human capital and the US presidential election

human capital

When we think of sources of capital, we typically imagine bank accounts, IRA/401ks, stocks, bonds, pensions, land/structures we can rent or mortgage…

For most people, though, the largest source of wealth they have is their human capital, a concept economist Gary Becker won the Nobel Prize in 1992 for articulating.

Basically, human capital is the collection of characteristics someone has that allows him to get a job and make money.  The three main ones, according to Becker, are: education, training and health.

The way human capital is generally quantified is by creating a present value of future expected earnings.  One implication of this is that an individual’s human capital gradually diminishes as he ages.  It’s often said that that figure reaches zero when he’s 65, although I think this is more because no one will hire you, rather than that you suddenly lose your skills.

investments and politics

Human capital is an important idea in managing our investments …as well as in politics today.

investments

The investment issue is risk and diversification.

A key employee in a tech startup who owns a house in Silicon Valley and a portfolio stuffed full of tech stocks has no diversification at all.  And, no matter what his faith in his skills, the circumstances that would cause him to lose his job likely also substantially impair the value of his dwelling and his stocks.

In contrast, a tenured professor at a top-10 university probably has a job for life (my philosophy mentor is retiring next year at 82–so much for human capital reaching zero at 65!).  Having a stock portfolio that contains only utilities is probably excessively conservative.

politics

The political issue is jobs.

For some years, China has been facing the problem that economic prosperity has made sewing t-shirts, and other simple, labor-intensive industrial operations, unprofitable there.  Affected companies are closing down and relocating to lower cost places like Bangladesh, creating substantial unemployment.

If all a person in China can do is make t-shirts, his human capital, no matter what his age, is reduced to zero as industry leaves the country.  Economically, this is devastating.

What to do?

The obvious, well-understood answer is for government to help retrain the t-shirt makers for another occupation.  This restores the value of his human capital, most likely to a higher level than before.  It’s good for the country as well as the individual.

Which brings us to the US…

We have a similar problem to China’s, except that we’ve had it for much longer.  Despite this, the US pays very little attention to worker retraining, spending about 1/6 per capita of what the average advanced country does.  If that spending is anything like the VA’s “service” for veterans, the government effort is even weaker than that low figure suggests.

The  deep discontent that this failure has produced is, I think, the nerve that Donald Trump and his scary, crackpot, Ned-Ludd-reads-Mein-Kampf ideas have touched.  Their sole merit is that they make clear the scale of the problem that Washington has brushed under the rug for years.

I was going to end this by comparing Trump to Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who did so much damage to that country’s economy during four terms.  Yes, Berlusconi promised to fix serious problems.  But he made them worse instead.  As I was googling to make sure spelled the name correctly, I found this article from Politico.

 

mutual fund and ETF fund flows

away from active management…

There’s a long-term movement by investors of all stripes away from actively managed mutual funds into index funds and ETFs.  As Morningstar has recently reported, such switching has reached 2008-era levels in recent months.  Surges like this have been the norm during periods of uncertainty.

The mantra of index proponents has long been that investors can’t control performance, but they can control costs.  Therefore, all other things being more or less equal, investors should look for, and buy, the lowest-cost alternative in each category they’re interested in.  That’s virtually always an index fund or an ETF.

Active managers haven’t helped themselves by generally underperforming index products before their (higher) fees.

…but net stock inflows

What I find interesting and encouraging is that stock products overall are receiving net inflows–meaning that the inflows to passive products are higher than the outflows from active ones.

why today is different

Having been an active manager and having generally outperformed, neither of these negative factors for active managers bothered me particularly during my investing career.  One thing has changed in the current environment, though, to the detriment of all active management.

It’s something no one is talking about that I’m aware of.  But it’s a crucial part of the argument in favor of passive investing, in my opinion.

what is an acceptable net return?

It’s the change in investor expectations about what constitutes an acceptable net return.

If we go back to early 2000, the 10-year Treasury bond yield was about 6.5%, and a one-year CD yielded 5.5%.  US stocks had just concluded a second decade of double-digit average annual returns.  So whether your annual net return from bonds was 5.5% or 5.0%, or whether your net return from stocks was 12% or 11%, may not have made that much difference to you.  So you wouldn’t look at costs so critically.

