Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
I came across the article linked to below while re-reading the March 2006 issue of Outstanding Investor Digest. Mr. Buffett recommended the article to 2005 Berkshire Meeting attendees.
The U.S. expansion appears on track. Europe and Japan may lack exuberance, but their economies are at least on the plus side. China and India -- with close to 40 percent of the world's population -- have sustained growth at rates that not so long ago would have seemed, if not impossible, highly improbable.
Yet, under the placid surface, there are disturbing trends: huge imbalances, disequilibria, risks -- call them what you will. Altogether the circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember, and I can remember quite a lot. What really concerns me is that there seems to be so little willingness or capacity to do much about it.
This reminded me a little of Nassim Taleb's barbell strategy, although I believe Taleb's barbell strategy recommended 85-90% invested in safe cash/short-term treasuries and the other 10-15% in many high-risk ventures.
That is the inescapable conclusion that emerges from the Hulbert Financial Digest's three decades of tracking investment advisers' performance. Believe it or not, the adviser at the top of the rankings over those 30 years has been largely in cash for more than a decade.
The adviser in question is Charles Allmon, whose advisory service is called Growth Stock Outlook. As of the close of trading on Wednesday of this week, the Hulbert Financial Digest will have tracked his performance — along with the industry in general — for exactly 30 years.
To be sure, we won't know for certain Allmon's final place in those rankings until then. But with just two days remaining of the more than 10,000 since mid 1980, he is in first place for risk-adjusted performance among advisers for whom Hulbert Financial Digest data extend back that far. So the odds in his favor look good.
Which is nothing short of remarkable, since for more than 20 years Allmon has allocated the bulk of his model portfolio to cash. It currently owns just four stocks that collectively amount to 20% of total portfolio value, for example; the other 80% is parked in a money-market fund.
Monday, June 28, 2010
I think this could be one of the most important things I’ve read this year.
A few weeks ago, I noted that our recession warning composite was on the brink of a signal that has always and only occurred during or immediately prior to U.S. recessions, the last signal being the warning I reported in the November 12, 2007 weekly comment Expecting A Recession. While the set of criteria I noted then would still require a decline in the ISM Purchasing Managers Index to 54 or less to complete a recession warning, what prompts my immediate concern is that the growth rate of the ECRI Weekly Leading Index has now declined to -6.9%. The WLI growth rate has historically demonstrated a strong correlation with the ISM Purchasing Managers Index, with the correlation being highest at a lead time of 13 weeks.
One of the greatest risks to investors here is the temptation to form investment expectations based on the behavior of the U.S. stock market and economy over the past three or four decades. The credit strains and deleveraging risks we currently observe are, from that context, wildly "out of sample." To form valid expectations of how the economic and financial situation is likely to resolve, it's necessary to consider data sets that share similar characteristics. Fortunately, the U.S. has not observed a systemic banking crisis of the recent magnitude since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, that also means that we have to broaden our data set in ways that investors currently don't seem to be contemplating.
In recent months, I have finessed this issue by encouraging investors to carefully examine their risk exposures. I'm not sure that finesse is helpful any longer. The probabilities are becoming too high to use gentle wording. Though I usually confine my views to statements about probability and "average" behavior, this becomes fruitless when every outcome associated with the data is negative, with no counterexamples. Put bluntly, I believe that the economy is again turning lower, and that there is a reasonable likelihood that the U.S. stock market will ultimately violate its March 2009 lows before the current adjustment cycle is complete. At present, the best argument against this outcome is that it is unthinkable. Unfortunately, once policy makers have squandered public confidence, the market does not care whether the outcomes it produces are unthinkable. Unthinkability is not evidence.
From an inflation standpoint, is important to recognize the distinction between what occurs during a credit crisis and what occurs afterward. Credit strains typically create a nearly frantic demand for government liabilities that are considered default-free (even if they are subject to inflation risk). This raises the marginal utility of government liabilities relative to the marginal utility of goods and services. That's an economist's way of saying that interest rates drop and deflation pressures take hold. Commodity price declines are also common, which is a word of caution to investors accumulating gold here, who may experience a roller-coaster shortly. Over the short-term, very large quantities of money and government debt can be created with seemingly no ill effects. It's typically several years after the crisis that those liabilities lose value, ultimately at a very rapid pace.
