Tag Archives: commodities

Crisis of Confidence

I, through my firm, was a customer of PFG, the latest registered broker dealer to steal from its clients’ accounts – first reports indicate $200 million may have been taken.  This pattern is becoming too frequent. Innocent victims have lost money yet again.  How did it come to this?

Broken Markets

Self-regulation by an oligopoly… I don’t think there is any economist or politician who wanted this outcome, but special interests and lobbying have led to this.  This is how the futures industry works today.

Capitalism is broken without fair rule of law and regulation, and today top firms organize and self-regulate with practices that add cost but lack teeth. This discourages competition from smaller companies, but it also gives the largest companies free reign to raid their clients’ accounts and hide their crimes for years. So far it seems there is little or no accountability when they are discovered.

If market participants cannot expect basic protections, then they will leave, prices will fall, volume will shrink, and markets will whither.  Companies will have less access to capital and be exposed to more risk, and the economy and workers will suffer.  We’re already a long way down this path.

The economic ideal and the allure of free markets is only possible when regulation protects innocent market participants, minimizes fraud and cheating, and does not deter innovation. That means expanded domain of the SIPC, the SEC should have unlimited authority to monitor accounts and communication (opt-in would be fine), and companies should only minimally participate in their own oversight. With this structure, investors would be protected, transparency would reduce fraud, and free markets could flourish with competition and innovation.

Sounds obvious, but don’t hold your breath.

Corporate Corruption

There are a lot of types of corporate corruption, but they all start from an imbalance in power and oversight.  There is one tiny change could have a huge impact on this problem: allow shareholders to nominate people for elections of the Board of Directors of public companies.  It’s a small, seemingly obvious shareholder right, but it would have a big impact.

Management should not have the exclusive right to nominate their bosses. In fact, because the Board of Directors is supposed to represent the owners’ interest, it seems crazy that owners can not nominate. When the owners of a company are empowered to nominate Board members, management comes back under control, compensation comes back to reality, performance is scrutinized better, and the interests of investors are better served.

In private equity and smaller firms of every kind, this is always how it has worked.  Major shareholders often join Boards of private companies and nominate other Board members.  How public companies ever achieved the ability to control the Board nominations without rights for shareholders, I’ll never understand.

Too much

There are so many other ways that markets are broken and corruption is bringing us down.  Is it too much to fix?  Are we destined to watch for the rest of our lives as the emerging markets grow right past us and Americans fight amongst ourselves? Is our political and influence machinery too dogmatic or corrupt to embrace new good ideas together?

I’m not confident.

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Long term investment strategy blather

“The FED has been daring us, effectively, to go out and buy risky assets for the last 2 years”

“It will be the creditor that tightens global liquidity.  Not the debtor.”

I don’t agree with Russell Napier’s ultimate conclusion about S&P hitting 400, but this interview is full of gems:

http://video.ft.com/v/946244201001/Long-View-Historian-sees-S-P-fall-to-400

(it’s part of a series: http://video.ft.com/v/940727417001/Long-View-A-gathering-storm)

The reason that I don’t agree with his conclusion is that I think emerging market credit expansion will be harder to control.  I think credit expansion will be highly private, opaque, poorly regulated, and broadly accepted by the population.  Expansion of credit is an expansion of the money supply.  During which, emerging market consumption and inflation will be higher than expected.  Corporate profit growth would likely rise faster in that scenario, so downside risk should be protected to some extent by strong corporate balance sheets.

Or of course it could go the other way.  🙂

The Credit Crunch and the Market

[Download the complete article in PDF format, with charts and better formatting]

The past month has been a roller-coaster in the financial markets.

At the first hints of falling prices in the mortgage backed securities markets, Bear Sterns announced the bankruptcy of two large hedge funds, and 90% losses in a third fund which had $850 million invested in highly rated mortgage-backed securities. In the following weeks, other major funds also announced losses. Goldman Sachs’ Global Alpha hedge fund fell 27% this year through Aug. 13, prompting clients to ask for $1.6 billion in redemptions, investors told Bloomberg. DE Shaw, a pioneer of quantitative investing based on complex mathematical and computer techniques, has been hit hard in August. DE Shaw’s Valence fund is down more than 20% through August 24th, according to a fund of hedge fund manager.

These high-profile losses are prompting redemptions, and as cash flows out of hedge funds, managers must sell. Around the world, leveraged funds anticipate redemptions and are deleveraging (selling).

“When you can’t sell what you want, you sell what you can.”