Today, however, the epic decline in interest rates/inflation that fueled a good portion of that strong investment performance is over.  The 10-year Treasury now yields 1.6%.  Expectations for annual stock market returns probably exceed 5%, but are certainly below 10%.  The actual returns on stocks over the past two years have totalled around 12%, or 6% each year.

rising focus on cost control

In the current environment, cost control is a much bigger deal.  If I could have gotten a net return of 6% on an S&P 500 ETF in 2014 and 2015, for example, but have a 4% net from an actively managed mutual fund (half the shortfall due to fees, half to underperformance) that’s a third of my potential return gone.

It seems to me that so long as inflation remains contained–and I can see no reason to think otherwise–we’ll be in the current situation.  Unless/until active managers reduce fees substantially, switching to passive products will likely continue unabated.  And in an environment of falling fees and shrinking assets under management making needed improvements in investment performance will be that much more difficult.

 

takeovers and market price indications: Softbank/Arm Holdings

Softbank is bidding £17 per share for ARM, an offer that management of the chip design company has quickly accepted.  ARM closed in London at £16.61 yesterday, after trading as high as £17.52 in the initial moments of Monday trading–the first time the London market was open after the bid announcement.

What is the price of ARM telling us?

Let’s make the (reasonable, in my opinion) assumption that the price of ARM is now being determined by the activity of merger and acquisition specialists, many of whom work in companies mainly, or wholly, devoted to this sort of analysis.

These specialists will consider three factors in figuring out what they’re willing to pay for ARM:

–the time they think it will take until the takeover is completed (let’s say, three months),

–the cost of borrowing money to buy ARM shares (2% per year?) and

–the return they expect to make from holding the shares and delivering them to Softbank.

They’ll buy if the return is high enough.  They’ll stay on the sidelines otherwise.

Suppose they think that without any doubt the Softbank bid for ARM is going to succeed–that no other bidder is going to emerge and that the takeover is going to encounter no regulatory problems (either delays or outright vetoing the combination).  In this case, the calculation is straightforward.  The only real question is the return the arbitrageur is willing to accept.

I haven’t been closely involved in this business for years.  Although I know the chain of reasoning that goes into determining a potential buy point, I no longer know the minimum an arbitrageur considers an acceptable.  If it were me, 10% would be the least I’d accept if I thought there were any risk;  5% might be my lower limit even if I saw clear sailing ahead.  If nothing else, I’m tying up borrowing power that I might be able to use more profitably elsewhere.

Let’s now look at the ARM price.

At £16.61, ARM is trading at a 2.3% discount to the offer price.  An arbitrageur who can borrow at 0.5% for three months stands to make a 1.8% return by buying ARM now.  Ugh!  The only way to make an acceptable return, if the assumptions I’ve outlined above are correct, is to leverage yourself to the sky.

 

From this analysis, I conclude two things:

–the market is not worrying about any regulatory impediments to the speedy conclusion of the union.  Quite the opposite.  Otherwise, someone would be shorting ARM.

–buyers seem to me to be speculating in a very mild way that a higher bid will emerge.  If they had strong confidence in another suitor coming forward, the stock would be trading above £17.  If they were 100% convinced that there would be no new offer, I think the stock would be trading closer to £16.25, a point which would represent an annualized 20% return to a purchaser using borrowed money.

 

 

 

Softbank and Arm Holdings (ARM)

My thoughts:

–the price Softbank is offering for ARM seems very high to me.  That’s partly intentional on Softbank’s part, not wanting to get into a bidding war.  It’s also based on Softbank’s non-consensus belief that the development of the Internet of Things will be a much bigger plus for ARM than the consensus understands.

–I’m rereading the resignation of Nikesh Arora as a sign of his disapproval of the acquisition, not of Masayoshi Son’s remaining at the helm of Softbank

–ARM seems to be content to be bought.  And why not?  Holders of ARM stock and options will get a big payday.  Softbank has no semiconductor design expertise, so ARM will likely run autonomously under the Son roof.  Softbank is also apparently promising to keep the company headquarters in the UK as well as to substantially increase the research staff.

–A competing bid is unlikely.  That’s mostly because of the price.  But ARM management knows it would never have the operating freedom as a subsidiary of Intel or Samsung (the most logical other suitors) that it would as part of Softbank.  When the company’s assets leave in the elevator every night, any unfriendly bid is inherently risky.  Doubly so when it threatens a really sweet deal.  No, I don’t think antitrust issues would be a deterrent to a bid.

–Will the UK allow the deal?  The Financial Times, which should be in a position to know, suggests that the UK might not.

How so?

