Tag Archives: mortgage

Not Investment Advice

Dear Friends,

First

No Liability. This is not advice for any specific person. Everything here could be wrong; think for yourself. Only you are responsible for your behavior. If you accept these terms, you may continue reading.

I get asked for financial and investment advice a lot, and want to help. There has been tremendous public attention aimed at complicated financial and economic issues, and I’m happy to give my perspective on planning and investing.

Cash Flow and your House

First of all, as always, never maintain a balance on your credit cards from month to month. For those who maintain big savings accounts and a mortgage, make extra principal payments now. Savings accounts earn much less than mortgage interest, so use some of that savings to reduce the interest you pay. By law there is no penalty for making extra principal payments.

The Planning Mindset

Economic risk is high right now. We could recover with strong employment and growing prosperity. We could have a run on US Dollar debt and fall into an inflationary and humanitarian collapse. The likely future is somewhere in between. Our future course is unknowable, and anyone who tells you otherwise is overconfident. Instead, try to be aware of the range of possibilities and strike a balance that leaves you well prepared.

The biggest reason for high risk right now is the fragile confidence in the long term solvency of debtor nations. The shaken confidence is rational because it remains unclear if global debt and trade imbalances can come back into balance smoothly – or only through national default.

Making Investments

Stocks look pretty reasonable right now. In the US, dividends and earnings look good from a historical perspective. In a lot of emerging markets, stocks have big discounts because of perceived risk — but how much riskier is it for an emerging business to imitate existing efficiency, compared to a developed business improving through R&D? Owning stocks now looks better than usual, and diversifying globally seems as important and attractive as ever.

Bonds look bad. They may be in a bubble. If the Federal Reserve and the banks can not work together to maintain a stable monetary base, we risk high inflation. Monetary policy has eased in an attempt to offset the shrinking bank leverage, but history suggests that reversing this situation will not go smoothly. The recent financial reform included some good ideas, but does not protect against re-leveraging the banks.

Assets are the opposite of bonds; the same thinking above applies in reverse to assets. If bank lending recovers while monetary policy is still generous, then inflation can raise the price of real estate, gold, and everything else.

Overall, pay down your mortgage and use credit as little as possible – interest rates are high for people and companies. Don’t loan the government money by buying bonds — money has flooded in and they pay a low interest. Focus on global equities and real assets, especially emerging markets and commodities that are supply-constrained.

Economics and Trends

In the modern adult lifetime, emerging markets look poised to fully emerge. Investing globally looks wise. As global production enables global consumers to behave more like US consumers, there will not be enough raw materials. The constraining factors are the commodities used in production, so owning those looks wise. There is plenty of low skill labor in the world, so education will become increasingly important. The most educated nations likely have better 10-40 year outlooks than the less educated nations.

Finally, innovation has been lowering prices and improving products at an ~increasing~ rate, so save your money and delay your gratification because products in the future are going to be much better than what you can buy today.

Hope that helps.

Happy to discuss,

Dan

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Reconsider the Stimulus

I am fed up with the structure of the stimulus plan.  Bailing out failed banks is foolish when tax credits for mortgage payments would cut the foreclosure rate and fix the toxic debt.  Why ignore this easy and super-efficient tactic?

If I could recommend a specific plan, it would be to provide tax credits for up to $30k/year in mortgage payments for primary residences for the next 2 years. This relatively cheap solution maintains free market capitalism with all the good incentives, and would dramatically reduce the foreclosure rate — particularly for those paying less than $30k/year for their mortgages. The plan could be extended or expanded if necessary, of course.

The result would be a reduction in mortgage defaults, an increase in the value of mortgage backed securities (MBSs), and a recovery of the financial strength of the lending institutions and pensions that hold MBSs. Essentially, this would repair the cause of the credit crisis rather than throwing money away at the symptoms and rewarding failure.

As soon as it is announced, assumptions about foreclosure rates would fall, raising the value of MBSs the same day.

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.