December 2015 Investment Commentary: Mixed Messages

Our 2015 outlook was the second consecutive to include the notion that markets would be weaker than the broader economy. Specifically, we said that “we continue to expect markets to be weak and volatile compared to the economy”[1] and this is largely what happened. If one checked the S&P 500’s price at the close of December 31, 2014 and not again until the close of 2015, it would appear that not much happened on the year. The S&P 500 had a -0.81% price return, alongside a 1.23% total return. The Dow dropped 2.19% pricewise, but added 0.09% in total. Global markets and small caps were particularly weak, with the MSCI All Cap World Index shedding 4.58% on price (-2.15% total return) and the Russell 2000 dropping 5.85% (4.40% total return) respectively. The most notably poor performing asset class was the High Yield Corporate Bond Index (as represented by HYG) which had a negative total return of 4.75%.

While the S&P 500’s performance was seemingly flat, the underlying performance in specific stocks tells a vastly different story. Through the course of the year, 534 total stocks were in the index at some point (due to corporate actions, compositional changes, etc). The average return of those 534 stocks was a negative 3.94%. 301, or 56% of the stocks in the S&P ended negative. 200 stocks experienced double-digit losses, compared to 142 double-digit gainers. 11% of the stocks in the S&P lost one-third or more of their value, versus 5% that gained more than one-third in value. Fourteen stocks shed over half their value, while 5 added that much. There are two notable points worth emphasizing:

  1. Dispersion between the winners and losers in 2015 was extreme.
  2. If you look around the market, there was far more pain than there was gain to be had.

This was the second consecutive year of markets littered with minefields. We feel good that in our commentary last year we forewarned “the death of commodities as an investable asset class” and saw “much pain” in the MLP space. While we are not wavering longer-term in our conviction that “the benefits [of cheaper commodities] in nearly all respects outweigh any reason for concern [about declining capex],”1 we think we missed an opportunity to approach this belief with more patience. In several cases, we thought the investor base in some high quality, non-energy companies would be willing to look past some of the nearer-term headwinds.

Investors spent most of the year wondering if and when the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates, thus ending the Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) that commenced in an effort to stave off the Great Financial Crisis. It took until halfway through December to get an answer and after seven years, rates finally moved up to 0.25%. We long argued that the first rate hike would be a reflection of economic strength and with the November unemployment rate at 5.0% (we do not know year-end as of the time of this writing), that certainly is the case.

Throughout the year, market commentators blew a lot of hot air prognosticating about “the FANGs” and concerns about China’s long-term GDP growth rate. In case you have not heard of The FANGs (you would be better off for it), that is the acronym coined for the four most significant standout performers in 2015: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (the company formerly known as Google, now Alphabet, but who would let a technicality ruin a good narrative?). One of these is not like the other ones (hint: it’s the one we own). In fact, it is so different as to render the narrative a vapid, but marketable headline.

In our first two sections below, you will see that there is a yin and yang side to each of the major themes from this past year and how they setup for the future. Each strength came alongside a form of weakness. These forces do not truly offset each other and we will attempt to wrap it all together for you.

Consumer Tailwinds:

The Prolonged Benefits of Low Rates, Part 1:

The benefits of cheaper financing aren’t going away. One of our favorite charts for a few years has been household debt service as a percent of disposable income:

1

The difference from 2006 to today is massive and serves as one of the clearer lenses through which to see a primary force behind the Great Financial Crisis: household expenditures on the interest component of debt was at its highest level in recent history. This improvement is consequentially related to the low interest rate policy at the Fed. Many overemphasize gross debt levels as a source of risk, to their detriment. The debt service situation for households is as healthy as it has been in over three decades.

Let’s talk through the benefit of low rates even further: people who bought houses or refinanced their mortgages to longer duration, lower rate structures have locked in prices for the single largest annual household expense. Per the BLS, the average household with a married couple dedicated 30% of their total expenditures to “Housing.”[2] Housing includes more than just shelter; however, shelter accounts for somewhere around 60% of that amount. This means the average household that owns a home spends 18% of their budget on shelter, or what would be covered by mortgage principal and interest payments. With just shy of 64% of households owning houses, the affordability of housing will improve every year for two-thirds of American households.

A little exercise helps highlight the long-term benefits. Let’s take a sample household, who for the sake of simplicity spends $100 per year. Assuming the 18% spent on shelter is in a fixed mortgage.  Each year, $18 will go towards housing and $82 to everything else. The Fed sets its target rate of inflation at 2%. On one hand, average inflation over the past century has been closer to 2.5%; on the other hand, we have been below trend for the past decade. For arguments’ sake, let’s set the inflation rate at 2%. With this, we will assume that wages grow at the inflation rate, and further that expenditures grow at the same rate as wages. In 10 years, the sample household will have $121.89 available to spend. $18 will still go to housing, but now $99.96 will go to everything else. In effect, this household will have about 0.3% per year extra to spend on the “everything else” category, which over 10 years adds up to 3.23%. This might not seem like a lot, but in 10 years, given the average household spent $53,495 in 2014, this will leave an extra $1,727.88 for households to spend in other areas. Multiply this by the 115 million plus households in America and that is a big number for the economy. These benefits increase quickly if inflation accelerates above 2%.  For context, here is average hourly earnings versus core CPI:

2

When the yellow line is above the blue, workers are benefitting from real wage growth. Real wage growth means the purchasing power of the average employee is rising quicker than his or her expenses. Note that since 2000, average hourly earnings have grown at a faster clip than CPI excluding food and energy. Thus we think this scenario outlined for an average household above is a modest example of the benefits that will accrue to nearly two-thirds of American households.

The Oil Dividend

The longer-term impact of low rates combines nicely with 2015’s second biggest story for consumers. In 2014, the average weekly price for gasoline was $3.358. In 2015, this average fell to $2.429 and a gallon ended the year at $2.034. On average, gasoline was 27.7% cheaper in 2015. If gas prices stay flat in 2016, they will effectively be 39.4% below the 2014 level.  According to the BLS, the average household spent $2,468 on “gasoline and motor oil” in 2014. At 27.7% cheaper, this is a $683.64 savings per household, and at 39.4%, it is a $972.39 savings. This understates the true savings from cheaper energy, as heating bills, energy bills, and several other expenses tied to energy decline apace.

It takes time for people to judge whether the oil savings are a temporary or long-term effect. Now that we are more than one year past the most severe portion of the decline, people are beginning to accept cheaper gas as a normality. The Atlanta Fed, on its Macroblog, put out a great piece last year on the consequences of the energy price decline and they conclude that as far as consumption is concerned, “there is a short-run drag before the longer-term boom”(the short-term drag is misleading considering “consumption” measures all expenditures including those on gas. If gas declines and all other spending stays constant, consumption in aggregate will decline). [3] We see evidence that consumers are embracing cheaper gas when we look at vehicle miles traveled:

3

Only this past year did Americans drive more than the pre-crisis level and this enthusiasm was backed up by continued strength in car sales, with SUVs a notable standout.[4]

The Strong Dollar, Part 1

Last year we jokingly labeled a section “The Strong Dollar Yellen Fed (take THAT conventional wisdom)” and lo and behold, the strong dollar got even strong. Our jab was meant to be ironic considering many were concerned that Yellen was too willing to embrace policies that were negatives for the dollar. Thus far we can draw one of two conclusions:

  1. Yellen is actually a hawk in disguise.
  2. Fed policy matters less than meets the eye, especially in the short run.

Good thing that we believe in nuances and that such dichotomies are not truly mutually exclusive options. On the year, the trade-weighted dollar index rose 23.1%:

4

Since we import a lot of consumer goods into the US, the strong dollar helps improve the affordability of many items that households buy on a regular basis.

The Earnings Recession

The Prolonged Benefits of Low Rates, Part 2: The Hunt for Yield Turns Sour

This is one of the most nuanced topics out there today. In part this section could have been written as a strength; however, it’s important to speak to some of the risks right now. Cheaper financing will be a part of many companies for a long time. Financing is not going to get materially more expensive—despite the rate hike—anytime soon. A chart showing net debt to EBITDA on the corporate level is the equivalent of our household debt service chart above for companies:

5

This is a similarly constructive setup, especially when combined with our discussion from last year about how non-financial corporations were the sector of the economy most ripe to add leverage.

So far, everything we said is a positive, so why is this in the “yang” section? If you will recall our letter entitled “The oil investors who don’t even know it,” we expressed concern about the extent of exposure in high yield bond indices to energy.[5] This year, that exposure came back to bite in the form of a significant widening in energy-specific spreads, but also a broader de-risking in the high yield bond space. The best way to show this is with the spread of high yield debt over Treasuries:

6

The impaired values of energy sector bonds have taken their toll on other sectors by decreasing investor willingness to buy new high yield issues.

Oil (ex-) Dividend,The Earnings Recession:

High yield bonds were not the only victim of corporate energy’s woes. The earnings in the S&P will actually register a decline (also known as an “earnings recession”) in 2015 (the yellow line in the chart below):

7

The market tends to follow the direction of earnings over longer timeframes. You can see in the above chart the gravitational pull of this relationship. Excluding energy, the S&P will register modest growth in 2015; however, the 36% drop in energy sector earnings was too much to outweigh everything else. Take a look at our September commentary for a deeper look at the sectoral breakdown of earnings.[6]

Oil’s impact spreads beyond the energy sector through the industries that help service and build out energy production and transportation capacity. In the aforementioned Atlanta Fed piece, they offered an estimate of the near-term woes in capital expenditures and when to look for a leveling off. While this was published after the most acute phase of the oil decline, prices continued to drop throughout the year:

8

The effects of this capex shock will begin to subside early in 2016 and will be gone by 2017. With the economy near full employment, the potential for a negative feedback loop should be contained, as workers laid off from energy-impacted jobs can transition to other areas of need.

The Strong Dollar, weak profit:

The strong dollar was the other force conspiring against S&P earnings growth. The U.S. is home to many multinational companies who do considerable business abroad. When the dollar rises, the value of foreign earnings declines proportionately.

When earnings growth declines, investors take down the multiple they are willing to pay for a given earnings stream. This was particularly acute in the August selloff.[7] Investors en masse went from paying a near 19x multiple of forward earnings to just shy of 17x during the month. This down move and subsequent snapback represent some of the uncertainty and angst on the part of investors. Will the woes in the oil, mining and industrial sectors spread into deeper economic contagion? Or will the benefits of cheaper goods accrue to consumers and create a virtuous cycle for the economy?

