Deposit insurance is one of the most misunderstood – and also most dangerous – forms of government intervention into the financial system.
Let’s start with the common misconception that deposit insurance is an industry-operated affair independent of the government.
In the UK, deposit insurance is provided by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). To quote from its website:
“The FSCS is the UK’s statutory fund of last resort for customers of financial services firms. This means that FSCS can pay compensation to consumers if a financial services firm is unable, or likely to be unable, to pay claims against it. The FSCS is an independent body, set up under the Financial Services & Markets Act 2000 (FSMA).”
It also explains that the FSCS is funded by levies on firms authorised to operate by either of the Prudential Regulation Authority or the Financial Conduct Authority.
So the FSCS is notionally independent and the guarantees are financed by levies on participating firms.
However, this does not mean that deposit insurance is in any way a free-market phenomenon: it is explicitly the creature of legislation and participating firms are compelled not just to join, but to join on dictated terms. This is rather like having a system of compulsory car insurance and, moreover, a compulsory system that mandates the exact terms (including the pricing) of the car insurance itself – compulsory one-size-fits-all.
This should set off alarm bells that there might be something wrong with it.
And how do we know that its designers designed it properly? We don’t.
In fact, we know that they couldn’t possibly have designed it properly, as any rational insurance system would tailor the charges to the riskiness of clients, include co-insurance features and other incentives to moderate risk-taking, have charges that would evolve over time in response to changing market conditions, and so forth. This is insurance 101.
This is not how deposit insurance works, however.
Most of all, any rational system would have the product delivered by the market, not by some jerry-built contraption dreamt up by committees of legislators and regulators who have neither the knowledge nor the incentive to get it right. One also might add few if any of these people have any experience in or understanding of the industry they are meddling with, but let’s move on.
It then occurred to me that perhaps my kids are right and I am too cynical – maybe Father Christmas and the fairies do exist: one should keep an open mind – so I checked out the FSCS website to have a closer look at their system. What I found was a masterpiece of gobbledegook that I highly recommend to other connoisseurs of regulatory gibberish:
Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind. My favourite bit is the explanation of the levy calculation that does not explain how the levy is actually calculated.
All this said, the banks rather like deposit insurance because it gives them a great marketing tool: bank with us and your money is safe because we are members of the deposit guarantee scheme, and you will get your money back even if we happen to fail.
They also like it because they can game the system – taking extra risks and offering higher deposit rates than they would otherwise be able to get away with – in effect, exploiting the risk-taking subsidy created by deposit insurance and passing the extra risks to the fund itself.
But surely, if the banks like the system, they would create one themselves if the government didn’t create it for them? No. Were this true, the banks would have done exactly that many years ago, and there would have been no ‘need’ for the state to have intervened to do it for them. The fact is that they didn’t.
The reason they didn’t is because the service that deposit insurance provides to the retail customer – reassurance or confidence – is better provided in other ways, most notably, by pursuing conservative lending policies and maintaining high levels of capital. And the reason for this is simply that deposit insurance introduces an additional layer of moral hazard and governance headaches that can be avoided if the banks self-insure via moderate risk-taking and high levels of capital.
This should come as no surprise. True confidence does not come from “you can trust us if we screw up because someone else will bail you out” but from “you can trust us because it is demonstrably in our interest to make sure we don’t screw up”. Deposit insurance is an inferior confidence product – one might even say, a confidence trick.
We can also look at this another way. Suppose that a group of banks attempted to set up a scheme similar to the current one, of their own free will and with no government intervention. They would soon realise that the scheme was not viable – no bank would want to be liable for the risks the others were taking, with no means of controlling those risks. So it would never get off the ground – and the current system only got off the ground because the state imposed it.
In short, deposit insurance is not a creature of the market but a creature of the state, and a decidedly inferior one at that. It is, indeed, a classic instance of that regulatory Gresham’s Law by which state intervention causes the bad to drive out the good. Where have we seen that before?
So far in August the differential between the yield on the 10-year Treasury note and the yield on the 3-month Treasury bill stood at 2.38% against 2.95% in December 2013.
Historically the yield differential on average has led the yearly rate of growth of industrial production by fourteen months. This raises the likelihood that the growth momentum of industrial production will ease in the months ahead, all other things being equal.
It is generally held that the shape of the yield curve is set by investors’ expectations. According to this way of thinking – also labeled as the expectation theory (ET) – the key to the shape of the yield curve is the notion that long-term interest rates are the average of expected future short-term rates.
If today’s one-year rate is 4% and next year’s one-year rate is expected to be 5%, the two-year rate today should be (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5%.
It follows that expectations for increases in short-term rates will make the yield curve upward sloping, since long-term rates will be higher than short-term rates.
Conversely, expectations for a decline in short-term rates will result in a downward sloping yield curve. If today’s one-year rate is 5% and next year’s one – year rate is expected to be 4%, the two-year rate today (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5% is lower than today’s one year rate of 5% – i.e. downward sloping yield curve.
But is it possible to have a sustained downward sloping yield curve on account of expectations? One can show that in a risk-free environment, neither an upward nor a downward sloping yield curve can be sustainable.
An upward sloping curve would provoke an arbitrage movement from short maturities to long maturities. This will lift short-term interest rates and lower long-term interest rates, i.e., leading towards a uniform interest rate throughout the term structure.
Arbitrage will also prevent the sustainability of an inverted yield curve by shifting funds from long maturities to short maturities thereby flattening the curve.
It must be appreciated that in a free unhampered market economy the tendency towards the uniformity of rates will only take place on a risk-adjusted basis. Consequently, a yield curve that includes the risk factor is likely to have a gentle positive slope.
It is difficult to envisage a downward sloping curve in a free unhampered market economy – since this would imply that investors are assigning a higher risk to short-term maturities than long-term maturities, which doesn’t make sense.
The Fed and the shape of the yield curve
Even if one were to accept the rationale of the ET for the changes in the shape of the yield curve, these changes are likely to be of a very short duration on account of arbitrage. Individuals will always try to make money regardless of the state of the economy.
Yet historically either an upward sloping or a downward sloping yield curve has held for quite prolonged periods of time.
We suggest an upward or a downward sloping yield curve develops on account of the Fed’s interest rate policies (there is an inverse correlation between the yield curve and the fed funds rate).
While the Fed can exercise a certain level of control over short-term interest rates via the federal funds rate, it has less control over long-term interest rates.
