At the end of February I was about to suggest that both the high and low for the year 2018 were in place. If either price was violated it would be troublesome.
After the first nine days in March I am getting much more concerned about a breakout above the January highs.
Why are higher prices dangerous?
Perhaps I am jumping to the wrong conclusions, but for many the 400 point rise of the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Friday can be chalked up to volatility, but others may see it as a successful test of the February lows. (I would have preferred a lower test with more volume of trading and statements of discouragements.)
But the realist needs to accept reality, not wait for the perfect. There is a good chance that others will see it as a successful test, encouraging buyers with significant power to return and drive the next upward move.
Using the very volatile sample by the AAII, 45.2% of their surveyed members are now neutral, which is higher than both their bullish and bearish members.
This is a rapid change from just three weeks ago where the neutral tally was 32.6%. In the recent week the top 25 performing mutual funds had gains between +7.77% and +6.07%. All but one of these were growth oriented and or specifically science & tech oriented.
Thomson Reuters tallies analysts’ earnings estimates and in their latest report the analysts expect the S&P600 Small Caps to have earnings growth for this year of +24.1% compared with +19.45% for the S&P 500 and +37.67% for the Russell 2000.
Both the fund performance leaders and earnings estimates are based on a belief that the future is going to be good, led by positive future developments in terms of technology, politics, and economics. (Perhaps they will be correct.)
After nine years of rising markets, I have been on the lookout for signs of an inevitable market decline. In terms of magnitude of decline a normal cyclical decline is in the range of 25%.
These happen normally once within a decade. Not too many people are psychologically wiped out in these declines and usually return to the stock market within a few years after the decline.
A much more serious fall, that is often labeled a collapse, happens infrequently, normally once a generation and is generally in the range of 50% from the peak and has investors leaving the marketplace never to return.
This type of fall is in the passing on their distrust of the market to the next generation. The individual and societal losses from these collapses are relatively small compared to the forgone profits from the recoveries, which impacts the rest of their lives and often also the next generation’s.
As both a fiduciary and an investor I would like to avoid these results. I attempt to do this with an eye on a number of different market histories.
The major traumatic collapses start with apparently successful investing, that not only turns a small amount of money into a larger amount of money but inflates the investor’s belief in their own investment skills.
Often this confidence leads to the use of borrowed money in the forms of margin or derivatives. A speculative fever takes over the crowd, while they recognize there is some risk their confidence is such that they can get out without large losses.
The driver of these “animal instincts” is based on an unshakeable view of the future. These speculative markets are driven by sentiment, not researched fundamental investing.
This is why I am paying more attention to measures of sentiment, along with attention to internal financial calculations. One of the fuels of a major top is the sucking into the market of all or most of the available cash.
Assuming the US and perhaps other markets pierce their former highs, the various pundits, including non-professionals, will proclaim that those not participating are stupid.
They have never studied handicapping at the racetrack where in each race there is likely to be at least one horse with a good, very current record receiving a disproportionate amount of the betting money.
This is the favorite of the crowd, no different than the current market where leading funds are heavily invested in a select group of multinational tech companies. At the track, while the favorites do win at short odds, they don’t win enough money to cover the losing bets the majority of the time.
I am concerned that over the next year or so too many investors, including those institutions that are de-risking, will get sucked into the market.
My fear is not for them alone after their disappointment of losses from the next peak, but for the opportunity losses in a future recovery. Unfortunately in our society these are the losses that are socialized for the rest of us to pay.
What are the signs to watch?
Currently, the most visible largely speculative source of flows into and out of the market are the Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). Much of the current activity in these securities is by traders, often at hedge funds, who are using ETFs rather than more expensive derivatives.
In the last week, while the larger mutual fund industry had a small net inflow due to net purchases of non-domestic funds ($2 billion), ETFs had a net outflow of $12.6 billion with $10.3 billion in one ETF invested in the S&P 500. This is a sign of a trading market that has lots of speculation occurring.
The second item to watch for soon is mutual fund advertisements heralding their ten-year performance results, which had been trailing more current periods. It is easy to look good from a bottom in March of 2009.
These market efforts could bring a lot of unsophisticated money into the stock market, which will entice the so called sophisticated players to trade the market on the way up convinced that they can get out in time.
What can a wise investor do?
In an over simplification, portfolio strategies can be divided into two buckets: Capital Preservation and Capital Appreciation.
For some of our clients, particularly those who have worked hard for their money, their primary concern is capital preservation. This is particularly difficult today if one is concerned about after inflation and after tax earnings.
Around the world, governments in theory are sponsoring inflation as a way to create jobs, by ballooning the income of businesses and individuals.
What they are actually doing but not discussing is lowering the purchasing power of the loans that they are repaying. This is a continuation of a trend, as governments since their beginnings have debased their currency as a way to payback less value than what they received.
To the capital owner and the individual, inflation is another form of taxation. In the current environment income taxes are not the only source of pain.
Because of the recent changes in the US tax code, I believe we will see an aggregate increase in fees, tariffs, sales and use taxes, as well as various forms of value added taxes.
If the job of capital preservation is to maintain the purchasing power of capital, it must earn more than inflation, all taxes, and other distributions.
I suggest that in the current market, high quality bonds can’t produce the necessary income. (That is why in our TIMESPAN L Portfolios® we should only have fixed income in the Operational Portfolio.)
At this juncture, until we see much higher real interest rates, the best suggestion is high quality stocks whose yields are in the range of the ten year treasury and have a history of periodically raising dividends roughly in line with inflation.
One would like to find dividend payout ratios below 50% of earnings, if possible. In truth that is going to be difficult to do with appropriate diversification.
As a practical matter many accounts are going to have to dip into the capital appreciation bucket. In selecting funds or stocks I would array them based on a guess of how many years into the future the particular issuer will pay a dividend that would qualify for inclusion in the capital preservation bucket.
In some cases this may be in only a few years. In others, like with Berkshire Hathaway* and Amazon, the indefinite future may be too short.
In these cases the willingness to periodically sell off some of the appreciation to fund the preservation bucket could allow the position to be in the portfolio.
*Owned in both a financial sector fund and personal accounts that I manage
Questions of the week: What portions of your portfolio do you consider Capital Preservation and Capital Appreciation? Do you expect to change these based on market cycles?
Michael Lipper is a former president of the New York Society for Security Analysts and he was president of Lipper Analytical Services Inc. the home of the global array of Lipper indexes, averages and performance analyses for mutual funds. His blog can be found here.