Tag: portfolio

A look at the 10-2 Year Spread: The yield curve is flat and there is fear of inversion… How should we allocate our fixed income portfolios to profit? $TLT $SPY

I was taken aback today when I saw that 3-month LIBOR is now sitting at 2.6%. As a reminder, LIBOR is the rate that other banks will lend funds to each other on a short-term basis. It is often used a benchmark interest rate for other loans, for example corporate loans will typically be set at LIBOR + some spread. For a long time coming out of the crisis, LIBOR didn’t matter that much for these loans since there was a floor set at 1%. As such, and L+200 loan would be 1% (the floor) plus 2.0%, to equal 3% yield. Now however, that loan would yield 4.6% due to move up in LIBOR. It has moved up as the Fed has raised short-term rates which in turn impacts other rates of similar maturities.

If we look at the 10 yr rate today however, obviously a much longer-term bond/rate than 3-month LIBOR, we can see the yield is still just ~3.2%. What this tells us right off the back is that the spread between long-term bonds and short-term bonds is very narrow. Said another way, the term structure of interest rates, or the “yield curve” must be very flat.

In a healthy market, the yield curve will typically slope upwards and to the right as investors demand higher rates of interest for longer-term investments.

Yield 1

However, when the yield curve flattens people often wonder whether this will extend to an “inverted yield curve”, when short-term rates actually will exceed long-term rates. This is often viewed as a harbinger of a recession. The reason it’s a recession predictor is that every recession since 1970 has been preceded by an inverted curve. In addition, a rise in short-term rates pulls back on the capital available on the “fringes” of the economy (e.g. entrepreneurs). At the same time, expected deflationary pressures in the long-term may push long-term rates down. The combination of these factors results in an inverted yield curve and is easy to see why this would indicate a looming recession. (Note, though, this is a small sample size of predictors and there is no perfect predictor out there!)

Ray Dalio wrote in “Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises” that,

“Typically, in the early stages of the top, the rise in short rates narrows or eliminates the spread with long rates, lessening the incentive to lend relative to the incentive to hold cash. As a result of the yield curve being flat or inverted… people are incentivized to move to cash just before the bubble pops, slowing credit growth…”

Yield 2
Inverted yield curve
10-2 spread and recessions
10-2 spread vs. recessions

A look at prior 10-2 year spreads:

I decided to look at other instances when the spread between the 10 and 2 year were this tight and what the right investment decision at the time would be. Below are four different instances when the spread between the 10 year and 2 year yield were as tight as it is now and what unfolded few years or months. Note, I start each the 10 and the 2 year yield at 100 and mark the change in yield over time (since price data isn’t available) which is charted on the left-hand side. The right-hand side and in gray is the spread between these two rates (the “10-2 spread”), essentially showing the data another way.

10-2 410-2 310-2 210-2 1

What may or may not be surprising is that in most cases, the yield on the 2 year tightens more than the 10 year by a dramatic amount in percentage terms. Why that may not be surprising is that the Fed uses short-term interest rates to dictate monetary policy and historically, that has had a less pronounced impact on long-term rates.

Since yields move in an inverse relationship to prices, this points to price appreciation for bonds in each of the cases.

This may not be a great predictor since you can imagine the spread widening as long-term rates gap wide and short-term rates move less, such as a long-term change in the inflation assumptions. However, given demographics and a technology changes resulting in long-term deflationary pressures, this currently seems unlikely to be the case to me.


Should we be adding long-term bonds or short-term bonds to our exposures:

Does it make sense to buy short term bonds today, which are yielding ~2.98% or the 10 year, which is yield 3.24%? At first, I would clearly say buying a 2 year bond makes a lot of sense. However, we must remember that interest rate risk cuts both ways.

Let’s run through some scenarios by comparing the purchase of a 2 year bond and re-investing the proceeds after 2 years into another 2 year bond. We will compare this to holding a 10 year bond for a total of 4 years.

First, I’ll go through what I personally think is most likely to happen. We undoubtedly are later in the business cycle and when we inevitably enter a recession, I think the fed will once again lower short-term rates to help the economy with a softer landing and to spur investment. I have written a bunch of posts on why I think lower for longer is here to stay, even though that is not a popular opinion (mentioned here and here and here).

As such, I show the 2 year rate moving to ~1.80% and the 10 year moving to 2.92%. I base these numbers off of the typical tightening we saw in prior cycle in the charts above. E.g. the 2 year yield comes in by about 40% and the 10 year much less (I assume about 10%, which is not as much as it has, but am being conservative). The result may surprise you.