Because the markets for mortgage-backed securities dried up so completely and so quickly, managers began selling positions that remained liquid and well-priced. In a sense, they had to sell good investments because they couldn’t sell the bad ones. What started as a series of collapsing mortgage strategies has spread into just about every other market that hedge funds touch. Prices fell in investments ranging from emerging market bonds to the price of hogs. In all, more than $1 trillion in value has been lost in US stock markets, alone. Many foreign markets and alternative asset classes suffered worse declines.

The trigger event is a credit tightening: mortgage issuers extended too much credit, were too loose with their lending standards, and may not have adequately communicated their loan terms. In response, lending standards have been increased and credit is tighter. US consumers might slow their spending, which might trigger a broader slowdown in the US economy, which might have implications for global growth. Uncertainty and fear prevail.

We view this fear as primarily psychological, wildly overestimated, and only loosely related to market fundamentals (See Figure 1). But that may not matter.

Contagion

The pricing of risk is driven by psychology. Investors require compensation for the possibility of loss and also for the inconvenience of uncertainty. So rising risk can cause capital to become scarce, lending rates to go up, and spending to slow. In this sense, the psychology can impact the fundamentals in what is sometimes called a “contagion”.

The “Greenspan put” was like a safety net, providing the comfort that credit would be made available on those occasions when it was needed. Bernanke has reiterated this strategy, but it remains to be seen if he has the same appreciation for what Keynes called the “animal spirits” of the market. Contagion is a real phenomenon, generally starting with a crisis in one market or a large fund, then spreading to other asset classes as volatility rises and investors require higher premiums for risky investments.

In our view, the excessive lending in the mortgage industry could trigger a contagion in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Rising rates and tightening lending standards leads to a contraction in home prices, reducing consumer spending and slowing economic growth.
  • A new awareness for the risk of debt investments causes borrowing costs for corporations and governments to rise, reducing investment and slowing economic growth.

These risks can be self-reinforcing, and could change the fundamental characteristics of the economy. These are the type of events that could change our investment strategies if they appear to develop out of control.

So far, these contagions have not caused a significant slowdown in economic activity. Volatility triggered by major hedge fund failures is different; it generally causes sharp declines in recently popular asset classes followed by recovery. These declines can proceed in unexpected ways, and can continue for some time because each price shock runs the risk of triggering another failure. It is surprising how many hedge funds use leverage sufficient to make them incompatible with price shocks. As months pass, however, these shocks can be a blessing because they offer rare value opportunities.

We should all hope that a full-fledged contagion does not develop, and be thankful that the world’s central banks are standing guard.

The Federal Reserve

It is important for the government to intervene if a contagion might damage the economy in fundamental ways, but also important for the government to avoid interfering otherwise. The Federal Reserve and foreign central banks play an important role in managing the stability of economic growth by changing the availability of capital at money-center banks, but interventions can also cause distortions in currency exchange rates, changes in the money supply affect inflation expectations, and reliance upon government intervention can lead investors take excessive risks.

On the 17th, the Federal Reserve followed several foreign central banks (European Central Bank, Australia, Japan, and others) by pumping capital into their nations’ banking systems in response to the recent volatility. This intervention increases the monetary supply, but the psychology of selling is still driving down many market prices as global investors reduce their exposure to risk and shift their portfolios to hold more cash and US Treasury Bonds.

Credit tightening is a reasonable response to excessive lending, but the signal from global central banks is that they are ready to smooth the volatility, even if it means increasing the money supply. This indicates that they may intend to inflate their way out of potential economic pain. As a result, we are less concerned about a recession, but our long-term expectations for inflation have risen. This combination makes stocks and real assets more attractive because they are better hedges against inflation, and reduces the value of fixed income instruments (such as US Treasury Bonds). Meanwhile, the global investor crowd has been doing the opposite. If higher inflation will be the ultimate outcome of this recent roller coaster, then the massive global shift toward cash and fixed income may ultimately be reversed.

The U.S. Penny is worth 1.04¢!

[The following article is part of a larger commentary, available here.]

After monitoring this calculation for a long time, I’m happy to announce this new and unusual arbitrage.

Pennies are composed of 97.6% zinc and 2.4% copper, with a total weight of 2.5 grams. After several years of rapid appreciation, copper prices have been stagnant for about 6 months, but zinc has been rising toward $4,000 per metric ton (or about 4/10 of a cent per gram). That places the value of the zinc at 0.994¢, and the value of the copper at 0.045¢, bringing to total cost of the raw metals to 1.04¢.

So if you collect pennies, melt them down, separate and purify the metals, then sell the metal on the public exchange, you make 4%. This is a new phenomenon, and may not last. I would expect to hear an announcement that the penny will be modified, replacing zinc with aluminum. This would bring the value of the metals down to less than 7/10 of a cent, and gives the government another couple years before they are forced to drop the penny as a unit of currency.

