public utilities and California wildfires

public utilities

The idea behind public utilities is that society is far worse off if a municipality has, say, ten companies vying to provide essential services like power and water to citizens, tearing up streets to install infrastructure and then maybe going out of business because they can’t get enough customers.  Better to give one (or some other small number) a monopoly on providing service, with government supervising and regulating what the utility can charge.

The general idea of this government price-setting is to permit a maximum annual profit return, say 5% per year, on the utility company’s net investment in plant and equipment (net meaning after accumulated depreciation).  The precise language and formula used to translate this into unit prices will vary from place to place.

The ideal situation for a public utility is one where the population of the service area is expanding and new capacity is continually needed.  If so, regulators are happy to authorize a generous return on plant, to make it easier for the utility to raise money for expansion in bond and stock markets.

mature service areas

Once the service area matures, which is the case in most of the US, the situation changes significantly.  Customers are no longer clamoring to get more electric power or water.  They have them already.  What they want now is lower rates.  At the same time, premium returns are no longer needed to raise new money in the capital markets.  The result is that public service commissions begin to reduce the allowable return on plant–downward pressure that there’s no obvious reason to stop.

In turn, utility company managements typically respond in two ways:  invest cash flow in higher-potential return non-utility areas, and/or reduce operating costs.  In fact, doing the second can generate extra money to do the first.

How does a utility reduce costs?

One way is to merge with a utility in another area, to cut administrative expenses–the combined entity only needs one chairman, for example, one president, one personnel department…

Also, if each utility has a hundred employees on call to respond to emergencies, arguably the combined utility only needs one hundred, not two.    In the New York area, where I live, let’s say a hundred maintenance people come from Ohio during a blackout and another hundred from Pennsylvania to join a hundred local maintenance workers in New York.  Heroic-sounding, and for the workers in question heroic in fact.  But a generation ago each utility would each have employed three hundred maintenance workers locally, most of whom have since been laid off in cost-cutting drives.

Of course, this also means fewer workers available to do routine maintenance, like making sure power lines won’t get tangles up in trees.

the California example

I don’t know all the details, but the bare bones of the situation are what I’ve described above:

–the political imperative shifts from making it easier for the utility to raise new funds (i.e., allowing a generous return on plant) to keeping voters’ utility bills from increasing (i.e., lowering the permitted return).

–the utility tries to maintain profits by spending less, including on repair and maintenance

The utility sees no use in complaining about the lower return; the utility commission sees no advantage in pointing out that maintenance spending is declining (since a major cause is the commission lowering the allowable return).   So both sides ignore the worry that repair and maintenance will eventually be reduced to a level where there’s a significant risk of power failure–or in California’s case, of fires.  When a costly failure does occur, neither side has any incentive to reveal the political bargain that has brought it on.

utilities as an investment

In the old days, it was almost enough to look at the dividend yield of a given utility, on the assumption that all but the highest would be relatively stable.  So utilities were viewed more or less as bond proxies.  Because of the character of mature utilities, no longer.

In addition, in today’s world a lot more is happening in this once-staid industry, virtually all of it, as I see things, to the disadvantage of the traditional utility.  Renewables like wind and solar are now in the picture and made competitive with traditional power through government subsidies.  Utilities are being broken up into separate transmission and generation companies, with transmission firms compelled to allow independent power generators to use their lines to deliver output to customers.

While the California experience may be a once-in-a-lifetime extreme, to my mind utilities are no longer the boring, but safe bond proxies they were a generation or more ago.

Quite the opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Score, September 2019

I’ve just updated my Keeping Score page for September 2019.  No sign so far of the traditional actively-managed mutual fund selloff in advance of the Halloween yearend.  I wonder why.  Is this a function of the AI era?   …the fact that passive money under management exceeds actively managed?   …is selling just late?

Will no selloff now mean no 4Q rally?    …that would be my guess.

America: a weakening brand

When I first became interested in Tiffany (TIF) as a stock years ago, one thing that stood out was that the company was doing a land office business in almost all facets of its rapid international expansion.  One exception:  the EU.  I quickly became convinced that the reason was because TIF is an American company.

For Europeans, France, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of the EU, are the font of all knowledge and culture.  As local literature and philosophy make clear, being situated on the sacred soil of (fill in any EU country) is the key to its superiority.  The US,  lacking requisite hallowed ground, is a semi-boorish johnny-come-lately.  Sporting a piece of jewelry from an American firm therefore implies one has suffered a devastating reversal of fortune that puts “authentic” jewelry out of reach.

