issues with the traditional business cycle picture

As I mentioned yesterday, one BIG problem with the traditional business cycle model (the one taught in business schools) is that although it explains what happens abroad, it no longer fits with behavior in the US economy–which is, after all, the biggest in the world (for believers in purchasing power parity, the second-biggest   …after China).

The model says that lower interest rates energize business capital spending, which produces new hiring, which leads to higher consumer activity as new employees spend their paychecks.

Makes sense.

the US experience

In the US, however, consumer spending recovers first.  Typically, soon after the Fed begins to lower interest rates, US consumers have been back in the malls, spending up a storm.  Rather than industry lifting the consumer, the consumer pulls industry out of its slump.

How so?

Economists theorize that what’s at work in the US is the “wealth effect.”  Two aspects:

–maybe lower rates are like Pavlov’s dinner bell ringing and consumers begin to salivate in advance of recovery  (my personal take on this is idea that the office/plant grapevine signals that the worst is over, that layoffs have stopped and new hiring will soon begin)

–lower rates = house prices start to rise, as do bonds and stocks.  So consumers feel wealthier as rates fall, because their accumulated assets (their wealth) are worth more.

The problem here is that we’ve had zero rates for eight years without seeing the traditional recession-ending spending surge

where’s the capital spending?

Whether capital spending is the locomotive or the caboose, it’s still arguably an integral part of the economic recovery train.  Why haven’t we seen a capital spending surge in the US?  Is the lack of capital spending an indication of continuing weakness in the US economy, as the traditional business cycle theory would suggest?

I think four factors are involved here, the sum of which suggests reality has sped far ahead of theory:

–the internet.   Typically, there’d be a surge in construction of shopping malls as recovery gains speed.  But as online commerce has developed, we’re finding that we already have maybe 20% too much bricks-and-mortar retail space

–globalization.  Continuing industrialization in emerging economies like China during the last decade has decisively shifted lots of low-end US-based manufacturing abroad.  In addition, I’m also willing to entertain the thought that crazy spending in China has produced an enduring glut of manufacturing capacity there, although I have no hard evidence

–software.  For many (most?) US companies, the largest target for new investment spending is not bigger, newer plants but faster, more efficient software. The National Accounts, the government system of tallying economic progress, have no effective way of recording this expenditure for analysis.  The traditional business cycle picture is similarly stuck in the world of fifty (or a hundred) years ago

–skilled vs. manual labor.   This is a thorny issue, and one I have strong opinions about.  Here, I think it’s enough to say that the traditional model doesn’t distinguish between a twenty-year old with a grade school education and a strong back vs. a college dropout like Mark Zuckerberg.  A generation ago, the distinction wasn’t important.  today, it’s crucial.




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.


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.


Brexit, sterling and InterContinental Hotels Group (LN:IHG)

Early indicators after the UK vote to “Leave” the EU are already showing the country is dipping into recession.  Nevertheless, large-cap stocks in the UK have held up surprisingly well.

This can clearly be seen in the results just announced yesterday by IHG.  The fear of markets before Brexit about hotels had been that the post-recession cyclical upsurge in vacationing had just about run its course–and that, as a result, hotel profits were just about to peak/had already peaked.  But the figures from IHG were good and the stock rose by about 3% on the news.

To see how this can be, it’s important to note    that the post-Brexit decline in the fortunes of the UK has been expressed almost entirely in a 10%+ decline in the British currency.  This is an unexpected boon for British-based multinationals.

As Richard Solomons, the CEO of IHG, put it in yesterday’s report to shareholders:

“Note that whilst the UK comprises around 5% of our group revenues,

approximately 50% of our gross central overhead and

40% of Europe regional overhead are in sterling.

At 30 June 2016 exchange rates, approximately 70% of our debt is denominated in sterling.”

All of these figures are now 10% less in purchasing power terms than they were pre-Brexit.  Without any price changes, revenues will be 0.5% lower in dollar terms than they would have been.  But overheads will be down by much more.  In addition, the dollar value of the company’s debt is sliced by about $128 million.

This situation has two positive effects in the minds of UK investors:

–profits will likely be higher than anticipated, making the stock more attractive, and

–to the extent that a company like IHG, which has the lion’s share of revenues outside the UK, is affected by Brexit, the influence is likely to be positive.  This means that it can act as a way for British residents to preserve the purchasing power of their savings.


the Tesla (TSLA)/SolarCity (SCTY) merger

Yesterday, TSLA and SCTY announced the two firms had reached agreement for TSLA to acquire SCTY in an all stock deal.  TSLA will exchange .11 shares of its stock for each share of SCTY, with closing sometime before yearend.  SCTY has 45 days to shop for a better offer.

Most commentaries I’ve read seem to miss two things:

–the original TSLA proposal said it anticipated an exchange ratio of between .122 and .131 to one, subject to closer examination of SCTY’s books.  The purpose of the range, as I see it, was to put a ceiling on what TSLA would pay for SCTY, no matter what good things it found on closer inspection.

Well, the opposite has happened.  The actual offer falls 10% below the lower bound, suggesting that SCTY looks considerably less great on the inside than its public financials would suggest.

–the combined entity, despite anticipated administrative/marketing savings of $150 million a year, assumes it will need to make an equity financing next year.


Overall, however, I think this is a good deal for SCTY.  Although I have traded the stock from time to time, the one thing that has always bothered me about SCTY is its stepchild status in the Elon Musk empire.  I say stepchild because TSLA, not SCTY, owns the Gigafactory, which will supply state-of-the-art batteries to SCTY.  To me, this signaled that TSLA was in the heart of the Elon Musk empire and that SCTY was on the periphery.  The merger changes that.

three ways to account for associated companies

This post is to lay the groundwork for understanding what Nintendo actually said about Pokemon Go last Friday.

There are three basic ways to account for companies that a firm owns an interest of less than 100% in another firm.

–the cost method.  This is used when the firm whose financial reports we’re talking about has neither influence nor control over the operations of the enterprise held.  A good rule of thumb is that this means a holding of less than 20% of the outstanding shares.

In this situation, the holding is listed on the balance sheet as a long-term investment at acquisition cost.

Under normal circumstances, the income statement contains no accounting of the holding’s financial results.

Two exceptions:  dividends paid are recorded as income; if the asset is impaired, the loss is shown on the income statement.

On the other hand, if the value of the holding increases, there’s no reflection of this in the owner’s financials.  Yes, accounting theory says the holding value should be adjusted periodically for changes in the investment’s fortunes, but as a practical matter this is rarely done.

equity interests.  This is where the holding firm is judged to have influence but not control over the entity held.  Typically, this applies to holdings that fall between 20% and 50% ownership of the investment.

If so, the owner records his share of the financial results of the holding on a single line toward the bottom of the income statement.  This line is called “Equity Interests” or something like that and is an after-tax aggregate of all such equity interests.

The holder also adjusts the balance sheet value for profits (up), losses (down) and dividends received (down).

consolidation.  This is the case where the holding firm exercises influence and control.  The rule of thumb here is that ownership of 50% or higher implies having both.

If the ownership is less than 100%, the consolidating company still reports results–revenues, costs etc.–from operations as if it owned 100%.  But it add correcting, after-tax entries, both in the income statement and on the balance sheet, typically labelled “Minority interests” that subtract out the portion of earnings and assets held by others.  Again, these are aggregate figures and not broken out holding-by-holding.  Minority interests are usually recorded toward the bottom of the income statement, somewhere near the consolidated net income line.

Tomorrow, how this applies to the Nintendo announcement


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.