For instance, the artificial lowering of short-term interest rates gives rise to an upward sloping yield curve. To prevent the flattening of the curve the Fed must persist with the easy interest rate stance. Should the Fed slow down on its monetary pumping the shape of the yield curve will tend to flatten. Whenever the Fed tightens its interest rate stance this leads to the flattening or an inversion of the yield curve. In order to sustain the new shape of the curve the Fed must maintain its tighter stance. Should the Fed abandon the tighter stance the tendency for rates equalisation will arrest the narrowing or the inversion in the yield curve.
The shape of the yield curve reflects the monetary stance of the Fed. Investors’ expectations can only reinforce the shape of the curve. For instance, relentless monetary expansion that keeps the upward slope of the curve intact ultimately fuels inflationary expectations, which tend to push long-term rates higher thereby reinforcing the positive slope of the yield curve.
Conversely, an emerging recession on account of a tighter stance lowers inflationary expectations and reinforces the inverted yield curve.
A loose Fed monetary policy i.e. a positive sloping curve, sets in motion a false economic boom – it gives rise to various false activities. A tighter monetary policy, which manifests through an inversion of the yield curve, sets in motion the process of the liquidation of false activities i.e. an economic bust is ensued.
A situation could emerge however where the federal funds rate is around zero, as it is now, and then the shape of the yield curve will vary in response to the fluctuations in the long-term rate. (The fed funds rate has been around zero since December 2008).
Once the Fed keeps the fed funds rate at close to zero level over a prolonged period of time it sets in motion a severe misallocation of resources – a severe consumption of capital.
An emergence of subdued economic activity puts downward pressure on long-term rates. On the basis of a near zero fed funds rate this starts to invert the shape of the yield curve.
At present, we hold the downward slopping yield curve has emerged on account of a decline in long term rates whilst short-term interest rate policy remains intact.
We suggest this may be indicative of a severe weakening in the wealth generation process and points to stagnant economic growth ahead.
Note again the downward sloping curve is on account of the Fed’s near zero interest rate policy that has weakened the process of wealth formation.
“When Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz was asked in Germany this week if the country and its neighbours would suffer a lost decade, his response was unequivocal. “Is Europe going the same way as Japan ? Yes,” Mr Stiglitz said in Lindau at a meeting for Nobel laureates and economics students. “The only way to describe what is going on in some European countries is depression.”
‘Spectre of Japan-style lost decade looms over eurozone’, Claire Jones, The Financial Times, August 22, 2014.
Few films have managed to convey the feeling of approaching menace more effectively than Jeff Nichols’ 2011 drama, ‘Take Shelter’. Its blue collar protagonist, Curtis LaForche, played by the lantern-jawed Michael Shannon – whose sepulchral bass tones make his every utterance sound like someone slowly dragging a coffin over a cello – begins to suffer terrifying dreams and visions; he responds by building a storm shelter in his back yard. It transpires that his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a similar stage in her own life. Are these simply hallucinations ? Or are they portents of darker things to come ?
Nichols, the film’s writer and director, has gone on record as stating that at least part of the film owes something to the financial crisis:
“I think I was a bit ahead of the curve, since I wrote it in 2008, which was also an anxious time, for sure, but, yeah, now it feels even more so. This film deals with two kinds of anxiety. There’s this free-floating anxiety that we generally experience: you wake in bed and maybe worry about what’s happening to the planet, to the state of the economy, to things you have no control over. In 2008, I was particularly struck with this during the beginning of the financial meltdown. Then there’s a personal anxiety. You need to keep your life on track—your health, your finances, your family..”
There’s a degree of pretention in claiming to have a reliable read on the psychology of the marketplace – too many participants, too much intangibility, too much subjectivity. But taking market price index levels at face value, especially in stock markets, there seems to be a general sense that since the near-collapse of the financial system six years ago, the worst has passed. The S&P 500 stock index, for example, has just reached a new all-time high, leaving plenty of financial media commentators to breathlessly anticipate its goal of 2,000 index points. But look at it from an objective perspective, rather than one of simple-minded cheerleading: the market is more expensive than ever – the only people who should be celebrating are those considering selling.
There are at least two other storm clouds massing on the horizon (we ignore the worsening geopolitical outlook altogether). One is the ‘health’ of the bond markets. Bloomberg’s Mark Gilbert points out that Germany has just issued €4 billion of two year notes that pay no interest whatsoever until they mature in 2016. The second is the explicitly declining health of the euro zone economy, which is threatening to slide into recession (again), and to which zero interest rates in Germany broadly allude. The reality, which is not a hallucination, is that years of Zero Interest Rate Policy everywhere and trillions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen pumped into a moribund banking system have created a ‘Potemkin village’ market offering the illusion of stability. In their June 2014 letter, Elliott Management wrote as follows:
“..Stock markets around the world are at or near all-time nominal highs, while global interest rates hover near record lows. A flood of newly-printed money has combined with zero percent interest rates to keep all the balls suspended in the air. Nonetheless, growth in the developed world (US, Europe and Japan) has been significantly subpar for the 5 ½ years following the financial crisis. Businesses have been reluctant to invest and hire. The consumer is still “tapped out,” and there are significant suppressive forces from poor policy, including taxes and increased regulation. Governments (which are actually responsible for the feeble growth) are blaming the shortfall on “secular stagnation,” purportedly a long-term trend, which enables them to deny responsibility..
“The orchestra conductors for this remarkable epoch are the central bankers in the US, UK, Europe and Japan. The cost of debt of all maturities issued by every country, corporation and individual in the world (except outliers like Argentina) is in the process of converging at remarkably low rates. In Greece (for goodness sake), long-term government debt is trading with a yield just north of 5%. In France, 10 year bonds are trading at a yield of 1.67%.
“..Sadly, financial market conditions are not the result of the advancement of human knowledge in these matters. Rather, they are the result of policymaker groupthink and a mass delusion. By reducing interest rates to zero and having central banks purchase most of the debt issued by their governments, they think that inflation can be encouraged (but without any risk that it will spin out of control) and that economic activity consequently can be supported and enhanced. We are 5 ½ years into this global experiment, which has never been tried in its current breadth and scope at any other time in history.. the bald fact is that the entire developed world is growing at a sluggish pace, if at all. But governments, media, politicians, central bankers and academics are unwilling to state the obvious conclusion that their policies have failed and need to be revised. Instead, they uniformly state, with the kind of confidence only present among the truly clueless, that in the absence of their current policies, things would be much worse.”
Regardless of the context, stock markets at or near all-time highs are things to be sceptical of, rather than to be embraced with both hands. Value investors prefer to buy at the low than at the high. The same holds for bonds, especially when they offer the certainty of a loss in real terms if held to maturity. But as Elliott point out, the job of asset managers is to manage money, and not to “hold up our arms and order the tide to roll back”. (We have written previously about those who seem to believe they can control the tides.) So by a process of logic, selectivity and elimination, we believe the only things remotely worth buying today are high quality stocks trading at levels well below their intrinsic value.