A corollary of the strong dollar is how multinationals based outside of the US actually get an earnings tailwind from a falling currency. This has been one of the key premises behind our interest in high quality European companies who do most of their business outside of the Eurozone. While the currency translation has been a drag on stock performance in the short run, we have finally started to see accelerating earnings growth attract higher multiples from investors.

Where does the next recession come from?

Last year we proclaimed the following:

Importantly, we think the next recession will come from an economy that accelerates too much and must be slowed down via a tightening of monetary policy, rather than one where a credit contraction puts us on the precipice of deflation. In other words, the next recession will be of the run-of-the-mill variety, which are never fun, but are far less troubling than once-in-a-lifetime financial crises.[8]

With a rate hike behind us, we are increasingly convinced this will be the case. This is especially true given how tight the unemployment situation is today and the tailwinds that will support consumer spending for some time thereafter. This is exactly what was needed to get inflation back to the Fed target. The question from here begs whether the Fed will let inflation get ahead of target to make up for lost time spent deeply below it, or whether they will try to cool things off before they get even hotter?

As the calendar turns to 2016, market participants are focused intently on the risks out of China. Many of you clients live on Long Island and are probably more attuned to a major trend than the average person: there has been a big flow of Chinese money (and to an extent wealthy people) out of the country, and to the US (with Long Island real estate experiencing a huge influx of both). We can see some signs of this in looking at two lines from China’s Balance of Payments:

new

We do not have end-of-year data for this yet; however, as of the third quarter, a net total of $330 billion of dollars has left China in “Other Investment” and a total of $162 billion has left via “Net errors and omissions.” Roughly speaking, China has offset some of this outflow by using its reserves to defend the Yuan and we can see that in the form of the largest reserve drawdown as a percent of total reserves China has seen since opening its economy and accumulating US dollars (see chart on next page):

10

Two points are worth noting:

  1. In late 2014 when the outflows started hitting the Balance of Payments, and the reserve drawdown began, China opened its domestic equity market “A” shares to foreign ownership.[9] Previously, foreign investors had to invest in China either via Hong Kong listed shares, or foreign domiciled proxies. This opened the floodgates for inflows. While foreign purchases of equities temporarily held the net outflows in check, it was a mere pause before a big acceleration. In many respects, the opening of shares was a sinister ploy to improve the Balance of Payments more so than a move in the direction of financial openness. This is further evidenced by the huge valuation premium assigned to Chinese A shares verse their Hong Kong counterparts, and what at that point were soaring and obscene market valuations relative to any prudent measures of value.
  2. This money flowing out of China has to go somewhere. While China is selling dollars and Treasuries (note, both have gone up despite the China selling pressure, thus the fears about China spiking US rates seem misplaced), Chinese private sector players are buying global properties and building bank accounts abroad. In effect, this money is going from passive, low velocity reserves, to active, high velocity assets and goods.

These forces collectively create volatility for global financial markets, but what they do not do is change the trajectory for the US economy. Oil is the primary mechanism through which the US economy does get impacted, and as we discussed above, that is a nuanced effect with lower capital expenditures hurting investment in the short run, but the greater consumer purchasing power accelerating growth in the mid and long-term. Despite these concerns about the global economy and industrials, the US economy continues to chug along. What we said two years ago is still relevant today:

… the economy is moving faster and in the continued process of acceleration. As we know from Newton’s Second Law of Motion, the greater the mass, the greater the force needed to change its direction.  When an economy the size of the U.S. is accelerating to the upside, it would take an extremely massive force to first, derail its momentum and second, change its course 180 degrees.[10]

We discussed rising wages above. Two further forces bode well for the US economy in the coming year the end of the fiscal drag and the tightening housing supply. Both are supportive of increasing employment. With the fiscal drag ending, the US government (Federal, States and Municipalities collectively) will increase spending for the first time since 2010: [11]

11

As the chart above shows, from 2011-2015, this has been one of the larger forces holding back the economy. In fact, 2013 saw government spending chop over 2% from GDP growth. The inflection point from negative to positive offers a nice accelerant. Meanwhile, housing supply creation has now been below population trends for longer than it was above it during the housing bubble. In other words, over the fuller cycle, we have underbuilt what is necessary to support demand. Housing starts should continue to surge:

12

Employment is already tight with the unemployment at 5%, yet the end of the fiscal drag and continued expansion in housing starts will keep demand for workers strong and help offset the pain that energy-related industries will experience.  Herein lies the problem: these forces will push inflation upward in the coming year. This is exactly why the Fed commenced a rate-hiking cycle with the global economy looking uncertain. We will thus repeat, because it is so important: the next recession will come from inflation accelerating to the point where the Fed is uncomfortable and must act to stop it. China is merely a sideshow, but an important one nonetheless.

What do we own?

Much like with broader markets, performance dispersion across positions was the major theme for our holdings. Our European positions generally performed well, even when translated into dollars; however, for the second year in a row our considerable overseas holdings exposed us to the drag inflicted by a strong dollar. Two of the three losers no longer appear on our position roster (Bed Bath and Beyond and Siemens), while each of the winners remain.

Returns reflect US dollar denominated returns over our holding period.

The Leaders:

Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG/GOOGL) +46.6%

Groupe SEB (EPA: SK) +42.6%

Markel Corp (NYSE: MKL) +29.4%

The Laggards:

Bed Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ: BBBY) -36.7%

Johnson Outdoors (NASDAQ: JOUT) -29.0%

Siemens AG (OTC: SIEGY) -27.1%

We wish you and your families a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2016. Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice.  Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have.  You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-1945.  Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF, CGMA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1940
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1942
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

[1] http://www.rgaia.com/december-2014-investment-commentary-our-2015-investment-outlook/

[2] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cesan.nr0.htm

[3] http://macroblog.typepad.com/macroblog/2014/12/the-long-and-short-of-falling-energy-prices.html

[4] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-05/fiat-chrysler-rides-jeep-to-u-s-gain-as-nissan-beats-estimates

[5] http://www.rgaia.com/the-oil-investors-who-dont-even-know-it/

[6] http://www.rgaia.com/a-liquidation-move/

[7] http://www.rgaia.com/zones-of-reasonableness/

[8] http://www.rgaia.com/december-2014-investment-commentary-our-2015-investment-outlook/

[9] http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-opens-doors-to-foreign-investment-in-stocks-1415604267

[10] http://www.rgaia.com/december-2013-investment-commentary-our-2014-outlook/

[11] http://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-celebrate-the-end-of-austerity-1452101357

November 2015 Investment Commentary: Fade Disruption

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

“The future ain’t what it used to be.”

–Yogi Berra

How will the future look in fifty years? In his latest book, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb gives us a clue: Assume that most of the technology that has existed for the past fifty years will serve us for another half century. And assume that recent technology will be passe in a few years’ time. Why? Think of these inventions as if they were species: Whatever has held its own throughout centuries of innovation will probably continue to do so in the future, too. Old technology has proven itself; it possesses an inherent logic even if we do not always understand it. If something has endured for epochs, it must be worth its salt…Fifty years into the future will look a lot like today…

When contemplating the future, we place far too much emphasis on flavor-of-the-month inventions and the latest “killer app” while underestimating the role of traditional technology. In the 1960s, space travel was all the rage, so we imagined ourselves on school trips to Mars. In the ‘70s, plastic was in, so we mulled over how we would furnish our see-through houses. Taleb traces this tendency back to the neomania­ pitfall: the mania for all things shiny and new.[1]

–Rolf Dobelli

In our December 2012 Commentary featuring our expectations for 2013, our last chart series started with the following:

We are living in the technology age, yet for some reason, no sector in the stock market is more unloved than technology. In fact, industrials, perhaps due to the natural gas renaissance in America, are far more loved at the moment.[2]

How far things have come: today the exact opposite is true.  If you noticed a theme in our extended lede, you might think this could not possibly be a commentary written by the very same people who professed their love of technology just a few short years ago. As often happens, the pendulum of sentiment has swung from one extreme to the other without even a brief stop in the middle.

Two years ago when we professed our love for technology, people were gawking at the perceived lack of innovation.  Peter Thiel wittily summed up this notion with his quip that “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”—a reference to how in his childhood people dreamed of flying cars, yet the most profound innovation at the time seemed to be Twitter.[3] Fast forward to today and people are talking about the imminence of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence overtaking human thought and drone delivery.

Self-driving cars is an area close to heart given we own a leader in self-driving car technology (Google) and a mass-market automaker (Fiat-Chrysler). We find the rhetoric on the imminence of disruption particularly extreme. Not long ago, our long-term holding in Google was admonished for “betting the farm” on “speculative” projects with self-driving cars the poster child.[4] Just a few months ago, an auto analyst we greatly respect proclaimed that Tesla should be worth $60 billion on account of a possible self-driving Uber-like service.[5] In other words, the rhetoric has shifted from suggesting that a multi-million dollar bet at a centibillion dollar company with a modest valuation (Google) was impairing its long-term value by billions of dollars to the potential for another company (Tesla) to do the very same thing doubling its already lush valuation. All it took was three years and a creative imagination.

We like that Google is making these kinds of investments for how it leverages their strengths in data aggregation, organization and analysis, so we certainly will not complain about a future with driverless cars. Google is a great vehicle for gaining exposure to these kinds of asymmetric opportunities. They have a cash cow in the form of search, a growing one in YouTube and a slew of high risk/high reward bets where the wagers are quite small relative to the company’s value, but rewards enormous. We are optimists who love seeing innovators dream big, yet we think the enthusiasm with which people see the future of disruption has taken a turn for the misguided in the stock market.

The hype cycle is a good framework through which to think about the relationship between expectations and reality:

6

[6]

Valuations in some pockets of tech stocks are now overenthusiastic to the point where success will be rewarded with little return for investors. Meanwhile, valuations of some old dinosaurs have become far too cheap amidst vague proclamations of disruption’s imminence. When we are talking about issues over half a decade out, not only is there great uncertainty as to the “if” but also the “how.” Even if we are certain that these disruptions are coming, we can never know in advance how they will change things. A few years into the iPhone’s existence, no one would or could have predicted Uber.

We have twice highlighted the irrationalities of some valuations in the technology space. First, we broke down the speculative assumptions behind Tesla’s valuation in our August 2013 commentary. Next, we pointed out the “pockets of momentum” in high growth stocks in February 2014.[7] [8] These commentaries focused on the excessive valuations in technology stocks, but through it all we remained heavily allocated to the technology sector. This is unlikely to change.  However, in the meantime, there has been a profound change in how people are talking about technology and its impact on the future.  Investors have become too blasé in dismissing a sector as bound to be disrupted without quantifying when and how that impact will take place.