The new aluminum pennies will still be clad in copper, but will feel much lighter. You heard it here first.

Out of Favor, Into the Portfolio

[Download this article in PDF format, with charts and better formatting]

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is hitting new all-time highs while crude oil is making new lows for the year. Moving in opposite directions is normal for these markets, but recent movements may come as somewhat of a surprise against a backdrop in which core inflation has risen to levels not seen in a decade and the yield curve is inverted.

China and India seem to be in a race to secure energy reserves in anticipation that within three years, Asia’s oil consumption will surpass North America’s. Global economic production is expanding by about 4%, about double the average rate of the last 50 years. Growth rates are highest in the countries with the largest populations, and consumption is being subsidized by growing global debt markets.

Stock valuations anticipate strong growth while commodity prices anticipate adequate supplies. This is an intellectual error.

Only fools and economists believe in infinitely compounding growth

For major world markets to continue recent growth rates, many major supply-related hurdles would have to be overcome. Current capacity for energy supplies are insufficient to support more than a few years of continued growth at this rate; additional capacity will have to be created. However, whether or not one believes in the “peak oil” theory or not, it is indisputable that known oil reserves are shrinking while discoveries are taking longer and yielding less.

While the pendulum of stocks and commodities has swung toward stocks, the fundamentals seem set up to push the pendulum back the other way.

Stocks and Commodities; Owning Both

Commodities often move in the opposite direction from stocks over periods of three months or longer. Over longer periods, this negative correlation becomes quite strong; as much as -42% for five-year periods. The result is that these two asset classes have provided strong diversification benefits when combined in a portfolio. Their risks offset each other to a high degree, resulting in more consistent wealth accumulation.

The fundamental basis for this behavior is easy to understand: stocks do well when the resources they need are cheap. Similarly, profits are diminished as the prices of natural resources go up. In addition, as commodity prices rise central banks tend to raise lending rates and slow down corporate growth rates. For this reason, commodity prices tend to be a better hedge against unanticipated inflation than
stocks, and much better than bonds.

Combinations of these two asset classes can be represented along an efficient frontier. This chart makes clear that risk was dramatically reduced by the
introduction of commodity futures while having a very small impact on returns.

Risk-averse investors who are sensitive to maintaining their purchasing power should consider commodity futures as a component of their portfolios.

Ignored Risks

The risk to the value of the U.S. dollar should not be overlooked. Many countries own substantial foreign reserves in U.S. dollar denominated debt. If these countries decided to diversify into a broader basket of currencies or assets, the outflow of capital would put pressure on the value of the U.S dollar. Commodities provide a hedge against volatility in the value of the dollar by maintaining purchasing power.

Global Growth implies Unprecedented Demand

World population is rising at a rate of about 1.3% per annum, or about 10,000 new people every hour. At the same time, productivity in the U.S. is rising at about 2.6% annually. The U.S. has very high productivity relative to other countries, and it is growing. At the same time, the vast majority of the world population lives in countries where productivity is much lower – but catching up.

The process of productivity convergence has been dramatically accelerated by the opening of trade, reforms toward capitalism, and the growth of the internet to share information. The long-term trajectory is for developing countries to grow toward U.S. productivity levels. This simple dynamic has some profound implications: we’re not ready.

If Chinese productivity rises to even half of U.S. levels, that economy’s GDP will expand from less than one fifth that of the U.S. to more than double that of the U.S.

Consider 2 scenarios:

1) An unrealistically pessimistic scenario:

Assumptions:

a. World population suddenly stops growing.

b. The U.S. never innovates, and simply maintains existing productivity levels.

c. Other countries catch up to U.S. productivity levels in 50 years.

Implications:

a. China would average 6.6% growth for 50 years, raising its production by more than 24 times to more than four times the size of the U.S.

b. India would average 8.5% growth for 50 years, raising its production by almost 60 times to more than three times the size of the U.S.

c. Global production would rise by more than 5 times.

2) Constant population and productivity growth:

Assumptions:

a. World population continues to grow at 1.3%.

b. U.S. productivity continues to grow at 2.6%.

c. Other countries catch up to U.S. productivity levels in 50 years.

Implications:

a. China would average 10.8% growth for 50 years, raising its production by more than 169 times, to more than 30 times the current output of the U.S.

b. India would average 12.8% growth for 50 years, raising its production by more than 410 times, to more than 25 times the current output of the U.S.

c. Global production would rise by more than 41 times.