ARM is basically the country’s only major technology company, so domestic ownership may be an issue of national prestige and pride.  There’s certain to be some opposition, I think.  And crazier things have happened.  For example, France disallowed Pepsi’s bid for Danone on the argument that the latter’s yogurt is a national treasure.  In the late 1970s, the US barred Fujitsu from buying Fairchild Semiconductor on grounds that foreign ownership presented national security risks   …and then allowed it to be sold to French oilfield services firm Schlumberger.  More recently, the US scuttled the sale of a ports management business that runs Newark and other US ports to the government of Dubai, an ally, on security grounds.  The would-be seller was also foreign, P&O of the UK.

This is the major risk I see.

Softbank and ARM Holdings

a brief history of Softbank

Softbank is a Japanese company incorporated in 1981.  It has a non-establishment CEO, Masayoshi Son, notoriously opaque financials and a reputation as a maverick in its home country.  The company’s earliest successes came as an investor partnering with international internet companies entering Japan, like Yahoo and eTrade.  It was also an early supporter of now-huge Chinese internet businesses.

In 2006, it became an active business owner, entering the Japanese cellphone market by acquiring Vodafone’s network.  It revolutionized that business in Japan by rebranding as Softbank Mobile and launching a very successful discount cellphone service.

In 2012 it decided to employ the same strategy in the US, buying a controlling interest in Sprint.  Softbank appears to me tohave made the bold $21+ billion commitment thinking it could build a viable nationwide network by merging Sprint with T-Mobile.  Anti-trust regulators prevented that from happening, however, leaving Sprint in its current weak position and Softbank with a mess.

About a year ago, perhaps chastened by his Sprint error, Mr. Son announced he was stepping down as CEO and hired his apparent successor, Google executive Nikesh Arora.

Late last month Mr. Arora, who had been working to reduce Softbank’s financial leverage through asset sales, announced he was leaving the company, and Mr. Son that he was now planning to remain as CEO for perehaps ten more years.

This weekend we learned why–Softbank announced that Arm Holdings, the UK-based chip design firm, had accepted its all-cash bid of £24 billion ($32 billion), a 40%+ premium to its Friday close in London.

which Son is making this purchase?

Is it the prescient buyer of Alibaba and Vodafone Japan?    …or is it the sorely disappointed purchaser of Sprint?  Mr. Son is apparently arguing that development of the Internet of Things will generate a surprisingly large explosion of licensing fees and royalties for Arm.

More tomorrow.

the EU today: structural adjustment needed

Let’s assume that my description of the EU ex the UK is correct–that beneficiaries of the traditional order (the elites) are, and will continue to be, successful at thwarting structural change that would rock tradition but produce higher economic growth.

How should an equity investor proceed?

There are two schools of thought, not necessarily mutually incompatible:

–the first is that in an area where there is little growth, companies with strong fundamentals will stand out even more from the crowd.  This lucky few will therefore gain much of the local investor interest, plus the vast majority of foreign investor attention.  If so, in places like continental Europe or Japan one should look for fast-growing mid-cap companies with global sales potential for their products and services.  These will almost certainly outperform the market.

The more important question for an equity investor is whether they will do as well as similar companies domiciled and traded elsewhere.

–my personal observation is that the general malaise that affects stock markets in low-growth areas like Japan or the EU infects the fast growers as well.  The result is that they don’t do as well as similar companies elsewhere.  I haven’t tried to quantify the difference, but it’s what I’ve observed over the years.

It may be that the local market is offended by brash upstarts.  It may be that local portfolio managers deal only in book value and dividend yield as metrics.  It may simply be the fact that local laws prevent owners from eventually selling to the highest bidder, thereby damping down the ultimate upside for the stock.  One other effect of a situation like this is, of course, that entrepreneurs leave and set their companies up elsewhere.

 

The bottom line for a growth investor like me is that these areas become markets for the occasional special situation, not places where I want to be fully invested most of the time.  Because of this, and because of Brexit, the UK assumes greater importance for me.  So, too, Hong Kong, as an avenue into mainland China.  And to the degree I want to have direct international exposure–which means I want to avoid the US for whatever reason–emerging markets also come into play.

 

A final thought:  one could argue that the lack of investment appeal I perceive in Japan and continental Europe has nothing to do with political or cultural choices.  Both areas have relatively old populations.  If it’s simply demographics, signs of similar trouble should be appearing in the US within a decade.  I don’t think this is correct, but as investors we should all be attentive to possible signs.

 

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