We can do a little math exercise to give a general sense of how disruption impacts a dinosaur company’s market cap today. Let’s say a company has $100 in cash flow that will continue in perpetuity and a 10% cost of capital. This results in a net present value (NPV) of $1,000. Here is what that $100 cash flow stream would be worth if segmented into various time frames:

npv

The assumption here is that the $100 in cash flow will not grow over time. Further, the cash flow will not fizzle, but will simply drop to $0 in the stated year.  If a disruption will hit a company in 5 years, that company today is worth 62% less than were it treated as a perpetuity. Meanwhile, were a disruption to take 30 years to pan out, it would only justify a 5.7% discount to the perpetual value. Another way of phrasing this is that disruption “a decade out” should result in the disrupted trading at about a 38% P/E discount to the market. With the market at approximately a 17x P/E then that justifies an 11x P/E. At an 11x P/E the implication would be that the disruption has a 100% chance of happening in a decade. Were the chance merely 50% instead, the justified P/E relative to the market would be 13.8x. The point here is rather simple but we think the illustration is powerful: the longer a disruption takes to actually come to fruition, the less it should impact the companies at risk of disruption. Further, the less certain the disruption, the less impact its potential should have on the disrupted’s value. If something will ultimately “take decades” to happen (as the conversation about self-driving cars acknowledges), then its impact today is almost negligible on an old company compared to thinking about it as a perpetuity.

There are a few important qualitative points to make alongside this basic math:

  • Disruption typically comes from where it’s least expected. As such, predictions of disruption are often wrong. Such is the essence of disruption.
  • A lot of what is presented as disruption today is merely using existing things in different ways.
  • The expectation of disruption in a sector can change the behavior of management such that a company’s business is more resilient to future threats.
  • Conversely, when disruption does occur, institutional imperatives often result in companies burning cash rapidly to protect what is left rather than unwind the business and release its capital. Many of the risks of disruption thus result from human biases.

One of the points captured by the Rolf Dolbelli excerpt above is the power of inertia. Things that have worked for people for a long time, tend to continue working for a long time. Disruption is both a risk and an opportunity. Given this nature, we have wagers on companies that are disruptive forces in their sectors and an increasing number of wagers that certain areas will be disrupted far slower than the market expects to be the case. All involve a careful assessment of the value that is already attachable to the business’ ongoing operations and the implied odds that disruption will derail the prevailing inertia. These are themes we will continue to spell out over time.

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice.  Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have.  You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-1945.  Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF, CGMA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1940
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1942
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

[1] The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli. Page 207.

[2] http://www.rgaia.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/December-2012-Investment-Commentary.pdf

[3] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/11/28/no-death-no-taxes

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/03/google-larry-page_n_870797.html

[5] http://www.businessinsider.com/morgan-stanley-raises-tesla-price-target-2015-8

[6] https://www.pastel.co.za/blog/four-ways-the-gartner-hype-cycle-revolutionises-the-way-we-do-business/

[7] http://www.rgaia.com/august-2013-investment-commentary-tesla/

[8] http://www.rgaia.com/pockets-of-momentum/

October 2015 Investment Commentary: Decreasing Correlations and Our Investment in Envestnet, Inc.

At the end of last quarter, we called the market selloff “a liquidation move.”[1] During October, stocks recovered much of their losses from the prior few months. This is often how a bounce back from liquidation selling transpires. Once the forced seller stops, markets recover. While October was a strong month, it’s important to caveat that when markets move really fast in a short period of time, they inevitably require a breather. It would be healthy to see some digestion here with more volatility compression. Further, we remain in an environment where some individual stocks are getting thrown out of the window on bad news. We need to see a stop to the number of stocks with large hedge fund ownership dropping 15+% in one-day moves before a healthy, broad-based uptrend resumes. So long as this kind of carnage is out there, funds will have to continue reducing gross exposure, thus creating a headwind for markets.

CBOE S&P 500 Implied Correlation Index

One consequence of the recent market action has been a sharp drop in implied correlation as evidenced by the CBOE S&P 500 Implied Correlation Index (source, Bloomberg):

Here’s the description of the index from CBOE:

Using SPX options prices, together with the prices of options on the 50 largest stocks in the S&P 500 Index, the CBOE S&P 500 Implied Correlation Indexes offers insight into the relative cost of SPX options compared to the price of options on individual stocks that comprise the S&P 500.[2]

When this index is rising (falling), it means that correlations amongst the 50 largest S&P stocks are rising (falling). In other words, the higher this index, the more in unison stocks move, and the lower the index, the more stocks move independently of each other. There’s a saying that “all correlations go to 1 in a crisis,” which means that everything tends to move in unison when things are bad. A drop in correlations, as we’re seeing now, is just another healthy step towards putting the Great Financial Crisis in our rearview mirror. This is a phenomenon we have noticed in our portfolio and is something we believe should benefit us as time progresses. We long for a market where individual securities perform based on merit as opposed to knee-jerk market reactions to macro headlines or index-driven fund flows.

A new stock in your portfolio:

During the month of October we commenced a new position that we are excited to share: Envestnet Inc. Envestnet has two main business lines, each with outstanding business models, catering to the growing Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) landscape. The main business at Envestnet is the asset-based fee segment (the “AUM/A business”). The second is a software licensing business.  Collectively Envestnet provides one of the most robust back-end technologies for investment advisors, one of the fastest growing segments of the financial services industry. We’ll focus most of the following conversation on the AUM/A business.

Envestnet’s AUM/A business allows financial advisors and asset allocators to connect with fund managers and specific investment strategies.  Envestnet’s software helps construct the allocations for advisors based on each individual client’s needs, after which the advisor can use some of Envestnet’s own solutions or external managers who offer their services through Envestnet’s platform (this is a multi-sided network that works great for all parties). As of the end of the third quarter this year, AUM/A was at $250 billion, from which the company earned a fee of ~13.25 basis points. By our estimates, this fee has varied overtime from around 11.3 basis points up to 14, but has generally hovered around 12. We use 12 in our model.

There are three key traits we love about this business:

  • The AUM/A business tend to be very sticky and benefits from inertia. People don’t frequently change the decisions they have made with respect to their advisor unless something goes very wrong.
  • The allocation of Envestnet’s AUM/A is by nature very diverse. Considering much of these assets are in traditional “wealth management” the AUM/A viewed as a portfolio most closely approximates a 60/40 allocation between stocks and bonds. Plus there should be portfolio inflows equal to the average household savings rate. Taken together, as the company has explained, the growth in AUM/A should be approximately three times the rate of inflation. Note that this is purely the intrinsic growth of the asset business itself, not the growth that Envestnet can tap into from expanding the number of advisors who use its platform.
  • In aggregate, the AUM/A is stylistically agnostic. There are all kinds of managers on Envestnet. If a style like “momentum” is replaced with “value” in popularity, Envestnet will capture this transition.

Beyond these natural drivers of stickiness and growth, we think Envestnet has a major runway for future growth.  There are three key leverage points that we focus on:

  • Growth in advisors on the Envestnet platform
  • Growth in accounts per advisor
  • Growth in dollar value per account (which relates to point 2 above)

The Great Financial Crisis and changing regulatory landscape have helped accelerate the investment management industry’s transformation from the broker / dealer (b/d) model that made money off of commissions to the fee-based, independent model that makes money off of a small percentage of assets under management. Importantly, the pivot from the b/d model to the RIA platform has also come with the growth of a fiduciary standard, whereby managers must put themselves in the shoes of their clients when making decisions (as an aside, it is shocking how resistant wealth managers at b/ds are to the idea of a fiduciary standard. Do they not think it natural for to expect their own interests to be tantamount to the advisor’s generation of fees?).

In a Cerulli Associates study of the asset management landscape, they presented the following information on recent growth of the RIA platform:

RIAs experienced the strongest growth among the independent channels in 2013. According to Cerulli, the channel increased 17.1% in 2013 to $1.67 trillion in total assets and expanded its asset marketshare from 9.2% in 2007 to 11.9% in 2013, which equates to a compound annual growth rate of 8.3% and a $600 billion boost in assets on a base of $1 trillion.[3]

We are thankful to have played our small part in the existence of this trend and expect it to continue indefinitely into the future. We like that no matter which way you slice it assets of advisors who use Envestnet’s platform; RIAs; or, RIAs + broker/dealers, Envestnet has captured a mere hair of the total addressable market.

In addition to fee-based revenue, Envestnet also sells a software platform called Envestnet Tamarac, a direct competitor to the Black Diamond platform you are all now familiar with.  We can speak a lot from the customer perspective of the relative merits of Tamarac vs Black Diamond. Nevertheless, we think Tamarac is an outstanding product, which benefits from its own kind of stickiness and a long runway of growth.  Advent, the parent company of Black Diamond, recently sold for 18x EV/2015 estimated EBITDA. This juicy multiple is reflective of the high margin nature of these businesses, the extended pipeline of growth, and the stickiness of existing customers.

The AUM/A and licensingbusinesses have another common trait we have yet to mention: very little capital intensity. Neither of these businesses need to invest significant capital expenditures to grow, and both of them do most of their “investing” in the form of R&D and scaling headcount, which flow through operating expenses. These operating expenses are not capitalized, despite the fact that the costs actually produce material benefits for years down the line. This is one of the key reasons we expect operating leverage out of Envestnet each subsequent year alongside its robust top line growth.

All this begs the question as to why Envestnet is cheap. In the short-run, the company is sensitive to asset prices. When markets decline as they did in the third quarter, it is a headwind to Envestnet achieving their growth targets. The third quarter’s decline will be most visible in the company’s fourth quarter earnings report and investors were anticipating this pain. Most consequentially, Envestnet announced it will be acquiring Yodlee, a financial account aggregation and data service.[4] Alongside the acquisition, Envestnet indicated that organic growth would not reach the 20% annualized top line the company had hoped for, but rather settle in the high teens. This dual-shock amidst the intense August volatility sent the stock tumbling. It didn’t help that Envestnet made the acquisition in-part with stock, thus incentivizing merger arb funds to sell Envestnet while buying Yodlee.

In our estimation, Envestnet had been aggressively valued earlier in the year, and as so often happens, the correction “overshot” past fair value into the domain of cheapness.  Just this past year the company hit the point in its growth curve where revenues flow through at a greater rate to bottom line profitability. Right now it is trading at around a 10x EV/2017 estimated EBITDA with top line continuing to grow at upwards of 15% and EBITDA growing at least 5% greater than the top line. In our model, we focused on what core Envestnet was worth pre-Yodlee acquisition. We see the top line compounding in the high teens, generating an extra 150 BPS of operating leverage per year and a 3% terminal growth rate, which results in a fair value of $40. Given that this analysis excludes Yodlee’s revenue and earnings contribution, but includes the cost of the acquisition (and given that we underplay the growth and operating leverage inherent to the business model), the price today around $30 looks incredibly attractive. This kind of growth is hard to find in any sector where the business quality is so outstanding and sticky for the long-term and the operating leverage so obvious and imminent. It is exceedingly rare to find such a company at this modest a multiple given the evidence of quality and growth. With these kinds of properties, we look forward to Envestnet being a core holding for the long run.

