Archive for the ‘Ethical Investing’ Category

The Bubble This Time

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

For those who look, there are many clear signs of credit/housing bubble 2.0:

  1. Extreme levels of student loan debt (and rising rates of delinquency);
  2. NYSE Margin Debt pushing to new extremes;
  3. Covenant-Lite corporate debt issuance (high risk to lenders) hitting new extremes while interest rates remain abnormally low;
  4. Extremely high proportion of houses being bought by investors paying “cash” (aka pre-funded borrowing) rather than resident owners;
  5. House prices pushing back up toward the bubble peak, while affordability metrics drop;
  6. Corporate earnings/GDP well above sustainable levels (at the expense of high trade and government deficits, and low household savings rates;
  7. Rising income and wealth inequality since the newly-minted credit is unevenly distributed.

Taking the list in detail (links only for now; will put up the linked charts later):

(1) Student Loans – U.S. Dept of Education, Sept. 30 press release and FRED Graph of Federal Student Loans

(2) NYSE Margin Debt – Analysis by Doug Short

(3) Covenant-Lite Loans – Bloomberg article on Fed Warning to Lenders

(5) House prices rising in echo of earlier bubble – charts posted by Calculated Risk

(6) Corporate earnings vs. GDP – This is a reflection of unsustainable deficits elsewhere in national income accounting; excess corporate profitability leads to stock price bubbles, since the earnings are not sustainable without genuine median income growth – See the St. Louis Fed’s National Economic Trends report.

Footnote #1:  I haven’t located quality plots for items 4 and 7 at this time.

Footnote #2:  Smart traders can make a lot of money in a bubble.  That’s part of the process by which they happen.  But if the gains aren’t sustainable, the bubble is a net expense to the nation due to malinvestment and maldistribution. And it’s not an ethical time to invest if the outcome is a “negative sum game” (that is, if your gain means someone else loses worse).


Do NOT Feed The Squid!

Friday, October 15th, 2010

I’d like to welcome my readers (all 2 of them?) from my other blog, Do Not Feed The Squid!  “DNFTS” was a great idea (and still is, so I’ve put it in the tagline above!) but I do not have time to keep up two blogs.  Also, the idea behind “Do NOT Feed The Squid”, that we’re going to have to take personal actions to stop the large financial corporations from continuing to abuse the legal system and destroy the public trust, is no longer as politically radical as it used to be.  It’s no longer a distraction from the “Ethical Investing” and “Sustainable Gains” themes here.  In fact, it’s pretty clear that investors in the mortgage lending apparatus have failed to invest ethically and are discovering that their fraudulent gains are not sustainable.  (Whether they continue to succeed in ripping off the taxpayers, only time will tell… but hopefully the public will not put up with this any longer!)

The 6 posts from “Do NOT Feed the Squid” have been moved over here verbatim, without any updates to their timestamps.

For those who may not have reviewed the “Do NOT Feed The Squid” site, here’s a list of the 6 posts in, reverse chronological order:

Post-Squid Investing Attitude Shift

Squid-Free Investing (small victories)

Preventing the Next Crisis? Automatic Stabilizers?

Restoring the Federal “Reserve”

A Quick Guide to Squid-Free Banking

What is the Squid?

Will Keeping Interest Rates Low Actually Stimulate the Economy?

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

A post today on CalculatedRisk caught my eye:  What might the Fed do?  There is a lot of anxiety about the future of the economy,  leading to wondering about whether the Fed may extend the current period of low short-term interest rates, or even buy down longer-term Treasury bonds to reduce rates further.

Implicit behind this is the idea that lower interest rates stimulate the economy.  There’s a lot of history behind the approach, but does it still hold true in today’s environment?  I am not so sure.

Low rates stimulate borrowing… but today we have few creditworthy borrowers with an appetite for additional credit. Instead we have debtors scrambling to get out of debt, unemployed people needing to live off savings, and a lot of people in and near retirement who are trying to figure out how they will generate enough income to get by.  I can see lower rates allowing debtors to reduce their interest costs, but savers then need to “save more” in order to maintain their income levels… or they need to cut spending.

Low rates encourage the government to borrow… but is that really the way to generate an economic recovery?  At present that just scares taxpaying consumers into worrying about future taxes… so they save more.

Low rates stimulate tangible investment… but today we have a surplus of capacity in everything: housing, commercial real estate, industrial production capability.