These long-standing and slow-moving global economic trends will almost certainly be interrupted by commodity shortages during this period. Even the most optimistic forecasts for natural resource capacity do not anticipate supporting even the conservative scenario for growth.

Something has got to give.

We expect that as population and productivity trends push demand higher, commodity prices will rise to keep demand lower. Equilibrium prices are likely to be driven increasingly by production capacity as shortages develop. Over time, this will likely slow global growth rates and provide advantages to companies and countries that are net suppliers.

Freakonomics – Own land

[The following article is part of a larger commentary, available here.]

The key investment in the “green revolution” may be land. Wind farms require land, solar panels require land, bio-fuels grow on land, etc. Let’s inspect one specific use: using solar panels to generate hydrogen for fuel-cell cars:

As of last year, 700 sqft of Honda’s roadside solar generators produce enough hydrogen in one week to fuel one car for 175 miles. Clearly this is not enough, but it could be if you use more land.

(700 sqft of solar arrays) x (7 days) = 175 miles

equivalent to

(1 acre of solar arrays) x (1 day) = 1556 miles

If we assume that cars get about 25 mi/gallon of gas, then each acre produces the equivalent of about 62 gallons of gas per day. If gas costs $3/gallon, and hydrogen is priced to drive the same distance for the same cost, then each acre produces about $187/day in sales. That’s $68,140/year. Maintaining solar arrays is pretty cheap, let’s assume $5000/year/acre. If we discount the implied cash flow using a real rate of 5%, the value is $1.26m/acre. Obviously, an acre of solar arrays is expensive. Today, the cost would be about $1.5m, and exceed the net present value. But not for long!

Technology is progressing at a rapid rate. Today’s 6% efficiency may improve to 30% within 10 years. If the efficiency rises to 30%, the negative net present value of producing hydrogen turns positive. Very positive: $5 million per acre.

And don’t forget, for added upside you can install a wind farm over your solar arrays, and produce with both. Own some land.

2006 Investment Outlook


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Stable US growth

GDP and industrial production during the 3rd quarter grew at about 4% and 3%, respectively, with a relatively stable outlook, and consistent with long-term averages.

Innovation, trade, and competition are driving economic growth, while rising interest rates and commodity prices have hampered growth.

Strong earnings

Earnings-per-share (“EPS”) for the S&P 500 through June stood 30% above the peak reached in 2000.

Earnings have risen more rapidly than share prices, raising the earnings yield of stocks. Comparing the earnings yield of the S&P 500 with the yield of the 10-year bond (“earnings yield premium”), stocks look the most attractive in 25 years. From this perspective, the odds appear to favor equity outperformance.

We expect corporate profits in the United States to rise again in 2006, at a slower pace than in 2005 but better than consensus expectations. We expect that energy, other commodity stocks, and selected technology shares will provide particularly good gains.

Cheaper US equity valuations relative to earnings and to bonds have been driven in part by reduced overseas demand. Foreign investors moved aggressively into US stocks starting in 1997, but they have been reducing their purchases of stocks since 2002, focusing instead on bonds.

Bond bubble?

Foreign governments are buying US bonds to stabilize the value of their currencies. Insurance companies and pension funds are buying bonds to offset predictable liabilities. These sources of demand are driving up bond prices independently from other investments, making bonds less attractive.

Demand from foreign governments may diminish because they may decide that holding a global portfolio of bonds is better than concentrating in US bonds. Demand from insurance and pension funds may diminish because managers are migrating toward efficient asset allocation – as opposed to strictly offsetting their liabilities.

Any one of these changes could cause a drop in the price of US bonds. For example, if Japan privatizes its postal saving system as planned, it would mean that more than ¥224 trillion ($2.1 trillion) in savings and ¥126 trillion ($1.2 trillion) in life insurance would no longer be invested by the Japanese Government. Japanese citizens may be less eager to buy US bonds than the Japanese Government has been. Indeed, they may redirect some of those assets into Japanese equities.

Global growth is on fire

Worldwide political reforms since 1989 have brought more than 4 billion people (almost 2/3 of the world population) into market-driven global economies, and productivity per person continues to grow rapidly. The result of these two trends is a very rapid rise in global production. Developing nations with low wages and taxes continue to gain access to capital and skilled labor enabling them to grow faster than their domestic competitors. Many international stock markets have been outperforming US markets, and international diversification will be even more important going forward than it has been in the past. The oversupply of global labor is not likely to be fully utilized in this decade. As global production grows, the voracious demand for commodities to fuel this expansion is driving up prices, particularly for energy and industrial metals where supply is tightly constrained (3rd Quarter ’05 commentary).

