Warren Buffett’s Latest Wisdom

One of my favorite days of the year is when the annual report of Berkshire Hathaway comes out. It is always on a weekend and we spend a good amount of time pouring over it for wisdom from the Oracle of Omaha – Warren Buffett. Here are our highlights from his latest missive.

On the Current Deal Making Environment:

 Buffett noted in his annual address that prices for assets are challenging. In his never-ending quest to deploy more money and buy companies he described that finding a deal at “a sensible purchase price” has become a challenge”.

Investment Lesson On Buying Stocks:

 As an investor’s investment horizon lengthens, however, a diversified portfolio of U.S. equities becomes progressively less risky than bonds, assuming that the stocks are purchased at a sensible multiple of earnings relative to then-prevailing interest rates. (emphasis mine)

Investment Lesson On Markets:

Though markets are generally rational, they occasionally do crazy things. Seizing the opportunities then offered does not require great intelligence, a degree in economics or a familiarity with Wall Street jargon such as alpha and beta. What investors then need instead is an ability to both disregard mob fears or enthusiasms and to focus on a few simple fundamentals. A willingness to look unimaginative for a sustained period – or even to look foolish – is also essential.

Given historically stretched valuations and Mr. Buffett’s comments validating the difficulty finding sensible acquisitions it demonstrates the difficulty in purchasing stocks at a sensible multiple of earnings given prevailing interest rates and interest rates trend higher. We do not mind looking unimaginative or even foolish at this period in time in being underweight assets and overweight cash.

Much has been made about new Fed Chair Powell and the hand dealt to him by the former chair. You could not pay me to take Powell’s job. He is doomed to fail – by design. Powell is left to try and reset monetary policy after almost a decade of emergency policy. His job is to tighten monetary policy and give the Fed room to respond to the next crisis with a smaller balance sheet and higher rates from which to cut. He will tighten until something breaks and break it will. How else will he know if he has tightened enough? It is his job to “fail” and he will be the fall guy for Congress and Trump.

Last week we spoke of zombie companies and pointed to HNA Group out of China. We were close to the mark as it was ANBANG a $315 Billion insurer that was bailed out by the Chinese government this week. Markets barely blinked. Rates are rising and taking the tide out with them. Who will be caught swimming naked next and when will markets care?

We are still pushing towards the old high in the S&P 500. Remember, that is the key test for the market. We keep hearing pundits suggest that we must test the lows put in during the VIX Crash. Not so. The bulls were running so hot since the election it is the old HIGHS and not the lows that hold the key to future market direction. 

The 10 year Treasury has moved to resistance at the 3% level. As the 10 year tries to push through 3% equities continue to sell off. As the 10 year backs off of its assault on 3% equities continue to run higher. We think that the 10 year should at least struggle to get through 3% and that should allow equities time to retest the old highs. The gap at 2850 should draw the bulls like a moth to flame. Gaps are technical indicators because it shows massive change in sentiment and the psychological underpinnings of the market. If the market should struggle and fail at 2850 on the S&P 500 (and see the 10 year rise above  3%) then the bears may be in charge.

lighthouse

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

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Trump Stepping on The Gas

As Warren Buffett famously said, “When the tide goes out you find out who has been swimming naked”. That tide may be rising interest rates. The tide has only begun to recede and yet it appears we may have found some to be swimming naked. In recent weeks we have seen unexpected announcements from the likes of Met Life and GE in regards to accounting irregularities and large conglomerates in China and the Netherlands with liquidity issues. HNA Group which owns Hilton Hotels is desperately searching for liquidity. The tide hasn’t even gone out yet. This could be the tip of the iceberg as zombie companies which have been left alive due to central bank zero interest rates may now fight to stay afloat. The rising tide of interest rates should bring us more instances of who has been swimming naked.

Coming off one of the worst weeks in years for equities we now have one of the best weeks in years. Don’t be lulled into complacency. This was to be expected as investors have now reversed half of the sell off after retesting the lows at the key 200 day moving average. We do not think that the all clear can be given yet. The selloff was violent from extremely elevated levels and that should give us caution. The true test, as we have been warning, is the retest of the old highs. The old highs were hit with such fervor that we do not think that the amplitude will be the same when we get there again. The swift and violent move off of the extreme highs has brought doubt into the equation for the first time in awhile. Let’s see if equities can pass this exam.

