Ten Broad Trends Affecting the Markets

by: David Merkel, CFA

There’s no order to this post, so enjoy my reflections on broader trends that are affecting the markets.

  1. Corn-based ethanol is costly, and a mistake for our government to subsidize it, when we could buy sugar-based ethanol from Brazil. I’m no environmentalist, but even I can see the advantages of eliminating sugar subsidies and quotas here in the US. The only people hurt are some rich farmers that bribe Washington to keep the subsidies. With a little encouragement from the US, Brazil could adopt more environmentally friendly harvesting techniques, while not kicking up costs that much. Such a deal, better economics, and better for the environment.
  2. Stories like this always make me skeptical. Remember cold fusion? Maye there is a real innovation here that produces more energy than it consumes on net. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
  3. Since the creation of the Earth, farming has been the dominant occupation of man, until now. More people are employed outside of farming, than inside it. This is not big news, except to confirm that what happened to the developed world 80 years ago is happening to the world as a whole now.
  4. ETFs are not open end mutual funds, where there is one price struck per day for liquidity. For small ETFs, the bid-ask spread can be quite wide on small funds. This shouldn’t be too surprising; the same is true of any small stock. If there is demand for an ETF concept, more units will get created as people bid for them, and the bid-ask spread will narrow.
  5. Rationality in markets is misunderstood. You can bring bright people to manage money, and they will still in aggregate become prey to the speculative aspects of the markets. Some will resist it, but most won’t. It is not a question of intelligence, but of discipline.
  6. Give Hersh Shefrin some credit. I think that behavioral finance is a much richer explanation of the markets than modern portfolio theory. MPT exists because it is easily mathematically tractable, which allow professors to publish, and not because it is a correct description of reality.
  7. It’s tough to be an orphan company. Much as I like investing in companies that have no analyst coverage, if they are cheap enough, when a company loses analyst coverage, the stock price typically declines, and often, the company disappears within a few years. Perhaps the lack of analyst coverage is a proxy for the demand for a company to be public, rather than private.
  8. Here’s a good article on why the market crashed in October of 1987. My quick summary for why it happened was that bonds were more attractive relative to stocks, and dynamic hedging left the market unstable, as many player were willing to sell on big down days.
  9. Will junk defaults triple from 2007 to 2008? Seems reasonable to me; given all of the CCC and single-B issuance over the last few years, the companies that have recently issued bonds seem weak to me.
  10. Can Thompson-Reuters give Bloomberg a run for its money? My guess would be no. Bloomberg is a much richer system, and for those that need that level of complexity, that is where you can get it with great ease.

Enough for now. More to come later.