Tuesday
Oct012013

Buyer beware: where is the SEC?

Read this to understand the dynamic of how large scale firms represent, or mis-represent as the case may be, their practices: Brokerages Pull Back on Fee Label  (excerpted below):

The two largest U.S. retail brokerage firms as measured by client assets have told their financial advisers who hold the certified financial planner designation to not promote their businesses as "fee only."

The directives followed reports that hundreds of brokers were inaccurately describing themselves as fee-only on an industry standards group's website.

Under rules that the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. recently clarified, advisers who have the CFP designation and work for brokerages whose business includes commissions cannot call themselves fee only. 

 Last week, Financial Planning magazine and The Wall Street Journal reported that hundreds of them, from firms including Morgan Stanley, MS +0.89% Wells Fargo & Co WFC +0.44%, Bank of America Corp. BAC +0.72% and UBS AG,UBS +1.54% among others, were doing just that on the board's website...

The classifications as "fee only" occurred on the website of the Certified Financial Planner Board, and the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards are such that "fee only" is appropriately used only when all the advisor's compensation including that of any related parties come from client fees. The standards are very clear.

The website is regularly used by consumers who are looking for "fee only" advisors as opposed to those who take receive sales commissions or other emoluments from providers or distributors of investment products.
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So it appears we have major firms constructively and widely misrepresenting their compensation practices in public advertizing. Is this what people used to call fraud? 

 

Sunday
Sep222013

Read Cochrane's New Keynesian Liquidity Trap

This is a big deal and just in. The emperor's new clothes revealed. Will Yellen read it?

"Technical regress, wasted government spending, and deliberate capital destruction do not work. Growth is good, not bad. That outcome is bad news for those who found magical policies an intoxicating possibility, but good news for a realistic and sober macroeconomics." - John Cochrane

The New-Keynesian Liquidity Trap


Friday
Sep202013

The taper of Q3: actual results may vary

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Now you see me, now you don't. Now you see me, soon you won't!

 

The country seems to be facing a crisis of confidence that now surpasses that of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise”. There is a loss of confidence in leaders and institutions that now encompasses civil, cultural, educational, economic, and Constitutional dimensions. Americans are a practical people: they expect things and people to work, including their leadership.

Consider the non-stop headlines, some small, some large, all cumulatively indicia of a mechanic of dysfunction of large magnitude. It has financial implications.

Let’s start with the Fed, and we’ll quote our last posting which reflects our continuing view:

“We believe the Fed is in fact looking for an unwind strategy but can't find one.  A financial Burdian's Ass? Does any bale of hay contain an acceptable unwind? We've gotten a whiff of the revolt of the rational market investors squaring off on the 10 year rates at any sign of tapering which was not pretty.

Our take is that the Fed will do nothing intemperate, take an agonizingly slow incremental approach ... at least while all the knots hold. By this we mean near stasis. We suspect the probabilities are growing for a much longer & slower unwind than many contemplate. We are, however, unwilling to bet much of the ranch on it. The stasis scenario provides 'flexibility' for a strategy that is pinned to the hope of economic growth that may or may not materialize. One is tempted to suggest decades and for the intermediate period a near permanent increase in the money supply. Just a thought. Watch money velocity.” - THE FED, COLLATERAL AND REPO: MORE SYSTEMIC RISK?

The Fed, in pursuit of “transparency”, led the market to anticipate a “tapering” this week, or so some 67% of economists thought. After months of preparation & indications that “we will taper”, they did not. Hmmm.

“Federal Reserve officials created new uncertainty about how much farther they will push their easy-money policies—and new questions about how effective they are at communicating their thinking—with the decision to stand pat on the pace of their bond purchases for now.” Fed's Guidance Questioned As Market Misreads Signals

Paradoxically, the Fed is adding uncertainty as to the predictability of its short term actions but more certainty as to the ultimate outcome of its strategy. QE and the balance sheet of the Fed, which is now the largest undercapitalized hedge fund in the world, will have to be downsized, unwound at some point. The inflated asset prices it has created are not sustainable nor is the continual expansion of the money supply nor is the balance sheet of the Fed without market constraint. OK, but some problems arise. We don’t know the timing, magnitude, consistency, or forms of the ultimate unwind or market response. We do know that large complex things take time to process and adjust (or as the dinosaurs, die). We do not know the form of market response as it will be influenced by mode & timing of implementation.  Intuitively, we see two polar options: a potentially chaotic repricing of some magnitude or a gradual decline of our standard of living induced by inflation and/or lower productive economic output over time. Likely, it will be a more moderate combination of both. It is a huge Markov Chain. Look for rising risk premia.

