As usual the 2016 Letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders by Warren Buffet provides great thoughts for investors.
American business – and consequently a basket of stocks – is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that. Ever-present naysayers may prosper by marketing their gloomy forecasts. But heaven help them if they act on the nonsense they peddle.
Warren is not a fan of market timing, for good reason. I do think he may be a bit overly-optimistic. It is not something innate about the geography of the USA that means whoever is within that area will prosper over the long term. Our actions as a society materially impact our long term success. Yes, we have done very well economically and we have many factors continuing to make that likely to continue. But it is not certain.
Those willing to challenge rosy projections serve a useful purpose. But investors must be careful not to lose out on gains. Timing the market is rarely successful. Even in the cases where people do reasonable well getting out of a highly priced market they often fail to get back into the market until after they lose money on the effort (they may save a bit on the downside but then don’t get back in until they missed more upside than they saved on the downside).
- understand all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses;
- conservatively assess the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does;
- set a premium that, on average, will deliver a profit after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and
- (4) be willing to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained.
Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. They simply can’t turn their back on business that is being eagerly written by their competitors. That old line, “The other guy is doing it, so we must as well,” spells trouble in any business, but in none more so than insurance.
Must of Berkshire Hathaway’s success is due to what seem like fairly easy things to do. For example, what Warren discusses here. This reinforces a point that is often overlooked which is the management philosophy that has helped Berkshire Hathaway achieve their success. Every year Warren Buffett praises the senior managers at various Berkshire Hathaway companies for good reason.
The fairly simple idea of hiring trustworthy, capable and ethical people and giving them freedom to manage for the long term seems too easy to provide an advantage. But it does. Warren Buffett is very careful to pick people that are more concerned with providing value to customers over the long term than promoting themselves and seeking massive short term rewards for themselves. This simple act of hiring people that are willing to put customers and shareholders before themselves allows your organizations to function in its long term best interest.
In so many other companies short term incentives destroy value (Warren’s point 4 above). This failure can extend to companies Warren is significantly invested in: such as the long term and deep seeded mismanagement at Wells Fargo due to very poor leadership at that company for years. But in general, Berkshire Hathaway is much better at avoiding these toxic behaviors driven by very poor executive leadership when compared to other companies.
The importance of Berkshire Hathaway focusing on the long term and not getting distracted by short term financial measures is vastly under-appreciated.
By focusing managers and CEOs on actually running the business Berkshire Hathaway again does well compared to their competitors. Far too many companies spend the time of executives on playing financial games to divert huge payments to themselves that they then try to claim are not really costs. This is enormously costly to investors and our economy.
Diversification and keeping down fees are the investing strategies that will help more investors than anything else.
The report, The Dwindling Taxable Share Of U.S. Corporate Stock, from the Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center includes some amazing data.
In 1965 foreign ownership of USA stocks totaled about 2%, in 1990 it had risen to 10% and by 2015 to 26%. That the foreign ownership is so high surprised me. Holdings in retirement accounts (defined benefit accounts, IRAs etc.) was under 10% in 1965, rose to over 30% in 1990 and to about 40% in 2015. The holdings in retirement accounts doesn’t really surprise me.
The combination of these factors (and a few others) has decreased the holding of USA stocks that are taxable in the USA from 84% in 1965 to 24% in 2015. From the report
As with much economic data it isn’t an easy matter to determine what values to use in order to get figures such as “foreign ownership.” Still this is very interesting data, and as the report suggests further research in this area would be useful.
Related: There is No Such Thing as “True Unemployment Rate” – The 20 Most Valuable Companies in the World – February 2016 (top 10 all based in the USA) – Why China’s Economic Data is Questionable – Data provides an imperfect proxy for reality (we often forget the proxy nature of data)
Alphabet (Google) writes how they purchased 3.2 million shares this quarter in their earnings release:
In Q1 2016, we repurchased 3.2 million shares of Alphabet Class C capital stock for an aggregate amount of $2.3 billion, of which $2.1 billion was paid during the quarter. The total remaining authorization for future repurchases is approximately $1.4 billion. The authorization has no expiration date.