Low rates tend to make stocks more attractive than bonds… but do we want another stock market bubble?

It seems to me that what we need are new industries, new lines of work to employ the current surplus workforce and provide new demand for existing production capability. But we probably want those to be financed primarily out of equity capital rather than debt!

And it seems to me that we want to encourage saving and productive investment, by allowing those actions to generate reasonable rates of return — without frenzied capital-gains bubbles.

Post-Squid Investing Attitude Shift

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

I’ve done my share of speculative trading, but lately I’m no longer interested in dancing with the squid. At the moment I’m focused on my bond portfolio, and I’m trying to figure out how to be a *lender*, the old fashioned way, not a “bond trader”. I’d like to buy, hold to maturity, and sleep soundly at night without having to worry if a greater fool will turn up tomorrow to relieve me of my “paper” (now there’s a nice squid doublespeak term – a bond is a loan, a debt, an obligation which forces people to toil who otherwise might not – not just “paper”).

Looking at stocks, I was enamored for a while with the “Dividend Achievers” approach, e.g. the VIG or VDAIX fund. But the underlying “Dividend Achievers” index lost about 1/3 of its components in 2008-2009… Looks like dividend achievement is a bit unstable. Also, much of that dividend achievement is done with borrowing/leverage and may not be sustainable. And there are whole market sectors that need to experience destructive re-creation. I’m tempted to look more at low-debt, smaller companies (which respect their shareholders enough to pay at least some kind of dividend), with prospects for growth.

More philosophically: I don’t want to “own” something that “owes”. In my stock portfolio, I want to own things that produce, without being burdened by the high fixed costs of debt service… In my lending portfolio (bonds and bank accounts), I want to be owed, by those who don’t need my money, who I’m confident will pay me back, because they will amortize the debt and won’t need to roll the debt over. I want to be helping others do productive things and growing their way out of debt … not trapping them in it….

Lending needs to become more constructive, not predatory. And that means not giving the debt addicts another round, even when they ask for it.

And the ownership of stocks needs to be about rebuilding the real, physical, tangible, doing-cool-things economy, not speculative paper-shuffling.

Squid-Free Investing (small victories)

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

I’ve made some major progress this week in freeing myself from the squid-infested segments of the financial system.

The IRA is moving from Wells Fargo to Vanguard. My only remaining exposure to the huge TBTF banks is a small checking account at Bank of America and another account at Wells Fargo (used to pay our mortgage there). Total with the squid corps. is now just 2% of liquid assets. I can live with that.

Vanguard won my business by lowering their brokerage commission rates. We’ve had taxable accounts with them for 10 years, and love not being preyed upon.

Now I’m looking to reallocate 30-50% of my portfolio, which had been in a muni bond fund and some selected stocks. The muni bond market is suffering from too many credit-dependent entities in dire danger of a “Greece fire” should the bond market seize up again… which it may very well do, at least for those who are credit-dependent. I decided to focus my LENDING (not “bond buying” – more squid doublespeak there) more tightly on those who can amortize their debt instead of rolling it over…

On the minus side: For the next leg of my lending portfolio, I have set up a brokerage account with Fidelity since they offer the best commission rates on bonds (and at reasonable prices/yields). I’m still trying to find the catch behind their setup… one thing I’ve noticed is that their email “New Issue Offering” alerts are almost exclusively selling either squid bank CDs or squid corporate bonds (large financials). Where are the bond issues from healthy industrial and consumer corporations? Not a good sign!

Ethical Investing Dilemmas, Part 2: Stock funds in the 401k?

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

What do you really own, in your 401k?  Those shares of stock, those bonds – are they really the best way to invest in America’s future? Your future? The world’s?

If your 401k plan is like mine, you have some mutual fund choices – maybe even a lot of them. The mutual funds are either “passive” (index) stock funds, with a little of everything (within the index), or they are “active” (managed) stock funds… plus some bond funds. One example is the S&P500 index of most of the largest U.S. corporations.