One thing is certain: no jobs means no recovery, no growth. U6 is the green line. We basically have 15% of the country out of work. Equally disturbing is the youth unemployment: we are loosing a generation of workers which has huge long term cultural & economic implications. These wheels grind slowly but finely, and the fate of the black nuclear family comes to mind.  The Civilian Unemployment rate is simply misleading & does not count those who have left the labor pool over time for want of employment.

As to the inevitability of outcome consider this and ask if the trajectory is sustainable. Recall it omits unfunded liabilities:

 

Equities: But the juice works in the short term. Set aside for a moment that steady decline in real median family income and take a look at the ride in equities: Obama and Bernanke have delivered for the 1% like nobody's business.

US and non-US equities have put up great numbers. It seems extended low growth with expectations for the grind to continue in the US has been sufficient to buy Euroland and Asia some time to put their houses in semi-order. We remain skeptical of expectations for higher growth in the US. Evidently, so does Mr. Ben.

 

Large, mid and small caps all up: beta wins.  These are outsized gains clustered within a relatively small time frame. 

Growth or value pretty much didn't matter.

 

Fixed income: we know too well the implications for continued manipulation of zero to negative real interest rates. It is a coersed wealth transfer from savers & risk constrained investors to borrowers. You get no or negative real return on your fixed income investments, and the borrowers (including the US government) get the interest you do not. It’s pretty simple. In a macro perspective every fixed income investor (from Grandma to Bill Gross) become poorer. Real rates have increased substantially in proportional terms, and we suspect more to come... when is the question.

Meanwhile fixed income investors have learned a harsh lesson: maybe Grandma shouldn't hang out in long bonds. More learning to come?

 

We note again there are only three ways to get yield in fixed income: duration, credit risk, or liquidity risk. As the Fed starves the market of real interest rates, it drives investors out the risk curve along any of those parameters. So, if you buy the thesis that the current game is not sustainable, do you load up on duration, credit or liquidity risk when you know the markets are distorted by the Fed at the precise time when the Fed has demonstrated you cannot rely on its indications of policy? We think not, unless you have impeccable market timing which, by the way, neither you nor we have.

We maintain our bias to short duration investment grade product. A diversified portfolio with a duration of 2.7 pays a spread of .97% over the interpolated Treasury rate. Consider that the 3 year Treasury currently pays .87%.  The credit spread is more than the underlying Treasury, not a bad value.  We caution against chasing yield: it never ends well. You just can’t get 8% in a 2.75% market.  Remember that next time PT Barnum starts pitching you.

Our outlook: We anticipate low growth and increasing risk premia induced by the Fed, ill conceived regulations or geostrategic blundering. We look for sluggish employment and weak capital expenditures. Every dimension of fiscal, monetary, social, energy & tax policy is directionally wrong from an economic perspective. Paralysis may be the best hope as a least-worst outcome. We anticipate Ms. Yellen will be the nominee to head up the Fed and do not anticipate that she will raise rates in face of a congressional election year and certainly not in a presidential cycle, but as they say, the opera isn't over until the fat lady sings.

Stocks and bonds will respond favorably as will all risk assets. Everyone may well join the drunken pig pile, and all the animals of the forest will be happy, at least for a while. Systemic risk & moral hazard will grow and long tailed risk will increase. We see near term risk of inflation as offset to some extent by slack capacity in the economy. 

For equities the good news is that globally corporate balance sheets continue to be in great shape (excluding financials) and well positioned for marginally decent earnings in a slow growth environment. There is much less opportunity for cost cutting & greater efficiency. Earnings growth will start to converge with nominal GDP growth.

It is no trivial matter for the asset class as a whole that corporate compensation models are much better aligned toward wealth creation. There is no such scheme with fixed income assets, save the anti-model of governments that are driven by grafted re-distributionism, so to speak, and incentives to inflate. Equities historically have been a source of high sustainable real returns, and we don't anticipate that will change. We do anticipate greater uncertainty which may manifest itself in greater volatility from here to there and stretch the time frames required for those expected returns to eventuate as business models adjust.

