–the final two on extremely heavy volume–before falling back.  At the same time, according to the WSJ, short interest in the stock has risen sharply.  In other words, someone has been a heavy seller, using stock borrowed from others.

Who could that be?

Although nothing is stated outright, the strong implication of the article is that the shortseller is Berkshire, which stands to lose $150 million+ a year in dividend income on conversion.

Part of the Wall Street humor in the situation is that the playing field isn’t level.  It’s perfectly legal for Berkshire to sell DOW short, although it does seem to cut against the homespun image Mr. Buffett has been at pains to cultivate for years.  On the other hand, however, DOW would run the risk of being accused of trying to pump up its stock price (and the value of management stock options) if it went out of its way to absorb any unusual selling.


hedge funds and uncorrelated returns


One of the initial topics in my first investment course in graduate school was beta, a measure of the relationship ( generated from a regression analysis) between the price changes of an individual stock and those of the market.  A stock with a beta of 1.1, for example, tends to move in the same direction as the market but 10% more strongly.  One with a beta of 0.9 tends to move in the same direction as the market but 10% less strongly.  The beta of a stock portfolio is the weighted average of the betas of its constituents.

the beta of gold stocks

At the end of the class, the teacher posed a question that would be the first item for discussion the following week.  Gold stocks have a beta of 0.  What does that mean?

The mechanical, but wrong answer, is that gold stocks lower the beta, and therefore the riskiness, of the entire portfolio.  If I have two tech stocks, their combined beta may be 1.2.  For two utility stocks, the beta might be 0.8.  For all four in equal amounts, then, the beta is 1.0, the beta of the market.  Take two tech stocks and add two gold stocks and the beta for the group is 0.6. But this doesn’t mean the result is a super-defensive portfolio.

A beta of 0 doesn’t mean the stock is riskless.  It means that the stock returns are uncorrelated with those of the stock market.  So adding one of these doesn’t lower the risk of the portfolio.  Instead, it introduces a new dimension of risk, one that may be hard to assess.

a painful lesson   

Portfolio managers who embraced beta in its infancy didn’t get this. They assumed uncorrelated= riskless, learned the hard way that this isn’t true when their supposedly defensive portfolios imploded due to sharply underperforming gold issues.

uncorrelated redux      

I’ve been looking at marketing materials for financial planning firms recently.  Allocations to hedge funds are being touted with the idea that their returns are uncorrelated to those of stocks or bonds. This is substantially different from the original claims for this investment form. Over the past fifteen years or so, the hedge fund pitch has gone from being one of higher-than-market returns, to low-but-always-positive returns, to the present uncorrelated.

The reason is that in the aggregate hedge fund returns have consistently been lower than those for index funds for many years and that they do have years where their returns are negative.  What’s left?   …uncorrelated, just like zero-beta gold stocks.  I guess it has been revived because the last “uncorrelated” investment disaster is so far in the past that few remember it.

why hedge funds?

Why have hedge funds at all in a managed portfolio?  They must have some marketing appeal, sort of like tax shelter partnerships or huge fins on the back of a car, that are aimed at the ego–not the wallet–of the client.  A darker reason is that the sponsoring organization may also run the funds, and would miss the huge fees they generate for their managers.







August-October in mutual fund/ETF-land

 August has traditionally been a slow month in financial markets, for two reasons:

–Europe, including European factories and stock markets, pretty much closes up for the month and everyone goes on vacation

–on this side of the Atlantic, high-level Wall Streeters head for the Hamptons, leaving behind cellphone numbers and assistants who have less authority to make independent decisions–and who certainly don’t execute changes in strategy.

Yes, in today’s world the EU is much less significant than it used to be and Industrials as a group are a mere shadow of their former selves.  But the vacation effect is still a powerful soporific.


In September, mutual fund/ETF minds turn toward the end of the fiscal year, which occurs on Halloween.

Mutual funds/ETFs are special-purpose corporations.  Their activities are restricted to investing; they’re required to distribute to shareholders as dividends each year virtually all of the profits they recognize.  (In return for these limitations, they’re exempt from corporate income tax on their gains.)

