ET Note: Every Shot Must Have A Purpose

My latest note for Epsilon Theory is a golf lesson we can apply to our portfolios.

The most grievous portfolio construction issues I see inevitably seem to center on basic issues of strategy and commitment. Particularly around whether a portfolio should be built to seek alpha or simply harvest beta(s).

You don’t have to shape your shots every which way and put crazy backspin on the ball to break 90 in golf. Likewise, not every portfolio needs to, or even should, strive for alpha generation.

There are few things more destructive (or ridiculous) you can witness on a golf course than a 20 handicap trying to play like a 5 handicap. And it’s the same with portfolios. For example, burying a highly concentrated, high conviction manager in a 25 manager portfolio at a 4% weight. Or adding a low volatility, market neutral strategy to an otherwise high volatility equity allocation at a 2% weight.

Click through to Epsilon Theory to read the whole thing.

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1Q19 Expected Returns Update

This is a quick post to share an update of this running model of expected S&P 500 returns using Federal Reserve data. As of March 31, the model predicted an 8.12% annualized return over the next 10 years. This has likely come down a bit further since then as the market rallied. As of today, we might be somewhere in the 6-7% range.

1q19sp500er
Data Source: Federal Reserve

Given there’s so much wailing and gnashing of teeth over macro risks these days it’s worth emphasizing a couple points.

First, this model is useless as a short-term timing signal. Don’t try and use it that way. If you’re looking for short-term signals you need to be looking at trend following systems and such.

Where I think there’s some utility here is as a data point you can use to help set longer-term return expectations and guide strategic asset allocation decisions (particularly when used alongside other indicators like credit spreads). When the aggregate equity allocation is close to 40% or above, it signals lower expected returns and argues for taking down US equity risk. Between 30% and 40% it signals “meh.” Probably not worth making any adjustments in this range. At least not on the basis of this model. At or below 30%, however, the model argues for adding equity risk.

Also, what I like about this model is that unlike indicators such as the CAPE or market cap/GDP what you are really measuring here is the aggregate investor preference for fixed income versus equities. When investors are very comfortable owning equities they bid up prices and expected returns fall. When investors are not comfortable owning equities they sell, prices fall and expected returns rise.

That’s the ball game.

No macro forecasting is required.

You don’t have to make any judgment calls on valuations, either.

What I would love to do eventually is run this for countries outside the US. What I suspect is that the ex-US models would show similar efficacy but with different “preferred” bands of equity exposure based on the culture of equity ownership in each country and whether or not there’s a significant impact from “hot money” flows from foreign investors.

I’m not aware of a straightforward way to find the data needed to do this. But if anyone has suggestions, please drop me a line.

The Permanent Portfolio In Action

May afforded an interesting opportunity to test the leveraged permanent portfolio strategy out of sample. (For previous posts on the permanent portfolio, see here and here) Below is data showing the results for two different leveraged permanent portfolio implementations, compared to the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (an investable proxy for a 60/40 portfolio) and SPY. You can do a deeper dive into the data here.

LeveredPP052019Portfolios
Source: Portfolio Visualizer
LeveredPP052019Monthly
Source: Portfolio Visualizer

NTSX’s laddered Treasuries provided better downside protection than the StocksPLUS bond portfolio here. But the gold exposure was also a major help, with GLD returning +1.76%. Obviously this is just a single month of performance, but the results are consistent with what you might expect based on backtests of the strategy.

Notice that the performance pattern is similar during the 4Q18 drawdown. In each case, the drawdowns are less severe than even those experienced in the 60/40 portfolio due to the diversifying impact of the gold. Because again, where the leveraged permanent portfolio shines is downside protection. You aren’t capturing all the upside of a 100% SPY allocation, but you’re capturing only a fraction of the downside.

Since December 2004, the PSPAX/GLD portfolio has captured 60% of the upside of SPY but only 43% of the downside. The asymmetry means PSPAX/GLD slightly outperforms SPY over this time period, but with less volatility. More importantly, the max drawdown is only a little more than half as bad.

Still, in my view the biggest problem the leveraged permanent portfolio presents for investors is precisely that its outperformance comes in down markets. This isn’t a sexy way to make money. It’s not the kind of thing that impresses people at cocktail parties. The behavioral challenges this presents should not be underestimated.

