The definition of inflation is a general increase in the price levels for goods and services. Deflation is simply the opposite of inflation, where prices are declining, not rising. The Federal Reserve (Fed) is of the belief that targeting inflation at a rate of two percent is the optimal level for keeping the United States (U.S.) economy chugging along. Let’s compartmentalize for a moment whether the Fed is even measuring the true rate of inflation correctly. Taken from the Fed’s website, “Having at least a small level of inflation makes it less likely that the economy will experience harmful deflation if economic conditions weaken.” Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had a religious devotion to the “inflation good deflation bad” mentality as indicated by his academic work. Bernanke’s collection of research papers blame the Fed in the 1930s for not increasing the money supply to fight off deflation so as to avoid the Great Depression. Determined not to repeat the same mistake during the crisis in 2008, Bernanke aggressively implemented a quantitative easing program while simultaneously hammering interest rates to the floor. No monetary tool at the Fed remained idle in order to avoid deflation and the perceived risk that falling prices result in a collapsing economy.
Given the fees derived from selling funds to the retail public, financial institutions have little incentive to be bearish on the stock market. These financial behemoths want euphoric investors believing that Wall Street is Lake Wobegon, where every day is a sunny day and all of the stocks are above average. Following the investment strategy of remaining fully invested in stocks and not attempting to time the market does have merit. An academic paper written by Nobel Laureate William F. Sharpe showed the difficulty associated with market timing[i]. Over the study period of 1934–1972, investors who made the decision at the start of every calendar year to be in either cash or stocks had to bet correctly 83% of the time in order to outperform the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500®). That is a difficult hurdle to overcome. Given these poor odds of timing the market with such precision, betting black on the roulette table at a casino in Vegas looks attractive by comparison, with free drinks to boot. Should investors heed the warning of Dr. Sharpe by buying a stock index fund and abandoning any attempt at market timing?
Another postseason in baseball is here, and Bob Gale, the writer/producer of Back to the Future II, swings but misses on his forecast for a 2015 Chicago Cubs World Series victory. I wouldn’t take it too hard, Bob. Wall Street economists cannot even get next year’s macroeconomic forecasts in the strike zone much less a correct prediction made in 1989 on who wins the World Series. Unlike economists who predict broad-based macroeconomic stats with mixed results, those who practice the craft of baseball focus on the minutiae. Pitchers in the big leagues obsess over every micro detail in their pitching motion, attempting to constantly improve upon it. A professional baseball player works on his own game, leaving the general topic of baseball to the sports pages.
Wherever large enclaves of European immigrants settled in America, it would not take long for a handful of breweries to open for business in the local community. These breweries distributed their fermented concoctions to the local taverns and clubs within close proximity to where the beer was produced. Unlike the Internet companies of today, brewing beer for most of the 19th century was not a scalable business model. Unpasteurized beer with active yeast has to be consumed within a short period of time after the fermentation process is completed. Otherwise, these liquid bread products become moldy and give off a rank odor. Nobody likes to drink stinky beer pumped out of vintage kegs that have been stored for who knows how long.
One tea leaf indicator that is used to get a sense of the future direction of the overall stock market is the number of stocks moving down in price. More stocks are now trading below their 200-day moving average than above it. Some investors might view this negatively, but an increasing number of stocks falling in price is a telling sign that brighter days lie ahead for deep value investors. Falling stock prices are a necessary but insufficient condition for deep value stocks to bubble up to the surface. This may seem counterintuitive to investors who desire an ever-rising stock market, but for value investors, the opportunity to find true bargains increases following a significant market decline.
While sitting next to the chief executive officer (CEO) of Blackrock on a panel at the recent Delivering Alpha Conference, billionaire Carl Icahn commented on the risk associated with investing in a high-yield bond exchange traded fund (ETF). Making a negative comment on a financial product when its CEO is sitting right next to you might make some people feel a little uncomfortable, but billionaires are not average people. Icahn’s concern was regarding the lack of liquidity in high-yield bonds. If redemptions cannot be met in an ETF that holds junk bonds, investors could be forced into taking severe losses. However, blaming an institution for losing money in an oversized ETF product that holds a large number of junk bonds is sort of like blaming Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin for a capital punishment contraption bearing his name. Guillotin was neither the inventor of the decapitation device nor a fan of the death penalty. The French physician only recommended its use as a more humane way to deliver a death penalty sentence. Likewise, Blackrock did not invent the high-yield bond ETF and offers a number of other investment products that vary in terms of risk level. If you do not like junk bonds, you might consider investing in a more conservative financial product, which would result in a shaving cut rather than a beheading if illiquid junk bonds were to head south.
Benjamin Graham’s Defensive versus Enterprising Investor Performance over the Dismal Decade of 2000–2009
In a previous blog (see Benjamin Graham’s Value Investing versus the Robo-advisor), I illustrated included a chart outlining the performance of the United States stock market over the course of every decade covering during the past 100 years. Stock performance over the past decade (2000–2009) was not only a net loser, including the paltry dividend income received, but it even underperformed the 1930s depression era. If the typical investor had known this information at the start of the year 2000, I’m confident he or she would have remained on the sidelines in cash.
Stanford University Professor Deborah Gordon spends her days analyzing the behavior of harvester ants that populate the dry desert of Arizona. She’s observed how an ant colony manages its water consumption in search of seeds, the ants’ primary food source. Water is in limited supply for a desert ant, so it’s important they balance their conflicting goals of foraging for seeds and consuming water in the process. Looking for seeds and conserving water is accomplished by having only a limited number of partially blind ants patrolling above the surface in search of food at any one time. If one of the patrol ants stumbles upon some seeds, it heads back to the nest and tells all of its friends. By touching the antennae of other ants huddling near the surface of the underground nest, the patrol ant gives the signal for others to join in the collective effort to search for seeds. This efficient food-gathering process results in far less water consumption for the ant colony as a whole. Instead of a large number of ants randomly moving about the surface, wasting precious water resources under the hot desert sun, they become active only when a high probability of gathering a large number of seeds exists.
Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies provided compelling evidence on why certain groups of people manage to gain the upper hand over the indigenous people they have conquered. One of the reasons certain societies gain a competitive advantage over others comes from the environments to which they were exposed over generations. A classic example of this is European dominance over the various indigenous groups they encountered in Africa and in the Americas. Europeans had the lead in comparison with other social groups in both forging weapons into steel and enjoying immunity from certain diseases because of their close proximity to the livestock they raised. The environmental factors to which they were exposed over generations played a key role in providing them with competitive advantages, enabling them to establish colonies in the New World as opposed to being subjugated.
What percentage of students in a typical high school would be classified as part of the in-crowd? I’m confident that people’s responses to that question are dependent on where they felt they were ranked in the popularity caste system back in their school days. Former students on the outer ring of popularity (including financial advisors such as myself who advocate a value investing philosophy) probably estimate a smaller popularity percentage in comparison with the former captain of the football team or his cheerleader girlfriend. Let’s classify the cool kids in a typical brick-and-mortar high school as representing twenty-five percent of the entire student body. Many students aren’t part of the in-crowd but are eager to gain their peers’ acceptance, hoping to move up on the popularity totem pole. However, unlike high school, popularity is something to be avoided, not sought-after, when it comes to selecting stocks for a portfolio.
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Nothing in this blog should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. Registered Investment Advisors are only provided to investors who become clients of Wendl Financial, Inc. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.