In short, my concerns about the economy and financial markets are escalating quickly. Given the already vulnerable condition of the U.S. economy, a second phase of weakness would most likely contribute to already troubling levels of mortgage delinquency and foreclosure, and could be expected to push the unemployment rate toward 12%. It is not useful to rule out unfavorable outcomes simply because they seem unpleasant or unthinkable. It is also not useful to place superstitious hope in the Fed and the Treasury to fix the consequences of irresponsible lending without any ill effect. In the coming quarters, remember that every time you hear an incomprehensibly large bailout commitment from government, it will equate to an unconscionably large extraction of public resources, possibly through overt taxation, but more likely through the long-term destruction of purchasing power.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Friday, June 25, 2010
Thanks to Tariq for putting these notes together. And another thanks to Kjetil for initially passing the video link along.
Link to: Li Lu’s 2010 Lecture Notes
Excerpts from Tariq’s Notes:
Columbia is where my whole life in America started. I could barely speak the language. In Columbia it was where I had a new life. It was really in the Value Investing class where I got my career start. I was really worried about my student loan debt at the time and a friend told me about this class and said I need to see a lecture from Warren Buffett.
What I heard that night changed my life. He said three things:
1. A stock is not a piece of paper, it is a piece of ownership in a company.
2. You need a margin of safety so if you are wrong you don’t lose much.
3. In the market, most people are in it for the short term. It allows you a framework for dealing with the day to day volatility.
Those were three powerful concepts. I had never viewed the stock market like that. I viewed it negatively as a place made up of manipulators who were lining their own pockets. I embarked on an intensive two year study learning everything about Buffett.
The game of investment is really continuous learning. Everything affects an investment, it constantly changes. You are not investing in the past but the accumulative cash flow of the future. You have to want to find a certain set up where you can know something that most people don’t know. There are plenty of things I don’t know but they don’t factor into the purchase because I am using a huge margin of safety. Buying a dollar at 50 cents. So if things turn against you, you will be okay. That is not easy. This business is brutally competitive. It is so impossible to know everything and know exactly what is going to happen to a business from now till the end that you really have to accept that what you don’t know.
Finding an edge really only comes from a right frame of mind and years of continuous study. But when you find those insights along the road of study, you need to have the guts and courage to back up the truck and ignore the opinions of everyone else. To be a better investor, you have to stand on your own. You just can’t copy other people’s insights. Sooner or later, the position turns against you. If you don’t have any insights into the business, when it goes from $100 to $50 you aren’t going to know if it will back to $100 or $200.
So this is really difficult, but on the other hand, the rewards are huge. Warren says that if you only come up with 10 good investments in your 40 year career, you will be extraordinarily rich. That’s really what it is. This shows how different value investing is than any other subject.
So how do you really understand and gain that great insight? Pick one business. Any business. And truly understand it. I tell my interns to work through this exercise – imagine a distant relative passes away and you find out that you have inherited 100% of a business they owned. What are you going to do about it? That is the mentality to take when looking at any business. I strongly encourage you to start and understand 1 business, inside out. That is better than any training possible. It does not have to be a great business, it could be any business. You need to be able to get a feel for how you would do as a 100% owner. If you can do that, you will have a tremendous leg up against the competition. Most people don’t take that first concept correctly and it is quite sad. People view it as a piece of paper and just trade because it is easy to trade. But if it was a business you inherited, you would not be trading. You would really seek out knowledge on how it should be run, how it works. If you start with that, you will eventually know how much that business is worth.
Q: I read that when you look at an industry, you look at the most miserable failures of that industry to see whether you will invest in it. Can you talk a bit about that?
Li Lu: It goes back to understanding the business. Once you have that understanding you can extend it to understanding an industry. A certain industry might have characteristics that make it different than others. In certain industries you might have better prospects than others. Find the best of the players in the industry and the worst players. And see how they perform over time. And if the worst players perform reasonably well relative to the great players — that tells you something about the characteristics about the industry. That is not always the case but it is often the case. Certain industries are better than others.
So if you can understand a business inside out you can then eventually extend that to understanding an industry. If you can get that insight, it is enormously beneficial. If you can then concentrate that on a business with superior economics in an industry with superior economics with good management and you get them at the right price — the chances are that you can stay for a very long time.
Q: Did you have any specific example?