About thirty years ago, with government encouragement, the industry moved up the end of its fiscal year from December to October.  This gave funds two months post-yearend to put their books in order and get checks in the mail in December, so the IRS could collect income tax from holders on those distributions in the current year.

Because of this, fund/ETF preparation for the October 31st yearend typically begins in early or mid-September.  It invariably involves selling.

How so?

For reasons that completely escape me, mutual fund holders like to receive distributions. They regard it as a mark of success.  And they seem to like a payout of around 2% -3% of asset value.

For most of the year, the tax consequences of their decisions are not in the forefront of portfolio managers’ minds (strong industry belief is that taxes are tail that shouldn’t be allowed to wag the portfolio dog).  As a result, distribution levels most often require fine-tuning.  This means either selling to realize an additional gain, or selling to realize an additional loss.  Either way, it means selling.

At the same time, this occurs close enough to the end of the calendar year that PMs often use the opportunity to begin to make major portfolio revisions in anticipation of what they think will play out in the following calendar year.  This means more selling.


October often sees the beginning of a rally that lasts into December, as the fiscal yearend selling pressure abates.  Accountants play a role here, as well.  Every organization I’ve been in requests that PMs avoid trading, if possible, during the last two weeks of the fiscal year.  That’s to avoid the possibility that a trade has settlement problems and isn’t completed until the beginning of the following fiscal year.  PMs mostly play only lip service to requests like this, but it does ensure that purely tax-related selling is over by mid-month.


a(n important) footnote

Like any other corporation, if a mutual fund/ETF has net losses, it carries them forward for use in subsequent years.  Virtually every fund/ETF has been saddled for years with large tax loss carryforwards generated by large panic redemptions at the bottom of the market in 2008-09.  These had to be offset by realized gains before a distribution would be possible.

Last year was the first time that enough funds/ETFs had used up losses and were able to make distributions.  During the second half of last September, the S&P 500 fell by about 5%, before rallying from  early October through late November.


Caesars Entertainment and private equity

I’ve been wanting to write about what might be called the private equity paradigm for some time. On the other hand, I don’t see any way for me as a portfolio investor to make money from research I might do–other than to keep as far away from private equity deals as possible–so I haven’t done as meticulous job of research on this post as I would if it involved a stock I might buy.  So regard this more of a preliminary drawing than as a finished picture.

When a private equity firm acquires a company, it seems to me it does five things:

–it cuts costs.  The experience of 3G Capital seems to show that typical mature companies are wildly overstaffed, with maybe a quarter of employees collecting a salary but doing no useful work.  Private equity also uses its negotiating power to get better input pricing, although it passes on little, if any, of the savings

–it levies fees to be paid to it for management and other services

–it increases financial leverage, either through taking on a lot of bank debt, or, more likely, issuing huge swathes of junk bonds.  An equity offering may happen, as well

–it dividends lots of available cash generated by operations and/or sales of securities to itself, thereby recovering much/all of its initial investment

–it then sits back and waits to see whether (mixing my metaphors) this leveraged cocktail to which it now has only limited financial exposure, sinks or swims.


Caesars Entertainment has added a new twist to this paradigm.  In 2013, its private equity masters seem to have decided that sink was the more likely outcome.  Rather than simply accept this fate, they began preparing a lifeboat for themselves by whisking away valuable assets from the subsidiary that is liable for the company debt into another one.  In January 2015, after this asset shuffling was done, they put the debt-laden subsidiary into bankruptcy.

Junk bond holders sued.  Litigation has been protracted and has reportedly cost $100 million so far.

Media reports indicate that the case is now approaching resolution–either through negotiation or court ruling.  My no-legal-background view (I was a prosecutor in my early days in the Army, but that says more about the Uniform Code of Military Justice back then than about me) is that:  these asset transfers can’t be legal; and the junk bond loan agreements should have had covenants that explicitly bar such action.  So I’m not sure what has taken this long.