It appears that the expected outcomes by market participants may have changed the moment the tax bill was passed. Fiscal stimulus this late in the business cycle with a performing economy could force the central bank to tighten quicker than it had planned. That only increases the level of difficulty of the high wire act that the central bank is already attempting. The odds of a central bank policy mistake are rising and that contributed to the selloff along with rising inflation and the prospect of higher interest rates. Another contributing factor of the sell off was that Wall Street can smell weakness. Much had been made about the overzealousness of the volatility selling crowd. Those sellers were ripe for a lesson and Wall Street gave it to them. Wall Street, when sensing weakness, will press the case against the weak. Much like culling the slow and weak from a herd Wall Street feeds on the same. We have no doubt that the case was pressed against vol sellers until they capitulated. That gave rise to further de leveraging which spurred the computers into an all out rout. The key question here is, has the tide turned? We will see soon enough when the highs on the S&P 500 are tested once again.

Point here being that the uber-ambiguous “something has changed in the market” meme that’s been going-around is based-upon the underlying change in perception with regard to a bond market that is waking from its slumber due to a new-found Central Bank willingness to normalize policy on account of actual signs of “growth” and “inflation”—ESPECIALLY after being “put over the top” by US fiscal stimulus.  The above observations are simply the manifestations of this mentality-shift in the market….qualitative observation into quantitative phenomenon.- From Charlie Mcelligott, head of Nomura’s Cross-Asset Strategy

We have been writing that the Trump policies would give the FOMC cover to raise interest rates but those same policies may be too much of a good thing. Fiscal stimulus, tax reform, deregulation and infrastructure spending may force the Fed to raise rates faster than they would like. As the Fed is hitting the brakes Trump is stepping on the gas.

We continue to hold short duration bonds coupled with a slight underweight in equities. However, we did cautiously add to equities during the selloff. We continue to add to new positions that prepare for a further rise in inflation. We believe that we are in the late stage of the business cycle where commodities tend to prosper. Current central bank positioning combined with fiscal stimulus could lead to a quicker than expected rise in inflation. We are positioning for a surprise to the upside.

pexels-photo-722664.jpeg

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

Paradox

 The catch is, a boat this big doesn’t exactly stop on a dime.

Seaman Jones – Hunt for Red October

 Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. ~ Mark Twain

Paradox

The word of the year just might be paradox. In a normal year the market is full of conflicting information and contradictory conclusions. 2018 and its historical asset valuations may set a new bar when it comes to investing paradox. A recent Bank of America Global Fund Manager survey shows a record high number of managers feel that stocks are overvalued yet cash levels continue to fall. The upshot is that even though managers feel that markets are overvalued they are forced to chase the market ever higher and deploy their cash holdings. An explanation for this data point is that managers act in this way in an effort to provide themselves with insurance against career risk. Chasing markets higher can be, in itself, just an effort to assuage investors who see the market returns and expect the same despite manager’s historical models telling them to act more cautiously.

One data point that simply jumps off of the page from the fund manager survey is that close to 70% of fund managers believe that tax reform will lead to higher stocks in 2018. If 70% of managers feel that tax reform will lead to higher stock prices, and the stock market is a discounting mechanism, then shouldn’t that idea already be factored into stock prices? In a world where for every buyer there is a seller 70% is practical unanimity.

Here is yet another paradox. Low rates are a commonly ascribed reason as to why equity valuations are so high. Doesn’t everyone expect rates to rise in 2018 including the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)? The FOMC itself has stated that they expect to raise rates three times in 2018.  If it is widely expected that rates will rise and low rates are the reason for expensive equity valuations then shouldn’t equities be falling? We are left with the idea that the current market is in melt up mode due to the twin engines of human psychology and market structure.

New Regime

Current market structure is built on self reinforcing algorithms engineered by computers. Computers run by market makers see buy orders and place other buy orders ahead of clients in order to implement more liquidity into the system. Market makers, by design, restrict themselves as to how much capital they put at risk. At a certain level, dictated by management, a market maker will cover their short or dispose of their long in order to manage risk. A high and rising market will lead to a market maker buying more and a lower market will lead to a market maker dumping their position into a falling market. That leads to self reinforcing loops. We now find ourselves in an era with lower volatility and grinding markets with self reinforcing feedback. While we believe that the lower volatility regime is partly a response to the lower human emotional component of investing the emotions are still present and impactful.  Investors currently find themselves chasing the market ever higher as their models have told them to reduce their allocations to stocks but yet stocks push ever higher and clients demand higher returns. Hence, another self reinforcing feedback loop.

