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The Credit Crunch and the Market

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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.

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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.

Inflation: Labor, Commodities and Energy

There has been a lot of talk about the impact of rising energy prices on corporate profit margins. This is over-rated.

Corporate costs in America are much more heavily weighted toward labor. And it is labor cost inflation that hurts corporate profit margins most. Corporate costs are, on average, 70% labor, 5% commodities, and 3% energy. Energy and commodity prices could continue to rise – even double from here – without changing the cost structure of American businesses in a drastic way. The same dynamic is not true in many other countries, including emerging markets, where labor costs represent a smaller proportion of corporate costs. As energy and commodity prices rise, those companies may encounter much more pressure on their profit margins.

So what’s the bottom line? Energy and commodities can continue to rally without significantly damaging corporate profit margins. Furthermore, rising energy and commodity prices will give a relative advantage to the most efficient producers.

Falling Profit Margins

More availability of information leads to more competition. More Competition leads to lower profit margins.

Higher profit margins will only be possible in businesses with limited competition. The dominant way to legally limit competition is through innovation and protecting intellectual property rights.

Innovators will be rewarded more and more over time.

Over time, information becomes more and more available and interpretable. In this environment, people are able to demand fair compensation with a better and better understanding of what fair is. People will have to be compensated more and more closely to the value of their work. As this happens, profit margins will fall toward the pure value of synergy, however it is defined, and equity valuations will reflect these changes. Whenever employers refuse to meet the demanded minimum compensation for employees, the employee suddenly becomes competition. The economy will transition toward a large number of smaller economic players rather than the small number of large currently dominant players. Existing job roles become commoditized over time as large numbers of players compete profit margins away. The only way to substantially and positively differentiate your profit margins is to do something that is not yet commoditized; in other words, to innovate. The only way to maintain your differentiated position is to protect your existing innovations through patents and secrecy and continue to innovate.

Implications:

  1. In valuing your stock positions in companies, consider how easy it may be to enter their market in the future. Also consider their profit margins with the knowledge that there tends to be a profit squeeze as competition increases.
  2. Record your thoughts if you think that they may be unique and potentially valuable. Nobody else can patent something if you thought of it and recorded it properly first.