We'll close with two last comments. We see two major risks to long term investors. One takes the form of undisciplined investment programs that devolve to decisions driven by emotion which in turn subverts the asset allocation and risk management. The fog of uncertainty holds implications, again, for the importance of asset allocation and diversification. The other risk is inflation. If you think you can go to cash and sit this out, consider the picture below (reproduced from  PRE Q3: IT'S NOT AN EMPTY CHAIR, IT'S AN EMPTY WALLET).  Here's a hint: if the graph starts to get darker blue, you've probably lost 70% of your real value.

 

Friday
Jul192013

The Fed, collateral and repo: more systemic risk?

Updated on Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 05:13PM by Registered Commenterhb

Updated on Monday, July 22, 2013 at 09:44PM by Registered Commenterhb

Updated on Monday, July 22, 2013 at 10:11PM by Registered Commenterhb

We’ve had the FT article of April 23, 2013, The Misuse of Collateral Can Help Create Systemic Risk by Satyajit Das, on our desk for several months. It is highlighted and underlined, and we borrow from it liberally here (in fair use we trust). His article was prescient.

The thesis is simple enough: in the main collateral is now the basis of our primary financial institutions, most capital markets transactions, and source of liquidity, which is to say, our entire financial system. One might infer that collateral is what you use when you have no capital. He highlights, excerpted below, some consequences, intended or not, of the increasing dependency on collateral. Translation: “you can run, but you can’t hide.”

First, it shifts the emphasis from the borrower or counterparty’s creditworthiness to the collateral. Parties normally ineligible to borrow or transact in the first place are able to enter into transactions. Rapid growth in debt levels, derivative contract volumes and the shadow banking system (hedge funds or structured investment vehicles) are dependent on the use and availability of collateral.

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Jul102013

What happened to the red line? The blue line?

 

The red line is total government expenditures as a % of GDP (which excludes accurals for unfunded liabilities). The blue line is velocity of M2 which Jim Paulsen, who is very good, advises is "the rate at which the money supply is converted into nominal GDP". Think of it as the turnover of the money supply, that is, like inventory turnover. Faster means a lot of activity & demand for product, in this case money. Slower means you're not selling what you have on the shelf.

Do we see a pattern?

 


 

 

Tuesday
Jun252013

A little more perspective

Updated on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 11:11AM by Registered Commenterhb

Updated on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 11:25AM by Registered Commenterhb

Updated on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 03:39PM by Registered Commenterhb

Our last posting, A Bit of Perspective regrettably promised further thoughts on recent market events, so here we go. First time readers may want to take a quick look at the graph in the original posting. It is our starting point.

We are not unduly troubled by the recent volatility in the market. You have to place it in a longer term context of a huge bull run in equities & the perils of the Fed artificially fixing prices for a long time and then changing its mind. So, we wash out some levered players, and some folks start to get a clue as to the perils of duration. We don’t mean to be dismissive because we do watch this closely, but it’s not the short term noise that gets our attention, it’s the underlying tectonics.

The key issues are quite large, and no one in government is asking, or we might hypothesize has the capacity or inclination to understand, let alone fix.

We start a simple question, “What caused the damage to the fundamental fabric of the real economy?”

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Jun202013

A little perspective

We provide the following price charts from March 1, 2009 to June 20, 2013 for context. The blue is the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (VTI) which represents roughly the entire tradable US market. The other colored line is Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (BND) which tracks a broad index of the US bond market and currently has a duration of about 5.5.

 

We have commented endlessly about the adverse impact of Fed policy and the irresponsibility of fiscal policy, and we see recently the perils of the Fed artificially fixing prices and then changing its mind. It manufactures uncertainty & volatility. 

We may well get some more jetwash... at which point we might be interested in equities, but for now, keep proper perspective: a significant run up is having a bit of the air let out.

We watch & assess. We do not necessarily believe rising interest rates are incompatible with rising equity markets.  What everyone fears, however, is that this symptomatic of something systemic and global: could this be the snowflake that causes the avalanche?  We don't think so. This was probable, if not predictable, in direction, but not in timing.