And they tout non-GAAP earnings, while of course reporting the GAAP earnings as required. One of the things executives like about non-GAAP earnings is they pretend the stock they give away to themselves doesn’t have a cost to shareholders. When you call attention to spending over $2 billion in the quarter to buy back 3.2 million shares it seems silly to then claim that the stock you gave away shouldn’t be considered as an expense.
How can you pay over $2 billion just to get back the stock you gave away and also pretend that money is not really a cost? And on top of that you promote the buyback as evidence that the stock is really worth more than you paid (after all why would you pay more than it is worth). But when you give the stock away to yourself that shouldn’t be seen as a cost? It is amazing they can do this and think they are not doing anything wrong.
And where does Google stand compared to last year for outstanding shares? 689,498,000 last year compared to 699,311,000 now. So nearly 10,000,000 more shares outstanding, even after they bought back 3.2 million this quarter. In the previous quarter there where 697,025,000 shares outstanding. All these figures are weighted-average diluted share balances for the entire quarter.
Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, got a $100 million stock award in 2015 (before being promoted to CEO). After the promotion he will be taking an additional “$209 million in stock granted every other year (he has to stay at Google for four years after each grant to cash them out).” He was granted $335 million in stock in 2014 and $78 million in 2013. You can see how quickly the executives paying themselves this well (this is 1 executive, a highly ranked one but still just 1) can dilute stockholders positions even with multi billion dollar buybacks in a quarter.
You don’t hear companies promoting how much dilution they are imposing on shareholders in order to provide windfalls for executives. I wonder why? No I don’t. I do wonder why reporters promote the buybacks and ignore the fact that the dilution is so extreme that it even overwhelms billions of dollars in buybacks.
Alphabet reported $6.02 a share in earnings and $7.50 a share in non-GAAP “earnings” for the latest quarter.
As I have said before I believe Google’s ability to extract enormous profit from their search dominance (as well as YouTube and adwords) makes it a very compelling long term investment. It would be better if the executives were not allowed to take such huge slices from the cash flow Google generates. But it is able to sustain those raids on stockholder equity and still be a good investment and appears likely to be able to continue to do so. Though I think they would be better off reducing the amount executives take going forward.
When I lived in Malaysia I learned that the residential electricity rates were very low for the low levels of use and climbed fairly rapidly as you used a lot of electricity (say running your air conditioner a lot). I think this is a very good idea (especially for the not yet rich countries). In rich countries even most of the “poor” have high use of electricity and it isn’t a huge economic hardship to pay the costs.
Effectively the rich end up subsidizing the low rates for the poor, which is a very sensible setup it seems to me. The market functions fairly well even though it is distorted a bit to let the poor (or anyone that uses very little electricity) to pay low rates.
In a country like Malaysia as people become rich they may well decide to use a great deal of electricity for air conditioning (it is in the tropics). But their ancestors didn’t have that luxury and having that be costly seems sensible to me. Allowing the poor to have access to cheap electricity is a very good thing with many positive externalities. And subsidizing the rate seems to be a good idea to me.
Often you get bad distortions in how markets work when you try to use things like subsidies (this post is expanded from a comment I made on Reddit discussing massive bad investments created by free electricity from the power company to city governments – including free electricity to their profit making enterprises, such as ice rinks in Puerto Rico).
With the model of low residential rates for low usage you encourage people to use less electricity but you allow everyone to have access at a low cost (which is important in poor or medium income countries). And as people use more they have to pay higher rates (per kwh) and those rates allow the power company to make a profit and fund expansion. Often in developing countries the power company will be semi-private so the government is involved in providing capital and sharing in profits (as well as stockholders).
The USA mainly uses central air conditioning everywhere. In Malaysia, and most of the world actually, normally they just have AC units in some of the rooms. In poor houses they may well have none. In middle class houses they may have a one or a couple rooms with AC units.
Even in luxury condos (and houses) they will have some rooms without AC at all. I never saw a condo or house with AC for the kitchen or bathrooms. The design was definitely setup to use AC in fairly minimal ways. The hallways, stairways etc. for the “interior” of the high rise condos were also not air conditioned (they were open to the outside to get good air flow). Of course as more people become rich there is more and more use of AC.