We recently wrote about the sort of metrics to assess stocks that can be reliably used over the long run to generate superior returns. Among them, low price / book is a stand-out characteristic of value stocks that has generated impressive, market-beating returns over any medium term time frame. So which markets currently enjoy some of the most attractive price / book ratios ?
The four tables below, courtesy of Greg Fisher and Samarang Capital, show the relative attractiveness of the Japanese, US, Vietnamese and UK markets, as expressed by the distributions of their price / book ratios. Over 40% of the Japanese market, for example, trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. We would humbly submit that this makes the Japanese market objectively cheap. The comparative percentage for the US market is around 15%.
Various stock markets as expressed in price / book ratios
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Even more strikingly, nearly 60% of the Vietnamese stock market trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. The comparative figure for the UK market is approximately 20%.
Conversely, nearly 60% of the US market trades on a price / book of above 2 times. We would humbly submit that this makes the US market look expensive. There is clearly a world of difference between a frontier market like Vietnam which is limited by way of capital controls, and a developed market like that of the US which isn’t. But the price / book ratio is a comparison of apples with apples, and US stock market apples simply cost more than those in Japan or Vietnam. We’d rather buy cheap apples.
As clients and longstanding readers will appreciate, we split the investible universe into four asset classes: high quality credit; value equity; uncorrelated funds; and real assets, notably precious metals. As a result of the extraordinary monetary accommodation of the past six years or so, both credit markets and stocks have been boosted to probably unsustainable levels, at least in the West. Uncorrelated funds (specifically, trend-following funds) and gold and silver have recently lagged more traditional assets, though we contend that they still offer potential for portfolio insurance when the long-awaited storm of reality (financial gravity) finally strikes. But on any objective analysis, we think the merits of genuine value stocks are now compelling when set against any other type of investment, both on a relative and absolute basis. Increasingly desperate central banks have destroyed the concept of safe havens. There is now only relative safety by way of financial assets. The mood music of the markets is becoming increasingly discordant as investors (outside the euro zone at least) start to prepare for a turn in the interest rate cycle. There is a stark choice when it comes to investment aesthetics. Those favouring value and deep value investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing diamonds. Those favouring growth and momentum investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. We do not intend to end up as fashion victims as and when the storm finally hits.
“Anything can happen in stock markets and you ought to conduct your affairs so that if the most extraordinary events happen, you’re still around to play the next day.”
Vice Admiral James Stockdale has a good claim to have been one of the most extraordinary Americans ever to have lived. On September 9th, 1965 he was shot down over North Vietnam and seized by a mob. Having broken a bone in his back ejecting from his plane he had his leg broken and his arm badly injured. He would spend the next seven years in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. The physical brutality was unspeakable, and the mental torture never stopped. He would be kept in solitary confinement, in total darkness, for four years. He would be kept in heavy leg-irons for two years, on a starvation diet, deprived even of letters from home. Throughout it all, Stockdale was stoic. When told he would be paraded in front of foreign journalists, he slashed his own scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face with a wooden stool so that he would be unrecognisable and useless to the enemy’s press. When he discovered that his fellow prisoners were being tortured to death, he slashed his wrists to show his torturers that he would not submit to them. When his guards finally realised that he would die before cooperating, they relented. The torture of American prisoners ended, and the treatment of all American prisoners of war improved. After being released in 1973, Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honour. He was one of the most decorated officers in US naval history, with 26 personal combat decorations, including four Silver Stars. Jim Collins, author of the influential study of US businesses, ‘Good to Great’, interviewed Stockdale during his research for the book. How had he found the courage to survive those long, dark years ?
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” replied Stockdale.
“I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining moment of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins was silent for a few minutes. The two men walked along, Stockdale with a heavy limp, swinging a stiff leg that had never properly recovered from repeated torture. Finally, Collins went on to ask another question. Who didn’t make it out ?
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale. “The optimists.”
Collins was confused.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving. And then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
As the two men walked slowly onward, Stockdale turned to Collins.
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
As Collins’ book came to be published, this observation came to be known as the Stockdale Paradox. For Collins, it was exactly the same sort of behaviour displayed by those company founders who had led their businesses through thick and thin. The alternative was the average managers at also-ran companies that enjoyed average returns at best, or that failed completely.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this is hardly a ‘good news’ market. Ebola. Ukraine. Iraq. Gaza. In a more narrowly financial sphere, the euro zone economy looks to be slowing, with Italy flirting with a triple dip recession, Portugal suffering a renewed banking crisis, and the ECB on the brink of rolling out QE. If government bond yields are a reflection of investor confidence, the fact that two-year German rates have gone below zero is hardly inspiring.
And we have had interest rates held at emergency levels for five years now – gently igniting who knows what form of as yet unseen problems to come. In Europe interest rates seem set to stay low or go even lower. But in the UK and the US, the markets nervously await the first rate hike of a new cycle while central bankers bluster and dither.
What are the implications for global asset allocation and stock selection ?
Both in absolute terms and relative to equities, most bond markets (notably the Anglo-Saxon) are ridiculously overvalued. Since the risk-free rate has now become the return-free risk, cash now looks like the superior asset class diversifier.
As regards stock markets, price is what you pay, and value (or lack thereof) is what you get. On any fair analysis, the US market in particular is a fly in search of a windscreen. Using Professor Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price / earnings ratio for the broad US stock market, shown below, US stocks have only been more expensive than they are today on two occasions in the past 130 years: in 1929, and in 2000. The peak-to-trough fall for the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1929 equated to 89%. The peak-to-trough fall for the Dow from 2000 equated to “just” 38%. Time will tell just how disappointing (both by scale and by duration) the coming years will be for US equity market bulls.
But we’re not interested in markets per se – we’re interested in value opportunities incorporating a margin of safety. If the geographic allocations within Greg Fisher’s Asian Prosperity Fund are any guide, those value opportunities are currently most numerous in Japan and Vietnam. In the fund’s latest report he writes:
“Interestingly, and despite China’s continued underperformance, the Asian markets in aggregate have done better at this stage in 2014 than last year, while other global markets have fared less well. In our view the reason is simple – a combination of more attractive valuations than western markets, especially the US, but also, compared with 12-18 months ago, recognisably poor investor sentiment and consequently under-positioning in Asia, leading to the chance of positive surprises.”