Much depends on the Fed and the wisdom of this Administration & Congress, which is never comforting. We intend to follow this with more substantive commentary shortly, but wanted to respond to some inquiries.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Apr252013

A review of the administration's fiscal year 2014 tax proposal

We found this review of the Administration's 2014 tax proposal a helpful yet sobering summary of tax and estate issues. It is clear that the Administration will pursue virtually all options to increase revenues by higher taxation of capital and income... anything to feed the Leviathan.

You may find the article here:  Administration's Fiscal Year 2014 Revenue Proposal.
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We do not provide tax or legal advice, but suggest you consider these issues in consultation with your tax adviser. 

 

Friday
Mar012013

Gary Shilling on deleveraging

Steve Forbes interviews Gary Shilling, and it warrants a listening. 

You find some familiar themes put differently:

 

  • an expectation sustained low growth induced by deleveraging
  • risk on trade & asset quality
  • concern about  the dis-connection between monetary policies and real economies that creates a growing risk of chaotic re-adjustments 
  • concern with and an explanation for the decline in money velocity 

 

Agree or not with the particulars, and we make no endorsement in that regard, we're in for a long ride... so we have some time to think about loading up on 30 yr zeros.

Tuesday
Feb052013

The failure of governance and the uncertainty curve

Updated on Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 06:56AM by Registered Commenterhb

Updated on Friday, February 8, 2013 at 05:09PM by Registered Commenterhb

Updated on Monday, February 11, 2013 at 08:42AM by Registered Commenterhb

Updated on Friday, March 15, 2013 at 10:02AM by Registered Commenterhb

Phineas Taylor Barnum constructed and marketed his fraudulent Figii Mermaid to the crowds, and his spirit lives on.  

"I am a showman by profession...and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,"[1] .  

At least Barnum, setting aside for a minute the notion of authoring two autobiographies, remained sober in his perception of reality.

For stark contrast we would highlight for the attention of our national policy makers that certain corporate issuers of investment grade debt have periodically traded at negative spreads to their US Treasury benchmark, that is at lower rates than the comparable Treasury note.  A capital markets redux of The Emperor's New Clothes

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Jan312013

Watson Wilkins & Brown, LLC, presents to students at Xavier University

In connection with the Business Executive Advisory Board of the Finance Department of the Williams School of Business,  alumni J. Hunter Brown presented  A Discussion of Governance & Corporate Control to several undergraduate finance classes. The case study involved an examination of the background issues, conduct & outcome of a recent proxy contest for a publicly traded company.  The case evoked lively discussion of the issues and incorporated various publicly available primary source documents pertaining to the proxy contest.

We hoped they enjoyed it as much as we did.

Wednesday
Oct312012

Sandy forces activation of contingency plans: our evaluation

Hurricane Sandy provided an unwanted, real time test of our contingency plans. Here is the good and bad of our status. Overall we were pleasantly surprised.  

  • significant damage in the local region severely impairing transportation, particularly in wooded areas and completely shutting down all public transportation
  • loss of electricity, heat, hot water, wireline based telephone & primary internet access by cable. Some 80%+ of Connecticut lost power
  • no harm to WWB staff or physical plant 
  • while our primary internet service provider went down, we maintained continuous & adaquate, albeit constrained, access to email & internet thoughout via smart phone 
  • our recent shift of certain applications to the leading internet business platform performed flawlessly thoughout
In face of one of the larger disruptions of the last decade or two, we retained adaquate operational capacity, though limited in some respects. The acid test: we never lost the ability to communicate with our clients, our primary independent custodian, or capacity to execute when the markets were open. 
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Those who followed the news know the magnitude of disruption. Our primary internet provider, a major provider in the region, went down. We heard it was due to a broken internet backbone, not a small issue. We know we had better 'survivability' than some unhappy billion dollar denizens of mid-town who were reliant upon T-1 lines. 
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I can tell you the region is fortunate for the warm weather, and we hope it holds. Things would have been much worse on the population had the temperature been in the 30's.  We watched the opening of the NYSE and see normalcy returning. One suspects the magnitude of damage to the infrastructure below ground in New York City is substantial and for that reason undiscussed in public fora.
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Don't hesitate to call, text or email us if you need assistance. We will respond.  If we can't take your call immediately, we will get back to you asap. 
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Thanks for your support and patience. 