The 2 year actually under-performs the initial coupon rate on an IRR basis given you must re-invest in a lower yielding security at maturity. On the flip side, the 10 year appreciates in value as rates move lower and you can sell it for a nice profit, for an IRR above the initial coupon rate.

Rates go down.PNG

 

 

 

 

I know what some of you are already thinking… OK that is great, but I think rates are going up, not down! Well for that scenario, we could look back to 1994 when the Fed abruptly raised rates.

10-2 5

I didn’t show this one before given the spread between the 10-2 was high and tightened over time (opposite than today). Recall in 1994, there was a great “Bond Massacre”, as Alan Greenspan who was the Fed Chair at the time, decided to let air out of the system to prevent an overheating of the economy (that really only had been out of a recession for a couple years).

Let’s look at the numbers if that were to occur. I assume the 2-yr rate moves higher to 4.47%, nearly 150bps higher than today and also 1.5x the current level and assume that the 10 year has a 80bps spread to the 2 year, which implies a 5.27% yield.

In this case, it is obviously advantageous to invest in the two year bond and roll over into a higher yielding bond for the next two years. However, it is also interesting to see that you don’t witness a negative IRR on the 10 year bond (and obviously if held to maturity, you still capture the 3.2% that you locked in a purchase).

Rates go up

To back this up, I used portfolio visualizer to show the results of either buying $10k of  10 year treasuries (Portfolio 1) or $10k of short-term securities in 1993 (Portfolio 2) and holding through 1995.  The 10 year dips below on performance for a bit, and then returns to outperforming.

10yr vs ST

Rates moving like this is an unlikely scenario for me to bank on for a few reasons. One, it is hard for me to see an abrupt change in the long-term inflation assumption, which will cap long term rates. For example, if the “real yield” i.e. the yield in excess of long-term inflation is 1.7% today (3.2% less 1.5% inflation assumption) then the inflation figure would have to move up to ~3.6% for the 10 year to be priced at 5.3%, keeping the real yield figure flat. Second, it would then be tough to see how a sharp rise in short-term rates doesn’t cause a significant tightening on the economy.


Bottom line: I hope this is helpful analysis for those making long-term asset allocation decision. For me, interest rates could likely move up further, but it doesn’t mean that we should be significantly underweight long-term, high quality securities at this point in the cycle. Especially when it appears to be contrarian to do so…

Growth vs. Value… Why not both?

I’ll admit it. When someone asks me what type of investor I am, I always say value investor. But is that accurate? What really is the difference between the two?

On one hand, traditional value investors would describe themselves as ones who buy statistically cheap stocks. The companies they buy may be down and out, but there is still a solid business supported by earnings / cash flows that you can nab for cheap. If sentiment improves or results come in better than feared, that’s all gravy.

On the flip side, I think growth investors are often relegated to universe of momentum investors. They are viewed as ones searching quickly growing companies and often ignore what the earnings of the business are.

But is this description correct or warranted? I often think of growth and value investors as one in the same. Value investors are searching for companies that they think can be a low hurdle that investors are ascribing to the business. Growth investors are searching for assets that they think will beat a high hurdle.

In fact, I’ve come to learn over the years that growth can pay for a lot of sins. As Charlie Munger once said,

“Over the long term, it’s hard for a stock to earn a much better return than the business which underlies it earns. If the business earns 6% on capital over 40 years and you hold it for that 40 years, you’re not going to make much different than a 6% return – even if you originally buy it at a huge discount. Conversely, if a business earns 18% on capital over 20 or 30 years, even if you pay an expensive-looking price, you’ll end up with a fine result.”

Facebook’s recent decline in which it lost more than any other company in a single day is an example of this. At the end of the day, yes. Facebook has had some privacy issues among other things, but it is still a solid platform. They also own Instagram (which I spend way too much time on) and Whatsapp. Indeed, even after the disappointing earnings call that led to the drop, analysts still expect sales to grow 25% over 2018’s level and 21% in 2020. EBITDA is expected to grow at a 20% CAGR as well (slower than sales due to the company’s margin comments).


Let’s examine what can happen when you buy an asset that is growing at this level. Note, this is not Facebook’s results, but an example of how growth can pay for “high-multiple” transgressions. Facebook currently has ~60% EBITDA margins, so allow me to use something more along the lines of Google and Apple at high 30s range (which is still incredible, though capex will also be high).

Let’s say you buy a business similar to this for 20x EBITDA (for context, FB trades for 14.3x est. EBITDA for this year).

Hypothetic buy

Again, these are all made-up numbers, but lets assume strong growth rates for the next few years that starts to level off over time. The business maintains high incremental margins (but offset by capex reinvested in the business). I assume little debt needed as these businesses such as Google, Apple, and Facebook don’t actually consume much cash (which is why their cash balances balloon).

