Attorneys in court often arrange “the facts” to support a conclusion. Economists and Professors of Finance suffer from “physics envy” of immutable laws.
Politicians and pundits speak in sound bites. Investors, like other good judges, look at all of the information found in hard and soft data.
Most importantly, investors should avoid accepting any proposition on the face of what is presented. Wise investors have learned to probe for a more complete understanding of what is on offer.
Is risk a number?
Pity the poor professor introducing investments to a class. He or she finds it easy to introduce the concept of gains. It is essentially one of addition or in some cases multiplication. The problem is to introduce the concept of losing which is similar to subtraction.
The real issue is to come up with a way to measure potential rewards vs. potential losses to get to a conclusion as to the risk of an investment. In the search for a mathematical answer rather than a deeper understanding of the different kinds of risks facing different investors, academia came up with the movements of US Treasury bond prices.
They measure the price pattern of the desired investment versus the volatility of Treasury prices. Thus, the idea of a “risk-less” rate of return was born. Investment sales forces deducted this so-called risk-less rate from the actual performance of a stock (and more frequently a fund or other portfolio) to create a comparison of favored investments, adjusting for risk.
While it is true that often the movement of treasury prices captures a reasonable amount of the general volatility in the stock market, for investors risk is the penalty for being wrong that causes changes in spending plans. It is these risks that cause pain to investors and their beneficiaries plus create “career risk” for hired professionals.
The use of Treasury prices presumes that there is no fundamental changes in the future of the Treasury market. Because of the changing market structure I believe that there will be periodic changes in the Treasury markets. In this weekend’s Financial Times John Authers has a column that is headed “Liquidity looms as the real challenge facing new Fed Chair Powell.”
While he doesn’t spell out the problem, it is clear in the future he is properly worried that the various central banks led by the Federal Reserve will be cutting off credit through the banks to the fixed income market.
While the Dodd-Frank Act curtailed the commercial banks and large investment banks in their market-making efforts in securities, it did not really address the banks’ extension of credit to the few remaining market-makers.
These credits are much larger than the banks’ own securities positions. There is already a shortage of repurchase agreements or repos at present.
One sign of structural disequilibrium is that for ten year government bonds, the US is paying 100 basis points more than the UK pays for its bonds and 200 basis points more than the German bonds. This suggests that the US paper is worth more.
Why? I believe the reason is that it is the best collateral for loans that support borrowings for the purchase of derivatives and currencies which can be extremely volatile. Since most loans are immediately callable, there is the sort of risk that started the problems that led to the 1987 and Lehman crises.
Thus the ownership of a 4% yielding common stock or fund with a payout ratio of 40% or less and a price/earnings growth rate in the single digits versus a holding in US treasuries may be more dangerous in terms of risk to the investor and career risk to the professional. But these are unconventional thoughts.
Investors rejecting equity mutual funds
The constant drumbeat that retail investors are deserting mutual funds in favor of ETFs needs much deeper analysis than the pundits are giving it.
For a number of months industry headlines have been screaming about the net redemptions of equity funds and this week is no different. Except they are missing the motivation behind the redemptions and its significance.
The largest amount of redemptions is coming out of the Large Cap Growth funds. I do not believe that it is performance-related. On a year to date basis through November 2nd, my former firm, Lipper Inc., reports that Large Cap Growth funds, on average, have gained 26.03%.
No other non-leveraged, General Equity fund category has done as well this year or even in the last five years. The only other domestic funds that have done better are the Science & Tech funds. Some International funds have done better in part due to foreign exchange considerations.
Why are there so many redemptions? There are three answers. The first is simple, the second is structural and the third has to do with the changes in the brokerage market.
The simple answer is that the Large Cap Growth funds have more assets than any other investment objective. Thus, logically over time it will have more redemptions.
The structural answer is that investors put money into funds to meet future needs. The very day that someone invests in a fund, a future redemption is set up in the indefinite future. Because of the way many estates are settled, usually liquid investments are sold to distribute as much cash as quickly as possible so funds are not often directly inherited.
The third cause of redemptions relates to the fact that a large portion of investors in mutual funds was sold by commissioned-paid brokers. At the time of many of these transactions the commissions of mutual fund sales were among the highest rewards to the sales force.
Currently many of these salespeople have morphed either into registered investment advisors or have changed firms for understandable reasons.
In their new shops they are no longer motivated by commission sales but by investment advisory fees. As their books of business mature, there is little attempt to replace stock mutual funds in their aging accounts.
These investors are converting their investments into either fixed income funds (whose sales are booming in spite of the likelihood of higher interest rates/lower bond prices), or into Exchange Traded Funds. In the latter case the investment adviser will charge an annual fee that within a few years will more than compensate for the loss of mutual funds sales commissions.
Hints for the future
At some point before the current market suffers a major decline, there will be a more general recognition as to the risks in the fixed income market with higher yields driving fixed income prices down. The credit cycle in high quality paper will contract.
It is likely that we may be surprised by the levels of domestic and international bankruptcies which won’t be isolated events. On the equity side grudgingly we are seeing enthusiasm growing. In the last two weeks sentiment has become more bullish as measured by the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII).
It will have to be sustained for a considerable period of time to fulfill a bear market indicator. In addition to Large Cap Growth funds and stocks doing well, industrial metals commodity prices are also ahead, showing a year to date gain of 25.11%. One of my senior analyst friends describes his current portfolio as a 1950s one.
As many of the relatively newly minted investment advisors don’t have the historic perspective for the type of market we appear to be entering, they will disappoint some of their customers leading to a positive surge in equity mutual fund sales.
As an owner of a number of domestic and international mutual fund management company stocks both in my private financial services fund and personally, I hope so.
Question of the week: for your own account how are you defining risk?
Michael Lipper is a former president of the New York Society for Security Analysts, 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.