Cylically adjusted price / earnings ratio for the S&P 500 Index
The Asian Prosperity Fund is practically a poster child for the opportunity inherent in global, unconstrained, Ben Graham-style value investing. Its average price / earnings ratio stands at 9x (versus 18x for the FTSE 100 and 17x for the S&P 500); its price / book ratio stands at just one; historic return on equity is an attractive 15%; average dividend yield stands at 4.2%. And this from a region where long-term economic growth seems entirely plausible rather than a delusional fantasy.
Vice Admiral Stockdale was unequivocal: while we need to confront the “brutal facts” of the marketplace, we also need to keep faith that we will prevail. To us, that boils down to avoiding conspicuous overvaluation (in most bond markets, for example, and a significant portion of the developed equity markets) and embracing equally conspicuous value – where poor sentiment is likely to intensify subsequent returns. In this uniquely oppressive financial environment, with the skies darkening with the prospect of a turn in the interest rate cycle, we think optimism could be fatal. Or as Warren Buffett once observed,
“You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.”
At the end of July global equity bull markets had a moment of doubt, falling three or four per cent. In the seven trading days up to 1st August the S&P500 fell 3.8%, and we are not out of the woods yet. At the same time the Russell 2000, an index of small-cap US companies fell an exceptional 9%, and more worryingly it looks like it has lost bullish momentum as shown in the chart below. This indicates a possible double-top formation in the making.
Meanwhile yield-spreads on junk bonds widened significantly, sending a signal that markets were reconsidering appropriate yields on risky bonds.
This is conventional analysis and the common backbone of most brokers’ reports. Put simply, investment is now all about the trend and little else. You never have to value anything properly any more: just measure confidence. This approach to investing resonates with post-Keynesian economics and government planning. The expectations of the crowd, or its animal spirits, are now there to be managed. No longer is there the seemingly irrational behaviour of unfettered markets dominated by independent thinkers. Forward guidance is just the latest manifestation of this policy. It represents the triumph of economic management over the markets.
Central banks have for a long time subscribed to management of expectations. Initially it was setting interest rates to accelerate the growth of money and credit. Investors and market traders soon learned that interest rate policy is the most important factor in pricing everything. Out of credit cycles technical analysis evolved, which sought to identify trends and turning points for investment purposes.
Today this control goes much further because of two precedents: in 2001-02 the Fed under Alan Greenspan’s chairmanship cut interest rates specifically to rescue the stock market out of its slump, and secondly the Fed’s rescue of the banking system in the wake of the Lehman crisis extended direct intervention into all financial markets.
Both of these actions succeeded in their objectives. Ubiquitous intervention continues to this day, and is copied elsewhere. It is no accident that Spanish bond yields for example are priced as if Spain’s sovereign debt is amongst the safest on the planet; and as if France’s bond yields reflect a credible plan to repay its debt.
We have known for years that through intervention central banks have managed to control the prices of currencies, precious metals and government bonds; but there is increasing evidence of direct buying of other financial assets, including equities. The means for continual price management are there: there are central banks, exchange stabilisation funds, sovereign wealth funds and government-controlled pension funds, which between them have limitless buying-power.
Doubtless there is a growing band of central bankers who believe that with this control they have finally discovered Keynes’s Holy Grail: the euthanasia of the rentier and his replacement by the state as the primary source of business capital. This being the case, last month’s dip in the markets will turn out to be just that, because intervention will simply continue and if necessary be ramped up.
But in the process, all market risk is being transferred from bonds, equities and all other financial assets into currencies themselves; and it is the outcome of their purchasing power that will prove to be the final judgement in the debate of markets versus economic planning.
“Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.
“Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations – all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”
Winston Churchill, ‘My Early Life’, quoted by Charles Lucas in a letter to the FT, 23rd July 2014.
And there is a war being conducted out there in the financial markets, too, a war between debtors and creditors, between governments and taxpayers, between banks and depositors, between the errors of the past and the hopes of the future. How can investors end up on the winning side ? History would seem to have the answers.
For history, read in particular James O’Shaughnessy’s magisterial study of market data, ‘What Works on Wall Street’ (hat-tip to Abbington Investment Group’s Peter Van Dessel). O’Shaughnessy offers rigorous analysis of innumerable equity market strategies, but we are instinctively and philosophically drawn most strongly towards the value factors highlighted hereafter.
The chart below shows the results accruing to various strategies across the All Stocks universe – all companies in the Standard & Poor’s Compustat database with market capitalisations above $150 million, a dataset which comprises between 4,000 and 5,000 individual companies. The analysis takes in over half a century’s worth of data.
Making the (fairly reasonable) assumption that the data in this study is sufficiently broad to mitigate the effects of shorter term market “noise”, the results are unequivocal. Buying stocks with high price-to-sales (PSR) ratios; buying stocks with high price / cashflow ratios; buying stocks with high price / book ratios; buying stocks with high price / earnings (PE) ratios; all of these are disastrous strategies relative to the performance of the broad index itself. Caution: these all happen to be ‘growth’ strategies.
Value of $10,000 invested in various strategies using the All Stocks universe, from January 1951 to December 2003
(Source: What Works on Wall Street by James P. O’Shaughnessy, Third Edition, McGraw-Hill 2005)
But the converse is also true – in spades. Buying stocks with low price-to-sales ratios; buying stocks with low price / book ratios; these are both outstandingly successful strategies over the longer term, converting that initial $10,000 into over $22 million in each case. Buying stocks on low price / cashflow ratios is also a winning strategy. The relatively simple ‘high yield’ and ‘low p/e’ strategies also comfortably outperform the broad market. Note that these are all ‘value’ strategies.
This leads O’Shaughnessy to question the legitimacy of the so-called Capital Asset Pricing Model, in which investors are compensated for taking more risk:
“..the higher risk of the high P/Es, price-to-book, price-to-cashflow, and PSRs went uncompensated. Indeed, each of the strategies significantly underperformed the All Stocks Universe.”
Perhaps the market is indeed less efficient than certain academics would have us believe. The world’s most successful investor, Warren Buffett, would seem to think so. As he was quoted in a 1995 issue of Fortune magazine,
“I’d be a bum on the street with a tin cup if the markets were always efficient.”
And note that careful addition of the word “always”. Buffett wasn’t even going so far as to suggest that the markets are never efficient, but rather that the patient investor can take advantage of Mr. Market’s occasional lapses into the realms of absurdity, whether in the form of bullishness or outright despair.
O’Shaughnessy frames the returns from these various ‘growth’ and ‘value’ strategies more explicitly in the chart below.