 

In the rest of the world, however, the US is a symbol of aspiration.  America stands for freedom, opportunity, cutting-edge technology, the best universities and an ethos that prizes accomplishment not heritage.  It’s “all men are created equal”  “give me your …huddled masses yearning to be free” and “I am not throwing away my shot.”  Wearing, or just owning, a piece of American jewelry becomes a symbolic linking of the holder to these national values.  It hasn’t hurt, either, particularly with an older generation (paradoxically, ex the EU) that the US made a monumental effort to help heal the world after WWII.

 

The “brand” of the United States has taken a real beating since Mr. Trump has become president.  Surveys, one of which is reported in INC magazine, show a sharp drop in US prestige right after his victory and continuing deterioration since.   I don’t think the biggest negative issue is the president’s insecurities, his constant prevarication, his very weak record as a real estate developer or his (hare-brained) economic policies while in office.  I see the worst damage coming instead from his love of leaders with poor human rights records and his disdain for women and people of color …plus the whiff of sadism detectable in his treatment of both.

 

Whatever the precise cause may be, the deterioration of the America’s reputation under Mr. Trump is a very real worry for domestic consumer companies.  Damage will likely show itself in two ways:  weaker sales to foreign tourists, and the absence of positive surprises from foreign subsidiaries.  For domestic retail firms, it seems clear that economic recovery has finally come to the less wealthy parts of the US over the past year or two–witness the profit performance of Walmart or the dollar stores.  On the other hand, it seems to me that people who have trusted Mr. Trump in the past–like the banks that lent him money, the contractors who built his casinos, those who bought DJT stock and bonds, farmers who voted for him–have all ended up considerably worse off than the more wary.  So while they may be good temporary hiding places, holders should be nimble.

One final thought:  brands don’t deteriorate overnight but the cumulative damage can be enormous.  The first to react will be younger consumers, who have the least experience with/of the “old” brand.   They will be the most difficult to win back.  As well, as time passes, their views will be increasingly important in commerce.

 

 

 

yield curve inversion, external shock and recession

Stock markets around the world sold off yesterday in wicked fashion after the yield on the 10-year Treasury “inverted,”  that is, fell below the yield on the 2-year.  This has very often been the signal of an upcoming recession.  Typically, though, the inversion happens because the Fed is raising short-term interest rates in an attempt to slow too-rapid economic growth.  So it’s first and foremost a signal of aggressive Fed tightening, which has in the past almost always gone too far, causing an economic contraction.

In the present case, this is not the situation.  The Fed is signalling ease, not tightening.  Arguably, arbitrage between long-dated US and EU government bonds is suppressing the 10-year.

While trading robots, unleashed by the inversion, may have been behind the negative stock market action yesterday, my sense is that this is not all that’s going on.  I think the market is beginning to step back and focus on the bigger economic picture.  It may not like what it sees, namely:

–worldwide, economies are now being hit by a significant negative external shock.  It’s not a tripling of the oil price, as was the case in the 1970s, nor a collapsing financial system, as in 2008.  Instead, this time it’s the Trump tariffs, which appear to be reducing growth in the US by more than expected (not that anyone had extremely precise thoughts)

–the 2017 tax bill is not paying for itself, as the administration claimed at the time, but is adding to the government deficit instead–implying that further fiscal stimulation is less likely.  Giving extra cash to the ultra-rich, who tend to save rather than spend, and keeping tax breaks for industries of the past hasn’t bought much oomph to growth, either

–channeling his inner Herbert Hoover, Mr. Trump is trying to export the weakness he has created by devaluing the dollar.

 

Stepping back a bit to view the larger picture,

–pushing interest rates near to zero, depreciating the currency and defending the politically powerful industries of the 1970s all seem to mirror the game plan that has produced thirty years of stagnation in Japan and similar results in large parts of the EU.  Not pretty.

–on a smaller scale, this brings to mind Mr. Trump’s fundamentally misguided and ultimately disastrous foray into Atlantic City gaming, a venture where he appears to have profited personally but where those who supported and trusted him by owning DJT stock and bonds were financially decimated.

 

It seems to me that Wall Street is starting to come to grips with two possibilities:  that there may be only impulsiveness, and no master plan or end game to the Trump trade wars; and that Congresspeople of all stripes realize this but are unwilling to do anything to thwart the president’s whims.  In other words, the real issue being pondered is not recession but Trump-induced secular stagnation.

 

 

 

shrinking bond yields ii

why look at bonds? 

If we’re stock market investors, why are we interested in bonds anyway?  It’s because at bottom we’re not really interested in stocks per se.  We’re interested in liquid publicly-traded securities–i.e., stocks, bonds and cash.  We’re interested in publicly-traded securities because we can almost always sell them in an instant, and because there’s usually enough information available about them that we can make an educated decision.