“…algorithmic traders and institutional investors are a larger presence in various markets than previously, and the willingness of these institutions to support liquidity in stressful conditions is uncertain.”- Janet Yellen FOMC Chair Jackson Hole 8/25/17

We are currently seeing record low volatility with continued rising asset valuations, all while being in an era of experimental monetary policy attempted globally for the first time in history. After conducting their experiment of adding liquidity to ward off the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression central bankers have now begun to drain liquidity and lift interest rates.

Prices of bonds and stocks continue to advance further away from median historical valuations. That tells us that there is too much money in the system and it needs to be drained. The Fed and BIS (Bank of International Settlements) see that too and are anxious to drain or, at the very least, stop adding liquidity. That tipping point of global central bank balance sheets draining liquidity instead of adding may happen sometime in the summer of 2018 if markets allow.

Central bankers have never attempted this before and will now, in the next six months, begin to attempt the most difficult part of their act. In the face of this never before attempted trick by central bankers we find investors are taking on even more risk.  Are investors waiting to see who runs for the door first in an elaborate game of chicken? “Prices are still rising. I can’t sell. I will miss out. I will get out before the other guy.” It will be a small door when the music stops. It’s like the boiled frog. A frog will jump out of a hot pot but put him in a cool pot that slowly boils he won’t perceive the danger until it’s too late. Investors are the frog as central banks slowly raise interest rates and drain liquidity. They won’t know what hit them. Note the following quotes (courtesy of ZeroHedge) from Jerome Powell, the newly appointed Chair of the FOMC, from the FOMC Minutes in October of 2012.

[W]hen it is time for us (the Federal Reserve)to sell, or even to stop buying, the response could be quite strong; there is every reason to expect a strong response. – Jerome Powell FOMC Committee Minutes October 2012

 

Moral Hazard

I think we are actually at a point of encouraging risk-taking, and that should give us pause. Investors really do understand now that we will be there to prevent serious losses. It is not that it is easy for them to make money but that they have every incentive to take more risk, and they are doing so. – Jerome Powell FOMC Chair FOMC Minutes Oct 2012

Since the election of Donald Trump in November of 2016 we have postulated that we were on the precipice of a melt up in stocks. Since that time we have seen the S&P 500 rally by over 28%. It was not the election of Trump that led to that thought process it was an amalgamation of set points that had come together at that instant to provide the fuel for the rally. The election released the Animal Spirits of the market. We felt that investors would be spurred by the idea that deregulation, tax reform and infrastructure spending would lead an economy, which was primed and ready, to go to greater heights. But most importantly, the groundwork for this rally was put into place prior to the election by the members of the FOMC. What the FOMC had put into place was similar to kindling and gasoline looking for a spark and that spark arrived in the form of tax reform and deregulation.

The above quote from Powell deserves to be read again. By engineering QE, the FOMC took steps to actually encourage risk taking and, with that, the FOMC had created a moral hazard. Moral hazard is the idea that investors could and should count on the Federal Reserve to effectively bail them out if things went wrong. Investors have been trained to think that if there is a significant selloff in the market then the Fed will add liquidity. Perhaps even begin a new round of QE if the selloff is bad enough. That leads investors to think Why Sell? No one sells. The market just heads higher. People have adjusted to the new paradigm. Whenever the market gets in trouble the Fed bails it out. 1987. 1998. 2001. 2007. 2011.2012. 2015. That has investors asking “Why EVER Sell”?

The moral hazard of the Fed gave rise to what became known as The Greenspan Put. The put was the level in the market, which if the market ever fell to, the Federal Reserve would ride to the rescue, add liquidity and save markets from themselves. The Federal Reserve gave no reason for investors NOT to take on risk and substantial risk at that.

Another factor in the rise of animal spirits has been the parabolic rise in the price of bitcoin and the mania surrounding it. It has helped drive investors to an extreme in bullishness anticipating future investing profits. Now, bullishness in itself is not bad and, in fact, an extreme level of bullishness can portend further gains but we do believe that it sets markets up for difficult comparisons. Most major tops and bottoms in the market in recent years have what is seen as a negative divergence in its level of Relative Strength (RSI). We are currently seeing extreme levels of RSI in the broader market. Having hit this level of extreme bullishness we should see some sort of selloff or just a breather in markets rise. Having had that breather when we approach these levels again comparisons become very difficult. If those levels of bullishness do not hit prior levels investors may see that as a negative divergence and begin to take off risk. Bitcoin’s parabolic rise is a sign of mania in markets and caution should be paid. The FOMO Fear of Missing Out has investors, perhaps, getting in a little over their heads.