Compound average annual rates of return across various strategies for the 52 years ending in December 2003
(Source: What Works on Wall Street by James P. O’Shaughnessy, Third Edition, McGraw-Hill 2005)
Special pleaders on the part of ‘growth at any cost’ might argue that the time series is insufficient. But if 52 recent years – easily an investor’s lifetime – taking in at least two grinding bear markets are not enough, how much would be ?
Again, the conclusions are clear. Buying stocks on low price-to-sales ratios is a winner, tying with stocks on a low price-to-book ratio with an annualised return over the longer term of 15.95%. Low price-to-cashflow is also a stellar performer. Buying stocks with a high yield also beats the broad market, as does buying stocks with low price / earnings ratios. Again, these are all explicit ‘value’ strategies.
Since we appear to be living through something of a speculative bubble (a bubble inflated quite deliberately by explicit central bank action), it is worth recalling one prior instance of ‘growth’ outperforming. As O’Shaughnessy points out,
“Between January 1, 1997 and March 31, 2000, the 50 stocks from the All Stocks universe with the highest P/E ratios compounded at 46.69 percent per year, turning $10,000 into $34,735 in three years and three months. Other speculative names did equally as well, with the 50 stocks from All Stocks with the highest price-to-book ratios growing a $10,000 investment into $33,248, a compound return of 44.72 percent. All the highest valuation stocks trounced All Stocks over that brief period, leaving those focusing on the shorter term to think that maybe it really was different this time. But anyone familiar with past market bubbles knows that ultimately, the laws of economics reassert their grip on market activity. Investors back in 2000 would have done well to remember Horace’s Ars Poetica, in which he states: “Many shall be restored that are now fallen, and many shall fall that are now in honour.”
“For fall they did, and they fell hard. A near-sighted investor entering the market at its peak in March of 2000 would face true devastation. A $10,000 investment in the 50 stocks with the highest price-to-sales ratios from the All Stocks universe would have been worth a mere $526 at the end of March 2003..
“You must always consider risk before investing in strategies that buy stocks significantly different from the market. Remember that high risk does not always mean high reward. All the higher-risk strategies are eventually dashed on the rocks..”
This might seem to imply that there is safety simply in the avoidance of explicitly high-risk strategies, but we would go further. We would argue today that central bank bubble-blowing has made the entire market high-risk, with a broad consensus that with interest rates at 300-year lows and bonds hysterically overpriced and facing the prospect of interest rate rises to boot, stocks are now “the only game in town”. We concede that by a process of logic and elimination, selective stocks look way more attractive than most other traditional assets, but the emphasis has to be on that word “selective”. We see almost no attraction in stock markets per se, and we are interested solely in what might be called ‘special situations’ (notably, in ‘value’ and ‘deep value’ strategies) wherever they can be identified throughout the world. We note, in passing, that markets such as those of the US appear to be virtually bereft of such ‘value’ opportunities, whereas those in Asia and Japan seem to offer them in relative abundance. In this financial war, we would prefer to be on the side of the victors. If history is any guide, the identity of the losers seems to be self-evident.
It is common knowledge that Japan is in extreme financial difficulties, and that the currency is most likely to sink and sink. After all, Government debt to GDP is over 250%, and the rate of increase of retirees has exceeded the birth rate for some time. A combination of population demographics, escalating welfare costs, high government debt and the government’s inability in finding a solution to Japan’s ongoing crisis ensures for international speculators that going short of the yen is a no-brainer.
Almost without being noticed, the Japanese yen has already lost about 30% against the US dollar and nearly 40% against the euro over the last two years. The beneficiaries of this trend unsurprisingly are speculators borrowing yen at negligible interest rates to speculate in other markets, expecting to add the yen’s depreciation to their profits. Thank you Mr Abe for allowing us to borrow yen at 1.06 euro-cents two years ago to invest in Spanish 10-year government bonds at 7.5%. Today the bonds yield 2.65% and we can buy back yen at 0.72 euro-cents. Gearing up ten times on an original stake of $10,000,000 has made a clear profit of some $300,000,000 in just two years.
Shorting the yen has not been profitable this year so far, with the US dollar falling against the Japanese yen from 105.3 on December 31st to 101.5 at the half-year, an annualised loss of 7.2%. This gave a negative financing return on all bond carry trades, which in the case of Spanish government debt deal cited above resulted in annualised losses of over 5%, or 50% on a ten times geared position. The trader can either take the view it’s time the yen had another fall, or it’s time to cut the position.
These returns, though dependant on market timing, are by no means unique. Consequently nearly everyone in the hedge fund and investment banking communities has been playing this lucrative carry game at one time or another.
Not only has a weak yen been instrumental in lowering bond yields around the world, it has also been a vehicle for other purchases. On the sale or short side, another commonly agreed certainty has been the imminent collapse of the credit-driven Chinese economy, which will ensure metal prices continue to fall. In this case, gearing is normally obtained through derivatives.
However, things don’t seem to be going according to plan for many investment banks and hedge funds, which might presage a change of strategy. Copper, which started off as a profitable short by falling 12.5% to a low of $2.93 per pound, has recovered sharply this week to $3.26 in a sudden short-squeeze. Zinc is up 6.4% over the last six months, and aluminium up 6%. Gold is up 11%, and silver 8.5%. So anyone shorting a portfolio of metal futures is making significant losses, particularly when the position is highly geared.
It may be just coincidence, but stories about multiple rehypothecations of physical metal in China’s warehouses have emanated from sources involved with trading in these metals. These traders have had to take significant losses on the chin on a failed strategy, and may now be moving towards a more bullish stance, because China’s warehouse scandal has not played out as they expected.
So two certainties, the collapse of both the yen and of Chinese economic demand don’t seem to be happening, or at least not happening quickly enough. The pressure is building for a change of investment strategies which is likely to drive markets in new directions in the coming months.
The following text is from the notes I made of a talk that I gave to the “End of The World Club” at the Institute of Economic Affairs on 18 April 2014.
If there is one feature of human society that makes it successful, it is the capacity that human beings have of choosing to satisfy short-term appetites or to defer gratification. This ability to distinguish between short term and long term interests is at the heart of economics.
But why defer consumption? Why save at all?
One reason is the transmission of wealth from one generation to the next. Another is to ensure security in hard times.
A complaint of American academics about French savings in the 19th century is that they were too conservative. Easy for them to say.
The population of France grew more slowly than any other industrialising nation in the 19th century (0.2% per year from 1870 to 1913, compared with 1.1% for Germany and 0.9% for Great Britain). The figures would be even worse if emigration from the British Isles were added to the headcount.