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice.  Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have.  You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-1945.  Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF, CGMA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1940
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1942
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

[1] http://www.rgaia.com/a-liquidation-move/

[2] https://www.cboe.com/micro/impliedcorrelation/

[3] http://www.thinkadvisor.com/2014/12/19/ria-dually-registered-assets-to-reach-28-market-sh

[4] http://www.envestnet.com/press/envestnet-acquire-yodlee

September 2015 Investment Commentary: A Liquidation Move

In the third quarter, the S&P lost 6.9%. This was the worst quarterly decline since the third quarter of 2011 when the debt ceiling and Europe’s potential breakup loomed over markets. The third quarter was no kinder to bond markets. Toward the end of Q3, 2015 was shaping up to be the first time since 1990 where both stocks and bonds lost money in the same year.[1] In other words, the best performing global asset class thus far this year has been cash. While 2011’s route had clearly identifiable causes that warranted a repricing of risk, this year’s selloff came with vague explanations like “fears of a Fed rate hike,” “a hard landing in China,” and “Glencore is Lehman.”[2] [3]  In our opinion, these are merely convenient excuses that portend well for markets down the line.

First, as we have pointed out several times in the past two years: markets had risen too far in recent years compared to the progress in the real economy. Second, this market action is what we would call a “liquidation move” where a large seller, for non-fundamental reasons, rapidly cut their market exposure. We covered this first part in August’s commentary, so much of the space below will focus on what we mean by a “liquidation move” before circling back around to the valuation backdrop of the stock market.[4]

Commodity Losers Gotta Sell

Commodities are a sector wrought with leverage. This leverage exists on the company level—commodity extractors of all kinds tend to deploy considerable leverage in their capital structures—and on the trading level—futures contracts typically are levered over 10 times (ie for $1 of capital, someone can take $10 of positions). With commodity prices declining sharply, the stocks of these companies whose debt was predicated on higher levels were vulnerable to sharp declines. This is but one reason why high yield bonds had a rough quarter and energy stocks continued the decline which accelerated last Thanksgiving.[5]

In the prior decade, commodities and commodity companies were outstanding performers. This led many to believe the “hard stuff” deserved a permanent place in building a diversified portfolio. As so often happens, investors built these commodity positions after (not before or during) the outstanding decade. Since the commodity crash accelerated, we have been operating under the assumption that there would be a maximum point of pain these late commodity investors would be willing to take in their portfolios in the name of “diversification.” Since last year, we had been asking ourselves who would be in line to trim down risk tolerance in their portfolio because of how wrongly exposed to commodities they ended up. We looked at all kinds of hedge fund and mutual fund filings in an attempt to ascertain where the selling could come from. Once the selling in the markets began, we looked for particularly pained hedge fund portfolios and still did not identify an obvious seller.

In past selloffs we had a pretty clear idea as to where the selling originated. Studying the history of similar selloffs led us to look at 1998 as an example. 1998’s panic happened amidst a similarly strong fundamental US economic backdrop and a challenging Emerging Market landscape. Investors were at least somewhat aware that Long Term Capital Management’s positions combined with leverage left the markets vulnerable. This time around, we were mostly scratching our heads at the lack of a clear culprit. That was so until the Financial Times published a piece titled “Saudi Arabia Withdraws Overseas Funds.”[6] It turns out, we were asking the wrong question. We should not have been hunting for the hedge fund(s) exposed to commodities, but rather the much bigger global pools of funds with indirect, but meaningful exposure to commodity prices.

Per the FT, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, SAMA, was said to have liquidated over $70 billion of money from global equities and bonds within the past 52-weeks. This is a massive headwind for market prices to contend against. SAMA began 2015 as the third largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, managing over $700 billion. As of June 30, 2015, the last reporting period, SAMA’s assets were down to $671b. This was when markets were still up on the year. Between recent declines and the accelerated withdrawals that began in August, it’s reasonable to suspect that SAMA is now a sub-$600b fund.

Saudi Arabia came into the year with a projected $38.6b 2015 deficit.[7] We suspect they have a good grasp of the revenue side given their capacity to sell oil on the futures market (oil accounts for over 90% of Saudi government revenue) and there is little reason to suspect their expense side would have grown. SAMA exists to fund such deficits when necessary. The problem for Saudi is that the revenue side for 2016 will be considerably worse than 2015 given the futures curve in oil. We think much of the global selling was triggered by Saudi Arabia and other oil rich countries using their sovereign wealth funds to cover these budgetary holes. This aggressive selling from SAMA is a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is planning on covering deep deficits into 2016, and that Saudi’s plan to squeeze some newer sources of global oil supply (like American shale) out of the market is nearing its endgame.

There are different kinds of reserve-driven selling. Many investors have raised concerns about China’s reserve drawdown and its consequences on global liquidity (including David Tepper, who we respect to the extreme).[8] In our estimation, the Chinese reserve drawdowns are far more benign (and possibly supportive of global asset prices) compared to what with the action out of Saudi Arabia. China is drawing down its reserves in order to counter cash outflows from citizens. Chinese citizens have been buying property and assets outside of the country as a response to their domestic economic woes, and China was using its accumulated global savings in order to maintain a desired exchange rate between the Yuan and the dollar. Saudi’s global selling is going directly into domestic Saudi expenses, whereas China’s drawdown is a net neutral on global liquidity. By nature, Saudi’s drawdown on reserves is extractive of global liquidity.

Fundamental Valuations, Contd.

Last month we spoke about how the market’s P/E ratio was now well within a “zone of reasonableness.” That conclusion is in some respects predicated on the direction and magnitude of earnings growth. This year looks like one in which earnings will neither grow nor shrink; however, that’s somewhat misleading. Energy sector earnings will drop around 36% year-over-year, while the S&P excluding energy will grow at about 3.25%. This is pretty decent growth. We did an exercise extrapolating forward S&P earnings on a sector-by-sector basis. For each sector we calculated the 10 year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) and the year-over-year change in earnings. We picked the lower of the two and extrapolated that forward 10 years, simply to paint a picture as to what the S&P earnings might look like moving forward. Bare in mind, this middle of this timeframe includes the Great Recession. As such, it’s hard to claim these past ten years were an outlier featuring strong growth. The only sector where we afforded ourselves an exception to picking the lowest growth rate was in energy where the -36% would have been far too onerous. Instead, we used the -7.66% 10-year CAGR the sector has experienced. This is what the picture looks like (forward multiple was based on the S&P’s quarter-closing price of 1920, all data is from Bloomberg, using S&P 500 operating earnings):

Fwd multiple based on S&P qend closing 1920

Please note: this is not a forecast, it is simply an exercise. We would be shocked were the S&P earnings to have any real correlation to these numbers. Instead, this is merely an attempt to visualize what kind of long-term earnings yield we are paying for in today’s market as long-term investors. We think this is hardly exuberant.

Our Portfolio Activity is Correlated with Market Volatility

There is one fundamental reality of our long-term, low-turnover strategy: the more markets move, the more moves we will be inclined to make. That held true this past quarter, as we chopped several positions, concentrated the portfolio deeper into a few of our favorites, added two new positions and built a deep watchlist which already afforded us the opportunity to commence one more new position between quarter-end and the publication of this newsletter. In effect, this quarter justified more action than the past two years combined. We look forward to elaborating on these new positions in our commentary over the coming months.

What do we own?

The Leaders:

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) +16.9%

Markel Corporation (NYSE: MKL) +1.5%

Walgreens Boots Alliance (NASDAQ: WBA) -1.2%

The Laggards:

Howard Hughes Corp (NYSE: HHC) -20.1%

Bed Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ: BBBY) -17.3%

IMAX Corporation (NYSE: IMAX) -16.1%

On a personal note: we want to give a warm thank you to Ryan King, our 2015 Summer Intern, who has now returned to the University of Michigan for his sophomore year at the Ross School of Business. Ryan’s work this summer was crucial in preparing our watchlist for the market turmoil. He did a deep dive into the semiconductor sector which will have value for our firm for years to come and helped expand our knowledge-base on numerous companies within the vertical. We wish Ryan a fun and inspiring year back at Michigan.

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice.  Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have.  You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-1945.  Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF, CGMA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1940
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-1942
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

[1] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/in-a-quarter-century-cash-had-never-beaten-stocks-bondsuntil-now-2015-09-25

[2] http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-10-07/shocking-100-billion-glencore-debt-emerges-next-lehman-has-arrived

[3] We apologize for linking to Zerohedge in the above footnote. Typically we would refrain from doing so; however, this meme has drawn enough mainstream attention as to justify our mention.

[4] http://www.rgaia.com/zones-of-reasonableness/

[5] http://www.rgaia.com/the-oil-investors-who-dont-even-know-it/

[6] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/8f2eb94c-62ac-11e5-a28b-50226830d644.html?ftcamp=published_links%2Frss%2Fglobal-economy%2Ffeed%2F%2Fproduct#axzz3mxcGbfiD

[7] https://www.mof.gov.sa/English/DownloadsCenter/Budget/Ministry’s%20of%20Finance%20statment%20about%20the%20national%20budget%20for%202015.pdf

[8] http://www.cnbc.com/2015/09/10/david-tepper-good-time-to-take-money-off-the-table.html

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.  The views expressed above are those of RGA Investment Advisors LLC (RGA).  These views are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions, and RGA disclaims any responsibility to update such views.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results. No forecasts can be guaranteed. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice.   The investment process may change over time. The characteristics set forth above are intended as a general illustration of some of the criteria the team considers in selecting securities for the portfolio. Not all investments meet such criteria.  In the event that a recommendation for the purchase or sale of any security is presented herein, RGA shall furnish to any person upon request a tabular presentation of:
(i) The total number of shares or other units of the security held by RGA or its investment adviser representatives for its own account or for the account of officers, directors, trustees, partners or affiliates of RGA or for discretionary accounts of RGA or its investment adviser representatives, as maintained for clients. (ii) The price or price range at which the securities listed