Giddy Up and Getting Giddy

We learn far more when we listen than when we talk so when smart people talk we listen. David Swenson is the Chief Investment Officer of the Yale Endowment. He is seen as the Michael Jordan of endowment investing. We have rarely seen interviews of him but we came across this one in November of last year at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was interviewed by Robert Rubin the former US Treasury Secretary and CEO of Goldman Sachs. My take on “uncorrelated assets” is that a good portion of what he is talking about is cash or cash like instruments that do not move with the stock market.

RUBIN: Did I hear you say that you have 32 percent now in uncorrelated assets?

SWENSEN: That’s correct.

RUBIN: More than you had in ’08, when we were in recession?

SWENSEN: Slightly more, yeah.

RUBIN: Do you think we’re in recession, or what scares you that you really want to have a recession-level of cash?

SWENSEN: Yeah. So I’m not worried about the economy so much. I have no idea what economic performance is going to be over the next five or 10 years. What I’m concerned about is valuation. I think when you look at pretty much any asset class anywhere in the world, it feels expensive. And the handful of areas that I talked about where I thought there were opportunities are kind of niche-y—short-selling, Japan, I think there’s some opportunities in China and India, although it’s hard to call either of those markets screamingly cheap either. So it’s really a question of valuation, not a question of economic fundamentals.

For now we ride markets higher. We ride them higher with lower equity exposure and lower durations but ride them we must as our clients need a return on their assets to provide for current and future liabilities.  But we grow in caution as giddy investors confidence grows with their account balances. We are concerned because valuations are historically high because interest rates are historically low. If we believe that asset valuations are a derivative of the risk free interest rate then shouldn’t valuations be falling as interest rates are rising? Or, perhaps, valuations will just drop off a cliff when interest rates hit some theoretical number? Will it be 3% on the 10 year? 4%? 5%? No one knows this theoretical number so is it not prudent to scale back your risk allocation given that higher interest rates are on the way? The frog is in the pot. The water is getting warmer. You cannot plan to get out before everyone else. We recalibrate our risk perspective. The trick is that human nature has us chasing higher and higher equity prices because we have fear of missing out.

The market is a massive naval ship running full steam ahead. It doesn’t stop on a dime. The markets could continue to rage. We recalibrate and adjust our asset allocations because when turning points come they will come quickly and seemingly come out of the blue. The Fed cannot react to every market twitch and if they are truly dedicated to reducing their balance sheet then they will have to raise their pain threshold and that makes the Fed Put lower (and more painful) in terms of the level of the S&P 500. For now we recalibrate, accept slightly lower rates of return and brace for a shock with non correlated assets as our cushion.

We continue to believe that central bank purchases will dictate asset pricing and while we can try and predict when asset flows will turn negative we cannot predict when markets will react to that reversal in flow. For now buy the dip still reigns while volatility selling strategies are de rigueur. In a self reinforcing loop the current paradigm reflects an assumption of the continuance of the status quo and trades built upon that will grow ever higher in AUM. That will make the break all the more painful and swift.

 What’s Next?

In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”– Rudiger Dornbusch

Since November of 2016 we have postulated that we were on the verge of an animal spirits led melt up and we projected that much like 1987 we would see a 30-35% rally in markets before a letdown in prices. We may have underestimated the animal spirits. A strong 2017 followed by a strong start to 2018 could lead to further gains. We may also have underestimated current market structure as it may be causing markets to have longer, less volatile regimes and that regime change may become less and less frequent.

We feel that while we are in the late stages of a bull market it is best to pull back on risk and while late stages of bull markets can see spectacular returns we nor anyone else knows when that comes to an end. So for now we are in it to win it but just a little less in.

2018 has come in like a lion. We think that a correction in 2018 is likely and how the Federal Reserve responds to that correction is likely to determine how long and how deep that correction is. Tax reform is priced in and economic news has been positive. While those positives are now baked in the cake disappointing actual results from tax reform could impact pricing. Also, impact could be felt from rising bond yields as investors seek safe haven in bonds over stocks. This week the rate on the 2 year bill rose above that of the S&P 500 yield for the first time since 2008. Investors may begin to see bonds as an alternative to equities. If a correction should come we would expect it to be sharp and scary but will set equities up for another leg higher in 2019 and beyond.  We believe it is prudent to be a bit more conservatively positioned this late in the cycle and expect lower returns in order to be prepared to profit from others panic and flawed market structure.