Hypothetic buy 2

As you can see, the end result is still extremely attractive. I cut the multiple to 8x EBITDA which is well below where it started at 20x. The important factor still, as I have written before, is that the business has a competitive moat so that it can reach these targets. If they can, tech companies in particular are attractive since a company like Facebook or Google have tremendous platforms and additional customers or users cost next to nothing for them to serve.

On the flip side, if you’re buying a fashion retailer (something that is subject to fads), or a technology that is good today but could be disrupted tomorrow, then this is less attractive because it could be here and grow well in year 1, but destroyed in year 2 (perhaps a Snapchat IPOing vs. Instagram stories…).

Why do “sin” stocks outperform?

Do you know what the best stock of all time is? You may be surprised to hear its a business in a secularly declining industry.

It’s Altria – the tobacco company that owns Philip Morris. Take a look at the returns on that one!

Altria

Altria isn’t the only “sin” stock that’s performed well. Sin stocks are stocks of companies that benefit from human vices, such as alcohol, fire arms, gambling, and tobacco. As shown below, I picked a few of these sin stocks and plotted them against the S&P500 over the past 10 years. Those stocks are:

  • Altria – Tobacco
  • RCI – Strip Clubs
  • Anheauser-Busch – Alcohol
  • Diageo – Alcohol
  • Wynn Resorts – Casinos
  • Las Vegas Sands – Casino

SIN Stocks Returns

Note, the chart above is total return so it includes dividends, which I think is important given sin stocks typically have high payouts.

So what gives? I know plenty of people who have invested in the next social benefit (such as solar or water infrastructure) and lost money. One theory of why socially-beneficially stocks under perform is that they try to do good, but do not do it well.

But in my opinion, and what has been discussed elsewhere, the reason why sins stocks outperform comes down to 4 factors:

  • operate in monopolistic  or oligopilistic markets
    • Consider cigarette companies which were told they could no longer advertise via new regulation. That essentially eliminated their marketing teams, increasing earnings and cash flow, but also eliminated any new entrants into their space (i.e. if you can’t advertise, you can’t enter)
  • managers may overlook them or underweight them
    • One theory that is that fund managers underweight sin stocks or simply avoid them in order to please their shareholders or their own ethics. In essence, by all the socially responsible funds avoiding these stocks, they make them cheaper at the same time.
  • they also happen to be “bond proxy” stocks
    • As interest rates fell from all time highs in the 70s & 80s to essentially zero following the Great Recession, stocks that are “bond proxies” performed demonstrably well. These sectors include utilities and consumer staples.  Sin stocks (outside of casinos) are also very stable businesses and have nearly inelastic demand. As such, as investors were pushed out of bonds and into stocks, these stable businesses with high dividends were solid opportunities.
  • there may be an embedded risk premium
    • Similar to the “avoiding” bullet above, financial theory would tell us that the because there are lots of funds out there that actively avoid these stocks, that should drive the cost of capital up for sin stocks (and drive it down for non-sin stocks). As a result, investors expect a higher return given the elevated risk premium.

To be clear, I am not advocating that you invest in these companies, but I find it fascinating and not something that one would necessarily expect. I also am always trying to understand any biases I may have that prevents me from generating the best returns I can.

-DD

Closed End Fund trading at a discount + offering 10.25% yield + upside from cyclical recovery

I think closed end funds are fascinating and I plan on writing a few posts about them. Unlike an open-ended mutual fund, closed end funds (CEFs) have a fixed number of shares and trade on exchanges much likes stocks. They can also use leverage to amplify their returns. Due to the fixed number of shares and actual IPO’ing of the fund, the asset base is “fixed” which can be attractive relative to open end funds which must sell assets when their shareholders sell the fund, which usually is at the precisely wrong period of time. This can also create opportunities for value investors since in times of volatility and shareholder selling, CEFs can trade at a discount to their net asset value.

For example, if a fund owned a 100 shares of Apple and the stock was at $200, the underlying net asset value would be $20,000. Let’s say there are 4,000 shares outstanding of this fund so the implied NAV per share is $5. But lets say one large shareholder of this fund needs to sell the closed end fund for liquidity and is willing to sell at $4.50 just to get out quickly. Well that creates opportunity for us to buy Apple at a 10% discount.

That’s essentially what happens with CEFs, though there are some caveats. Sometimes a fund can trade at a discount for good reasons. The managers’ performance could be abysmal, the fees could be too high, leverage could be too high or too risky so there’s an added risk premium involved, there could be large capital gains that will be distributed to shareholders eventually, and so on and so on.