August 2015 Investment Commentary: Zones of Reasonableness

Our 2015 Investment Outlook was built around the following expectation:  “… 2014 concluded with the U.S. economy on as solid a foundation as it has been in years, though we continue to expect markets to be weak and volatile compared to the economy. It is important to remember the economy and the stock market do not necessarily move in tandem.”[1] We first introduced this idea in our 2014 Outlook premised on how the stock market’s outstanding 2013 “borrowed” returns from future years. This was explained as follows:

One reality we all must accept is how great years in the stock market tend to borrow from future returns, rather than enhance them.  Heading into 2013, one could have reasonably expected to earn an annualized return of 6.67%  – on par with the market’s average since 1925 – over the course of the next decade.[2]  The S&P 500 started 2013 at 1426.  Factoring in a 6.67% annualized return the index would be at 2720 at the end of ten years.  Assuming that despite last years’ near 30% return, this 2720 ten year S&P index target does not change, the expected return over the next nine years would be 4.39% annually, instead of 6.67%.[2]

As of this writing, since that time, the S&P has returned a total 8.9% (inclusive of dividends) for an annualized return of 5.3%. We have often highlight how today’s index or stock price (hereinafter just index, as we’re discussing the S&P) can be broken down into two components: earnings and the earnings multiple, commonly referred to as the P/E ratio. In equation form we have Stock Price = E x P/E. When the market goes down it is because earnings are going lower, the multiple is going lower, or both (note: the market can go up with P/E going lower, though it requires the earnings growth outpace the multiple contraction). In 2007-09 both headed, driving the severity of the decline. Today, while the energy sector is a major drag on earnings growth, S&P earnings are not actually declining. This leads us to conclude that the market’s P/E has taken a dive in this recent volatility. We can show this in visual form as follows:

grab 1

The chart above shows the market’s P/E over the past 5 years. You can see the impact in 2011 from the combination of the Debt Ceiling and European Crisis on the S&P’s multiple. That was an acute “repricing of risk” as the market attempted to handicap the likelihood of a U.S. default or the breakup of the European Monetary Union. 2013 was the year the S&P methodically priced in the likelihood of normalization in the U.S. economy following the crisis period. Note that the down moves are swift declines over very short timeframes while the expansions take their sweet time. This is the reality behind the cliché that “markets go up on an escalator and down on an elevator.”

For the rest of this commentary, we try to piece together the context around today’s market multiple. In a soon-to-follow interim commentary, we will take a look at the “E” component of our Price = E x P/E equation. A P/E tells us how much investors are willing to pay for each dollar of earnings. A 16.9 P/E implies investors are willing to pay $16.9 for each $1 in earnings. In other words, investors expect an earnings yield on their investment of 5.91% (=1/16.9). So long as the multiple stays constant over our holding period, this would be our expected annual real return excluding any growth or change in the share count. Over the long-run, S&P earnings have grown nicely; however, we will leave the additive nature of growth for our follow-up piece on the “E” side of the equation. The multiple also happens to be the means through which emotions influence market prices. When Benjamin Graham told the parable of the “Mr. Market” as a manic-depressive business partner, he essentially he was saying that the “very pessimistic” Mr. Market was offering low multiples, while the “wildly euphoric” was offering high ones. Certain macroeconomic factors can and do influence multiples; however, no one force is as influential as the “Animal Spirits” (or lack thereof) in the investor community.

There are tools we can use to figure out justified multiples given variables like the return on equity, growth and the cost of capital (we used one such formula to work backwards and figure out the market’s implied growth, as laid out in our February 2014 Commentary).[3] These are helpful and give us a general sense of where fair value might be. The challenge however is that all of these calculations are done in a dynamic world with countless feedback loops, where inputs are constantly changing and no one output is a “right” answer. As a result, we analyze these situations in terms of “zones of reasonableness” and look for ranges of possible outcomes. This is especially helpful as it pertains to multiples. When we look at specific stocks, ultimately our goal is to buy a good earnings stream, with a multiple that is near the low-end of a range of possible outcomes, leaving the P/E more likely to expand rather than contract over time.

We look for this to be the case independent of where the market’s multiple is; however, we must embrace the reality that in the short to medium-term our stocks move with the market. Consequently, the market’s multiple is a useful gauge for determining whether we are likely to be working with a tailwind or headwind from Mr. Market. The following is a helpful visual:

SP500 PE analysis chart

This chart shows the market’s P/E on a quarterly basis over the past 60 years relative to the average P/E over the timeframe. The shaded blue upper and lower lines show the average P/E plus and minus one standard deviation. Somewhere within these upper and lower lines is what we would call “the zone of reasonableness” for the market’s multiple. The market spent most of the 1970s beneath the lower end of this zone—that is extreme cheapness. This is what happens when stocks confront rampant inflation. Meanwhile, the market spent most of the 1990s above the upper band. That is what “irrational exuberance” looks like in visual form. Following August’s severe correction, the market is sitting right near its 60 year average P/E of 16.37. In other words, the market went from an above-average P/E to an average P/E over the past week. You may have noticed that the right side of the chart has higher P/Es than the left. Over the past 20 years, the market has averaged a 19.25 P/E, so in this light, today’s number looks on the low side of normal.

Interest rates and inflation are important factors influencing the direction of market P/Es. When inflation and interest rates are high (low), P/Es tend to be low (high). Right now, we have low inflation and low interest rates which would justify P/Es that were either at or above the longer-term average. The economy has continually strengthened, with initial jobless claims at their lowest level since 1973, strong corporate and household balance sheets, and manufacturing output humming along.[4] The “excuse” for this market action is directed at China’s collapsing stock market and multi-day depreciation of the Yuan; however, in the grand scheme of things China’s stock market remains up on the year, the Yuan’s move was hardly steep in contrast to other emerging market depreciations, and US exports to China in 2014 amounted to a mere 0.71% of GDP. Meanwhile, US imports from China accounted for 2.7 of GDP.[5] With the Yuan getting cheaper, the net effect of Chinese troubles and a cheaper currency should ultimately benefit US consumers who buy plenty of goods made in China.

Think of what happened in markets this August like an earthquake where what cracked was the market’s multiple. We had a big initial shock, followed by a series of aftershocks. These aftershocks get progressively smaller over time before equilibrium is restored and normalcy resumes. Out of this all, we have the most ripe opportunity set we’ve seen since early 2013 and that won’t be going away fast. In other words, it takes time for these things to work themselves out but markets ultimately will find their footing and start working for us again sooner rather than later.

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice.  Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have.  You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-1945.  Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

[1] http://www.rgaia.com/december-2014-investment-commentary-our-2015-investment-outlook/

[2] http://www.rgaia.com/december-2013-investment-commentary-our-2014-outlook/

[3] http://www.rgaia.com/pockets-of-momentum/

[4] http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/23/us-jobless-idUSKCN0PX1EO20150723

[5] https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5700.html

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.  The views expressed above are those of RGA Investment Advisors LLC (RGA).  These views are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions, and RGA disclaims any responsibility to update such views.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results. No forecasts can be guaranteed. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice.   The investment process may change over time. The characteristics set forth above are intended as a general illustration of some of the criteria the team considers in selecting securities for the portfolio. Not all investments meet such criteria.  In the event that a recommendation for the purchase or sale of any security is presented herein, RGA shall furnish to any person upon request a tabular presentation of:
(i) The total number of shares or other units of the security held by RGA or its investment adviser representatives for its own account or for the account of officers, directors, trustees, partners or affiliates of RGA or for discretionary accounts of RGA or its investment adviser representatives, as maintained for clients. (ii) The price or price range at which the securities listed

June 2015 Investment Commentary: Deja Vu

The S&P spent the entire second quarter locked in a tight range, ending essentially flat. Markets would have registered modest gains were it not for the pronounced selloff on the last day of the quarter. It might sound “like deja vu all over again,” but Greece once again was the catalyst. June marks the fifth consecutive summer in which headlines from the so-called “Cradle of Democracy” created volatility for global markets.

Many of us remember the first really big Greek-driven market event when split-screens showed the Flash Crash juxtaposed against dramatic riots in Greece (for full effect, watch the CNBC broadcast from that day):[1]

 flash crash

At its worst, the S&P was down just shy of 9%.  A quick snapback helped markets close a mere 3.3% lower.  While Greece was not the only catalyst behind the Flash Crash, it’s safe to say that each subsequent year has seen less volatility than the prior on account of Greek worries.  Today’s volatility pales in comparison to 2010.  This is a poignant reminder that this market, which many call “an uninterrupted bull market” has been anything but.  Before we continue further with the topic of Greece, it is important to emphasize that despite anything we say about the country, the humanitarian situation on the ground is terrible and the hardships felt by the Greek people are very real. On a human level, this is a terrifying crisis.  For the purposes of this commentary, it’s important to speak in terms of how Greece impacts your portfolios and not from the perspective of policy analysts seeking the best possible outcome for all stakeholders.  We do have strong opinions on this matter and welcome that conversation, but we will absolve from doing so through this medium.  Feel free to reach out to either of us should the topic intrigue you.

There are a few reasons behind the declining volatility in today’s Greek drama that are worth discussing.

First: markets are a discounting mechanism.   They take all known information and try to fairly price the balance between risk and reward.  In essence, this is the efficient market theory in action.  We have often invoked the distinction between risk and uncertainty in markets (most recently in our January 2015 Commentary pertaining to Howard Hughes Corp).[2]  When a situation like Greece first arises, people do not know the extent to which other market participants are exposed to trouble.  Some don’t even know the extent of their own exposure.  As traders learn more about Greece, what formerly was uncertain can become quantified as risk.  For example, many banks formerly had exposure to Greek sovereign debt.  This debt has since been written off to zero.  Were a default to have happened five years ago, there would have been severe losses recorded on balance sheets.  These losses have effectively been taken gradually over the course of five years, such that in today’s default scenario, these banks will not in fact realize further haircuts.  Once the extent of risk is understood, the potential negative outcomes become much more manageable.  You might hear talking heads on the news reference the ECB’s capacity to “firewall Greece” and what they are referring to are policy measures taking since Greece first arose as an issue to prevent contagion from spreading beyond Greece’s borders. It remains to be seen whether all of this will “work” in preventing any rippling negativity, but it does help take many of the worst case scenarios off the table.

Second: developed world economies are in far better shape today than when Greece first stoked global fears.  Most significantly, the USA is in as good an economic position as it has been in years.  While this does not mean economic momentum is immune from getting derailed, it does mean that the economy is more resilient to exogenous shocks.  In our 2014 Outlook we made the following point that remains as strong today as it did then:

As of today, the economy is moving faster and in the continued process of acceleration. As we know from Newton’s Second Law of Motion, the greater the mass, the greater the force needed to change its direction.  When an economy the size of the U.S. is accelerating to the upside, it would take an extremely massive force to first, derail its momentum and second, change its course 180 degrees.  While such a force is not an impossibility, it is extremely unlikely in the coming months.