As investors, our job is NOT making the case for why markets will go up. Making the case for why markets will rise is a pointless endeavor because we are already invested. If the markets rise, terrific. We all made money, and we are the better for it. However, that is not our job. Our job, is to analyze, understand, measure, and prepare for what will reduce the value of our invested capital. –Lance Roberts

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein CEO of Goldman Sachs

 Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks…During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.Warren Buffett

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Disclosure: According to SEC Custody Rule 206(4)-(a)(2), Blackthorn urges you to compare statements/reports initiated by your Blackthorn with the Account Statement from the custodian of your account for data consistency. To that end, if you find any discrepancy between these reports and the statement(s) that you received from your account’s custodian, please contact your Advisor or custodian. Also, please notify your Advisor promptly if you do not receive a statement(s) from your custodian on at least a quarterly basis.

Blackthorn is an investment adviser registered in the state of Georgia. Blackthorn is primarily engaged in providing discretionary investment advisory services for high net worth individuals.

All information provided herein is for informational purposes only and should not be deemed as a recommendation to buy or sell securities. All investments involve risk including the loss of principal. This transmission is confidential and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of Blackthorn Asset Management LLC and does not constitute an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase any security or investment product. Any such offer or solicitation may only be made by means of delivery of an approved confidential offering memorandum.

Warren Buffett’s Latest Wisdom

One thing we look forward to every year is Warren Buffett’s annual letter that comes out in February. Here is more sage long term investing advice from the Oracle of Omaha.

Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks…During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.

We, at Blackthorn, as Registered Investment Advisors, have a fiduciary obligation to our clients. We are very conscious of high and unnecessary costs and how they drive down our clients returns. Patience, discipline, a well thought out investing plan and low costs. Do yourself a favor and ask your advisor to explain any and all fees that you pay. Mutual fund fees, 12b-1 fees, Brokerage fees, Investment management fees, and Wrap fees are all examples of unnecessary fees and costs.  If you are using a broker and they cannot easily and transparently list and explain your fees and costs to you then move on to someone who has a fiduciary obligation to you.

Beware the Ides of March is what you will be seeing all week in the investing media headlines. March 15th is fraught with stumbling blocks this year. A Dutch election is scheduled for this week which could move markets. More importantly, the Federal Reserve is meeting and March 15th is the day we reach a debt ceiling deadline here in the United States. The Federal Reserve will be meeting and they seem to be boxed in a corner. Rate hike odds according to Bloomberg are pushing 90%. This is the key move we have been highlighting for 2017. If the Fed does not raise rates markets may soar even higher as retail investors and animal spirits push into the market. If the Fed does raise rates it could pour some cold water on investors and slow the rally.

Retail investors are pouring into ETF’s as shown by the fact that the SPY had its largest inflow since 2014 this week and its second largest daily inflow since 2011. As per a report from CNBC company insiders are dumping stock into the marketplace at accelerated rates. For the moment caution must be heeded. Wall Street lore suggests that the third rate hike is when markets start to falter. A rate rise in March 15th would be the third rate rise of this cycle with the stated goal of two more rate hikes in 2017. History rhymes. It does not repeat. It could be different this time as we are starting from such a low level. For now, momentum is with the bulls but if retail investors are in charge things could change very quickly.

Stocks are still extremely overbought but this week they showed some slowing in their ascent. Stocks have run a long way and should stop to rest and acclimate to their new elevation. Finally, this week we saw a close in the S&P more than 1% away from its previous close. We have now not seen a move 1% lower in over 90 sessions.  Animal spirits are running high as retail investors are pouring into ETF’s like the SPY. We continue to be wary of market structure and overreliance on ETF’s. Late day marches higher in SPY are being blamed on retail buyers late to the party. Know what you own. No pushback on the idea that Germany should leave the Euro. Need to follow that one further down the rabbit hole.

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

 

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

 

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

 

Roller Coaster Markets

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett

Well, that was some beginning to 2016! We knew that volatility was coming our way but we did not foresee what happened in Q1. The Dow Jones managed to complete a round trip ticket as we fell 13% and subsequently rose back up 13% in one quarter. That is the biggest intra quarter comeback since the middle of the Great Depression in 1933. Our portfolio strategy coming into 2016 was to tactically manage our asset allocations given that we expected higher volatility and lower returns. Although we didn’t see a round trip in the offing for Q1 of 2016 our strategy worked out quite well. We believe that the rest of 2016 has much the same in store as the market reacts to every nuance emanating from the Eccles Building in Washington DC which is the home of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States.