I try to find opportunities in CEFs where there’s not only downside protection from the fund trading at a discount, there’s also a high current pay distribution, favorable tax treatment, and maybe some modest upside.

I think the ClearBridge Energy MLP Total Return Fund represents that example. It currently trades at a 5.4% discount to NAV, it offers a 10.25% yield (on cyclically depressed oil earnings), and has upside from the oil price recovery. Indeed, investors seem to be eschewing the MLP sector right now for poor reasons, which also attracts me to the sector.

The fundamental investment decision comes down to the MLPs having depressed stock performance when the factors that drive higher earnings (volume of oil gas produced) are moving in the right direction now that oil has recovered to the $70-$80 range today from the $20-$40 range in 2016. The Alerian MLP index was down nearly 12% in Q1’18.

Legg Mason has some stats I find interesting from their website. One, multiples in the MLP space are 2 turns below average and two, distribution rates are approaching levels when oil was crashing and everyone wanted out.

MLP Distributions above averageMLP EBITDA multiples

There are some reasons for concern. One, some MLPs, like Genesis Energy, unexpectedly cut their distribution. Enbridge, Williams and Plains All American also cut their distributions despite being viewed as “safe” midstream MLPs. However, this is a positive as MLPs often must consistently dilute shareholders by raising equity to fund capital projects. After the most recent oil rout, it appears MLPs are much more focused on self-funding, which is a positive for investors.

An announcement by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) in March also scared investors. It essentially stated that it would no longer allow MLP interstate natural gas and oil pipelines to recover an income tax in the cost of service rate. The Alerian index immediately traded down 10%, though has recovered somewhat, but 26 companies announced it would have no effect on them and the management team of CTR estimates it has a 1% impact to EBITDA, so not that meaningful. Only one fund that I know of cut its distribution on the news. This seemed like investors were shooting first and asking questions later.

The fund is somewhat concentrated with 43 holdings with Enterprise Products making up almost 10% of the fund and the top 3 holdings making up 22% of the fund, but I am comfortable with that risk. Enterprise is a great company, its distribution is covered 1.3x, and it has raised its distribution for 55 straight quarters. Pretty amazing.

I think a 30% total return on CTR is not unreasonable over the next 2 years driven by 1) the 10% dividend yield and 2) recovery in energy and recovery in MLP sentiment.

I should also take this time to say that the distribution is tax efficient. Most of the distribution is classified as a “return of capital”. This arises from depreciation claimed by the MLP which has reduced net income, though cash flow may be higher (since depreciation is non-cash expense). Therefore, if I had a $100 MLP and it paid me a $5 return of capital distribution, that would drive my cost basis to $95 and I would not owe taxes on it until I sold the units. This is highly advantageous for a 10% yield fund.

Three (not largely discussed) things to remember when investing in Emerging Markets

I wanted to take some time to discuss 3 things when investing in Emerging Markets that are not widely discussed. The impetus for this article was driven by my blog post at the beginning of 2018 titled, “How to invest when inflation picks up“, in which I said that because I was bullish on commodity prices, I was going long Brazil. Brazil has a very commodity driven economy (oil, metals & mining, agriculture) and my view was that a rebound in commodity prices would result in Brazil’s economy improving and its stock market should improve as well.

That call has not come to fruition yet, as shown by the Brazil ETF EWZ being down 21% since that call. And here are 3 lessons I think are important when investing in emerging markets, of which the first will relate to why my call on Brazil has been wrong so far.

1. Changes in currency can have a big impact on results

I would say a central reason why my call on Brazil has been wrong is because of currency. The Real (Brazil’s currency) has been very volatile and has depreciated against the dollar since the slowdown in China started to occur in 2015 along with the commodity bust, which put Brazil in a deep recession. Recently, a trucker strike derailed plans to get the economy back on the path to recovery and sent the currency tumbling again.

BRL depreciation

What this has meant for my dollar investment is also depreciation… Let’s use an example to see why: say a stock in Brazil was trading for 100 BRL when the USD/BRL rate was at 3.00. I place an $10,000 order, exchaning my dollars for 30,000 BRL and buy 300 shares. In local currency terms, lets say the stock goes up 10%, such that the quoted price is 110 BRL. I should have made $1,000 bucks on my investment, right?

Nope. If the BRL depreciated like it did in the chart above from 3.00 to 3.85, I’d be sitting on a pretty poor return actually, as shown below.

BRL Investment Example

Alas, this would mean even though I was right on stock selection, the currency movements negatively impacted my returns. This is partially why with all the global currency volatility, currency hedged ETFs are launching all over.

