20 Observations On This Market

Includes: PCH, PCL, RYN
by: David Merkel, CFA

When the market gets wonky, I write more about current events. I prefer to write about longer-dated topics, because the posts will have validity for a longer time, and I think there is more money to be made off of the longer trends.

  1. August wasn’t all that bad of a month… so why were investors squealing? The volatility, I guess… since people hurt three times as much from losses as they feel good from gains, I suppose market-neutral high volatility will always leave people with perceived pain.
  2. Need a reason for optimism? Look at the insiders. They see more value at current levels.
  3. Need another good investor to follow? Consider Jean-Marie Eveillard. I’ve only met him once, and I can tell you that if you get the chance to hear him speak, jump at it. He is practically wise at a high level. It is a pity that Bill Miller wasn’t there that day; he could have learned a few things. Value investing involves a margin of safety; ignoring that is a recipe for underperformance.
  4. Call me a skeptic on 10-year P/E ratios. I think it’s more effective to look at a weighted average of past earnings, giving more weight to current earnings, and declining weights as one goes further into the past. It only makes sense; older data deserves lower weights, because business is constantly changing, and older data is less informative about future profitability, usually.
  5. I found these two posts on the VIX uncompelling. Simple comparisons of the VIX versus the market often lead to cloudy conclusions. I prefer what I wrote on the topic last month. When the S&P 500 is below the trendline, and the VIX is relatively high, it is usually a good time to buy stocks.
  6. What does a pension manager want? He wants returns that allow him to beat the actuarial funding target over the lifetime of the pension liabilities. If long-term high quality bonds allowed him to do that, then he would buy them. Unfortunately, the yield is too low, so the concept of absolute return strategies becomes attractive. Well, after the upset of the past six weeks, that ardor is diminished. As I have said before, to the extent that hedge funds seek stable, above average returns, they engage in yield-seeking behavior which prospers as credit spreads and implied volatilities fall, and fail when they rise. Eventually pension managers will realize that hedge fund returns cannot provide returns over the full length of the pension liability, in the same way that you can’t invest more than a certain amount of the pension assets in junk bonds.
  7. Is productivity growth slowing? Probably. What may deserve more notice, is that we have larger cohorts entering the workforce for maybe the next ten years, and larger cohorts exiting as well, which will decrease overall productivity. Younger workers are less productive, middle-aged most productive, and older-aged in-between. With the Baby Boomers graying, productivity should fall in aggregate.
  8. This is just a good post on sector data from VIX and More. It’s worth looking at the websites listed.
  9. Economic weakness in the US doesn’t make oil prices fall? Perhaps it is because the US is important to the global economy, but not as important as it used to be. It’s not hard to see why: China and India are growing. Trade is growing outside of the US at a rapid pace. The US consumer is no longer the global consumer of last resort. Now we get to find out where the real resource shortages are, if the whole world is capitalist in one form or another.
  10. Calendar anomalies might be due to greater macroeconomic news flow? Neat idea, and it seems to fit with when we get the most negative data.
  11. Is investing a form of gambling? I get asked that question a lot, and my answer is in aggregate no, because the economy is a positive-sum game, but some investors do gamble as they invest, while others treat it like a business. Much depends on the attitude of the investor in question, including the time horizon and return goals that they have.
  12. Massachusetts vs. the laws of economics. Beyond the difficulty of what to do with expensive cohorts in a public insurance system, I’ve heard that they are having difficulties that will make the system untenable in the long run… most of which boil down to antiselection, and inability to fight the force of aging Baby Boomers.
  13. Rationality is one of those shibboleths that economists can’t abandon, or their mathematical models can’t be calculated. Bubbles are irrational, therefore they can’t happen. Welcome to the real world, gentlemen. People are limitedly rational, and often base their view of what is a good idea, off of what their neighbor thinks is a good idea, because it is a lot of work to think independently. Because it is a lot of work, people conserve on hard thinking, since it is a negative good. They maximize utility where utility includes not thinking too hard. Any surprise why we end up with bubbles? Groupthink is a lot easier than thinking for yourself, particularly when the crowd seems to be right.
  14. Is China like the US with 120 years of delay? No, China has access to better technology. No, China does not have the same sense of liberty and degree of tolerance of difference. Its culture is far more uniform from an ethnic point of view. It also does not have the same degree of unused resources as the US did in the 1880s. Their government is in principal totalitarian, and allows little true freedom of religious expression, which is critical to a healthy economy, because people work for more than money/goods, but to express themselves and their ideals.
  15. As I have stated before, prices are rising in China, and that is a big threat to global stability. China can’t continue to keep selling goods without receive goods back that their workers can buy.
  16. The US needs more skilled immigrants. Firms will keep looking for clever ways to get them into the US, if the functions can’t be outsourced abroad.
  17. It’s my view that dictators like Chavez possess less power than commonly imagined. They spend excess resources on their pet projects, while denying aid to the people whom they claim to rule for their benefit. With inflation running hard, hard currencies like the dollar in high demand, and the corruption of his cronies, I can’t imagine that Chavez will be around ten years from now.
  18. Makes me want to buy Plum Creek, Potlach, or Rayonier. The pine beetle is eating its fill of Canadian pines, and then some, with difficult intermediate-term implications. More wood will come onto the market in the short run, depressing prices, but in the intermediate term, less wood will come to market. Watch the prices, and buy when the price of lumber is cheap, and prices of timber REITs depressed.
  19. Pax Romana. Pax Americana. One went decadent and broke, the other is well on its way. I love my country, but our policies are not good for us, or the world as a whole. We intrude in areas of the world that are not our own, and neglect the proper fiscal and moral management of our own country.
  20. Finally, it makes sense for economic commentators to make bold predictions, because there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Sad, but true, particularly when the audience has a short attention span. So where does that leave me? Puzzled, because I enjoy writing, but hate leading people the wrong way. I want to stay “low hype” even if it means fewer people read me. At least those who read me will be better informed, even if it means that the correct view of the world is ambiguous.