Whatever the outcome of the case is, I think it will shape the nature of private equity from this point forward.




brokers, IRAs and the fiduciary standard

a fiduciary

Being a fiduciary basically means putting your client’s financial interest ahead of your own.

A practical example:  

…given the choice between two products, one with a checkered performance record and high costs, but which makes payments (cash or trips or dinners…) to a financial adviser for selling the product, and a second with stellar performance and lower costs, and which makes no such payments, a fiduciary is required to recommend the second over the first.  At the very least, the fiduciary is required to disclose the facts of the situation, including the payoff from product #1, and allow the client to choose.

A brokerage firm registered representative, on the other hand, is not a fiduciary.  So he’s not required to alert the customer in advance if he’s recommending an inferior product, which is ok, but not great for the client and which–oh, by the way–pays him more.

For a long time consumer advocates have been trying to get Congress to change the laws so that brokers are redefined as fiduciaries.  Their push has intensified since the financial crisis.  But, although the change seems to me to be just common sense, and is in line with the standard of service customers already assume they are receiving, the financial industry lobby is still strong enough to have stymied these efforts.

retirement funds

The Labor Department, however, has recently used its administrative authority to issue guidelines for retirement investments which require advisers to act as fiduciaries, that is, to give investment advice that is in the client’s best interest.

Today, I heard the first reaction to these guidelines–other than general disapproval–from the brokerage industry.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the Edward Jones brokerage firm is withdrawing its mutual funds from retirement products affected by the Labor Department rules.  I looked on the Edward Jones website for clarification, but there’s no press release I can find.

To me, this means one of two things:

–EJ thinks its business practices run afoul of DOL guidelines and it is choosing to withdraw from this market rather than change them, and/or

–it thinks that 401k/IRA providers that sell Edward Jones products have potential compliance issues and prefers not to be involved.

Either way, this all seems to me evidence of how reliant the traditional brokerage profit model must be to offering investment “advice” that can’t pass the fiduciary test.



Intel (INTC) and ARM Holdings (ARMH)

chipmaking rivalry

The big division in the chip-making industry over the past 15-20 years has been between giant vertically integrated makers like INTC, Texas Instruments … which manufacture chips designed in-house and smaller digitally-oriented design firms who rent structural intellectual property from ARMH, modify it and have chips made in third-party contract fabrication factories like those run by TSMC.

INTC’s advantages have been the raw power of its chips and its manufacturing superiority.  Users of the ARMH framework tout the elegance of their designs that enables output to be smaller, use less electricity and generate less heat.

disruption by iPhone

The balance of power began to shift away from INTC and toward the ARMH camp when INTC decided not to make chips for the iPhone.  It may be that INTC management thought smartphones were a flash in the pan, as urban legend has it, or it may simply have been that INTC knew its chips ran too hot and used too much power for Apple to be satisfied with them.  In any event, INTC has been trying to reinvent itself since then, by improving its chip design while maintaining its manufacturing edge.

On the latter front, INTC continues do well; on the former, not so much.  Despite a lot of design effort, its low-power, low-heat solutions for the smartphone world haven’t been good enough to gain much traction.

This itself threatens the manufacturing operation.  As INTC steadily shrinks the size of its chips, each silicon wafer processed becomes capable of yielding more output.  At some point, INTC’s factories are potentially going to be capable of churning out more chips than the company can reasonably expect to sell to its PC and server customers.  The capital equipment used in chip making is so expensive–$3 billion+ today, maybe $10 billion+ for the fabs of a few years from now–that the factories have to run at high utilization rates to be profitable.  INTC has already said that next-generation (extreme ultraviolet lithography) technology is too expensive for even INTC to invest in by itself.

Hence the deal with ARMH.

three other points:

–presumably working with ARMH-based firms will help INTC fine-tune its manufacturing processes for mobile and the Internet of Things

–this may be the first step in closer cooperation between the two companies

–the arrangement has been announced very quickly after Softbank agreed to acquire ARMH.  Are the two connected?  If so, Masayoshi Son may have plans for much greater integration of the two rival firms.






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