Do I advocate for currency hedges? Sometimes. It depends on the time-horizon. A long term investor may look at the levels of the BRL to the USD and see this as a buying opportunity and therefore, you can be right on stock selection AND the currency may be in your favor which would boost returns.

However, I don’t think anyway can really tell me where a currency will be in 10 years, so I won’t opine on that. What I will say is that our return thresholds should be much higher when investing in Brazil than lets say the US or another developed economy like Germany. I don’t know what the currency will do over the next 2-3 years, but what I do know is that the real will depreciate over time relative to the dollar. No one questions that the inflation rate in Brazil will be higher than the US over the long run and that should mean that over time, the real should depreciate relative to the USD.

In sum, you have to be aware of currency, especially volatile ones. You’re taking a risk, so we should get paid for that.

2. Just because you’re buying a company’s stock overseas, it does not mean you are afforded the same protections as the US.

Alibaba’s stock is up 25% in the past year and has ~doubled since IPO’ing in 2014. But did you know that if you hold BABA which trades on the NYSE, you actually don’t own Alibaba at all? China forbids foreign investors from owning certain types of companies. As such, you aren’t really buying Alibaba. You are buying a holding company that has a claim on Chinese subsidiaries profits, but no economic interest. The risk here is that China comes in and says that is not allowed and guess what? You own nothing. The New York Times reported on how China has not actually weighed in on this. You may also want to check out the risk factors of Alibaba’s 10-k entitled, “If the PRC government deems that the contractual arrangements in relation to our variable interest entities do not comply with PRC governmental restrictions on foreign investment, or if these regulations or the interpretation of existing regulations changes in the future, we could be subject to penalties or be forced to relinquish our interests in those operations”. 

I don’t mean to pick on BABA here (Tencent, Baidu, JD.com each have this problem as well), but the risk here might be higher than you think. Lots of people would say, “look China is relaxing its command economy and moving more to a free market. They wouldn’t do something like that.”

And to that I say, look at Russia. In the 1990’s, following the “end” of the Cold War, Russia issued privatization vouchers that allowed investors to actually own former State Owned Enterprises. This was a huge step for Russia and it seemed like the old communist power would be relaxing its grip on businesses. But I encourage you to study what happened when Russia deemed it needed to re-control “strategic sectors”. Yuko Oil Company is a fascinating case study.

In a very brief summary, Yuko went to the private markets and quickly adopted transparent rules and practices, became one of the world’s largest non-state owned oil companies, and even had 5 Americans on its board. The company was paying dividends and growing internationally as well.

When Putin came to power, things quickly changed. The CEO of Yukos was arrested for tax evasion and fraud and Yukos was slapped with a $27 billion fine which was higher than its total revenues for the past 2 years. Yukos was forced to break up and its shares were frozen (to prevent a foreign company like Exxon from buying them). Eventually, Yukos declared bankruptcy. Many viewed this as a direct attack on the CEO of Yukos who was gaining political power.

In sum, I think its important to remember these risk factors and not get too comfortable in international / emerging markets that are known to have limited privileges to foreign investors.

3. Active management makes sense in Emerging Markets

So much has been written on active vs. passive investing in the US, it is actually making me nauseous. But I think this is a good topic to end on for this post, because it sums up the previous points here. An active manager can weigh the impact of currency on a potential investment. They can weigh the political changes that are happening in the base of a country. And lastly, they are paid to do work on changes in the tastes of the economy.

One area of research I always try to look for is primary work. That is, if I buy the stock of a company, particularly one oriented to consumers, I want to conduct surveys on what its consumer say about the actual product and understand if that helps or hurts the investment decision in any way. It’s also important to remember that sometimes we take for granted the tidal shift occurring in the U.S. such as Amazon, Netflix, or Apple because we interact with those products and see them on TV everyday. But how can you tell what type of products they are using in India or China without being there? Did you know Netflix and Apple are not the primary sources of products in those countries? They have their own.

Tastes change and they change quickly, so in my view, unless you’re traveling to the country often, you are paying an active manager to do that work. Indexes are backward looking (i.e. they weight the companies that have performed the best in the past at the top in a market cap weighted index), so they do not always calculate the risks mentioned herein. Sometimes they don’t include the entire universe, which can limit returns or at least potential for higher returns.

And as a result, we can see in the chart below that it pays to pay the higher management fee for active. This chart (taken from AllianceBernstein) shows that “70% of active managers in emerging equities have beaten the benchmark over the five-year period ended March 31, 2017, while 66% have outperformed over 10 years, net of fees. On a rolling five-year basis, the percent of active managers outperforming the EM index has never fallen below 50%”.

Active managers in EM

Hope this was helpful for you. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

-DD