August 6, 2012
I’ve never been very popular in late-stage bull markets. Defending against major losses and achieving our investment objectives over the complete bull-bear market cycle (bull-peak to bull-peak, or bear-trough to bear-trough) requires us to maintain an investment exposure that is essentially proportional to the expected return/risk ratio that is associated with each given set of market conditions. When prevailing market conditions are associated with a sharply negative expected return/risk ratio, as they are at present, and either trend-following measures are negative or several hostile indicator syndromes are in place (what we call Aunt Minnies), we will typically be fully-hedged, and will raise the strike prices of our put options toward the level of the market, in order to defend against steep market losses and indiscriminate selling. At present, we expect an average 10-year total return on the S&P 500 of about 4.7% annually in nominal terms, on the basis of rich normalized valuations. Based on a much broader ensemble of evidence, and considering horizons between 2-weeks and 18-months, we estimate the prospective return/risk ratio of the S&P 500 to be in the most negative 0.6% of all historical observations.
Moderate losses may be a necessary feature of risk-taking, but deep losses are erasers. A typical bear market erases over half of the preceding bull market advance. It is easy to forget – particularly during late-stage bull markets - how strongly this impacts full-cycle returns. The most obvious example, of course, is the 2008-2009 decline, which erased not only the entire total return of the S&P 500 since its 2002 low, but also erased the entire total return of the S&P 500 in excess of Treasury bill yields (its “excess return”) going all the way back to June 1995 - making all of the benefit from risk-taking during the late-1990’s completely for naught. Similarly, the 2000-2002 bear market wiped out the excess return that investors had enjoyed in the S&P 500 all the way back to February 1996. The 1990 bear market wiped out the excess return of the S&P 500 all the way back to January 1987.
Recall that at the 1987 peak, the S&P 500 had quadrupled (including dividends) from the secular low of August 1982. The 1987 crash – which in terms of size was a fairly run-of-the-mill bear of -33.51% from peak to trough - was enough to wipe out nearly half of that preceding total return (do the math: [(4*(1-.3351)-1]/(4-1)-1 = -45%), and slashed the excess return that investors had enjoyed since 1982 by even more than half. This chronicle of unpleasant arithmetic can be extended indefinitely over market history. Regardless of whether stocks are in a secular bull market or a secular bear market, the mathematics of compounding are brutal where large losses are concerned.
It’s instructive that $1 invested in Strategic Growth Fund at its inception, near the beginning of the 2000-2002 bear market was worth 2.72 times the value of an equivalent investment in the S&P 500 by the end of that bear market. Likewise, $1 invested in the Fund at the beginning of the 2007-2009 bear market was worth 2.09 times the value of an equivalent investment in the S&P 500 by the end of that bear market (see The Funds page for complete performance information). Performance gaps that can arise in the overvalued but still-advancing part of the full market cycle can be dramatically recovered by defensive strategies in the declining part of the cycle, which is why we don’t pay excessive attention to short-term tracking differences when market conditions are hostile.
Of course, there’s no assurance that we’ll always achieve our objective of outperforming the market with significantly smaller drawdowns over the complete market cycle. Though we’ve certainly had far less volatility and drawdown than the S&P 500 over the most recent cycle, Strategic Growth Fund lagged the total return of the S&P 500 by just shy of 13% cumulative from the 10/09/2007 peak in the S&P 500 to its most recent peak on 04/02/2012. This outcome primarily reflected my insistence on making our hedging approach robust to Depression-era data (an effort that caused us to miss returns in 2009-early 2010 until we achieved a robust solution using ensemble methods), and the smaller issue that purchasing actual put options has been less effective in periods where central banks have seduced investors to place their faith in “Bernanke puts” and “Draghi puts.” Our 2009-early 2010 miss was not “strategic” in that we would not be similarly defensive in future cycles if presented with identical conditions and evidence. But the fact is that our present defensive stance, particularly since early March, is something that we can be expected to establish over and over again in future cycles if presented with the same evidence.
Our measures of prospective return/risk became steeply negative in early March (see Warning: A New Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest). Since then, market conditions have satisfied a restrictive set of criteria that have been similarly negative in a very small percentage of historical observations. At present, Strategic Growth Fund is fully-hedged, with most of our index put option strikes raised within about 4% of prevailing market levels, at a cost of less than 2% of assets in time premium looking out toward late-2012. This time premium will decay if the market remains unexpectedly resilient in the coming months and we observe no shift in presently negative market conditions. That said, with an angry army of negative indicator syndromes in place, I don’t expect speculation – even on hopes of further central bank intervention – will be significantly or durably rewarded here.
Suffice it to say that our present defensiveness is an intentional and repeatable aspect of our investment strategy. There are certainly some extraordinary factors that we had to address in the most recent market cycle as a result of the credit crisis and government attempts to defend bad debt, avoid restructuring, and to extend, pretend, and print at all costs. I believe that we can manage a continuation of that policy environment well over time, though periodic frustrations may be more frequent due to short-lived “risk-on” advances. In any event, I have no belief that central bank operations (which do little more than purchase a fraction of the new additions to the mountain of global government debt and replace them with currency and bank reserves) are actually capable of making recessions, bear markets, or the basics of arithmetic things of the past.