But personally, I’ll take a 10.62% safe withdrawal rate over cocktail chatter any day.

Correlation And Meaning

We’re all familiar with the old saw: “correlation is not causation.” Correlation is merely a statistical measure of the strength of the linear relationship between two variables. Correlations can change over time. The fancy stats word for this instability is “nonstationarity.”

Anyway, what I want to suggest in this post is that correlations can often be interpreted as markers of meaning.

For example, stocks and Treasury bonds have been negatively correlated since the financial crisis. The reason is that the meaning of Treasuries to investors, broadly speaking, is “safe haven asset.” A Treasury allocation is an allocation that will perform well in a deflationary environment. And deflation, broadly construed, has topped the list of investor fears for many years now.

A big mistake many investors (particularly younger investors) may make is assuming Treasuries will always be negatively correlated with stocks. This has not always been true historically and will not necessarily be the case in the future. Why? In a highly inflationary environment, both stocks and Treasuries will perform poorly. The two assets classes will become positively correlated.

Another example of this is gold. Traditionally, gold has been viewed as an inflation hedge and has been positively correlated with inflation expectations. These days, however, gold is liable to trade up on deflation fears as well as inflation fears. Why the change in correlation? The meaning of gold has changed. Gold has shifted from a pure inflation hedge to an insurance policy against economic chaos more generally. Gold is now a hedge against policy mistakes by our economic elites (our Ever Wise and Benevolent Central Bankers in particular).

What I’m driving at here is that if you want to better understand the nonstationarity of correlations, you ought to spend some time thinking about narrative.

A stable correlation is a correlation where objective meaning dominates. Objective statements can be proven true or false in a straightforward way. Unstable correlations are correlations where subjective meaning dominates. Subjective statements cannot be proven true or false in a straightforward way.  Subjective statements are reflexive.

George Soros described it this way:

Consider the statement, “it is raining.” That statement is true or false depending on whether it is, in fact, raining. Now consider the statement, “This is a revolutionary moment.” That statement is reflexive, and its truth value depends on the impact it makes.

There’s not much subjective judgement required to evaluate a Treasury bond as an investment. It’s a mostly objective process that more or less boils down to your views on the future path of inflation and interest rates.

Now, your views on inflation and interest rates may make Treasury bonds seem relatively more or less attractive to you at any given point in time. But there’s never any real question in anyone’s mind as to how Treasury bonds will perform in a deflationary environment versus an inflationary environment. This is what I’m driving at when I say the meaning of a Treasury bond for your portfolio is going to remain pretty stable over time. A Treasury bond is protection from deflation.

Credit is a bit more subjective than Treasury bonds because now you’ve got defaults and recoveries in the mix. And equity valuation is far more subjective than credit valuation because the timing and amounts of the cash flows associated with equities are highly variable.

The value of gold is an order of magnitude more subjective than even equities because there aren’t any cash flows associated with gold. Gold is a purely speculative asset. Gold has value because, for whatever reason, human beings have arrived at the collective consensus that it’s a store of value over tens of thousands of years.

At the extreme end of this spectrum you have something like Bitcoin. Bitcoin, of course, has no cash flows. On top of that, there’s no broad consensus regarding what Bitcoin means. Sometimes it’s a currency. Sometimes it’s a speculative risk asset. Sometimes it’s a store of value or even a safe haven asset.

You ought to be extremely skeptical of any MPT-style analysis of Bitcoin’s role in a portfolio at this point. You simply can’t know if, when or how its correlation with other portfolio assets is going to stabilize over time. Just because Bitcoin is uncorrelated today doesn’t mean it will continue to be uncorrelated in the future.

Another practical application of all this relates to factor investing.

Patterns of correlations are the building blocks for factor-based investment strategies (they are literally what the math going on under the hood is measuring). It’s well-known that factor strategies go through extended periods of outperformance and underperformance that are difficult, if not impossible, to time. Factor performance comes and goes in irregular regimes. Regimes are driven by a mixture of objective and subjective factors that influence one another in feedback loops.