Related: Traveling for Health Care – Expectations – Looking at the Malaysian Economy (2013) – Pursuing a Growing Economy While Avoiding the Pitfalls That Befall to Many Middle Income Countries – Singapore and Iskandar Malaysia – Looking at GDP Growth Per Capita for Selected Countries from 1970 to 2010 – Malaysian Economy Continues to Expand, Budget Deficits Remain High (2012) – Iskandar Malaysia Housing Real Estate Investment Considerations (2011)
Credit scores are far from a great measure of weather a person is a great credit risk for a specific loan, in my opinion. However, they are very widely used and therefor, very important. They also are somewhat useful. And lenders don’t base judgement solely on credit scores, they consider many other factors, if they have any sense at all.
Credit scores range from 300 to 850. They are calculated by various credit reporting organizations, including FICO. They factor in payment history, percent of outstanding credit available that is used, credit report checks, length of outstanding credit accounts, etc..
Metlife report on consumers and credit scores provides some interesting data.
|Credit score range||Default rate*|
* Default rate in this case means, 90 days past due. MetLife got this data from the Consumer Financial Health Study dataset**.
Peer to peer lending platform, Lending Club, limits loans to those with a minimum credit score of 660 (remember there are multiple organizations that provide credit scores, this minimum is based on Lending Club’s score). In general I see scores above 700 in A and B loans, scores from 650-700 in C and D loans. Remember the credit score is not the only factor setting the rate (you will see scores above 700 in the C loans sometimes, etc.). Credit scores provide some insight but are just 1 factor in approving loans or setting rates (an important one but not a completely dominant one).
About 38% of people have credit scores from 750-850. Another 37% from 600-749 and about 25% from 350-599.
Vantage Score decided to make their score range go up to 1000, not the standard 850. Maybe a 750 score for them is comparable to 680? They say super-prime is 900+ (750-850 on more common scale), prime is 701-900 (680-739), near-prime 641-700 (620-679), subprime 501-640 (550-619). Anyway that chart shows the changing default rates from 2003 to 2010 by type of loan.
This Federal Reserve report on meeting between Federal Reserve Board staff and Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) 20 June 2013 has some interesting material.
For guidance, the following table generally matches a borrower’s odds-of-default with the corresponding FICO 8 score (calculated on performance from Oct 2008 – Oct 2010). Of course, the range of scores and odds-of-default [the data is related to mortgages] will vary with each model as creditors develop and validate their own credit scoring models.
Odds-of Default FICO 8 Score percent of population** 5:1 610 9% 10:1 645 9% 20:1 685 6% 30:1 705 6% 40:1 720 6% 50:1 735 9% 100:1 770 30%
As you can see at a 610 level, 20 loans out of 100 defaulted. At 685 just 5 in 100 defaulted and at 770 just 1 in 100 did.
** I had to adjust this, because the report didn’t report it in this form, so it a very approximate measure (I made estimates for something like scores from 735 to 769 etc.). Again this is data from the Oct 2008 – Oct 2010 period. The rest of the population (about 25%) would have scores below 610.
This page references a Fed report (that I can’t find) that found the following default rates on new loans for the two years after origination, 2000-2002:
|Credit score range||Default rate*|
The Consumer Financial Health Study respondents were asked to self-assess their credit quality and for permission to pull their actual credit scores.8 Forty-five percent of survey participants granted permission, yielding an “opt-in” sample size of 3,215. We appended two objective measures of creditworthiness to the dataset: Experian provided VantageScore 3.0 credit scores, and LexisNexis® Risk Solutions provided RiskView™ scores. VantageScore is a generic credit scoring model that was created by the three major credit bureaus (Equifax®, Experian and TransUnion®) and, in addition to
tradeline data, includes rent, utility and cell phone payment data when it is available in consumer credit files.
Health insurance options are confusing for those of us in the USA (those outside the USA are free of the frustrations of USA health care system). One of the features of a health insurance plan in the USA is the out-of-pocket “maximum.”
Now if you think you understand english you might think this is the maximum you have to pay out of your pocket. If you understand how horrible the USA health care system is and how nothing is easy, you probably suspect it isn’t a maximum at all. I find myself thinking that I don’t really understand what this seemingly simple value actually means, so I decided to research it and write this blog post.