The acceleration in the economy has not stopped. It surely will at some point, though momentum will persist beyond the end of the acceleration.  Can Greece be the kind of “massive force” which can derail the economy?  Not in and of itself.  It would take far greater vulnerabilities and we just do not see that on the horizon today. One related point worth emphasizing: the “event” which people often attribute as the cause of harm (for example, Lehman Brothers’ collapse) is far more often a symptom than a cause of much deeper problems.  It is no different with Greece.  There are some potential deeper vulnerabilities in Europe, but not for the US economy and the firewall constructed over these past five years designed to maintain contagion is far more robust now than it ever has been.

Driving Profitability at Auto Dealers:

We got interested in the auto dealers during the sector as the economy accelerates and consumer confidence expands alongside it. Formerly, dealers made much more of their bottom line on the hair-thin margins they earned on actual auto sales. As such, these were not necessarily outstanding businesses. Several things have changed over time. First, dealers have consolidated steadily over the past two decades as small family businesses cashed out to better capitalized public players. Second, cars became increasingly complex where less of the parts and service (P&S) work could be done economically at local repair shops. This has started a trend whereby dealers are doing increasing amounts of the high margin work, cultivating long-term relationships with their customers. While P&S accounts for a mid-teens percentage of the revenue at the publicly traded dealers, it generates over half the bottom line private. This is what really intrigued us.

Since the past five years saw sluggish car sales, dealer parts and service income was even understated compared to the potential revenue generation once five year sales trends normalize and move upward. We are now near that positive inflection point. The particular dealer we find most interesting is Sonic Automotive (NYSE: SAH) and this is the one purchase we made over the past quarter. SAH has the highest concentration of luxury—a sub-sector where P&S spend is especially high—and its dealerships are primarily in the rapidly growing Sunbelt states. With its luxury and geographic footprint,

SAH has historically traded at a premium valuation to the sector, yet today it trades at a discount. This is a closely held company with the founding family and one outside investor (Paul Rusnak) collectively owning over half the stock. Rusnak built his own wealth through a network of privately held dealers and bought into Sonic during the crisis. Collectively, ownership and management have an outstanding track record, but investors today are concerned with two big undertakings at the company: 1) SAH is investing heavily in the technological infrastructure to simplify pricing via the One Sonic, One Experience platform; and, 2) SAH is building EchoPark, a used car dealership platform using simplified pricing and a hub-and-spoke model to cover each target region. These two initiatives have dampened profitability, though the company continues to earn copious amounts of cash and the P/E multiple has more than fully priced in these concerns.

Rather than fearing these initiatives like much of Wall Street does, we love them! Tom Russo introduced the idea of owning companies with “the capacity to suffer.”[3] By that he means companies with a stable ownership structure and the ability to make decisions based on the very long-term interests in mind rather than the need to meet analysts’ quarterly expectations. This is exactly what SAH is doing here. In introducing a simplified pricing structure, removing the annoying hassling that many associate with car dealers they are taking a business risk that sure has quarterly earnings weakening in the short-run, but also introducing the potential for significant long-term benefits. Sonic should be able to take share from their competitors, because after all, no one likes the negotiation process inherent to buy a car.

As for EchoPark, SAH is launching an initiative to compete with CarMax (NYSE: KMX). It’s hard to say anything negative about KMX from an investor’s perspective, but it is also clear from a consumer perspective that more competition on both the buy and sell side in the used car market would be a positive. This is what happens when a company creates too good a profit opportunity for itself, as KMX has done. SAH is perfectly positioned to compete here given its large geographical reach, access to used cars from its dealer network, and investments in price discovery and transparency.

It will take some time to see the results from these new initiatives, but we see the worst case scenario being the company stops them, leaving us with the cheapest, but highest quality car dealer. If these initiatives succeed, then not only do we have the cheapest car dealer in our portfolio, but we’d also have the fastest growing one. In either case, Sonic deserves a higher multiple moving forward.

What do we own?

The Leaders:

Groupe SEB (EPA: SK) +26.8%

IMAX Corporation (NYSE: IMAX) +19.46%

ING Groep (NYSE: ING) +14.42%

The Laggards:

Johnson Outdoors Inc. (NASDAQ: JOUT) -28.72%

Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW) -12.51%

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE: FCAU) -10.91%

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice.  Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have.  You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-1945.  Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJae0zw0iyU&feature=iv&src_vid=Wpx5gBvHNGk&annotation_id=annotation_271975
[2] http://www.rgaia.com/value_opportunities_in_energy/
[3] http://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/rtfiles/Heilbrunn/17d1d82c-3701-0000-0080-9870cef8a602.pdf

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.  The views expressed above are those of RGA Investment Advisors LLC (RGA).  These views are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions, and RGA disclaims any responsibility to update such views.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results. No forecasts can be guaranteed. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice.   The investment process may change over time. The characteristics set forth above are intended as a general illustration of some of the criteria the team considers in selecting securities for the portfolio. Not all investments meet such criteria.  In the event that a recommendation for the purchase or sale of any security is presented herein, RGA shall furnish to any person upon request a tabular presentation of:
(i) The total number of shares or other units of the security held by RGA or its investment adviser representatives for its own account or for the account of officers, directors, trustees, partners or affiliates of RGA or for discretionary accounts of RGA or its investment adviser representatives, as maintained for clients. (ii) The price or price range at which the securities listed

eBay PayPal Split Analysis: Buy Two Moats for the Price of One

Elliot Turner was honored to present at the 2015 Value Conferences Wide Moat Investing Summit. He presented IMAX at the inaugural event two years ago. At this third annual event, recognized value-investors presented some of their best investment ideas. Elliot presented on eBay and the spin-off of PayPal. We are excited to share his slides here:

May 2015 Investment Commentary: Driving Towards Greater Returns

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
–Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Map and navigation apps have changed the way we experience driving and managing traffic.  Not long ago everyone stored a map or two in their car glove box.  Thanks to the proliferation of devices with GPS and social map applications (such as Waze and Google Maps), paper maps are a relic of the past.  Historically, we had little way to gauge how long a trip should take with precision. We could examine anticipated mileage and assume some kind of average speed.  Typically, we would say something like “it’s about an hour trip” for anything that took over 45 minutes and under an hour fifteen.  Today we know exactly which trips should take an hour, and we can even choose the best course based on current traffic patterns.  Whether or not maps and direction apps fascinate you (as they do for some of us here), they provide interesting insights into how people operate and serve as a fun metaphor for unrelated but pertinent investment insights.

Let’s say we have a goal of completing a one hour trip in 30 minutes with the secondary goal that we want effectively a 0% chance of finishing the trip in more than one hour.   Assume that we can pick any route in the United States that can be measured by inserting a starting point and ending point into Google Maps where the estimated time with no traffic is exactly one hour.   In effect, we would have to drive twice as fast as the implied trip-speed predicted by Google Maps, while assuming the risks associated with speeding, ranging from getting pulled over by an officer (which costs a lot of time and money) to a car accident (as higher speeds result in an increased risk of accident).  Two separate one hour trips can vary quite significantly by geography, terrain, and road formation.  One option may be an open road highway, with a consistent speed for the entire length, while another might be through a crowded urban artery with lots of merges, turns and varying speeds.  As such, we have considerable flexibility in what kind of one hour trip we would choose. How would we try to accomplish our primary and secondary goals simultaneously?

Montana is a great place for exceptionally fast driving with some of the fairest (Ie. weakest punishment) for speeders.  Montana is known as the Big Sky state because of its huge mountains and expansive horizon.  Driving in this environment often feels as if there is nothing but blue sky ahead.  Even while cruising at 85mph, it feels as if you’re barely moving with a tapestry of mountain peaks fixed to the horizon though slowly growing or shrinking depending on your perspective.  The state is a great place to drive fast and it would be a good candidate to avoid falling short of the one hour estimated time; however, it would be very challenging to find a good location to make a trip in half the estimated time.  This is so because the speed limit in much of the state is sufficiently high enough that only a handful of cars can even reach speeds double that of the speed limit. Even with one of those few special cars that could go fast enough, it would be very challenging.

Montana’s speed limits put the place right at the boundary of what is safely possible to accomplish speed-wise in the typical car today.  To cut a one hour drive in half, we need to find somewhere we are ‘assumed’ to go much slower than we are actually capable of moving through.  Some roads in heavily trafficked, urban areas have slow speed limits that are designed to accommodate the heavy merges and volume of cars that travel those areas, despite the road’s capacity to potentially accommodate much faster speeds.  We know of a few such roads in and around New York City with 25 mile per hour speed limits, where cars theoretically could drive upwards of 70 miles per hour for long stretches.  Yet major slowdowns are all too common on these roads.  Even at off times, you just never know when there will be a traffic jam, a lane closure, or simply too many cars on the road to move fast.

Ideally we would be able to find some relatively straight, open road with at least two lanes headed in our direction and a speed limit between 25 and 30 miles per hour, such that we could travel double the speed limit without testing the safety boundaries of our vehicle.  Two lanes would be essential, for in a one lane road, it would only take one slow car at some point in the trip to make the one hour journey in thirty minutes an impossibility.

Driving double the speed limit in Montana is not too different from investing in some of the growth stocks in today’s market. The fast growers are priced to grow exceptionally fast and as such, there is little opportunity over the long-run to get a return better than that which is implied by the market’s expectations.  These stocks are effectively suggesting there is nothing but blue sky straight ahead — the slightest storm cloud could seriously impair value.

This game we outlined was crafted to be similar to investing.  Think of the expected time as beta, and the quest for exceeding it as alpha. Further, think of the demand that we do not fall short of beta as a form of risk management—an insistence that our vehicles at least give us what is there to be taken. We aim to find these ideal conditions within our investment framework by focusing on value and effectively managing risk. These are principles we discuss in greater depth in our Investment Strategy Overview.[1]  To us, intrinsic value is not defined by a single price, but rather a range of possible outcomes that correspond to a business’ true worth from the owner’s perspective.  To this end, we conduct extensive fundamental analysis in order to fully understand what the market is implying about a company with regard to its cash flow yield, growth, and cost of capital over time and the business’ competitive position in its industry.  After we have gained adequate comfort within our assessment of a given security’s value, we test and retest any assumptions underlying our quantitative and qualitative analysis as time marches on.  This approach enables us to contextualize a business over a long horizon and enables us to operate with a very long-term focus while the market harps on what will happen one or two quarters out in a given stock.  We aim to stay out of the fast-lane in Montana despite how nice the scenery can be – we know better than to push our vehicles beyond the boundaries of their constructs, especially with the knowledge that a quick storm cloud can quickly turn a perfect ride into a disaster.