We believe that risks are rising after our second 12% rally in months. We have elevated valuations and falling earnings estimates for US companies. It is going to be difficult for the stock market to move higher from here but we cannot bet against continued central bank largesse. The stock market, having rallied 13% off of its recent lows in early February reminds us of a blog post from back in October of 2015. This is what we had to say back in October.

October 2015 will go down as the best performing month for the S&P 500 in four years.  I think that we all enjoyed the ride back up in October. The S&P 500 rallied 8.3% and followed through with more gains today to get the S&P 500 into the plus column for 2015. Those gains would be nice gains for an entire year – never mind a month! Whenever we get to thinking how much we have gained we cannot help but to contemplate the downside. We must always be on guard to temper our greed/ego just as much as we would concentrate on opportunity when fear strikes.

As a reminder, the volatility continued then as well. The S&P 500 closed October of 2015 at 2080. It would be 10% lower by January of 2016.

The key to making money in your portfolio lies in Investor Psychology. Understanding investor psychology and our own personal relationship with money is the key to successful investing.  Having just ridden the roller coaster of emotions that was Q1 we are in a good position to replay how the highs and lows of the market made us feel and how we reacted to it. The two following charts can help you be more successful in understanding how emotions play a role in your investing process.  The first shows two 12% rallies in the last 7 months. The second is a chart of investor psychology. After our second 12% rally in 7 months we should revisit how that roller coaster made us feel. Were you despondent at the lows? Did it make you want to sell and get out or buy more? Are you now relieved? Optimistic? Are you aching to buy more as prices rise?

dow chart 2 12pct rallies 2016

 

psy-cycle

 

In order to be on the right side of the market it is important to sell risk when prices are rising and buy risk when prices are falling. Or in emotional terms, when prices are falling and you are scared ask yourself “What should I be buying”? When prices are rising, ask, what are we selling? Understanding and keeping your emotions in check is the key to making money in markets like these. Ride the roller coaster.

 Valuations

For long time readers and clients you know that one of our favorite metrics of stock market valuation is the US Stock Market Capitalization to GDP. It also happens to be Warren Buffett’s favorite metric in case you wonder why we follow it as well. As you can see from the following chart courtesy of Ned Davis Research the last time that the Stock Market Capitalization as a percentage of GDP was in an undervalued position was in July of 1982.

Ned Davis March 2016 Mkt Cap GDP

What changed since the early ’80’s? Central banks gained enormous influence over markets when President Richard Nixon took the United States off of the Gold Standard. This allowed central banks to help manage booms and busts in the economy without being hamstrung by the amount of gold in Fort Knox. Theoretically, they now had an unlimited supply of gold with printed fiat money taking the place of gold. This was the dawn of the Golden Age of Central Banking. The Prime Interest rate from the Federal Reserve reached its high of 21.5% in June of 1982. We have had a steady trend of lower interest rates for the last 30+ years.

Since 1995 (with the exception of February 2009) we have been in the overvalued area of the chart. This chart is evidence of the inexorable influence of central banks on asset prices. Some questions remain. Are we in a permanent state of overvaluation due to the influence of central bankers? If that state of overvaluation is not permanent at what point does central bank influence wane and valuations retreat to historical levels. Also, if central bankers remain in control of markets how low will central bankers allow markets to descend? Given our current inflated valuations we know that based on history we can expect lower returns over the next 10 year time frame.

Another natural question is posed if we feel that returns are to be muted or that prices should retreat. Why not sell out of all our assets and wait things out in cash? I think that the chart also answers that question. We have been in a perpetual state of overvaluation since 1995 – over twenty years!  In order to meet our investing goals we cannot afford to sit out markets until they become more rationally priced. There is also the distinct possibility that markets become even more overpriced. If inflation were to take hold here in the United States investors would want tangible assets that rise in value with inflation. Equity prices could become wildly overpriced.  John Maynard Keynes, the legendary economist once said, “markets can stay irrational longer than one can remain insolvent” betting against them.

We know that it has been a goal of central banks since the dawn of the crisis in 2008 to raise asset prices and therefore raise confidence in the economy but they are now distorting price discovery with monetary policy. This extreme action taken by central banks takes away some of our normal techniques for evaluating markets as markets are warped by policy.