Li Lu: I have studied many over the years. As I have said, don’t copy other people’s insights because it doesn’t work. Automobiles are amazing. If you look at the early days it started with several players and concentrated with just a few players that became enormously profitable. Then they became miserable. You then see how the life cycle turns with new automakers in China and India. Everything has a reason. If you want a good idea — look at General Motors from the early days, look every 5 years and see how the performance metrics change. The Graham and Dodd Center should collect all the data and perform some kind of commentary on it.
Bruce Greenwald: Do you want me to give you the answer to that? In the 1960s, their return on capital was 46%. In the 1970s their return on capital was 28%. In the 1980s it was 9% in the 1990s it was 6%. You want to guess how negative it is now?
Li Lu: So that is really fascinating. If you have that data, the amount of insight that would yield would be astonishing. So instead of just accepting the conventional wisdom that the auto business is bad — that is just not true. Or if you say well those guys just unbelievable money machines — that is not true either. So if you can really examine those statistics and understand it that will give you an advantage for analyzing new situations like in China and India. That is really what turns me on. Understanding this gives you a tremendous leg up.
Q: One investor came in and said talking to management is a waste of time. They will say what you want them to say. Obviously it sounds like you don’t agree with that. What do you think? Will you pay a premium for a business with a moat?
Li Lu: There is no general rule. The key in investing is to know what you know and know what you don’t know. You can know about management teams without meeting with them. Every situation is slightly different. So I come back to the point that if you know enough on other things that there is enough margin of safety. Even if you meet with management, you may not learn something. Obviously, actions speak louder. You want to see what they have done. Everything being equal, the more you know about management, the more honest and upfront they are, the more motive they have, the better the situation is and the deeper the discount. You have to analyze it all. The key to analyzing it is you have to ask: Do I really know what I think I know? Do I really know what I don’t know? If you can’t answer that question, chances are you are gambling.
Q: What kind of preparation do you do before meeting a management team?
Li Lu: I don’t really have a set method. Because I usually am just curious about the business and don’t know a lot. So you are prepared and not prepared. If you are really curious, you want to learn more and study it more. When working at a hedge fund or mutual fund, you are expected to learn a business in 1 week. You can’t truly understand everything about a business in 1 week. It took me 10 years and I am still learning new things about BYD. It is a continuous learning process. You could spend a lifetime studying a business or industry, but in a few seconds I can tell you whether or not I like it. You want to build a knowledgeable of continually learning. There is not set preparation.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
I have good news to report and another video version of the short version of my talk for you to watch and hopefully use. Of course we've been honing and crafting "the talk" over the past few months (years, actually) trying to make it more accessible, cleaner, and shorter. I think we've got it pretty close to right.
A recent talk given at the Yahoo! headquarters in CA in June was recorded along with the entire Q&A afterwards, was made available to us, and has just been uploaded in six parts by us here at Martenson Central to our Youtube.com channel.
Today, residential real estate confronts numerous headwinds: Credit, once given to anyone who could fog a mirror, is now tight. Hence, demand is far below what it was during the past decade. Home prices are still unwinding from artificially high levels, and remained over-priced. Inventory is elevated. Unemployment remains high. A huge supply of shadow inventory is out there: Speculators and flippers who overpaid but have held onto their properties await modestly higher prices to sell. Bank owned real estate (REOs) continues to increase. We are barely halfway through a decade long foreclosure surge.
In my analysis, price stands out as being the prime mover of the next leg down. High unemployment, and a decade of flat wages aren’t helping to create any new housing demand. And the millions in homes they cannot afford will eventually add more pressure to inventory and prices.
But the bottom line is Home prices remain too high: There can be no doubt that home prices have moved way down from the 2005-06 peaks. How did I reach the conclusion that, even after a 33% decrease in prices?
By using traditional metrics. Whether we are looking at US housing stock as a percentage of GDP or Median income vs home prices or even ownership vs renting costs, prices remain elevated. Indeed, we see prices remain above historic mean.
We can look at numerous other factors. Employment, inventory, REOs, credit, another wave of foreclosures. etc. But the bottom line remains that prices must revert to a sustainable level, and we simply aren’t there — yet.
Yes, government policies temporarily stopped prices from finding their natural levels. Now that the tax credit has ended, and most mortgage mods are failing, the prior downtrend in price will now resume.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Most people would see the macro strategist’s role as timing macro events … switching between defensives and cyclicals, adjusting duration, risk-on/risk-off trades, and so on … the only problem is that most of us are rubbish at seeing macro events coming, let alone timing them, as our evolutionary programming blinds us to events which are forecastable (and many are not even that). Perhaps we should embrace our limitations by accepting that ‘outlier events’ are actually quite regular, and use macro research to aid in the search for appropriate insurance strategies.