 

comparing bonds with stocks

bond yields, at yesterday’s close

One-month Treasury bills = 2.18%

Ten-year Treasury notes = 2.07%

30-year Treasury bonds = 2.57%.

S&P 500

Current dividend yield on the index = 1.7%.

 

According to Yardeni Research (a reputable firm, but one I chose because it was the first name up in my Google search), index earnings for calendar year 2019 are estimated to be about $166, earning for the coming 12 months, about $176.

Based on this, the S&P at 3000 means a PE ratio of 18.0 for calendar year 2019, and 17.0 for the 12 months ending June 2020.

Inverting those figures, we obtain an “earnings yield,” a number we can use to compare with bond yields–the main difference being that we get bond interest payments in our pockets while our notional share of company managers remains with them.

The 2019 figure earnings yield for the S&P is 5.6%; for the forward 12 months, it’s 5.8%.

the result

During my time in the stock market, there has typically been a relatively stable relationship between the earnings yield and 10-/30-year Treasury yields.  (The notable exception was the period just before the 2008-09 recession, when, as I see it, reported financials massively misstated the profitability of banks around the world.  So although there was a big mismatch between bond and stock yields, faulty SEC filings made this invisible.)

At present, the earnings yield is more than double the government bond yield.  This is very unusual.  Perhaps more significant, the yield on the 10-year Treasury is barely above the dividend yield on stocks, a level that, in my experience, is breached only at market bottoms.

Despite the apparently large overvaluation of bonds vs. stocks, there continues to be a steady outflow from US stock mutual funds and into bond funds.

the valuation gap

Using earnings yield vs coupon rationale outlined above, stocks are way cheaper than bonds.  How can this be?

–for years, part of world central banks’ efforts to repair the damage done by the financial crisis has been to inject money into circulation by buying government bonds.  This has pushed up bond prices/pushed down yields.  Private investors have also been acting as arbitrageurs, selling the lowest-yielding bonds and buying the highest (in this case meaning Treasuries).  This process compresses yields and lowers them overall.

–large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers are reallocating portfolios away from           stocks

–I presume, but don’t know enough about the inner workings of the bond market to be sure, that a significant number of bond professionals are shorting Treasuries and buying riskier, less liquid corporate bonds with the proceeds.  This will one day end in tears (think:  Long Term Capital), but likely not in the near future.

currency

To the extent that 1 and 3 involve foreigners, who have to buy dollars to get into the game, their activity puts at least some upward pressure on the US currency.  The dollar has risen by about 2.4% over the past year on a trade-weighted basis, and by about 3% against the yen and the euro.  That’s not much.  In fact, I was surprised when calculating these figures how little the dollar has appreciated, given the outcry from the administration and its pressure on the Fed to weaken the dollar by lowering the overnight money rate. (My guess is that our withdrawing from the TPP, tariff wars, and the tarnishing of our image as a democracy have, especially in the Pacific, done much more to damage demand for US goods than the currency.)

high-yielding stocks as a substitute for bonds?

I haven’t done any work, so I really don’t know.  I do know a number of fellow investors who have been following this idea for more than five years.  So my guess is that there aren’t many undiscovered bargains in this area.

 

my bottom line

I’m less concerned now about the message low bond yields are sending than I was before I started to write these posts.  I still think the valuation mismatch between stocks and bonds will eventually be a problem for both markets.  But my guess is that normalization, if that’s the right word, won’t start until the EU begins to repair the serious fissures in its structure.  Maybe this is a worry for 2020, maybe not even then.

It seems to me that the US stock market’s main economic concern remains the damage from Mr. Trump’s misguided effort to resuscitate WWII-era industries in the US.  The best defense will likely be cloud-oriented cash-generating software-based US multinationals.  (see the comments by a former colleague attached to yesterday’s post).

 

 

 

 

 

shrinking global bond yields

valuing bonds   …and stocks

Conventional US financial markets wisdom–maybe glorified common sense–says that the yearly return on financial instruments should consist of protection against inflation plus some additional reward that varies according to the risk taken.  For stocks, the belief is that they should earn the inflation rate + six percentage points for risk annually; ten-year government bonds should return inflation + three percent.

If inflation is 2%+, this means the 10-year Treasury should have an annual yield of 5%+.

Stocks should have a total return (price change + dividend received) on average of 8%+ yearly.

last Friday

the 10-year

Last Friday, the 10-year Treasury yield broke below 2%, to an intra-day low of 1.95%!