This slower rate of population growth would tend to mean a slower rate of economic growth: smaller local markets, fewer opportunities for mass production. This was well known to be a problem in France. In fact Jean-Baptiste Say was sent to England in 1815 to study the growth of English cities such as Birmingham and its effect on the economy (here in French).
The causes of low investment must surely include political and social instability.
Here are the changes of regime in France during the 19th century:
1800-1804: The Consulate
1804-1814: The Empire
1814: The First Restoration
1814-1815: The Return of Napoleon
1815-1830: The Return of the Restoration
1830-1848: The British Experiment
1848-1851: The Second Republic
1851-1852: The military coup-d’état
1852-1859: The Empire Strikes Back
1860-1870: The Free Trade Experiment (supported by Richard Cobden)
1870-1871: Three sieges of Paris, two civil wars, one foreign occupation
1870-1879: The State Which Dare Not Speak Its Name (retrospectively declared to be a republic)
1879-1914: La Belle Epoque (including the anarchist bombings 1892-1894 and the Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906)
If instability discourages savings, it is remarkable how much there actually was.
Five billion francs in gold, raised by public subscription to pay for the German army of occupation to leave France after the Franco-Prussian War. The amount was supposed to be impossible to pay and designed to provide an excuse for a prolonged German occupation. It was paid in full in two years. 80% of the money (equivalent to over two and half times the national government’s total annual spending, was raised in one day).
What the modern academics decried was that these sorts of sums weren’t invested in industry or agricultural technology. In 1880, French private investments amounted to 7.3 billion Francs, but this was less than half of all investments (48%), versus 52% for government bonds.
You can’t pick up your factory machines and run away from the Uhlans, or the Communards.
Gold was one preferred wealth storage option. It still is in France.
Government bonds were generally considered a good deal: backed by the power of taxation, and, unlike gold, they earned interest.
One constant concern of French governments in the 19th century was the diplomatic isolation enforced by the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Various attempts were made to break this, some successful like the split of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1830, the Crimean War (co-operation with the British), others failed (Napoleon III’s Mexican adventure, the Franco-Prussian War).
By 1882, Germany looked like getting economic and military supremacy in Europe, with an Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. With the British playing neutral, the best bet was to build up Russia.
The first Russian bonds sold in France were in 1867 to finance a railroad. Others followed, notably in 1888. At this point the French government decided on a policy of alliance with Russia and the encouragement of French savers to invest in Russian infrastructure. From 1887 to 1913, 3.5% of the French Gross National Product is invested in Russia alone. This amounted to a quarter of all foreign investment by French private citizens. That’s a savings ratio (14% in external investment alone) we wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK today!
A massive media campaign promoting Russia as a future economic giant (a bit like China in recent years) was pushed by politicians. Meanwhile French banks found they could make enormous amounts of commission from Russian bonds: in this period, the Credit Lyonnais makes 30% of its profits from it’s commission for selling the bonds.
In 1897, the ruble is linked to gold. The French government guarantees its citizens against any default. The Paris Stock Exchange takes listings for, among others: Banque russo-asiatique, la Banque de commerce de Sibérie, les usines Stoll, les Wagons de Petrograd.
The first signs of trouble come in 1905, with the post-Russo-Japanese War revolution. A provisional government announced a default of foreign bonds, but this isn’t reported in the French mainstream media or the French banks that continue to sell (mis-sell?).
During the First World War, the French government issued zero interest bonds to cover the Russian government’s loan repayment, with an agreement to sort out the problem after the war. However, in December 1917, Lenin announced the repudiation of Tsarist debts.
The gold standard was abolished, allowing the debasement of the currency, private citizens were required to turn over their gold for government bonds.
Income tax was introduced (with a top rate of 2%) after the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife.
In 1923, a French parliamentary commission established that 9 billion Francs had effectively been stolen from French savers in the Russian bonds affair. Bribes had been paid to bankers and news outlets to promote the impression of massive economic growth in Russia. Many of the later bonds were merely issued to repay the interest on earlier debt.
For the next 70 years, protest groups attempted to obtain compensation, either from the Russian government or from the French government that had provided “guarantees”. You won’t be surprised to know that some banks managed to sell their bonds to private investors after 1917, having spread false rumours that the Soviets would honour the bonds.
Successive French governments found themselves caught between the requirements of “normal” relations with the USSR and the clamour of dispossessed savers and their relatives.
In November 1996, the post-Soviet Yelstin government agreed a deal to settle the Russian bonds for $400 million. The deal covered less than 10% of the families demanding compensation. Despite this, 316,000 people are thought to have received some compensation, suggesting that over 3 million families were affected by the Russian bonds scandal.
There are similarities with the present day but also significant differences.
First, the role of government guarantees and links with favoured banks, ensuring savers were complacent.
Second the manipulation of economic data by the Russian government, which looks a lot like what’s been happening in China.
Third the fragility of the situation: war can break out. All sorts of assumptions we can make about safe investments go out of the window.
One specifically French response to all this is something I would like to see an academic study of. What changes to consumption and savings would follow from growing up in a family where savings have been wiped out by government action (Russian or one’s own)? If three million people were directly involved, most French people would have known someone who had deferred consumption and been robbed. To what extent does the post-1945 explosion in mass consumption in France reflect a view that deferring consumption is foolish when savings can be stolen with the connivance or lack of concern of one’s own government?
Editor’s Note: This article was previously published in The Amphora Report, Vol 5, 09 May 2014.
“Capitalism is not chiefly an incentive system but an information system.” -George Gilder
“Don’t shoot the messenger” is an old aphorism taken primarily to mean that it is unjust to take out the frustrations of bad news on he who provides it. But there is another reason not to shoot the messenger: News, good or bad, is information, and in a complex economy information, in particular prices, has tremendous value. To suppress or distort the information industry by impeding the ability of messengers to do their jobs would severely damage the economy. As it happens, messengers in the price signals industry are normally referred to as ‘speculators’ and the importance of their economic role increases exponentially with complexity. So don’t shoot the speculator. Embrace them. And if you feel up to it, consider becoming one yourself. How? Read on.
IN ADMIRATION OF SPECULATION
Back in high school my sister had a boyfriend who was quite practical by nature and, by working odd jobs, saved up enough money for the down payment on a 4WD pickup truck before his 18th birthday. It was a powerful truck and as a result he was able to generate additional business doing landscaping and other work requiring off-road equipment transport.
His truck also had a winch, which was of particular use one night in 1982. A severe storm hit, flooding the primary commuting routes north of San Francisco. Hundreds of motorists got stranded in water on roads stretching all the way to the Sonoma County borders. The emergency services did their best but the gridlock severely curtailed their ability to reach many commuters, who ended up spending the night in the cars. Fortunately, it was not particularly cold, and the conditions, while unpleasant, were hardly life-threatening.