 

Tuesday
Sep182012

pre q3: it's not an empty chair, it's an empty wallet

We’ve run silent for a while with good cause. Those with whom we speak know our distraction with and consternation about some corporate governance issues well away from WWB.  Our homily for last two quarters is, like QE3, ubiquitous: know before you go. More on that later.

The core issue for our silence has been that we've had nothing to say, at least nothing that made any particular sense. We were mesmerized by the magnitude of the geopolitical & macroeconomic frogs in global blenders and by the scale of cynicism marking the political hegemony.  What is it, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything"... well, our readers know we missed that bus a long time ago.
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We have accelerated the quarterly review process for our clients because we wanted to be tucked in before the end of this quarter in light of the election and the potentially massive recasting of portfolios driven by tax windows and political outcomes. 
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Talk to your tax advisors now

We suggest all check with their tax advisors to get a grip on their expected marginal tax rates next year; review any embedded long term capital gains and implications of future rates; and make sure you have adequate liquidity to tide over any potential geopolitical stress or untoward political outcomes domestically. 

QE3: Who made the Fed the 4th branch of government? 

The Fed has manipulated the rates for some time and now with the advent of QE3 the price of money will be determined by fiat of the Fed, whether driven by putatively leading economic thought, whimsy, or political objectives... exactly the same way FDR did in 1933. Amity Shlaes wrote a fascinating article in the WSJ on FDR and the notion of confidence, part of which is excerpted below:

Over the summer of 1933 ... Roosevelt launched a novel gold purchase program. The plan was to drive up the general price level by buying gold. Each morning, FDR set the gold price target, personally ... theoretically, Roosevelt's idea of reflating can be defended... but the exposure to investors that Morgenthau was getting through the gold purchase project of 1933 was already teaching him something. Investors didn't like the arbitrariness. It took away their confidence. One day Morgenthau asked FDR why the president had chosen to drive up the price of gold by 21 cents. The president cavalierly said he'd done that because 21 was seven times three, and three was a lucky number.

FDR, Obama and Confidence

That’s Bernanke today, and as we’ve said before “One might then reasonably inquire as to how and on what rational basis ... other than that to be found in a room, dimly lit by burning candles, with chalk pentangles and splatters of chicken blood on the floor ... how do they evaluate risk of this market which funds, essentially, the entire financial system of the known world.” 

The consequence of artificially low rates is a wealth transfer from the investor (you) to borrowers. Crudely put, you get low to no interest income while borrowers get low to no interest expense. Good for borrowers, bad for investors including retirees, your mom & dad, pensions, or anyone who wants to start saving…like young people with or without families. These are big, large scale numbers with generational implications for capital formation. The low yields are only one small part of the silent transfer of wealth & risk that is ongoing. 

Let’s talk about risk, shall we? 

In fixed income risk comes in two forms, duration & credit. Fed policy is attempting to force investors to load up on both. We all know what credit risk is: the weasel is shaky or doesn’t pay you back (Greece or General Motors come to mind, yes? Junk bonds? Your esteemed Uncle?). Duration is a measure of interest rate risk. So, for simple example, if you have duration of 14 as many long term Treasury funds do, and 14 year rates go up 1%, you just lost 14% of the value of your bonds. If the rates go up by 2%, then you lose 28% of your value (kind of a big numbers for purportedly low risk investments, don’t you think?). This is a big deal.

In fixed income there are only two sources of yield: duration or credit risk (let's ignore liquidity premia for the moment). Oh, by the way, these price changes and risk parameters move instantaneously with expectations, so the bond manager (or you the investor) needs to ask if he feels lucky today? Will the center hold? Long enough for me to pick up another coupon payment before expectations collapse? Well … do you?  Or maybe your grandmother shouldn’t own all those long term bond funds?  The Fed is force feeding markets. The investor who stays short forgoes yield, and retail investor who goes long does so by incurring duration risk. It will not end well. 