Digital Revolution

Rapidly changing technology is forcing many industries to evolve. The convergence of media and communications toward a common internet protocol means that phone, cable, and radio companies will suffer falling prices in a new competitive landscape. Wider accessibility of broadband connections should also spur the growth of internet services. This same trend is making information available across borders, accelerating learning and research, improving productivity growth, and accelerating political reforms. The fragmentation and expansion of the device market is opening up the semiconductor market to more competition. Intel is likely to maintain large market share in the PC and laptop markets, but handhelds, gaming, smart HDTV, and other new markets will allow more segmentation of semiconductor companies.

Fed tightening

In June 2004, the Federal Reserve began raising rates from 1% in 0.25% increments to a current rate of 4.25%. This pattern is widely expected to continue at least through Chairman Greenspan’s last meeting on January 31st.

Prices, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), rose by 3.4% in the year ending November, still within the low range in place since 1983. The inflation adjusted (or “real”) Fed target rate is still below average. Observing the historical average, a neutral real rate of about 1.9% might be expected (implying about 4 more rate hikes like the last 13).

Our expectation is that the Fed will stop raising rates before returning to a 1.9% real rate. Productivity gains, cheap imports, and outsourcing will continue to restrain inflation, suggesting the Fed can afford to keep rates low (4th Quarter ’05 commentary).

Housing boom or housing bubble?

Housing prices have been rising rapidly for several years, leading to predictions of a housing bubble. Irresponsible speculation and use of interest-only loans have been widely reported. The value of homes purchased has almost quadrupled since 1991 .

Speculation and rising prices are addressed in part by the Fed tightening because higher rates make mortgages more expensive. However, if the Fed remains concerned about housing prices when inflation is well controlled, tighter regulation of lending standards would be a better tool than continuing to raise the target rate.

But are housing prices a problem? There may be a regulatory problem with low-credit lending, but we don’t see evidence of overextended homebuyers or excess housing supply. Housing prices are rising in line with the general trend in other commodities and assets. Everything that goes into building a home, from cement and copper to lumber and land, is rising in price.

Alan Greenspan and James Kennedy recently published a study including historical loan-to-price ratios. Mortgages represent a smaller percentage of the value of the home than the average of the past 15 years.

What about all that new construction? The number of housing starts is near all-time highs. This headline is true, but misleading. When the number of housing starts is divided by the non-institutional population over the age of 20 in the US, it is far from all-time highs; instead it is below average, and recovering from a prolonged low period.

If mortgage rates rise rapidly, there will almost certainly be more mortgage defaults and foreclosures because of the current popularity of floating-rate mortgages. In that scenario, prices might stagnate on a national scale and could fall in some markets where negatively amortizing loans are popular.

The broader risk to the economy risk is that consumer spending could slow when housing prices return to a more normal rate of growth. Consumer spending is linked to housing prices because homeowners are extracting equity from their homes as the value rises. Equity is being extracted from homes at an annual rate of hundreds of billions of dollars – recently averaging more than 6% of disposable income. A drop in equity extraction has the potential to reduce disposable income by 6%. Offsetting this, consumer net worth is rising rapidly and is at an all-time high.

Fragile stability of the US dollar

World trade is rapidly expanding, and the US is importing far more than it is exporting, resulting in a trade deficit. The historically large trade deficit is a risk to the strength of the US dollar because at some point, all those foreign debts have to be repaid by buying foreign currencies. The magnitude of the risk grows with the magnitude of the debt.

The federal budget deficit is also historically large, but not relative to the size of the economy, and it has been improving since August 2004. In addition, Americans own much of the federal debt, so paying it back will have less effect on the currency. At the end of 2004, foreign holdings of US Treasury debt were $1.886 billion, 44% of the total public debt .

In aggregate, the dual deficits and foreign purchases of US investments create foreign demand for US dollars of about 14% of GDP. Having supported strength in the US dollar, this foreign demand also represents a substantial risk if it slows down or stops.

Exposure to a basket of global currencies, particularly those from countries that are net exporters of commodities, is probably a safer position than being concentrated 100% in US dollar-denominated assets.

Long-term outlook

We are optimistic about global economics and financial investments over the long term. Skilled labor is widely available, and international trade is increasingly cost-effective. Thoughtful diversification across sectors, asset classes, and countries remains a sound investment approach, although US bonds appear unattractive. Global tax and regulatory reforms are increasingly favorable to investors and the economy. The financial markets are increasingly capable of supporting production, distributing risks, and creating resilience against shocks like war and natural disaster. These trends point to higher asset values, lower downside risk, and higher returns on investments.