Now, I save into the 401k because of how the game is rigged: I like to defer taxes until I actually need the money, and there’s the “free money” in the form of a “company match”. But I’m not happy with where I have to put my money in order to get those benefits. Do I really want to be financing the 500 largest corporations in the U.S.? Not all of them are exactly paragons of wise economic activity! Just look at what the fraud banking and health care sectors have been bribing lobbying Congress for… or the war-profiteers military-industrial complex… or the toxic junk & fast food vendors… or the telecommunications and power monopolies utilities… do I want to be investing in all THAT? Is investing supposed to be about profiting from the weaknesses of others, or about building up our collective strength? Even for otherwise reasonably productive large corporations, too often I hear about cutting quality in the name of profits, failing to actually serve their customers, and distributing rewards to management rather than shareholders.

That is not the system I want to be supporting and sustaining with my hard-earned savings. I cannot count on such a system to provide for my retirement, nor would I want to think that my last days of peace and relaxation were funded by such activities! So, I say no to the S&P500. And despite various fancy titles, unfortunately the other stock funds are pretty much the same witches’ brew.

No stock funds for me… So, what about bonds? This is long enough, so I leave that for the next post…

Ethical Investing Dilemmas, late 2009, Part 1

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

“It’s 11:00.  Do you know what your money is doing?”

This post begins a running theme for this blog:  The Ethical Dimension of Investing.

To whom do you lend?  And what, exactly, do you really “own”?

Did you own the S&P 500 last year?  Ever stop and think how much of that was “invested” in the very same financial companies which have so egregiously failed (in many senses of the world), but which subsequently repaid themselves with public money, outrageous fees, and legislative legerdemain?  Did they repay you?  I did, and they didn’t. I don’t want to be a part of that again!

When you want to “buy a bond”, or a CD, or put “money in the bank”, does it matter who gets the money, or is one’s job simply to choose a secure institution with a reasonable (preferably above average?) rate of return?

I think more is required of an investment than simply “security of principal and a reasonable rate of return”.  I want to know that my money is being put to a use that I can agree with.  I’m tolerant enough not to insist on it, but I think you should too.  It’s hopeless to expect perfection.  But I don’t want to be bankrolling some venture which history will someday judge the modern equivalent of the South Sea Bubble or TulipMania.  I suppose it’s okay to relieve willing fools of their money in a zero-sum game, but a fair amount of “investment” activity is downright destructive. Especially when the willing fools get bailouts at my expense!!!

Indeed, a lot of speculation which appears to be “zero-sum” is, in truth, necessarily negative-sum.  Because even if money just changes hands without an overall gain or loss, nevertheless time is wasted which could have been put to better use.

This is a general introduction. The next post in this series will delve into specifics from my perspective.  But for now I want to mention Move Your Money, which provides a provocative (if perhaps hyperbolic) illustration of the issue!

About the Author and the Blog

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

“Wisdom Speaker” is a working physical scientist living on the east side of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Wisdom Speaker is between 30 and 50 years old and has a top-tier Ph.D. in his field.  W.S. also has a spouse, 2 children in school, a house with a mortgage, and occasionally a sharp tongue. Like many his age, W.S. manages a portfolio that is “big enough to worry about, but too small to retire on”.

For years, W.S.’s spouse led the family to develop strong saving habits, and over the years they invested using conventional buy-and-hold, dollar-cost-averaging, asset-allocation methods. But in 2005 realized that conventional financial wisdom was no longer adequate to the times. Unfortunately this occurred after buying a new home near the peak of the 2000-2006 housing bubble. Although the home equity could not be saved (for some years, anyway), the housing experience “woke them up” to the speculative/Ponzi financial environment. Time was invested in a more detailed financial education. Abandoning “buy-and-hold” and taking detailed control of the household finances, W.S. went to cash and avoided the 2008 financial panic.

The family finances came out well ahead of their 75/25 allocation benchmark, but now the question arises as to how, exactly, one should invest for sustainable gains going forward.  The classic definition of an “investment operation” is one which, “upon thorough analysis, promises security of principal and a reasonable rate of return” (Benjamin Graham). In short, a sustainable gain!  Now, some of what is often considered speculation is in fact investment (e.g. trading with a high probability of success, but a short time horizon).  On the other hand, the lesson America failed to learn from Enron and the dot-coms is that too often, what is sold as “investment”, is actually speculation – or worse, fraud!  Clearly we cannot trust others to do our “thorough analysis”, guarantee “security of principal”, or deliver a “reasonable rate of return” for us.  How now to invest?  W.S. hopes to share what he has learned about investing for “Sustainable Gains”, and to learn from others with similar interests.