As word got round just how bad the situation was, among others, my sister’s boyfriend headed out in his truck and sought out stranded commuters to winch out of the water. Sure, he wanted to help. But he also had payments to make on his truck. And he needed money generally, not being from a wealthy family. So naturally he expected to get paid for his services. What he didn’t expect, at least not at first, was just how much he could get paid.
As he told the story the next day, at first he was charging $10 to winch a car to safety. But as it dawned on him just how much demand there was and how few motorists he could assist-attaching a winch to a car and pulling it to safety could take as long as 20mins-he began to raise his prices in response. $10 became $20. $20 became $50. By midnight, stranded drivers were willing to pay as much as $100 for his assistance (Marin County is a wealthy county so some drivers were not just willing but also able to pay this amount.)
I forget exactly, but I believe he earned nearly $3,000 that night, enough money to pay off the lease on the truck! He was thrilled, my sister was thrilled and my parents were duly impressed. Yet the next day the local papers contained stories disparaging of ‘price-gouging’ by those helping to rescue the stranded commuters, who also noted and complained about the lack of official emergency services.
This struck me as a bit odd. The way my sister’s boyfriend told the story, he thought he was providing a valuable service. At first he was charging very little but as people were obviously willing to pay more, he raised his prices in return. The price discovery went on into the wee hours and reached $100 in the end. Did he plan things that way? Of course he had no idea he would be in the right place, at the right time, to make nearly $3,000 and pay off the lease in one go. But to hear some of the stranded commuters talk as if he was a borderline criminal just didn’t fit.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but as I began the study of economics some years later and learned of the role that speculators play in a market-based economy, I recalled this episode as one that fit the definition rather well. Speculators provide essential price information. Yet their most important role, where they really provide economic value, is not when market conditions are simply ‘normal’-when supply and demand are in line with history-but rather when they help to determine prices for contingent or extreme events, such as capacity constraints. Without sufficient capacity for a rainy day-or a VERY rainy day such as that in 1982-consumers will find at critical times that they can’t get access to essential services at ANY price.
In that rare moment, when prices soar, it might be tempting to shoot the messenger-blame the speculator-but this is unfair. Sometimes they take big risks. Sometimes they take huge losses or reap huge rewards. But regardless, they provide essential price discovery signals that allow capacity to be built that otherwise might not exist.
Consider those who speculate in electricity prices as another example. Electricity demand naturally fluctuates. But electricity providers are normally contractually required to meet even unusually large surges in peak demand. Occasionally, due to weather or other factors, there are extreme spikes in demand and capacity approaches its limit. If there is a tradable market, the price then soars. At the limit of capacity, the last kw/hr goes to the highest bidder, much as at the end of an auction for a unique painting. Such is the process of price discovery.
Absent the unattractive option of inefficient and possibly corrupt central planning, how best to determine how much capacity should be made available? Who is going to finance the infrastructure? Who will assume the risks? Well, as long as there is a speculative market in the future price of electricity, the implied forward price curve provides a reference for determining whether or not it is economically attractive to add to available capacity or not, with capacity being an option, rather than the obligation, to produce power at a given price and point in time.
My sister’s boyfriend’s truck thus represented an undervalued ‘option’ with which to winch cars to safety. Under normal conditions this option had little perceived value. But on the occasion of the flood, it had tremendous value and the option was ‘exercised’ at great profit. Valuing the truck without speculating on the possibility of such a windfall would thus be incorrect. And failing to appreciate the essential role that speculators play in building and maintaining economic capacity generally, for all goods and services, can result in a temptation to shoot the messenger, rather than to get the message.(1)
HOW DO SPECULATORS SURVIVE?
If speculators are the ‘messengers’ of market economies, how are they compensated? Obviously, those who are consistently right generate trading profits. But what of those on the other side who are consistently wrong? How can speculators as a group, right and wrong, make money? And if they can’t, how can they exist at all? (Of course, if they are too big to fail, they can count on getting bailed out. But I’ve already flogged that dead horse in many a report.)
This was once one of the great mysteries of economics, but David Ricardo, Ludwig von Mises and others eventually figured it out. Speculators do more than just speculate, although from their perspective that is what they see. Speculators also provide liquidity for hedgers, that is, those who wish NOT to speculate. And they charge a small implied fee for doing so, in the form of a ‘risk premium’. This risk premium is what keeps them going through the inevitable ups and downs of markets. They assume risks others don’t want to take and are compensated for doing so. In practice, it is impossible to determine precisely what this implied fee is, although economists do have ways to approximate the ‘liquidity risk premium’ that exists in a market.
Hedgers can be those who have a natural exposure to the underlying economic good. Take wheat for example. A highly competent farmer running an efficient farm might want to concentrate full-time on his operations and leave the price risk of wheat to someone else. He can do so by selling his estimated production forward in the futures markets. On the other side, a baked goods business might prefer to focus on their operations too. In principle, the farmer and the baker could deal directly with one another, but this arrangement would give them little flexibility to dynamically adjust hedging positions as estimated wheat production or the demand for bread shifted, for example. With speculators sitting in the middle, the farmer and the baker needn’t waste valuable time seeking out the best counterparty and can easily hedge their risk dynamically. Yes, they will pay a small liquidity risk premium to the speculators by doing so, but advanced economies require a high degree of specialisation and thus the professional speculator is an essential component.
While it is nice to receive a small risk premium in exchange for providing essential price information and liquidity, what speculators most want is to be right. Sadly, pure speculation (ie between speculators themselves, not vis-à-vis hedgers) is a zero sum game. For every ‘right’ speculator there is a ‘wrong’ speculator. While there is an extensive literature regarding why some traders are more successful than others, I will offer a few thoughts.
THE UNWRITTEN ‘RULES’ OF SUCCESSFUL SPECULATION
There are several unwritten rules in speculation, and I would confirm these through my own experience. The first is that it is the rare trader who is right more than 60% of the time, so most successful traders are right within the narrow range of 51-60%. Then there is the second rule, that 20% of traders capture 80% of the available profits. Combining these two rules, what you have is that 20% of traders are correct 51-60% of the time: So 0.2 * 0.5 or 0.6 = 0.10 to 0.12 or 10-12% of all trades initiated are winning trades for winning traders. The remaining 88% are either losing trades or they are winning trades spread thinly amongst the less successful traders.
These numbers should make it clear that successful traders are largely just risk managers: Yes, they succeed in identifying the 10-12% of trades that really matter for profits but they are also wrong 40%+ of the time so they must know how to manage their losses as well as when to prudently take profits on the 10-12% of winning trades.