Regime_Graphic

If you’re trying to figure out when the relative underperformance of value stocks will end, you need to be thinking about what in the zeitgeist and market regime needs to change so that investors will want to buy stocks with “value” characteristics (how you choose to define “value” is important here). For example, in late 2016 the election of Donald Trump triggered a massive rally in cyclical industrial and financial services stocks. If you’re a long-suffering, old-school value investor who owns a lot of these stocks, what you want at a high level is higher growth, (modestly) higher inflation and (modestly) higher long-term interest rates.

If you’re a growth-oriented investor, such as a VC, who owns unprofitable, high-growth businesses that will not generate free cash flows for many years, what you want is a regime with solid growth but even more importantly with low inflation. More specifically, low interest rates. The value of your equity ownership is extremely sensitive to the cost of capital because your investments are very long duration. Much like a zero coupon bond, their cash flows lie far out in the future.

So anyway, when you’re considering factors such as value and growth what you want to be thinking about when evaluating their potential persistence over time are the drivers of the underlying patterns of correlation. And if you go through this exercise enough, I think you’ll find you keep coming back to investor preferences for different cash flow profiles.

As my friend Rusty Guinn once wrote:

Investment returns are always and everywhere a behavioral phenomenon.

Because, in the words of Marty Whitman, we’re pretty much always looking for a “cash bailout” when it comes to our investments. And our ability to exit an investment almost always ends up depending on a sale to another party. Marty wrote a wonderful explanation of this in an old investor letter (I’ll end on this note because I think it’s a fitting conclusion for this post):

From the point of view of any security holder, that holder is seeking a “cash bailout,” not a “cash flow.” One really cannot understand securities’ values unless one is also aware of the three sources of cash bailouts.

A security (with the minor exception of hybrids such as convertibles) has to represent either a promise by the issuer to pay a holder cash, sooner or later; or ownership. A legally enforceable promise to pay is a credit instrument. Ownership is mostly represented by common stock.

There are three sources from which a security holder can get a cash bailout. The first mostly involves holding performing loans. The second and third mostly involve owners as well as holders of distressed credits. They are:

Payments by the company in the form of interest or dividends, repayment of principal (or share repurchases), or payment of a premium. Insofar as TAVF seeks income exclusively, it restricts its investments to corporate AAA’s, or U.S. Treasuries and other U.S. government guaranteed debt issues.

Sale to a market. There are myriad markets, not just the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ. There are take-over markets, Merger and Acquisition (M&A) markets, Leveraged Buyout (LBO) markets and reorganization of distressed companies markets. Historically, most of TAVF’s exits from investments have been to these other markets, especially LBO, takeover and M&A markets.

Control. TAVF is an outside passive minority investor that does not seek control of companies, even though we try to be highly influential in the reorganization process when dealing with the credit instruments of troubled companies. It is likely that a majority of funds involved in value investing are in the hands of control investors such as Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, the various LBO firms and many venture capitalists. Unlike TAVF, many control investors do not need a market out because they obtain cash bailouts, at least in part, from home office charges, tax treaties, salaries, fees and perks.

I am continually amazed by how little appreciation there is by government authorities in both the U.S. and Japan that non-control ownership of securities which do not pay cash dividends is of little or no value to an owner unless that owner obtains opportunities to sell to a market

ET Note: The Life Aquatic

life_aquatic_group

My latest for Epsilon Theory is about surviving and thriving in a highly financialized world. What’s financialization?

Financialization is all about using financial engineering techniques, either securitization or borrowing, to transfer risk. More specifically, financialization is about the systematic engineering of Heads I Win, Tails You Lose (HIWTYL) payoff structures.

In business, and especially in finance, we see this playing out everywhere.

Debt-financed share buybacks? HIWTYL.

Highly-leveraged, dropdown yieldcos? HIWTYL.

Options strategies that systematically sell tail risk for (shudder) “income”? HIWTYL.

Management fee plus carry fee structures? HIWTYL.

Literally every legal doc ever written for a fund? HIWTYL.

There are two ways to effectively handle a counterparty that has engineered a HIWTYL game: 1) refuse to play the game at all, 2) play the game only if you have some ability to retaliate if your counterpaty screws you. Legal action doesn’t count. The docs and disclosures are written to be HIWTYL, remember?