Austria

Even weirder, across the Atlantic, the Austrian government is warming up to issue 100-year bonds yielding 1.2%.  Demand appears to be strong, possibly because its issue of century bonds in 2017 at a 2.1% yield is up in price by about 60% since.  Of course, it’s also true that many EU sovereign instruments are trading at negative interest rates–a result of central bank efforts to stimulate economic growth there.

Trumponomics

Odder still, but probably not that surprisingly, Mr. Trump is actively browbeating the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates further, despite the fact that virtually no domestic evidence is calling for further distortion to rates.  I say “virtually,” because there is one contrary–the administration’s policy on trade and immigration.  If there is a master plan behind that, I guess it’s what Mr. Trump believes is needed to assure his reelection.  One issue for him is that the price increases he has put on imported goods have offset almost all of the Federal income tax reduction the average American family got last year.  In addition, the seemingly arbitrariness and changing nature of Trump tariffs–plus the radio silence of Congress tacitly approving of the circus–appear to have slowed domestic capital investment significantly.  More forethought is likely out of the question for the administration   …hence Mr. Trump’s Rube Goldberg-esque call for counterbalancing monetary stimulus.

???

I’ll happily confess that I’m not a bond expert.  For what it’s worth, I don’t like bonds, either.  But the present state of affairs in the bond market–the absence of any return above protection from inflation– seems to me to say that money policy in the US and EU is still enormously stimulative, no longer effective and need of careful handling in extracting us from this situation.  The last thing we need is higher taxation through tariffs and even more distortion of yields.

 

What would make someone want to buy the proposed Austrian century bonds anyway?

…the greater fool theory, i.e., the idea I can sell it at a higher price to someone else (which certainly worked with the 2017 issue)?

…the fact that lots of EU government instruments sport negative yields, so this may be a comparatively good deal?

…I’m a bond fund manager and need coupon payments so my portfolio can pay expenses and management fees to myself?

…I’m shorting negative yield bonds against this long position?

 

global/demographic/government influences on yields

aging populations…

Another general principle:  as people get older and as they get wealthier they become more risk averse.  Put another way, in either situation people shift their investment portfolios away from stocks and toward bonds.

The traditional rule of thumb is that a person’s bond holdings should make up the same percentage of the total portfolio as his age in years.  The remainder goes into stocks.  For example, for a 65-year old, 65% of the portfolio should be in fixed income.  (I don’t think this is a particularly good rule, but it’s simple and it is used.)

What’s important is that the aging of the populations in the US and the EU (which is older than us) is a powerful asset allocation force.  In the US in 2000, for example, (according to the Investment Company Institute) investors held $276 billion in funds, of which 82% was in equity funds.  At the end of last year, the total was $681 billion, of which 40% was in equities.  Over that time, the amount of money in stock funds rose by 20%; bond funds went up by 10x, however; asset allocation funds, which hold both, had 6.5x their 2000 assets.

national economic policy

For as long as I’ve been around, the preferred tool of government economic management has been monetary I can be applied faster than fiscal policy   …and it leaves no fingers pointing at politicians if implement is painful or executed maladroitly.

The chief characteristic of expansive monetary policy is the suppression of interest rates.  The burden of adjustment falls squarely on the shoulders of savers, i.e. older citizens, and the poor, who have no ability to borrow to take advantage of the lower cost of money.

 

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

navigating through confusion

a (very) simple sketch

I can’t recall a more complex, hard to read, time in the stock market than the present.  There have certainly been more panicky times–like October 1987 or early 2000 or late 2008.  But all of these, however frightening, were about financial markets building a speculative house of cards which ultimately collapsed of its own weight.  The basic framework in which the game was played remained more or less the same:  continuously declining interest rates, the growth of multinational companies, revolutionary developments in computer technology, the shift in developed economies from laborers to knowledge workers, continuing dominance of the US economy.

what has changed?

–the Internet is here, with its attendant powerful hardware (servers, smartphones) and software (the cloud, Amazon, Facebook…  e-commerce, information, entertainment) devices

–the aging–and, ex the US, increasing lifespans–of the populations of developed economies

–ultra-low interest rates, negative in parts of Europe

–the rise of China, and to a much lesser extent, India as global economic powers

–most recently, the Huawei moment, sort of like Sputnik, when the US realizes that a Chinese company is producing more advanced/ less expensive cutting-edge telecom equipment than it can

–fracturing of belief in the invisible hand aka trickle-down economics, the (ultimately religious/Enlightenment philosophical) belief that individuals acting in their own self-interest somehow create the best possible outcome, both for the world as a whole and for each individual.  This fracturing fuels the rise of the radical right in the US and Europe, I think.

 

more tomorrow