Internalising this negative skew in trading returns is an essential first step toward becoming a good trader. Just accept that something on the order of 50% of trades are going to go against you, possibly even more. Accept also that only 10-12% of your trades are going to drive your profits. Focus on finding these but keep equal focus on minimising exposure to the other 88-90% of trades that either don’t matter, or that could overwhelm the 10-12%.
At Amphora, we have an investment process that we believe is particularly good at identifying and isolating the most attractive trades in the commodities markets. Sure, we make mistakes, but our investment and risk management processes are designed to keep these mistakes to a minimum. Indeed, we miss out on many potentially winning trades because we are highly selective. So while speculation may have a cavalier reputation of bravado trading, day in and day out, the Amphora process is more patient; an opportunistic tortoise rather than a greedy, rushed hare.
CURRENT OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EQUITIES AND COMMODITIES MARKETS
In my last Report discussing the financial and commodities markets outlook, 2014: A YEAR OF INVESTING DANGEROUSLY, I took the view that the equity market correction (or crash) that I anticipated from spring 2013 was highly likely to occur in 2014, for a variety of reasons (2). While I did not anticipate that the Ukraine crisis would escalate as much as it did, as quickly as it did, thereby causing some concern, I did expect that corporate revenues and profits would increasingly disappoint, as they most certainly have done year to date. This is due in part to weaker-than-expected economic growth, with the drag from excessive inventory growth plainly visible in the Q1 US GDP data. But the news is in fact much worse than that, because labour productivity growth has gone sharply negative due to soaring costs. These costs may or may not be specifically associated with the ‘(Un?)Affordable Care Act’ depending on who you ask, but the fact that productivity has plunged is terrible news for business fixed investment, which is the single most important driver of economic growth over the long-term. While a recession may or may not be getting underway, the outlook is for poor growth regardless, far below what would be required to justify current corporate earnings expectations, as implied by P/Es, CAPEs and other standard valuation measures. For those who must hold an exposure to equities, my key recommendation from that previous Report holds:
[I]t is time to rotate into defensive, deep-value, income-generating shares. These could include, for example, infrastructure, consumer non-discretionary and well-capitalised mining shares, including gold miners. That may seem an odd combination, but it so happens that even well-capitalised miners are trading at distressed levels at present, offering unusually good value.
Turning to the commodities markets, I expressed a preference for ‘defensive’ commodities in the Report (Although I did recommend taking initial profits in coffee). Indeed, basic foodstuffs, in particular grains, have outperformed strongly of late, continuing their rise from the depressed levels reached last year. However, the large degree of such outperformance now warrants some rotation out of grains and into industrial metals, including copper, aluminium, iron and nickel. Yes, these are exposed to the business cycle, which does appear to be rolling over in the US, China, Japan, Australia and most of Asia, but the extreme speculative short positioning and relative cheapness of industrial metals at present makes them an attractive contrarian play.
Precious metals have not underperformed to the same degree and they are normally less volatile in any case, but given the nearly three-year bear market, attractive relative valuations and the potential for a surge in risk-aversion, I would add to precious metals. Silver in particular looks cheap, although gold is highly likely to be the better performer in a risk-off environment. My recommendation would be to favour gold until the equity markets suffer at least a 15-20% correction. At that point, incremental rotation into silver would be sensible, with a more aggressive response should equity markets suffer a substantial 30%+ decline.
Turning to the platinum group metals, palladium is unusually expensive due to Russian supply concerns. While this is entirely reasonable due to the Ukraine crisis, the fact is that near-substitute platinum is much cheaper. And the on-again, off-again strikes at the large platinum mines in South Africa could escalate in a heartbeat, providing ample justification for platinum prices to catch up to palladium. Alternatively, should the Ukraine crisis de-escalate meaningfully, palladium is highly exposed to a sharp downward correction, and I would recommend a strong underweight/short position at present.
(1) Perhaps one reason why many fail to appreciate the essential role that speculators play in a market economy is that mainstream, neo-Keynesian economics treats speculation as mere ‘animal spirits’, to borrow their classic depiction by Keynes himself.
(2) This report can be accessed here.
Editor’s note: The Cobden Centre is happy to republish this commentary by Alasdair Macleod, the original can be found here.
At the outset I should declare an interest. In the 1980s I was a member of the UK’s Society of Technical Analysis and for a while I was the society’s examiner and lecturer on Elliott Wave Theory. My proudest moment as a technician was calling the 1987 crash the night before it happened and a new bull market two months later in early December. Before anyone assumes I have a gift for technical analysis, I hasten to add I have also made many wrong calls using it, so to be so spectacularly right on that occasion was almost certainly down to a large element of luck. I should also mention that the most successful investors I have observed over 40 years are those who recognise value and disdain charts altogether.
Technical analysts assume past prices are a valid basis for predicting what investors will pay tomorrow. The Warren Buffetts of this world act differently: they care not what others think and use their own judgement of value. This means that value investors often buy when the trend is down and sell when the trend is up, the opposite of technically-driven decisions. A bear market ends when value investors overcome the trend.
Technical analysts go with the crowd and give any trend an added spin. This explains the preoccupation with moving averages, bands, oscillators and momentum. Speculators, who used to be independent thinkers, now depend heavily on technical analysis. This is not to deny that many technicians make a reasonable living: the key is to know when the trend ends, and the difficulty in that decision perhaps explains why technical analysts are not on anyone’s rich list.
Value investors like Buffett rely on an assessment of the income that an investment can generate, and the opportunity-cost of owning it. This may explain his well-known views on gold which for all but a small coterie of central and bullion banks does not generate any income. So where does gold, a sterile asset in Buffett’s eyes stand in all this?
Value investors in gold who buy on falling prices are predominately Asian. For Asians the value in gold comes from the continual debasement of national currencies, a factor rarely considered by western investors who measure investment returns in their home currency with no allowance for changes in purchasing power.
The financial system discourages a more realistic approach, not even according physical gold an investment status. Using technical analysis with the false comfort of stop-losses leads to more profits for market-makers. Furthermore, gold’s replacement as money by unstable national currencies makes economic and investment calculation for anything other than the shortest of timescales unreliable or even impossible. But then this point goes over the heads of the trend-followers as well as the fundamental question of value.
Technical analysis is a tool for idle investors unwilling or unable to understand true value. It dominates price formation in western markets and distorts investor behaviour by exaggerating any natural bias towards trends. It is this band-wagon effect that is the root of trend-following’s success, but also its ultimate weakness. A better strategy is to make the effort to value gold properly and then act accordingly.