Less Gas in the Tank

Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve has recently discovered with its latest interest rate hike that they are now the WORLD’s central bank and its moves have outsized effects on the rest of the world.  Central banks can pull future returns forward and stall for time so that legislators can enact fiscal policy with which to mend an ailing economy. However, due to reluctance or ineptitude legislators have done nothing and left central banks, and in particular, the US Federal Reserve as the only game in town. If the Federal Reserve raises rates it then weakens other currencies and encourages capital flight. Capital goes where it is treated best. Higher rates of interest in the US and a stronger US Dollar force money to quickly flood out of emerging nations and into the United States. Central banks are stalling for time and currency wars are de rigueur. We have entered a “Twilight Zone” of monetary policy with negative interest rates in Europe and Japan. Central bank officials are also faced with the fact that monetary policy is not immune to the effects of the Law of Diminishing Returns as we enter Year 8 of a bull market in stocks.

Most likely, as risk premiums increase, central banks will increasingly ease via more negative interest rates and more QE, and these moves will have a beneficial effect. However, I also believe that QE will be less and less effective because there is less “gas in the tank.” – Ray Dalio Bridgewater Associates  2/18/16

What’s Next?

And while QE will push asset prices somewhat higher, investors/savers will still want to save, lenders will still be cautious lenders, and cautious borrowers will remain cautious, so we will still have “pushing on a string.” As a result, Monetary Policy 3 will have to be directed at spenders more than at investors/savers. In other words, it will provide money to spenders and incentives for them to spend it.  Ray Dalio Bridgewater Associates

This latest rally saw investors chasing safe haven and dividend paying stocks like consumer staples and utilities. Investors are moving ahead but with caution. Other safe haven assets performed well in Q1 such as US Treasuries, Municipal bonds and Gold. We are also seeing investors maintain cash positions to levels not seen in years. We think that those are good signs. The fact that investors have sought and are seeking shelter will provide some cushion to any market tumble. Investors are preparing for another 2008 style crash. That, in essence, is why 2016 is NOT 2008.

Clients have been asking what metrics we are looking at as far as taking more equity risk. The 200 Day Moving Average (DMA) is the Maginot Line when it comes to seeing markets as bull markets or bear markets. Obviously, we would take more equity risk if we felt that we are in a bull market. Currently with the S&P 500 in a battle to take flight above its 200 DMA we are inclined to believe that we are still in a bear market and continue to hedge risk. If the bulls can get above and stay above the 200 DMA in the S&P 500 we would be more inclined to changing our mindset.

Oil’s bounce is alleviating pressure on borrowers and drillers but prices need to get back above $50 a barrel to really stop the pain. Currently, as we write West Texas Crude is below $40 a barrel. The selling of oil and oil related debt may be easing for now but the pain may only be delayed. High yield debt has seen money pour into that sector in the last month. Investors may be catching a falling knife there with more pain to come if oil cannot continue its recent rally.

We will continue to tactically change our asset allocation as the S&P 500 stays range bound between 1800-2100 and volatility continues its resurgence in 2016. We continue to hold bonds as it has been the most unloved of asset classes for the last several years as short sellers have been betting on rising interest rates and falling bond prices. In Q1 of 2016 bond returns have been in excess of 2% which is a very nice quarter for bonds. We see bonds as having value while the US 10 year yield is still north of 1.8% as we write while Japanese 10 year rates are less than zero. We feel that there is still adequate return to entice capital from around the world into US government bonds at 180 basis point spreads.

We cannot predict with 100% accuracy every move in the market but what we can do is try and profit by tactically allocating and hedging our portfolio in times of market stress to take advantage of market volatility. Investing is not a game of perfection but of managing the risk inside one’s portfolio. We do not jump in and jump out of the market wholesale. By divesting ourselves of overpriced assets and availing ourselves of opportunities when prices are low allows us to take advantage of the long term benefits that the math of compounding brings.

We still foresee 2016 as being a tactically driven year. We feel that changing our positions tactically with the ebb and flow of the market, decreasing the volatility of our portfolios by increasing positions in bonds and bond like instruments while also paying attention to companies that have pricing power like technology and health care will be the key to performance. Cash is also an important part of asset allocation because although it returns zero when risk premiums rise its value will be seen in its inherent call optionality and the opportunity set that it provides given lower asset prices.