* A few weeks ago I mapped out a strategy that was based on the idea that since global banks’ solvency was so dependent on government bond holdings, central banks would have no option but to quantitatively ease in the face of future government funding crises. I argued that such funding crises could provide opportunities to buy cheap risk assets before liquidity/QE-induced rallies and that some value was beginning to emerge, but also that that value still wasn’t extreme enough to go all in.
* As usual, I received some interesting feedback – some favourable, some not (one pm said my ‘deflation-begets-inflation’ view was a “dog’s leg” forecast). But one client asked why I bothered looking at valuation at all. Surely my extreme macro views trumped such considerations? “I just don’t understand how you can separate your … economic research from your stand-alone valuation tools.” I thought this was a brilliant question because it gets to the heart of a permanent tension between macro and micro: what should the relationship between top-down macro and bottom-up valuation be?
* At the risk of oversimplifying what our more macro-focused clients do every day I’d characterize pure macro-focused managers as being less concerned with valuation. For a start, the traditional macro instruments such as commodities and currencies are difficult to value. But by far the biggest macro market – the bond market – is largely priced off central bank perceptions of what the economy is doing, and risk assets tend to be priced off those bond markets. Since mispriced assets can become even more mispriced depending on the macro climate and central banks’ reading of it, timing is everything and for such managers an understanding of the ‘big picture’ is far more important than valuation.
* But at the opposite end, where the pure value hunters reside, Warren Buffett has said that even if he knew the Fed’s exact interest rate moves two years in advance it still wouldn’t make any difference to how he would invest today. Indeed, most value investors shun macro completely and focus entirely on bottom-up valuations. They view recessions as good times to buy and have little confidence in anyone’s ability to predict them. But they don’t really care because they know recessions occur frequently enough and they are patient enough to wait. So why bother with macro?
So if our confidence in our forecasting ability is for most of us more likely to be reflecting a cruel trick of our evolutionary development than any real ability, is macro research completely redundant? I don't think so. In fact, I agree with the second part of David Einhorn's conclusion in the excerpt above, of "when appropriate, buying some just-in-case insurance for foreseeable macro risk".
At this year's Berkshire Hathaway conference, Charlie Munger said that while most people and firms do whatever they can to avoid large losses, Berkshire Hathaway is designed to take them. "That's our edge", he said. When asked about his successor at the helm of Berkshire, Buffett said that the most important thing his successor at Berkshire must be able to do is "to think about things which haven't happened before." Most insurance companies lose money on their underwriting operations but make money on the float. Berkshire Hathaway makes profits on both. They haven't been able to do this because they've been better at predicting the future than the competition - they openly admit to not even trying - but because their whole approach is grounded in a) the understanding that "outlier" events happen every few years, and b) being patient enough to hold capital in preparation for deployment when such "outliers" inevitably arise.
There are two broad approaches to a more insurance-based approach. The first and most simple is the avoidance of the purchase of overvalued assets. Ensuring an adequate margin of safety against the unknown and unknowable future - rather than trying to predict it - is the central philosophy behind Ben Graham's concept of value investing and one of the simplest differences between investment and speculation. It's as important today as it has always been and is why a careful and prudent analysis of valuation is so important. This is why I spend what some might think is an unusual amount of time on equity valuation for a macro strategist.
The second approach is to focus on the "grey swans" - the tail risks which are predictable - by devoting time to thinking about them and to finding effective and efficient protective insurance should they happen. Most of the research Albert and I write aims in this direction. It is for most of us, I believe, a more fruitful use of macro research than trying to predict various markets' short-term moves. There is a very big difference. Some have interpreted my work on government solvency as a reason to short government bonds, and JGBs in particular. I've actually never suggested doing this. To get it right you have to get your timing right, and ? well ? see the above on how confident most of us (myself included) should be about that.
But just because you can't predict when something will happen doesn't mean you should act as though it won't happen. If, for example, you are as worried about the implications of what appears to be widespread public sector insolvency in developed markets as I am, there are numerous insurance products worth considering.
Monday, June 21, 2010
Found via Simoleon Sense.