Inflation risk

Ah, the printing press. Another component of QE3 is the hidden cost of inflation, that part of price changes induced by excess money supply. When you look at the chart below, recall that Jimmy Carter took the title, as it were, with 14.8% inflation in March of 1980. It can & did happen. When you have monetary & fiscal policy created by the belief that $1.00 of government spending creates $1.50 of GDP and that belief continues to drive policy absent supportive data or in fact even in face of contra-indication… you may have a problem, particularly when you’re borrowing $.40 of each $1.00 you spend.

As you look at the graph below imagine it to be 3 sides of cardboard box with two walls and the top cut away. We drape a light blue cloth (a “surface” in math speak) along the upper left hand wall. Go the far upper corner where we start at $100 at time 0 with 0% inflation. You can see the real value stays at $100 where ever you are on the time line at 0% inflation. The front left axis of the floor of the box is the level of inflation running from 0 to 20%, and front right axis is time in years. Go to the rear wall, pick a line on the cloth (the first one is 1% inflation), and slide down the time line across the drape to the front.  Presto! You get something less than $80 in real value at 1% inflation over 25 years. 

 

 

Just so you know, the low points (closest to you, lower center, darker blue shade are the longest timeframes & higher inflation rates) represent about $1 of real value. You get the picture of a pretty severe loss of value over time even with fairly modest inflation: 3% inflation over 25 years kills half your purchasing power. That’s a big deal for individuals planning their retirement or for anyone including insurance companies or banks or corporations trying to fund assets or liabilities in the future. It’s a very difficult box to get out of.


the men would get paid in the morning. they would take pillow cases, put the cash in the pillow cases, walk over to the wall, and throw the bags of money over the wall to the women who would go out shopping, to spend the money before the merchants raised the prices in the afternoon...

source: as told to my friend LG by his grandfather on life in the Weimar Republic

  

Just witness the 25 basis point surge in break evens in the hours following the Fed’s QE3 announcement on Thursday last week, representing a “5-sigma event” for this market-measure of inflationary expectations.

source: Mohamed El Erian in Introducing the “reverse Volcker moment” Sept. 20, 2012

As you look at the graph ask yourself how do I price assets of any kind when I’m looking at a surface of real value that declines like a large water slide at an amusement park? This is how government lowers our standard of living. It is how government levies taxes without the consent or vote of the people. No elected official “votes” for “Quantitative Easing”. Who made these clowns the Fed an unelected 4th branch of government?  … but we digress into outright political control of the broad market economy.

There are very few places to hide, and those are imperfect places. This is not a pleasant time to be either an investor or in the investment management business. The general form of problem is that the Fed has manipulated the “risk free” rate to zero and announced it will print money without limit of time or amount. This causes two tectonic problems. It distorts asset price information and induces inflation risk. 

 

 

Real yields for US Treasuries with maturities less than 20 years are negative. This is the bond bubble. What value could there be in a 20 year bond with a real yield of 0%? We suspect very little positive value and potentially significant negative value. How shall we know? Ask Ben.

The problem of the “bond bubble” does not stop with bonds. The US$ is the global reserve currency, and the US Treasury market sets the benchmark for global asset pricing. As the Fed pushes investors out the “risk curve” the distortion of the Treasury market ripples across the globe and across prices of all asset classes. 

Recall that in response to instability of Euroland we saw investor flight out of the Euro and into the US$ and Treasuries which became too expensive, no yield, then catching its breath, the herd swarms into emerging markets debt & high yield debt which became too expensive, then into US equities generally, and particularly dividend paying stocks, which perhaps have become too expensive, or onto real estate which was previously too expensive and the proximate cause of the initial collapse? Or commodities that reside in bins? Or gold which has no earnings, no P/E ratio? The uroboros eats its own tail.

Add to this the uncertainty of the entire tax code, regulatory framework, the outcome of the US election, clueless Europe, Islamic instability on fire globally, with what appears more & more each day as a failed state on our southern border, not to mention the one in Washington.

Investment strategy

Our view has been that inflation is the primary risk to investors and that view defines portfolio & risk strategy. Of course, the solution is sustainable high real returns but there just isn’t a perfect solution, and there are no risk free solutions. An optimal strategy likely takes a form of ‘least worst’. Our general preference in relative order would include equities, real estate, commodities, short Treasury bills, inflation indexed bonds, and short duration spread product, all defined within prudent diversification and risk parameters.
 