The heavily trafficked roads in urban areas are not too different from the indexation philosophy taking over the investment world today.  Everybody’s doing it!   When all are doing the same thing, (think of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which is anything but express) it doesn’t take much for an otherwise simple drive to devolve into a traffic mess.   One car jamming the breaks too quickly can ripple into a slowdown for miles, or worse yet, a domino-like multi-car accident.  With so many people piling into index strategies, we worry that if a few big players start to leave the act can ripple into a much larger flight from indexation.

To that end, we think it is best to take road that is “the one less traveled” and focus on areas that the market today is overlooking – the less congested, back-road opportunities.  We can focus on areas we know the market does not favor today, as suggested by our multi-year interest in Europe or our appreciation for stocks that do not fit neatly into the cookie-cutter labels the market assigns.  In our August 2014 investment commentary we discuss indexation in contrast to our ‘actively-passive strategy.’[2] It is worth considering contrarianism (again) in this context:

“A market truism that persists over time is how when everyone does something (aka when something becomes conventional wisdom) it is exactly the time to do the opposite.  The corollary is that when everyone ignores something is the time to be doing that very thing.  The rise of indexing itself is one of the bigger factors creating opportunity in today’s investment landscape.  This does not mean that the non-indexer can beat indices in each and every timeframe, whether large or small, but it does mean that over the long-run non-indexers can put themselves in position to both earn the cost of capital of the asset class (essentially the average long-term return of the indices) and gain exposure to factors which with prudent analysis can lead to increased upside.”

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice. Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have. You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-7800. Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

[1] http://www.rgaia.com/investment_strategy/

[2] http://www.rgaia.com/august-2014-investment-commentary-indexation-creates-opportunity/

April 2015 Investment Commentary: ETF Fund Flows

ETFs have been a tremendously popular tool for investors of all types. For long-term investors, these securities provide a lower-fee alternative to mutual funds, the ability to hone in on a sector, commodity or asset class, combined with intraday liquidity. For traders, they provide similar benefits, though with an emphasis on the intraday liquidity. Both assets and trading volumes have surged across the ETF complex. Many have talked about the role ETFs have played in changing investor allocations and market structure, including us. In our November commentary, we focused on “the oil investors who don’t even know it,” and the role their buying of high yield bond ETFs based on a search for income has played as a source for cheap capital to the energy sector.[1]

We did an analysis of fund flows into (and out of) important and popular ETFs relative to market prices since the March ’09 bottom.  As one would expect, the price of most asset classes and securities have risen in this time period—after all, that was part of the point in selecting the March 09 as the starting point for this analysis. The second reason behind picking the ’09 bottom to start was its status as an inflection point in the most pivotal market dislocation of our time. Such inflection points tend to change the way people think about asset management, and this is something we know did in fact happen.

“More Buyers than Sellers” – or not.

Before getting to the heart of our findings, a slight digression is necessary.  An oft-repeated market cliché to explain why a stock rises is that “there are more buyers than sellers.”  As with many clichés, this is mostly true, but does not tell the full story. In fact, securities can and often do move higher with more sellers than buyers—if by ‘more sellers’ one means the flow of funds out of the security as opposed to transaction volume or the net number of buyers bidding in the market. Securities can also move up with absolutely no transactions at all. A simple illustration can help illicit why: imagine a market where the bidder (Bidder A) is offering $1.00 for a widget, but the seller (Seller A) is asking for $2.00 and the last transaction occurred at $1.50. The spread for this widget is thus $1.00 x $2.00.

A new buyer (Buyer B) comes in and offers $1.25 for the widget, making the new spread $1.25 x $2.00. Upon seeing Buyer B enter the fray, Seller A thinks “maybe $2.00 is too low, I should ask for $2.50.” Meanwhile, seller B, the patient seller has been asking for $2.25 all along. Buyer A really needs this widget and is kicking himself because he could have comfortably owned it already had he just paid what Seller A was asking from the start. Buyer A is intent on not paying up to $2.00, so he places a bid at $1.75, making the new spread $1.75 x $2.25. Given our last quote was $1.50, it’s clear that the market price today has “gapped” above this level and is at lowest $1.75, or more fairly were we to take the midpoint of the spread, it is $2.00. This price increase happened without a single actual buyer transacting and with an equal number of buyers and sellers on each side.

Let’s take this one step further: Seller C, who has been watching from the sidelines, sees there is a buyer for the widget at $1.75 whereas before the buyer was at $1.00. He gets excited and jumps in to sell on the bid, for $1.75. Seller A now has his widget, but in the process we learned that there were really 3 sellers in this market compared to 2 buyers. Yet, the price did ultimately rise.

We can draw out further illustrations on how the bid / ask process works, but now we can jump to the point: George Soros calls this a “price-mediated feedback loop” between market participants and market prices. This is a form of a positive feedback loop (in contrast to the negative feedback loop we covered last month).[2] Movements in bids and asks alone, or movements in price, do in fact change the behavior of market participants and can elicit further changes in price.  It is no coincidence that we keep citing feedback loops in these commentaries, for we feel they are at the very heart of how markets operate. This idea of a price-mediated feedback in one way or another belies all transactions and is a necessary precursor for the explanation of some of our findings in the ETF space.

When we talk about fund flows in ETFs, we are referring to the net addition of new money to an ETF rather than the appreciation (or depreciation) in net value of the ETF itself. In our opinion, this is the cleanest metric for whether there are more buyers or sellers. If funds go out, there are more sellers, if funds go in, there are more buyers. By and large there was nothing remarkable with the relationship between fund flows and price performance. In fact, overall, there has been little correlation between the two in the main ETFs. Price and flow were somewhat correlated in the short-run but random over medium and longer timeframe. The general trend saw more money flow into the core ETFs over time thus putting upward pressure on prices. This is not surprising given it was the case in most markets. However, three ETFs stood out to us as particularly anomalous: QQQ (the Nasdaq-100 proxy index), IBB (the most widely traded biotech ETF) and USO (the oil commodity tracking ETF). What follows are the charts and a brief discussion of what confounds us in each:[3]

The QQQs:

qqq

The blue line is price, while the green is flow. Of the major index ETFs (SPY/S&P 500, IWM/Russell 2000—sorry Dow, you are a mere after-thought to us), the QQQ is the only one to experience net fund outflows.

Here’s the QQQ flows alongside the SPY and IWM:

QQQ PLUS

We have no particularly robust explanation for why the QQQ might be experiencing such significant outflows compared to its brethren, though we do find it noteworthy.  This is especially so at a time when conventional wisdom holds that increasing amounts of money are going into tech stocks. The NASDAQ is known as the tech corner of the market.  Were money flying into tech the primary cause of the advance in stock prices, one would expect to at least see positive flows. Many claim that the market is being driven by momentum-seeking hot money, but if you look at the NASDAQ, that seems to be the converse of reality. The NASDAQ has been a far better performer than the SPY and IWM since the bottom and investors have seemingly been prudent in taking some chips off the table from the hottest of areas. Note that there were negative net fund flows for the first three years of the S&Ps rally off of the March ’09 bottom. The market en masse went up with more sellers than buyers.

The IBB:

IBB

Of the dozen plus ETFs we looked at, this is the only one where price and flow moved upwards in tandem. This is exactly what a price-mediated feedback looks like. The rise in price brings more flow, which drives price higher, thus attracting yet more flow. This is also the explanation for how momentum works and what it looks like in action. While in the past we asserted biotech was not in a bubble based on valuation metrics and the fundamental outlook, this right here is a very concerning development. The longer this persists, the more troubling it will be. While price and flow can keep driving each other higher, when one breaks down, the other too will follow. One of the foremost points we learned from Soros is that when price-mediated feedback loops break, they do not simply find a new equilibrium at the price’s present plateau. Rather, the feedback loop reverses and works in the opposite direction. Note that the move up and down in price and flow are both positive feedback loops—the disequilibrium-seeking forces in markets. As such, these relationships are inherently unstable.

The USO:

USO

The cumulative flow since the ’09 bottom remains below the X axis here—in other words, the flow of funds has been net negative. During much of the period when USO/oil prices trended sideways, investors were pulling money from this key ETF. Once the price of oil started its rapid descent, rather than withdrawing money, traders started piling it in. Clearly traders were eager to buy this dip, with the buying commencing early in the oil decline. This action in USO was not enough to stem the price decline in oil and this makes sense, for in this ETF alone we do not get a clean sense of where the true supply/demand equilibrium shakes out.

To sum this all up, while there is no one overarching point, it merely goes to show that “more buyers than sellers” doesn’t necessarily have any one meaning anywhere. It does however show that certain ETFs can and do have a very real influence on the sectors that belie them (IBB is the extreme example of this), while the flow in others lends skepticism to the prevailing narrative (QQQ and momentum seeking hot money).

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice. Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have. You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-7800. Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.  The views expressed above are those of RGA Investment Advisors LLC (RGA).  These views are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions, and RGA disclaims any responsibility to update such views.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results. No forecasts can be guaranteed. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice.   The investment process may change over time. The characteristics set forth above are intended as a general illustration of some of the criteria the team considers in selecting securities for the portfolio. Not all investments meet such criteria.  In the event that a recommendation for the purchase or sale of any security is presented herein, RGA shall furnish to any person upon request a tabular presentation of:
(i) The total number of shares or other units of the security held by RGA or its investment adviser representatives for its own account or for the account of officers, directors, trustees, partners or affiliates of RGA or for discretionary accounts of RGA or its investment adviser representatives, as maintained for clients. (ii) The price or price range at which the securities listed in item (i) were purchased. (iii) The date or range of dates during which the securities listed in response to item (i) were purchased.

[1] http://www.rgaia.com/the-oil-investors-who-dont-even-know-it/
[2] http://www.rgaia.com/negative-feedback-loops/
[3] All charts use Bloomberg for cumulative fund flows and last price, with data as of March 10, 2015.

March 2015 Investment Commentary: Negative Feedback Loops

 “No matter how cold the winter, there’s a springtime ahead.” – Pearl Jam

With the first quarter now history, the S&P 500 boosted its streak of consecutive quarterly gains to nine—the longest such streak since the 1990s.  In contrast to the 1990s, this quarter’s gains were rather modest, with the S&P advancing 0.88%.  The largest, most interesting and consequential moves were witnessed in currency and international markets. The US Dollar registered just shy of a 9% advance (as measured by the DXY index), its strongest performance since the “Lehman Quarter” in 2008 when a global flight to safety sent our currency soaring.  We also saw legitimate “green shoots” emerge across the European region for the first time since their crisis deepened. Markets in Germany and Italy soared over 20% on the quarter, with the Stoxx Europe 600 adding just shy of 16%. These returns, when translated into US Dollars are less than what European investors experienced, though we believe springtime is unquestionably here for the European continent after a protracted, dark economic period.