(aside: corporate borrowing can be viewed as management selling put options on a company’s assets. I’ll leave it to you to consider what that might imply about government borrowing)

You need to be in a position to hurt your counterparty for real.

You need to be in a position to hurt your counterparty economically.

A friend (who is not in finance) recently asked me about the relationship between the sell-side and the buy-side. His question was basically this: is the purpose of investment banking just to rip fee revenue out of people by whatever means necessary even if it involves deliberately misleading them to screw them over?

My answer is that the sell-side’s purpose is simply to facilitate transactions. For investment bankers, that means raising capital or advising on M&A deals or whatever. For sell-side research groups it means driving buy and sell transactions.

The sell-side does not exist to make you money.

You can do business with the sell-side. You can even respect the sell-side. But you should never trust the sell-side. The same goes for pretty much all business relationships. Especially transactional relationships.

We poke fun at the sell-side around here, but what we’re poking fun at is just the sell-side’s Buddha nature. The zen master Shunryu Suzuki described Buddha nature thusly:

“If something exists, it has its own true nature, its Buddha nature. In the Parinirvana Sutra Buddha says, “Everything has a Buddha nature,” but Dogen reads it in this way: “Everything is Buddha nature.” There is a difference. If you say, “Everything has Buddha nature,” it means Buddha nature is in each existence, so Buddha nature and each existence are different. But when you say, “Everything is Buddha nature,” it means everything is Buddha nature itself.”

If that’s a bit too inscrutable for your taste, consider the fable of the scorpion and the frog:

A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. The scorpion climbs onto the frog’s back and the frog begins to swim, but midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung the frog, to which the scorpion replies “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

Value + Catalyst

Gazprom_Balloon

I sold my Gazprom ADRs yesterday. The shares popped nearly 22% after the company proposed a 60% increase in its 2018 dividend. If you are unfamiliar with Gazprom, it is Russia’s state-owned natural gas behemoth. It is also probably one of the cheapest non-distressed stocks in the world on an absolute basis.

While I increasingly work to expand my investing horizons, I have no illusions about my truest investing self.

My truest investing self is a Ben Graham-style bottom-feeder who is happiest scooping up feared and loathed investments at significant discounts to book value. This is stuff that’s gotten so cheap all you need is for things not to deteriorate too significantly and you will make some money. Meanwhile, if things break even a little bit your way you stand to make a lot of money. It is the kind of stuff that sometimes actually makes people angry when you tell them you own it.

There are not many places in the world today where you can find non-distressed businesses trading at massive discounts to book value or on 5x earnings or whatever.

But you can find them in Russia.

To me, it is beyond question that Gazprom trades at a massive discount to the value of its net assets. You don’t exactly have to be an accounting wonk to understand that. Gazprom controls almost 20% of global natural gas reserves and supplies nearly 40% of Europe’s natural gas. It trades at 0.3x book value.

The problem you have is that the market has to believe there is a realistic path to unlocking that value in order for the stock to trade up.

Read that again. Slowly.

It is critical to understand Gazprom doesn’t have to actually unlock any value for the stock to work. The market just has to believe it will. In fact, if the market begins to assign even a modest probability to management unlocking value, the stock will start to work.

This is still not straightforward for a company like Gazprom, where it’s pretty obvious the company is being looted and the Russian state is at a minimum complicit in the looting, if not itself the architect of the looting. There was a Sberbank equity analyst, Alexander Fak, who made a compelling case Gazprom is being looted primarily via its capex. (A bit too compelling a case, apparently, as Mr. Fak was fired soon after issuing his report)

OGZPY_FinSnapshot
Source: Morningstar (currency values in in RUB)

Which brings me to the reason I am content to sell my Gazprom ADRs now, despite the fact they may trade up further in the short-term. Because of all its capex, Gazprom is free cash flow negative. By my calculation, management is proposing paying out something like RUB 380 billion of dividends for 2018. Fine and dandy on a net income of RUB 1,456 billion but not so much on free cash flow of RUB -22 billion.

My take on this is that the Russian state is engaged in some first-class financial engineering: loot the company via capex and plug any holes with borrowing. Dividend Recap: SOE Edition!