Friday’s headline non-farm payroll employment gain (establishment survey) of 163,000 jobs was surprisingly positive, but far less informative about economic prospects than investors appeared to assume. The household survey, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate, actually showed a drop in civilian employment of 195,000 jobs in July. The increase in the unemployment rate would have been greater if not for the fact that another 150,000 people left the labor force altogether and were therefore not counted as unemployed. The picture was particularly weak for workers 20 years of age and older (where 213,000 jobs were lost), but was slightly rescued by a gain of 18,000 jobs among 16-19 year-olds. While the difference between the establishment and household surveys was unusually large, these disparities aren’t entirely uncommon, and don’t have a great deal of predictive value for either series. It's probably most accurate to say that the July employment figures were mixed.
Even focusing on the bright spot, which is the establishment survey figure, one immediate fact to note is that year-over-year growth in non-farm payrolls fell below 1.4% back in April, following a brief excursion above that level, and has remained weak since then. As the chart below indicates, a decline in year-over-year payroll employment growth below 1.4% has occurred just before, or already into, each of the past 10 recessions, with no false signals. As usual, we’re skeptical of drawing inferences from a single indicator, and this instance may be different. But given the collapse in new orders and other measures of economic activity across numerous Fed, ISM and global surveys (and a continued decline in the most leading signal that we infer from our unobserved components models), there seems to be little reason for that expectation.
Keep in mind, as we’ve noted regularly over the years, that employment is a lagging economic indicator. The “stream of anecdotes” school of economic analysis may treat every economic report as having equal weight in determining the course of the economy, but the actual sequence is generally as follows: falling consumption growth and new orders -> falling production -> falling employment. The latest employment report appears to be little more than the wagging tail of an already sick puppy, and the tail is not likely to wag that dog to health.
In contrast, the latest JP Morgan global manufacturing report observes that "production and new orders both fell for the second month running in July, with rates of contraction gathering pace." The chart below presents the global purchasing managers index (PMI), which has now weakened to levels last seen during the last two recessions.
With regard to Europe, it’s interesting how the semantics of the phrase “everything necessary” has been used to obscure the differences between Euro-area countries when it comes to monetizing bad debt. The distinction can be seen in a comment last week by German government spokesman Georg Streiter: “The ECB president said that the ECB will do everything necessary to preserve the euro and the government will do everything politically necessary to preserve the euro.” As long as the phrase is shortened to “everything necessary,” everyone is in agreement. The differences are in the subset of actions that constitute “everything.” For the German government, it is everything politically necessary. For Finland, it is everything necessary provided that collateral is pledged for every loan. For the German courts, it is everything legally necessary. While everyone can be unanimous about their commitment to doing “everything necessary,” it’s important to recognize that “everything” means something different to each party.
Even Mario Draghi had to resort to oxymorons to explain why the ECB did not initiate bond purchases last week despite what investors had taken as a pledge to do so, saying that the endorsement of bond purchases among ECB council members was “unanimous with one reservation” (he then left to enjoy some jumbo shrimp in a plastic glass, but they were found missing, leaving Draghi and his broken fix for an enduring Euro alone together in the deafening silence).
My impression regarding the Euro remains unchanged – liquidity will not durably counter insolvency, and the solvency problem among peripheral European countries is too great to be addressed without debt restructuring. ECB purchases of distressed sovereign debt would most likely have to be permanent purchases, and would therefore represent a fiscal transfer at the expense of stronger countries that would prefer to use the proceeds of money creation for the benefit of their own citizens. Doing those purchases indirectly – the ECB buying the debt of an ESM with a banking license, and the ESM buying distressed debt – does not change the arithmetic. Very reasonably, Germany is only willing to mutualize the debts of its neighbors if it can exert centralized authority over their fiscal policies – in Angela Merkel’s words “liability and control belong together.” But while Europe is geographically united, it is culturally and politically diverse, and a surrender of national sovereignty to the required extent is unlikely.
As a result, the Euro is likely to be pulled apart, and the tensions will probably be greatest across geographic and socioeconomic fault lines. From a geographic perspective, Finland (which insists on good collateral even for EFSF actions) and Italy (where popular sentiment against the Euro is strongest) have the greatest divide. From a socioeconomic standpoint, Germany (which is strongly anti-inflation and more oriented toward free enterprise) and the southern European states of Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal (which have high debt ratios, heavily socialized economies, and very fragile banks) seem to be the furthest apart. The real question is who will get the Euro if the wish-bone snaps – the stronger more solvent states, or the weaker more inflation-prone states. Until the answer is clear, it will be difficult to anticipate the future direction of the Euro’s value. I would expect the least amount of systemic disruption in the event of an exit from the Euro by the stronger European countries, but that would also be associated with the maximum amount of Euro depreciation as the remaining members are left to inflate as they (and the ECB) please. All of this will be extraordinarily interesting, but it will not be easy.
Market ClimateAs of last week, the Market Climate for stocks remained among the most negative 0.6% of historical observations, holding us to a tightly defensive stance. Strategic Growth remains fully hedged, with a staggered-strike position that raises the strike prices of the put option side of our hedge within a few percent of prevailing levels, at a cost of less than 2% of assets in time premium looking out to very late-2012. The Fund’s day-to-day returns can be expected to primarily reflect changes in the value of this time premium and day-to-day performance differences between the stocks held by the Fund and the indices we use to hedge. Strategic International also remains fully hedged. Strategic Dividend Value remains hedged at about 50% of the value of its stock holdings. Strategic Total Return continues to carry a duration of about one year in Treasury securities, with about 10% of assets in precious metals shares, and a small percentage of assets in utility shares and foreign currencies.
The foregoing comments represent the general investment analysis and economic views of the Advisor, and are provided solely for the purpose of information, instruction and discourse.
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