We have often written about positive feedback loops—self-perpetuating cycles that accelerate and expand into booms and busts—and less so about negative feedback loops. When markets are trending distinctly in one direction, then positive feedback loops are a more meaningful descriptive force. Further, on the micro level, we are constantly looking for companies with positive feedback loops as tailwinds. Despite this asymmetry in our dialogue, negative feedback loops are an equally (if not more) important force in markets.  A common colloquial synonym for the negative feedback loop is regression to mean or regression to trend. Markets as equilibrium-seeking entities are constantly impacted by negative feedback loops.

A recent example is the oil price collapse: as prices stayed elevated for a long time, producers increased production and new technology increased the available supply, thus pushing prices back towards a more rational equilibrium (see our October 2014 commentary for more detail on how this works).[1] On the micro/firm level, this happens when a cyclical firm earns a high return on capital, signaling to potential competitors that a big profit opportunity exists. When new competitors emerge, they capture for themselves a portion of this excess return, resulting in a lower level of economic profit (earnings in excess of cost of capital) captured by each individual company. Eventually all excess return is competed away, and typically exit barriers in any given industry lead to an oversupply and subsequently negative returns for each individual firm.

While the constructive shift in European policy over the past half-year has helped stimulate the region’s economies, an equally meaningful force has come from the self-calibrating mechanisms (aka the negative feedback loops) inherent to economies.  It is a simple rule of thumb that human instincts and modern-day necessities can only be postponed for so long.  This is what Warren Buffett was hinting at when he said “People may postpone hitching up during uncertain times, but eventually hormones take over” with regard to the inevitably of household formation growth and a recovery in U.S. housing demand.[2] In other words, the recovery of certain core economic goods is a “when, not if” question.  Economic uncertainty is an unfortunate cause for delaying individual life goals, but it cannot be a reason for postponing core desires in perpetuity. At some point people simply say “enough is enough, I am doing this already” (whatever this may be). European economies had stagnated for so long now that certain necessities simply could not be postponed any longer.

We cannot minimize some of the very real hardships felt by far too many people during economic crises. Certain portions of the population simply cannot make ends meet and thus suffer harsher consequences than anyone should in this day and age of global wealth. We are specifically speaking about classes of the economy who have a degree of stability with regard to the basics of life, but cannot fathom making certain key decisions in the face of uncertainty. This pullback in economic activity amidst uncertainty is what Keynes called “the paradox of thrift.”  This paradox is a force that compounds the positive feedback loop in the wrong direction. Liquidationists believe the self-calibrating forces we are speaking about so far in this commentary are enough on their own to restore the economy to growth. While this topics is worthy of a longer conversion, economies are far too complex for one force alone to change the trajectory of a massive body in motion. As we have consistently emphasized, stimulus of the monetary and fiscal variety is necessary to rejuvenate a depressed economy. Without stimulus, the weakest in society would be too vulnerable to increasingly poor outcomes.  Equally important, without these negative feedback loops kicking in, stimulus could never go very far on its own.

The progress in Europe is not just in capital markets; rather, it is observable in actual economic data already. One of the first important data points we track to identify such inflection points turned positive at the end of 2014 and was a notable point in our 2015 Outlook: “We see evidence of upcoming growth with several of the continent’s weakest markets experiencing rising car sales for the first time in over half a decade.”[3]  When cars reach a certain age (typically about 15 years) they are no longer reliable for transportation purposes. As individuals en masse delay auto purchases, a nation’s car stock ages.  When this reaches a certain point, the negative feedback loop kicks in by essentially forcing (rather than merely encouraging) those with too old a car to seek a replacement.  This auto example is illustrative of a demand cycle in one of the more economically sensitive durable goods, with repercussions that ripple through the entire economy. Meanwhile, the same forces are at work in many household, commercial and industrial settings as infrastructure ages and must be retired. Replacements can only be put off for so long.

When you combine these negative feedback loops with a steady dose of monetary stimulus and a declining currency (which stimulates export demand), you have the makings for springtime in Europe and the commencement of a positive feedback loop in the opposite direction.  As Soros’ has taught us, these inflection points tend to be some of the most powerful moves as negative numbers get replaced by positive numbers.  Think of it this way: in moving from 3% growth to 5% growth, 2% is added to the rate; however, in pivoting from 2% contraction to 2% growth, your differential is a whole 6%.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of improvement from a negative environment for the pendulum to swing quite far in the opposite direction.

A Flower Blooms in ING (An early spring tulip, if you will)

We first bought shares in ING Groep in May of 2012. This past month, we doubled down on our holdings. While ING’s price per share is considerably higher now, the risk is materially lower and the reward opportunity remains lush.  This is one of our single favorite ways to capitalize on the recovery in Europe and further exemplifies a situation where both the micro and macro forces compound to create an asymmetric opportunity.

ING today is a completely different company than the one we bought in 2012, and this is by design. When the U.S. housing market collapsed, what had formerly been a global financial powerhouse became just another bailed out institution.  As a condition for ING’s bailout (imposed by the Dutch Government and the ECB), the company had to repay 50 cents for every $1 of capital injected. Moreover, the company had to agree to divest nearly all of its non-European core banking operations. This included ING Direct in the U.S., its Asian Insurance operations, the U.S.-based asset manager (now trading as Voya Financial), the European Insurer (now trading as NN Groep), and more.

These were far more onerous terms than anything witnessed in the U.S. and global investors steered clear of the company’s shares for that reason. Harsh as they may be, the value proposition was too good to pass up. Further, when the asset disposition process started, the path to value realization was highly uncertain. Consequently, the company was trading at a steep discount to its tangible book value. Fast forward from May 2012 to today and many things have changed.  First and foremost, ING realized tremendous value in the disposition of its assets, having sold some of its most valuable pieces at premiums to book value, while spinning off vibrant stand-alone companies and trimming stakes opportunistically as prices appreciated.

Prominent bank analyst Mike Mayo has argued both JP Morgan and Bank of America should break up because the sum of the parts would be worth much more than the whole is today.[4] ING is the most distinct case globally where this has happened and the process has been managed adeptly throughout.  As a result of the successful dispositions, ING was able to repay their bailout to the Dutch government earlier than expected. As a result, what remains today is an over-capitalized bank that earns decent returns on equity (in excess of their cost of capital). ING was once again able to pay a shareholder dividend—this was formalized as of February.[5] Management has signaled a 40% payout ratio, which based on the quarter-closing price of $14.61 amounts to a 3.8% yield on expected 2015 earnings. Plus, with a tier 1 capital ratio of 13.59%, low leverage, and healthy stress test results, there could even be room for a special dividend.

The move to reinstate the dividend is huge on two fronts. The obvious impact is that recommencing the dividend opens the shares up to a broader universe of investors—those who require income/dividends. Considering this will be an ample yield in a world where many countries are at the zero-bound, such a yield on a safe, almost boring bank is nice. The not so obvious part is the role returning capital will have on the bank’s ratios. Too much cash, whether it be on a balance sheet or in a portfolio, can be a drag on performance. Considering one of the biggest critiques of ING today is that they are “too boring” a company without assets in high growth areas anymore, and a pristine balance sheet, the return of capital to shareholders would be a very real boost to returns on capital and thus equity. Banks are valued based on how much they can earn on each dollar they have, so earning the same amount on fewer total dollars should lead to a better multiple.

Interestingly, another condition of the bailout will soon be lifted: as of November 2015, ING once again will be allowed to make acquisitions. is the company is much farther along its recovery and transformation than many European peers.  Banks around Europe remain depressed valuation-wise and cheap, though loaded with uncertainty. Some are only now beginning large-scale dispositions. ING will be in excellent shape to act strategically and grow its core European bank operations. Stated most succinctly, 2015 will be the year this company pivots from a dispositive, de-risking strategy to an income and growth strategy.

What do we own?

The Leaders:[6]

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE: FCAU) +40.9%

Fanuc Corp (OTC: FANUY) +32.8%

Howard Hughes Corp (NYSE: HHC) +31.6%

The Laggards:

America Movil (NYSE: AMX) -7.8%

Groupe SEB (OTC: SEBYF) -3.0%

Siemens AG (OTC: SIEGY) -1.0%

Thank you for your trust and confidence, and for selecting us to be your advisor of choice. Please call us directly to discuss this commentary in more detail – we are always happy to address any specific questions you may have. You can reach Jason or Elliot directly at 516-665-7800. Alternatively, we’ve included our direct dial numbers with our names, below.

Warm personal regards,

Jason Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (917) 536-3066
jason@rgaia.com

Elliot Turner, CFA
Managing Director
O: (516) 665-7800
M: (516) 729-5174
elliot@rgaia.com

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.  The views expressed above are those of RGA Investment Advisors LLC (RGA).  These views are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions, and RGA disclaims any responsibility to update such views.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results. No forecasts can be guaranteed. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice.   The investment process may change over time. The characteristics set forth above are intended as a general illustration of some of the criteria the team considers in selecting securities for the portfolio. Not all investments meet such criteria.  In the event that a recommendation for the purchase or sale of any security is presented herein, RGA shall furnish to any person upon request a tabular presentation of:
(i) The total number of shares or other units of the security held by RGA or its investment adviser representatives for its own account or for the account of officers, directors, trustees, partners or affiliates of RGA or for discretionary accounts of RGA or its investment adviser representatives, as maintained for clients. (ii) The price or price range at which the securities listed in item (i) were purchased. (iii) The date or range of dates during which the securities listed in response to item (i) were purchased.

[1] http://www.rgaia.com/october-2014-investment-commentary-flooded-in-oil/

[2] http://fortune.com/2012/02/25/buffett-on-housing-was-dead-wrong-but-still-believes/

[3] http://www.rgaia.com/december-2014-investment-commentary-our-2015-investment-outlook/

[4] http://fortune.com/2015/03/26/bank-of-america-break-up/

[5] http://www.ing.com/Newsroom/All-news/Press-releases/PR/ING-Bank-posts-2014-underlying-net-profit-of-EUR-3424-million-Dividends-reinstated-with-EUR-0.12-per-ordinary-share.htm

[6] All gains (losses) are from date of purchase (sale) within quarter, if applicable. All gains (losses) on international securities are in U.S. dollar terms.