Asset allocation

We do not anticipate significant changes in terms of existing broad asset allocations for most clients. That work has already been done & is embedded in the existing portfolios. We will be inclined to increase our exposures to real assets beyond the positions embedded in existing index product by adding slices of gold or silver, the size of which will vary by client risk tolerance.
On a good day the asset allocation decision already incorporates one’s ability to tolerate risk. We see nothing on a macro basis that would induce us to start adjusting those dials significantly for our clients. Risk tolerance will be the driver.
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Fixed income

As a general comment we’ve had a legacy core bias to short duration investment grade credit augmented by moderate positions of inflation indexed product, emerging markets debt, and domestic high yield. We’re still inclined to avoid duration and favor short Treasury Bills, inflation indexed bonds, short investment grade spread product. We’re not buyers of high yield or emerging markets debt at these levels.  We’re content to hold for now.
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We’re scared to death of municipal credits but suspect there may be value in certain long duration AAA/Aaa floating rate municipals. Ah, wouldn’t we all like to float or drift as the case may be?
 
Solutions to the inflation challenge can be problematic in that many investors simply lack the scale to tolerate the risks associated with the most robust effective classes or lack access to solutions which reside in the capital markets (e.g. interest rate swaps). What can we say, scale counts: “It’s good to be the king.”
  
Why not increase equity exposures?  

By all means if you've got the risk budget and faith in Ben. It has been a significant 3 months for virtually anything: US equities, non-US equities, emerging markets, and gold.  QE3 in connection with a slow grinding economy can do wonders. So do steroids, but there are bad side effects. 

 

While we believe that equities represent the best shot at sustaining higher real returns over time, we also recall the notion of Mr. Bernanke forcing investors out the risk curve. He has made some very large scale bets on a questionable basis. If it ends badly, the equity markets globally may be damaged or radically repriced along with all the guinea pigs herded out the risk curve.

We suspect the Treasury “bubble” has become ubiquitous, spreading to virtually all asset classes globally including equities. Historically, the US equity markets have been characterized by the stability created by a permanent equity market & investor class. Neither Asia, Europe, nor the emerging markets can make that claim credibly. In a heart beat…poof… they can go. Such things happen in panics.  US equities traditionally have stayed, we were open for business after 9-11. 

But things change. We started by saying that we view inflation as the primary risk. But are we not in a growth constrained and credit stressed environment too? The tertiary risk is an untimely, chaotic repricing of the distortions induced into the markets by imprudent fiscal policies & coercive & synchronized monetary policies globally. The risk is that Bernanke, the US Treasury, Congress, and the President, perhaps in conjunction with exogenous forces, unwittingly damage the fabric of the US capital markets and the investor class. We no longer assign a de minimis risk to that outcome. It's already started.

Look at what they did to our bond ratings. 

 

Sunday
Sep022012

What's wrong with the Fed

John Cochrane of University of Chicago provides the best explanation of why & how the Fed is off track in his recent article The Federal Reserve: From Central Bank to Central Planner

 

Thursday
Jun212012

Jim Rickards on the latest Federal Reserve Rate Decision and Operation Twist 2.0

For a lucid view of the recent Fed action in global context watch this:

Jim Rickards on the latest Federal Reserve Rate Decision and Operation Twist 2.0

It's a bit long, but worthwhile. Of particular interest at the back end are his comments on structural rent seeking and the costs it creates for our economy. Rent seeking translates into the political form of your risk, my return.   Moral hazard, the kudzu of our current regulatory framework, is the fountain of rent seeking, and it's everywhere ... 

  • Too Big To Fail whereby the entire loan & swap books of the TBTF institutions are underwritten by the US taxpayer
  • the failure to reform money market funds and the repo market and  the consequent expectation of federal support for funds which have no independent capital or collateral to support trillions of dollars of credit,  counter party & clearing risks
  • Fannie & Freddie which were essentially untouched by Dodd Frank and comprise about 95% of the entire US mortgage market and
  • pick a sector: health carer, automotive, education, pensions, energy etc.

We missed a lot, but you get the picture. We continue to manufacture boatloads of systemic risk by moral hazard. It is not a cost or risk free proposition.  And our politicians monetize for their own benefit their ability to allocate the privilege. No one seems to address the loss of freedom which accompanies the growth of moral hazard, but it is very real.

