where’s the tax selling?

Pretty much all mutual funds and ETFs in the US have tax years that end on October 31st.  These entities are required by law to distribute basically all the dividend/interest income and realized capital gains collected during their fiscal year to shareholders by calendar yearend (so that the IRS can collect income tax from holders).  The Halloween tax year end gives the funds time to close their books, calculate the distribution accurately and get it to holders before the end of December.

Invariably, funds try to adjust the size of these distributions during trading in September – October.  Whether this means making them larger or smaller (shareholders prefer to have a distribution but not a gigantic one), it involves selling.  This means a seasonal market correction between September 1st and October 15th.  The only exception I’ve seen in over thirty years has been in times directly following a major market selloff like that in 2000 or in 2008-09, when funds are working off massive realized losses–and have no taxable income to distribute.

Last year, for example, the selloff in the S&P was about 7.5% and went from mid-August through late September.  2014’s was 6%+ and lasted from September 19th through October 17th.

This year September has delivered about a 1% loss so far, which would be an extremely small seasonal dip.


Where’s the selling?  I don’t know.  Maybe the lack of downward market pressure comes from the fact that the S&P is flat during the current fiscal year.  In any event, if selling doesn’t emerge in the next, say, week, it’s unlikely to develop.

If it doesn’t, we’ll have missed an annual buying opportunity and will have to press ahead with annual portfolio adjustment plans without this advantage.



Marc Faber says stocks are going up–a bullish sign

who is Marc Faber?

I first encountered Mr. Faber when I began studying the Hong Kong market in 1985.  He was an early practitioner in that market of what one might call the “infotainment” wing of the institutional brokerage business (something that has now morphed, in a much less sophisticated form, into the financial channels on cable TV and radio).  

Mr. Faber was/is perpetually bearish.  That’s his stock in trade.  When I knew of him, he would prepare reports and make presentations to institutional clients, always arguing that a devastating financial collapse was imminent and that one should sell both stocks and bonds.

He was apparently a witty and intelligent debater.  Institutions would invite him in to present as part of their general due diligence process.  They’d listen, poke holes in his arguments, breathe a sigh of relief that the bear had no claws–and pay him, or the brokerage firm he might be working for, large amounts of commission dollars for his services.

Had you followed his advice to the letter, you would presumably have been in cash for at least the past thirty years.  …or maybe you would have held gold bars in a vault in your basement.

he’s always bearish…

He has a very strong financial incentive to stay in character.  That’s what gets him on TV and radio., That’s what sells his newsletter.  If he says anything bullish, he risks being reclassified into the general category of investment strategists–where he’d be just one of a gazillion people trying to time the markets.

…except for right now.  

If you go to a car dealership and the salesman tells you a certain car is a spectacular machine and a great buy, you have no information.  That’s what he’s supposed to say.  If, on the other hand, he tells you not to buy now but to wait for lower prices in three weeks, you may have useful data..

The Faber prediction is just like that–except that a guy who earns money by being perpetually bearish is, at least temporarily, bullish.  

This probably means that markets are going up for  a while.

My take on the markets in Current Market Tactics tomorrow.

to raise cash or not

raising cash

I find myself raising 10%-15% cash in the taxable joint brokerage account my wife and I use to pay for much of our living expenses.  No change in our fully invested stance in our IRAs or 401ks, just the taxable account.

Thirty years of professional training and experience tell me this is always a mistake.  But I’m doing it anyway.

why pros don’t do this

The easy answer is that pros typically can’t.  Their contracts with pension funds routinely require that the managers they hire remain fully invested.  The idea is that the pension fund and its consultants control the asset allocation (thereby justifying paying themselves the big bucks) and parcel out various pieces of the overall portfolio to specialists.  If managers stray from the asset classes where they’re experts they risk mucking up the overall asset allocation strategy.

Although mutual fund charters usually offer much more leeway, the manager will be pilloried if he raises a large amount of cash and the market goes up.

More importantly:

–to make a significant difference in performance, you have to raise a ton of cash–30%-40% of the portfolio at least.  This turns the portfolio into a Las Vegas-like all-or-nothing bet.

–I’ve never met an equity professional who’s any good at timing the market.  People tend to either understand either market bottoms very well–when to invest aggressively–or market tops–when to become defensive–but not both.  So they either raise cash much too early, or they get that timing right and never put the money back to work.  In either case, the cash-raising exercise tends to backfire.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any successful market timers.  I just don’t know, or know of, any.  And I’ve seen lots of managers punch big holes in the bottom of their performance boats by trying their hand.