As an investor, it’s never a good idea to rely on fat dividends that aren’t backed by robust free cash flow to support an investment case. Us bottom-feeders tend to learn this the hard way early on in our investing, by averaging down value traps.

Could Gazprom play this financial shell game forever? Sure. The company is a quasi-sovereign entity. But there is a price above which I am less and less thrilled about entrusting the fate of my investment to the amity and goodwill of the Russian state and for me that threshold was about $5.65 per ADR.

Maybe some day Gazprom’s capex will come down and the financials will make a bit more sense. If so, I may happily own it again. But for now this is one of those cases where “money talks and bullshit walks.”

My Larger Point

For those of you who are also Ben Graham-style bottom feeders, I cannot emphasize the importance of catalysts for these types of investments enough. In this day and age, stuff that gets this cheap tends to be cheap for a reason. To the extent you’re not looking at a value trap you are almost certainly looking at something where there is a major impediment to value realization.

One of the things I spend more and more time thinking about on the up-front now is how those impediments might be cleared. I must admit I didn’t spend enough time thinking about this with Gazprom when I initially invested.

Shareholder activism is one obvious solution. If an activist is involved, congratulations! You’ve got a catalyst. Whether the activist’s agenda is aligned with your own, and whether the activist will succeed in implementing that agenda, are different things all together. But you’re not dead in the water.

Another potential solution is a management team that’s good at capital allocation. Management teams that are thoughtful about capital allocation will take action to close obvious value gaps. In Gazprom’s case, what a thoughtful management team not involved in looting the company would be doing would be cutting back on capex to whatever extent possible and buying back stock hand over fist.

Be wary of situations where a stock is cheap but management is entrenched and is engaged in looting the business. Gazprom is an example of this in Russia. Biglari Holdings is a great example in the US.

Then again, to paraphrase Seth Klarman, everything’s a sell at one price and a buy at another. So maybe sometimes take your chances.

Permanent Portfolio Q&A

Last week’s permanent portfolio post generated some great questions and feedback, so I wanted to do a follow-up post addressing some of the most common issues raised.

That’s a big allocation to gold. What about using REITs instead of gold?

Admittedly, gold has a lot of issues as an asset. The biggest issue with gold is that it’s a negative carry asset. Not only is there no yield on gold, but there are also costs associated with storing it (fun fact: your primary residence is also a negative carry asset unless you rent out a room or two).

In theory, it would make a lot of sense to allocate to REITs in place of gold. In an inflationary environment, the real value of the properties would increase while the real value of any debt on them would decrease.

I was able to pull US Equity REIT return data from NAREIT back to 1972 and run a new backtest looking at two different approaches to a REIT allocation. (h/t to @IrvingFisher15 for pointing me to this data on Twitter) The first portfolio swaps half the gold allocation for REITs. The second portfolio swaps half the US equity exposure for a dedicated allocation to REITS. I compared both to a 100% US Equity allocation.

PPREIT
Source: Portfolio Visualizer
PPREITEQ
Source: Portfolio Visualizer
USMKT
Source: Portfolio Visualizer
PPREIT_Growth
Source: Portfolio Visualizer
PPREIT_BACKTEST
Source: Portfolio Visualizer

By swapping some gold for REITs you improve the portfolio’s return and volatility profile but at the cost of greater drawdowns and greater correlation with the US equity market.

REITDrawDown
Source: Portfolio Visualizer

To me, a decision on this comes down to each investor’s preferred risk exposures.

In a barbell approach to portfolio construction such as the one that I favor, I would opt not to replace gold with REITs, because the whole point is to mitigate drawdowns in the “core” sleeve of the portfolio. The opportunistic sleeve of the portfolio will necessarily contain a significant amount of equity risk. This may include real estate exposure.

Someone who is implementing the permanent portfolio as a standalone portfolio, however, would likely prefer the return profile where REITs replace some of the gold.

In the basic permanent portfolio, there’s not enough equity exposure.

Usually I find when people say “there’s not enough equity exposure” what they’re really saying is “the CAGR is too low relative to my return hurdle.” We’ve been conditioned to believe that when CAGRs are too low the only solution is to take more equity risk. But that’s not necessarily true.