The most-published and least-known thinker in Canada doesn’t want to be interviewed. He says he has 77 deadlines to meet (perhaps an exaggeration, but probably not) before he flies off to a scientific conference in Europe. Besides, he thinks media interviews are pointless. He detests our sound-bite culture, which shrinks enormously important and complex subjects into meaningless bits of info-kibble. “All I want is to be left alone to write my books,” he insists.
That may be one reason why hardly anyone in Canada has heard of Vaclav Smil. But Bill Gates has. He believes Prof. Smil is one of the smartest guys around today. He plugs several of Prof. Smil’s recent books on his website, and says that he has “opened my eyes to new ways to think about solving our energy and environmental issues.”
Prof. Smil, born and educated in the former Czechoslovakia, has the kind of hard-headed skepticism you often find in Eastern Europeans. He and his wife, Eva, landed in the United States in 1969. But Canada was more congenial, so they settled here in 1971. As someone who was rigorously schooled in all the sciences, he regrets people’s widespread ignorance of science, technology and basic economics. As he told energy writer Robert Bryce, “Without any physical, chemical, and biological fundamentals, and with equally poor understanding of basic economic forces, it is no wonder that people will believe anything.”
Prof. Smil’s 24th book, Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years, has just been published in Canada. It offers a numbers-heavy but compact guide to all the main things we should be worrying about (or not), from natural disasters to population trends. Although he deliberately stays away from predictions, he concludes from the evidence that climate change is nowhere near the top of the list. What is? A genuine flu pandemic, which, he says, is a 100 per cent certainty. What we can’t predict is how bad it will be. Prof. Smil is no alarmist, but he warns that even a least-worst-case epidemic “would pose challenges unseen in most countries for generations.”
Related book: Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Friday, June 18, 2010
Found via Claire Barnes.
The report, produced in co-operation with Chatham House, explores the key global energy trends over the next 10 to 20 years and examines the major implications for business both in terms of future resource constraints and the need to move to a low carbon economy.
The report identifies the major energy risks facing business over the short to medium term, including operational, supply chain, regulatory, financial and reputational risks. It also identifies potential opportunities for companies in the areas of renewables and energy efficiency.
Thanks to Mike G. for passing this along. There is some very good information on market valuations.
Thanks to Will for passing this along.
Now, Bill and Melinda Gates and I are asking hundreds of rich Americans to pledge at least 50% of their wealth to charity. So I think it is fitting that I reiterate my intentions and explain the thinking that lies behind them.
First, my pledge: More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death. Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day.
Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge.
Moreover, this pledge does not leave me contributing the most precious asset, which is time. Many people, including -- I'm proud to say -- my three children, give extensively of their own time and talents to help others. Gifts of this kind often prove far more valuable than money.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Article: The $600 billion challenge
New Jersey officials recently celebrated the selection of the new stadium in the Meadowlands sports complex as the site of the 2014 Super Bowl. Absent from the festivities was any sense of the burden the complex has become for taxpayers.
Nearly 40 years ago the Garden State borrowed $302 million to begin constructing the Meadowlands. The goal was to pay off the bonds in 25 years. Although the project initially went according to plan, politicians couldn't resist continually refinancing the bonds, siphoning revenues from the complex into the state budget, and using the good credit rating of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition authority to borrow for other, unsuccessful building schemes.
Today, the authority that runs the Meadowlands is in hock for $830 million, which it can't pay back. The state, facing its own cavernous budget deficits, has had to assume interest payments—about $100 million this year on bonds that still stretch for decades.
This tale of woe has become familiar in the world of municipal finance. Governments have loaded up on debt, stretched out repayment times, and used slick maneuvers to avoid constitutional borrowing limits. While the country's economic troubles have helped expose some of these practices, a sharp decline in tax revenues has prompted more abuse as politicians use long-term debt to kick short-term fiscal problems down the road.
Taxpayers are only slowly realizing that their states and municipalities face long-term obligations that will be increasingly hard to meet. Rick Bookstaber, a senior policy adviser to the Securities and Exchange Commission, recently warned that the muni market has all the characteristics of a crisis that might unfold with "a widespread cascade in defaults." If that painful scenario materializes, it will be because we have too long ignored how some politicians have become addicted to debt.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Thanks to Dah Hui Lau for passing this along.
THE Australian and British housing markets are the last two bubbles left in the wake of the financial crisis, and it is only a matter of time before they crash, warns legendary US investor and co-founder of global investment management firm GMO, Jeremy Grantham.