W.S. also believes that Graham missed a critical element of what constitutes an “investment”.  There is an ethical or moral dimension to investing:  one must put one’s time and treasure to good use, and be able to sleep well knowing what the “investees” are doing with one’s treasure.  An “Investment Operation” must be one which “upon thorough analysis, promises security of principal and a reasonable rate of return while putting capital to a use one can agree with.  Wave upon wave of financial scandal shows that this issue is far wider than “socially responsible” index fund sellers would have one believe.  Even the simple act of buying a CD, or a T-bill, has an ethical component. So “Ethical Investing” will be another theme covered here.

Another issue that comes up almost immediately is that the fiat money we use today isn’t wealth, or capital, or anything really.  It’s a bunch of carefully arranged electrons (or paper, or metal disks, but always of minimal intrinsic value) which record the exchange of debts.  But debt is not capital!  Capital is the surplus of production over consumption.  Debt is an agreement to deliver future production in exchange for current production.  True wealth might be better defined as accumulated resources to meet human needs.  W.S. has only dabbled in this area so far, but understanding the “Nature of Wealth” is vital to having “Sustainable Gains” in this area, and will be another theme here.

Finally, there is the eternal issue of time. One can often earn more money, or save it, but one’s time is far more strictly limited. Time spends itself whether one likes it or not, one never knows how much one has left, and it’s darned hard to get more!  But perhaps careful “Time Investing” (not just time management), particularly in conjunction with financial investing, can lead to sustainable gains (measured in terms of any personal goal) as well?  At any rate, between work, family, and personal needs, W.S. feels time-poor, and struggles to fit all the joys and sorrows of life into the 24-hour day, so “Time Investing” will be another theme here.

Hope you enjoy the site!  I look forward to seeing where this goes…

Thoughts on hedging

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

From July 10, 2009.  This is a comment relative to a post on Aleph Blog.  I held posting the comment here, so I could think this out more, but in the end I like the train of thought as it was and haven’t edited it much…

In the end, ownership is about the strategic selection of risks, calculated risks, where the likely rewards outweigh the risks. If the likely rewards don’t outweigh the risks then ownership (“investment”) is not a good choice. As Ben Graham put it, thorough analysis, security of principal and a reasonable return are the essential ingredients. Complexity bedevils analysis; hedging tends to involve concealment of risks to principal; financial intermediation (e.g. with a counterparty) requires sharing the expected return. The odds of mis-estimating risk become much higher.

On a more philosophical plane: I would hate to live in a world where everyone was “hedged” or “insured” and thought they had no risk, and yet would earn some kind of return. A world of prudent risk-takers, willing to put actual capital on the line because they’ve done their homework and willing to work to make their commitments work out, is better than a world of “hedged” risk-averse “free lunch” seekers who just want some counterparty to make everything all better for them if they turn out to be wrong.

There’s a moral hazard aspect to insurance — think about how popular the high-hazard “extreme” sports are, now that everyone feels entitled to having someone else pay for their wrecks. There’s also the problem that your average individual, regardless of means, is just not sufficiently sophisticated financially to make proper use of these “hedging” tools. We live in a nation where much of the population cannot do something as simple and obvious as paying off their credit cards in full each month! This applies all the way up to the highest levels of business and government — Representatives, Senators and even national presidential candidates are up to their eyeballs in debt that apparently is not in their financial interest. Should we really be turning the Wall Street marketing mafia loose with new “financial innovations”, on such ignorant prey?

My intuition tells me that it would be better for society if people who aren’t comfortable owning a particular asset were encouraged (“invisble hand” style) to stop owning it, NOT for them to maintain “ownership” but with “insurance”. Shiller and other advocates of hedging tools seem to be living in the pre-crash mentality, where financial complexity seemed like a good thing, and counterparty risks could be ignored. Such is not the case now. With the number of publicly filing businesses down about 1/3, and the number issuing “going concern” warnings rising dramatically, it’s flawed logic to assume that “insurance” (as a generic concept) is “guaranteed”. Would you sell a future on your home to the next AIG? The next Countrywide? The next Lehman Brothers? In the absence of financial transparency, how would you know?  Particularly with respect to off-balance-sheet (and allegedly “hedged”) risk exposures, there’s no way to tell that your counterparty of choice won’t blow up in the next 10 years (or whatever time horizon). In such an environment, hedging makes little sense from a Graham-ian investment perspective, because upon thorough analysis the risks are quite likely too high.