–the desire to raise cash invariably comes at times of stress and high emotion.  Emotional decisions in investing are almost always bad ones.

what pros do (or should do) instead

Make the portfolio less aggressive, so it will perform better in a downturn.  Eliminate speculative, smaller-cap, or highly economically sensitive names.

Look harder for new names.  If everything in the industries you feel most comfortable in looks too expensive, broaden your scope to include other sectors.

Go on vacation.

If you absolutely have to sell something (for your own emotional well-being), do it in small enough size that it won’t do much damage.

why I’m ignoring my own advice

Several reasons:

–low interest rates have forced me into a very high equity allocation

–in this account, I’m more interested in having money on hand to pay bills than in beating the S&P.  So I’m willing to accept underperformance.

–history says that stocks go sideways to up during periods when the Fed is removing emergency money stimulus from the economy.  I think this should hold true again.  On the other hand, while stocks appear reasonably priced to me, the size of the interest rate raise now underway is about double the normal size.  So there is an uncharted waters aspect to this Fed move.

Also, the tone of the market seems to me to be increasingly set by short-term traders who don’t have the skill or temperament needed to analyze economic fundamentals.  Their behavior is harder to predict with confidence–just look at what’s going on in Japan.

five reasons we may be in a trading-oriented market for a while yet

By a trading-oriented market, I mean one where:

–the indices generally move sideways within a narrowly defined range, and

–individual stock price movements are strongly influenced by traders who have short-term holding periods–a day, a week, even a few hours–and who buy and sell very rapidly.  As a result, both individual stocks and the markets can exhibit sharp up-one-day, down-the-next patterns.

Why should a market like this persist? 

Five reasons:

1.  The economies of the developed world have slowed a lot and are no longer providing clear up or down signals.  And, at the moment, the EU’s continuing bungling of the situation in Greece is producing alternately hopeful and despairing news headlines that short-term traders are using to help them ply their trade.

2.  Pension plan sponsors continue to shift money from traditional investors to “alternatives” like hedge funds, many of which are run by traders and employ a short-term trading style.  This shift continues despite the fact that alternative managers are more expensive and in the aggregate have produced inferior returns pretty continuously for almost a decade.  Don’t ask me why.

3.  Fundamental information about individual companies has become harder to get.  Over my thirty years in the business, brokerage houses have become progressively more dominated by traders.  During the 2007-2009 market downturn, they gutted their research departments as a way to cut overheads.

Also, the shift by individual investors from mutual funds to ETFs and by institutions to alternatives means the research budgets of traditional long-only institutions are not what they once were, either.

4.  Discount brokers offer mostly trading tools and technical analysis to their clients.  Why?  They make most of their money from customer transactions, not from clients outperforming the market.  Also, setting up a research department is complicated and expensive, and it potentially exposes the firm to lawsuits if investment recommendations go awry.

5.  Many mutual funds still have big accumulated losses–both recognized and unrecognized.  In large part, these losses come from individuals buying mutual fund shares at high prices in 2006-07 and then redeemed them at much lower levels in 2009.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, these losses are a big asset to current shareholders.  They allow a manager to change the structure of his portfolio without generating net taxable gains.  This fact also permits–and, in my opinion, should encourage–mutual fund managers to take a more aggressive trading stance to use the losses more quickly.  This maximizes their value to shareholders.  And some newer funds may have years and years worth of losses to avail themselves of.

The result of this is that even the most buy-and-hold-oriented taxable investors may be trading much more than usual.

investment implications

One of the first pieces of Asian investing lore I encountered years ago (and one of the few I’ve found useful) is that the daily market action is like a rapidly turning wheel.  You can stay away from the wheel and not be hurt.  You can jump on the wheel and not be hurt.  They only way you can be severely injured is to try to jump on and off.  In other words, if you dabble in trading and don’t devote your life to it  you’ll get your fingers badly burned.

For the vast majority of us, as individual investors, the best approach is to take a longer investment horizon than the market does–to endure short-term volatility rather than try to profit from it.

The perils of market timing–including one people don’t realize

What it is

Market timing isn’t following the business cycle by rotating a portfolio to make it more aggressive or more defensive as economic conditions change.  It’s not selling a stock when you perceive it to be overvalued and replacing it with something else.  It’s also not using limit orders to buy or sell at more favorable prices.

It is the attempt to gain performance by raising large amounts of cash when the market is at a top and reinvesting it at a subsequent low.

Timing the market vs. time in the market:  the conventional case against timing

The cliché is that equity investing is not about timing the market, but about time in the market. Continue reading