This is where the leveraged permanent portfolio concept comes into play. To illustrate what this might look like for a DIY investor, I backtested a simple implementation of a leveraged permanent portfolio.

Portfolio #1 is a 50/50 allocation to PIMCO StocksPLUS and GLD. The PIMCO fund uses a bond portfolio to collateralize a 100% net long exposure to S&P 500 futures for 200% notional exposure. So, at the portfolio level, this portfolio is 50% bonds, 50% stocks and 50% gold for 150% notional exposure.

Portfolio #2 is a 100% allocation to SPY as an investable proxy for the S&P 500.

Vanguard Balanced Index is included as an investable proxy benchmark for a traditional 60/40 allocation.

Below are the results.

LeveredPPGrowth
Source: Portfolio Visualizer
LeveredPPReturns
Source: Portfolio Visualizer
LeveredPPRolls
Source: Portfolio Visualizer

While this is a relatively short time period, I find the results quite compelling. The leverage allows you to increase portfolio returns without adding equity exposure. While the addition of leverage does increase portfolio drawdowns, you’ve gotten a slightly better return than a 100% SPY portfolio with drawdown characteristics similar to a 60/40 portfolio. And again, in the bargain you’re much better protected from an inflationary regime than you would be using either of the alternatives.

One of the most significant shifts in my thinking around asset allocation over time has been to embrace the use of a modest amount of leverage to build more diversified portfolios that are still capable of meeting investors’ return hurdles. I guess I am slowly but surely transforming into a risk parity guy. Of course, the REIT-for-gold switch discussed earlier in this post is also a form of levering a portfolio (REITs are leveraged assets).

Anyway, I’d be remiss to move on without commenting on what I believe is the biggest issue with implementing a permanent portfolio, either levered or unlevered, for an actual client. Particularly a retail advisory client. The issue is that the portfolio massively underperforms equity markets in strong bull markets. So it’s absolutely critical a permanent portfolio investor remain focused on absolute returns in these types of environments. Otherwise, envy will lead to FOMO and FOMO to bailing out of the strategy at EXACTLY the wrong time.

The permanent portfolio truly shines when equity markets are getting hammered, either due to inflation or deflation. It’s not a sexy way to generate returns. The behavioral challenges this presents for investors should not be underestimated.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a “solution” for this. Either people are willing to accept the potential opportunity costs of the strategy and cultivate the discipline necessary to stick with it through thick and thin, or they’re not.

What about replacing the gold allocation with trend following or Bitcoin or other uncorrelated alternatives?

By all means! Knock yourselves out. Gold was merely the easiest uncorrelated alternative for me to backtest, and also (probably) the easiest for the DIY investor or retail financial advisor to actually implement at this time. Furthermore, it doesn’t require the investor to bet on a specific investment manager to implement.

But I think it’s perfectly valid to replace the gold allocation with other uncorrelated alternatives. A word of caution, however: in my view the use of other alternatives should be biased toward strategies that perform well specifically in inflationary market regimes. That’s the whole point of owning gold here.

Why no credit exposure?

As alluded to above, this exercise was based on the K.I.S.S principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). I have mixed feelings about how best to integrate credit in a permanent portfolio. Investment grade credit probably has a home in the bond bucket, though it will introduce a bit more equity-like sensitivity to deflationary conditions.

The lower down the credit quality spectrum you go, or the more you get into hybrid securities like preferred stocks, the more you take on equity-like risk. So to the extent assets such as high-yield debt and bank loans and preferred stocks have a place in the permanent portfolio, it’s actually in the equity bucket.

The permanent portfolio is all about balancing risk exposures in light of their potential patterns of correlation across different macroeconomic and financial market regimes. Asset classes get sorted into buckets based on their historical sensitivities to those regimes and (hopefully) how robust those relationships may prove to be in the future.

This is precisely the same intuition that underlies most flavors of risk parity, including Bridgewater’s famous All-Weather portfolio. The advantage Bridgewater and other large investors have here is that they have access to the full toolbox of financial instruments for portfolio construction. Smaller investors have to hack something together based on the investments they can access.