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein CEO of Goldman Sachs

 

 

Warren Buffett’s Favorite Metric

Warren Buffett’s favorite metric for the market over the years has been the Ratio of US Market Capitalization to United States GDP. Here is a copy of it below from Ned Davis Research. Ned Davis Research is one of the best independent research outfits in the business and I have followed their insights for over 25 years.

What I find fascinating about this chart is the high levels of valuation since the mid 1990’s. I believe that this time period should be considered the Golden Age of Central banking. This was the Era of Greenspan and the Greenspan Put. Alan Greenspan was the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank from 1987-2006. It was Greenspan that realized the power of central banking. Central bankers in previous eras did not have the tools at their disposal to manage monetary policy as effectively as Greenspan. It was the removal of the Gold Standard by Richard Nixon which allowed central bankers in the US to pull forward growth in order to manage downturns more effectively. Note however that since 1995, valuations in the market have exceeded the average levels consistently with the exception of the 2008 crash. That leaves us with some very big questions. How long can central bankers keep pulling forward returns? How long will markets continue to give higher than normal valuations to markets based on central bank policy? Ned Davis Research

Ned Davis March 2016 Mkt Cap GDP

The one era most like our current one is that the late 1936 – early 1937 period. Current high levels of Price Earnings ratios, and, historically low 10 Year yields combine in a disturbing stew now as they did in 1937. Coming out of the Great Depression Federal Reserve officials saw prices in the stock market build to uncomfortable levels and with inflation on the horizon began to raise interest rates. The first tightening in August 1936 did not hurt stock prices or the economy, as is typical.

The tightening of interest rates was made worse by currency wars as European nations chose to move in the opposite direction of US monetary policy. The world began to demand US Dollars and gold. As inflation picked up to 5% the Federal Reserve raised rates further in March of 1937 and again in May 1937. This tighter monetary policy reduced liquidity and sent bond and stock prices much tumbling. Stocks would bottom a year later down 50% from prior levels.

Given the high level of valuations in the Golden Age of Central Banking how will assets perform if the Federal Reserve wants to exit the policies that brought forth those valuations? Central bankers may find that The Golden Age of Central Banking may give way to the Roach Motel of Central Banking. They can get in but they cannot get out.  It’s all about how markets react to the second and third rate hikes.

In our last blog post we mentioned the key levels for the market and now we are there. The bulls did not have much trouble surmounting the 1940 level but 2000 may prove more difficult.

The next level for the bulls is the 2000 number on the S&P 500 and then 2020. We have a confluence of moving averages and resistance zones to overcome here but the bulls have the bears on the run and shorts are covering as they feel the pain.  The risk at the moment is skewed to the downside as we have come very far very fast since the lows of 1812 in mid February. The market is extremely overbought and needs to rest. Let’s see if the bears can push back the bulls. Markets are looking for central bank intervention and if not from China this weekend then perhaps the ECB next week. Shorts are feeling the pain and the bulls may have their hearts set on 2100 on the S&P

Clients have been asking what metrics we are looking at as far as taking more equity risk. The 200 Day Moving Average (DMA) is the Maginot Line when it comes to seeing markets as bull markets or bear markets. Obviously, we would take more equity risk if we felt that we are in a bull market. Currently with the S&P 500 below its 200 DMA we are inclined to believe that we are in a bear market and continue to hedge risk. Let’s see if the bulls can get above and stay above the 200 DMA.

Oil’s bounce is alleviating pressure on borrowers and drillers but prices need to get back above $50 a barrel to really stop the pain. Forced selling of oil and oil related debt may be easing for now but the pain may only be delayed. High yield debt has seen money pour into that sector in the last week. Investors may be catching a falling knife there with more pain to come.

In our last blog post we asked you to keep an eye on gold. We feel that foreign investors could find solace here as the games of currency wars and negative interest rates heat up. That continues to be the case. Gold has been the star of 2016 and this week was no different. The yellow metal may be due for a rest but it might a short one. Negative interest rates in Europe are helping as are the concurrent currency wars between Japan, China, the US and Europe. Hold on tight and keep an eye on gold. Ray Dalio was at the University of Texas this week telling retail investors that they should consider holding 5% of their assets in gold. Look at Sprott Physical Gold Trust (PHYS) ETF and SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) ETF if you are determined to hold gold in your portfolio. PHYS has had better performance this year than GLD.

Not recommendation just information. Investing is not a game of perfect.  It is a game of probabilities.

 

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.