Every year, David Collum writes a detailed "Year in Review" synopsis full of keen perspective and plenty of wit. This year's is no exception. "I have not seen a year in which so many risks - some truly existential - piled up so quickly. Each risk has its own, often unknown, probability of morphing into a destructive force. It feels like we’re in the final throes of a geopolitical Game of Tetris as financial and political authorities race to place the pieces correctly. But the acceleration is palpable. The proximate trigger for pain and ultimately a collapse can be small, as anyone who’s ever stepped barefoot on a Lego knows..."
As an investor, it is simply your job to step away from your "emotions" for a moment and look objectively at the market around you. Is it currently dominated by "greed" or "fear?" Your long-term returns will depend greatly not only on how you answer that question, but to manage the inherent risk. “The investor’s chief problem – and even his worst enemy – is likely to be himself.” - Benjamin Graham
If we're in a gold bear market, then answer these questions...
Thanks to The Federal Reserve's extreme monetary policy, "the prospective return of asset classes is very narrow," warns Bridgewater's Ray Dalio, with expected returns for equities of "only about 4 percent." This is a problem, he explains in this brief clip, as monetary policy relies on that transmission mechanism of apparent wealth creation to keep the dream alive. In Europe and Japan there is no "spread", Dalio notes, and in the US it is miniscule - which means monetary policy is practically ineffective. While he believes in the short-term, the US economy can maintain stability (not commenting on the market per se), his "biggest concern is when the next downturn comes in 1-2 years," the central bank must be on the 'tighter' side of market expectations to be capable of providing its life-giving elixir once again. Simply put, Dalio sums up "there is always a downturn" - something that no Wall Street economist is expecting.
If you were raised in a religious household, or were sent to a Catholic school, you have heard of the seven deadly sins. These transgressions -- wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony -- are human tendencies that, if not overcome, can lead to other sins and a path straight to the netherworld. In the investing world, these same seven deadly sins apply. These "behaviors," just like in life, lead to poor investing outcomes. Therefore, to be a better investor, we must recognize these "moral transgressions" and learn how to overcome them.
A month ago, Carl Icahn told told CNBC that he was "very nervous" about US equity markets. Reflecting on Yellen's apparent cluelessness of the consequences of her actions, and fearful of the build of derivative positions, Icahn says he's "worried" because if Yellen does not understand the end-game then "there's no argument - you have to worry about the excesssive printing of money!" Today he follows up that warning with an op-ed that states "we are in a major asset bubble that continues to grow," supporting Stiglitz comments that "these very strong stock market prices are in a sense a symptom of the weak economy, not a symptom that we are about to have a strong recovery to our real economy."
Howard Marks once wrote that being a "contrarian" is a lonely profession. However, as investors, it is the downside that is far more damaging to our financial health than potentially missing out on a short term opportunity. Opportunities come and go, but replacing lost capital is a difficult and time consuming proposition. So, the question that we will "ponder" this weekend is whether the current consolidation is another in a long series of "buy the dip" opportunities, or does "something wicked this way come?" Here are some "words of caution" worth considering in trying to answer that question.
Chart 1 proves it is crystal clear that every time the US Federal Reserve acts to "save us" from one crisis, it directly sows the seeds for an even bigger crisis in the future.
Having discussed the links between economic growth and energy resource constraints, and with the current geo-political fireworks as much about energy (costs, supply, and demand) as they are human rights, it would appear the following chart may well become the most-important indicator of future tensions...
The tyranny of models is rampant in almost every aspect of our investment lives, from every central bank in the world to every giant asset manager in the world to the largest hedge funds in the world. There are very good reasons why we live in a model-driven world, and there are very good reasons why model-driven institutions tend to dominate their non-modeling competitors. The use of models is wonderfully comforting to the human animal because it’s what we do in our own minds and our own groups and tribes all the time. We can’t help ourselves from applying simplifying models in our lives because we are evolved and trained to do just that. But models are most useful in normal times, where the inherent informational trade-off between modeling power and modeling comprehensiveness isn’t a big concern and where historical patterns don’t break. Unfortunately we are living in decidedly abnormal times, a time where simplifications can blind us to structural change and where models create a risk that cannot be resolved by more or better modeling! It’s not a matter of using a different model or improving the model that we have. It’s the risk that ALL economic models pose when a bedrock assumption about politics or society shifts.
Size matters, it would seem, in the world of elite hedge fund managers. George Soros' Quantum Fund had its 2nd-best year on record, adding $5.5bn (22%) to the pound-breaking billionaire's horde and has now shifted above Ray Dalio's Bridgewater fund as the most successful hedge fund of all time. As The FT reports, since inception in 1973, Quantum has generated almost $40bn. Four other funds including Tepper's Appaloosa, Mandel's Lone Pine, and Klarman's Baupost also made more than $4 bn for their investors. Since they were set up, the top 20 hedge funds have made 43 per cent of all the money made by investors in more than 7,000 hedge funds.
With just a tad more than three weeks left in the year it is time to start focusing on what 2014 will likely bring. Of course, what really happens over the next twelve months is likely to be far different than what is currently expected but issuing prognostications, making conjectures and telling fortunes has always kept business brisk on Wall Street.
"What keeps us up at night? Well I can’t speak for the others, having spoken too much already to please PIMCO’s marketing specialists, but I will give you some thoughts about what keeps Mohamed and me up at night. Mohamed, the creator of the “New Normal” characterization of our post-Lehman global economy, now focuses on the possibility of a” T junction” investment future where markets approach a time-uncertain inflection point, and then head either bubbly right or bubble-popping left due to the negative aspects of fiscal and monetary policies in a highly levered world. ... investors are all playing the same dangerous game that depends on a near perpetual policy of cheap financing and artificially low interest rates in a desperate gamble to promote growth. The Fed, the BOJ (certainly), the ECB and the BOE are setting the example for global markets, basically telling investors that they have no alternative than to invest in riskier assets or to lever high quality assets. “You have no other choice,” their policies insinuate.... Deep in the bowels of central banks research staffs must lay the unmodelable fear that zero-bound interest rates supporting Dow 16,000 stock prices will slowly lose momentum after the real economy fails to reach orbit, even with zero-bound yields and QE." - Bill Gross
If public pensions don't delay and start plugging their funding holes now, they will need to contribute just under $200 billion per year over the next 30 years, amounting to 1.2% of GDP and 8.8% of state and local tax revenues. If funds wait a decade, the impact per year explodes to $325 billion over 30 years and will "cost" 1.2% of GDP and 12.2% of tax revenues. But the most likely, and worst case scenario, is if pension funds do nothing at all, "let the machine run its course", then the economic damage is unquantifiable as low asset returns inevitably cause lower income through benefits after assets are fully depleted.
Investors who believe that history has lessons to teach should take our present concerns with significant weight, but should also recognize that tendencies that repeatedly prove reliable over complete market cycles are sometimes defied over portions of those cycles. Meanwhile, investors who are convinced that this time is different can ignore what follows. The primary reason not to listen to a word of it is that similar concerns, particularly since late-2011, have been followed by yet further market gains. If one places full weight on this recent period, and no weight on history, it follows that stocks can only advance forever. What seems different this time, enough to revive the conclusion that “this time is different,” is faith in the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing. The problem with bubbles is that they force one to decide whether to look like an idiot before the peak, or an idiot after the peak...