Lastly, an excerpt from an article on the SEC & money markets in today's WSJ:

Money market mutual funds have been rescued from financial trouble by their parent companies more than 300 times since the 1970s, about 100 more than previously reported, according to a new Securities and Exchange Commission study.

The study, which isn't being released to the public, appears to bolster SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro's contention that the $2.6 trillion industry needs stronger regulation

Wait a minute: "The study... isn't being released to the public"? One might reasonably ask, why not?  How are citizens to make informed decisions about what might be one of the most important regulatory & structural issues of the decade when key information is withheld? 

And if you're considering your freedom you might want to ponder the answer implicitly proffered: you don't need to know... if we wanted your opinion, we would ask.

 

 

Friday
Jun082012

Peter D. Brown joins Watson Wilkins & Brown, LLC, as Chief Portfolio Strategist

Watson Wilkins & Brown, LLC, is pleased to announce that Peter D. Brown has joined the firm as Chief Portfolio Strategist. Mr. Brown will be based in Anchorage, AK, and will handle, among other responsibilities, the firm’s west coast activities. Mr. Brown was formerly an Institutional Portfolio Manager and Director for Victory Capital Management and portfolio manager for Key Trust Company both investment affiliates of KeyCorp, one of the nation's largest bank-based financial services companies. He brings several decades of experience in institutional investment and client management.  

Mr. Brown was graduated from Hamilton College and is a longtime resident and member of the Anchorage community. By avocation he is a member of the Civil Air Patrol, an FAA certificated glider instructor, a Trustee and Treasurer of the Soaring Society of America Foundation, and a board member of the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation. 

“We welcome Peter to the firm and look forward to his leadership. We hope to develop a bigger presence in the Pacific Northwest, including the institutional markets” said J. Hunter Brown, Managing Member of Watson Wilkins & Brown. “He brings the highest ethical and professional standards, an acute & disciplined approach to the markets, and a straightforward approach to the client interaction.” 

Visit us at www.wwbllc.com.

 

Wednesday
May022012

A progress report on Dodd-Frank

Davis Polk has done an excellent job of detailing the complexity of process & progress in the Dodd-Frank Progress Report. It's also commendable to see lawyers communicate with pictures.

 

The free citizens of the US need only look at the red stuff (late) and the blue stuff (due date unknown) and ask:"If this were my business and these were my projects, what would I do with these project managers?"

Well, the bad news is that it is your national business, and they are our collective projects.

 

If you have the misfortune to be regulated by the red and blue stuff, well, this is the picture financial oppression and paralysis. It is also how we manufacture systemic risk, how government transfers wealth to politicians & regulators who monetize their ability to dispense economic privilege.

Get your bids in early: it's campaign season.

 

Tuesday
May012012

Choosing the Road to Prosperity: Why We Must End Too Big to Fail –Now

If you haven't seen this you should: Choosing the Road to Prosperity: Why We Must End Too Big to Fail –Now . We commend the Dallas Fed for putting it together.

If we don't fix the issue of moral hazard (Too Big To Fail) we can't have a market oriented economy. It's that simple. Read this in connection with our very own Reforming Money Market Funds: A Response to the Squam Lake Group.

It must change.

Friday
Apr272012

Vanguard crushes costs

Behold Moore's Law at work with scale:

Expense ratio changes announced for a number of Vanguard funds and ETFs.

The diversification of the S&P 500 now costs only .05% pa in fund expenses! On a percentage basis these reductions are huge.  This puts more and more pressure on active managers by increasing the amount of sustainable alpha they need to generate to carry their costs. Conversely, indexing makes more & more sense, but we already knew that, yes?

 

Tuesday
Apr032012

Comments on Q1 2012

Equities got a year's worth of return in the first ninety days of this year, but the glide path that took us there was not encouraging. We take what we can get, however, we have not had a recovery:

The current recovery began in the second half of 2009, but economic growth has been weak. Growth in 2010 was 3% and in 2011 it was 1.7%. Who knows what 2012 will bring, but the current growth rate looks to be about 2%, according to the consensus of economists recently polled by Blue Chip Economic Indicators. Sadly, we have never really recovered from the recession...

Click to read more ...