First of all you have to pay the monthly premiums (assuming your employer doesn’t pay them for you), probably a few hundred or more dollars every month. Then the coverage likely has a deductible maximum for the year.
For this example, for 1 person the insurance costs $300/month with a yearly deductible maximum of $5,000. And the insurance plan says there is an out-of-pocket “maximum” of $6,500. Well 12 *$300 + $5,000 = $8,600. So, as you can probably guess, out-of-pocket “maximum” doesn’t actually mean the maximum out of your pocket. In fact the $8,600 is excluded from the out-of-pocket maximum calculation altogether.
So, you then might think ok, my actual out-of-pocket maximum (the most I will have to pay all year for health care) is $8,600 + $6,500 = $15,100. But that isn’t right either.
First, this is only for covered medical expenses, uncovered medical expenses are not included. This makes some sense, certainly, but in your planning, you can’t think your health care costs are capped at $15,100. Especially since in the USA lots of health care will be uncovered (dental care is often excluded, mental health care may well be limited, certain types of treatment may not be covered, prescription glasses, non-prescription drugs, addiction treatment…).
Remember, USA health care coverage isn’t even just limited by the type of care. For example, even if fixing your injured leg is covered, if you don’t do it using exactly the right places (where your health plan covers the cost), it may be considered to be uncovered care. In general, emergency care is more flexible for what is covered, but the horror stories of dealing with health insurers refusal to pay for provided health care adds risk to any health care someone gets in the USA.
Here is a good explanation of out-of-pocket cost questions (in this quote looking at out of network costs): “Out of Pocket Maximum” and health insurance plan terminology and calculation?
This chart shows that the percentage of millionaire families by highest education level is dramatically different by education level. The data is looking at USA family income for household headed by a person over 40. For high school dropouts, fewer than 1% are millionaires; all families it is about 5%; high school graduates about 6%; 4 year college degree about 22% and graduate or professional degree about 38%.
While the costs of higher education in the USA have become crazy the evidence still suggests education is highly correlated to income. Numerous studies still show that the investment in education pays a high return. Of course, simple correlation isn’t sufficient to make that judgement but in other studies they have attempted to use more accurate measures of the value of education to life long earnings.
Related: The Time to Payback the Investment in a College Education in the USA Today is Nearly as Low as Ever, Surprisingly – Looking at the Value of Different College Degrees – Engineering Graduates Earned a Return on Their Investment In Education of 21%
The blog post with the chart, Why Wealth Inequality Is Way More Complicated Than Just Rich and Poor has other very interesting data. Go read the full post.
Average isn’t a very good measure for economic wealth data, is is skewed horribly by the extremely wealthy, median isn’t a perfect measure but it is much better. The post includes a chart of average wealth by age which is interesting though I think the $ amounts are largely worthless (due to average being so pointless). The interesting point is there is a pretty straight line climb to a maximum at 62 and then a decline that is about as rapid as the climb in wealth.
That decline is slow for a bit, dropping, but slowly until about 70 when it drops fairly quickly. It isn’t an amazing result but still interesting. It would be nice to see this with median levels and then averaged over a 20 year period. The chart they show tells the results for some point in time (it isn’t indicated) but doesn’t give you an idea if this is a consistent result over time or something special about the measurement at the time.
They also do have a chart showing absolute wealth data as median and average to show how distorted an average is. For example, median wealth for whites 55-64 and above 65 is about $280,000 and the average for both is about $1,000,000.
Related: Highest Paying Fields at Mid Career in USA: Engineering, Science and Math – Wealthiest 1% Continue Dramatic Gains Compared to Everyone Else – Correlation is Not Causation: “Fat is Catching” Theory Exposed
A new study, Secure Retirement, New Expectations, New Rewards: Work in Retirement for Middle Income Boomers, explores how Boomers are blurring the lines between working for pay and retirement (as I have discussed in posts previously, phased retirement).
From their report:
The define middle income as income between $25,000 and $100,000 with less than $1 million in investable assets and boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964.
Nearly 70% of retirees retired earlier than they planned to. Many did so due to health issues. Only 3% retired so they could travel more.
48% of middle income boomer retirees wish they could work. For those wishing to, but unable to work: 73% cannot due to health, 17% can’t find a job and 10% must care for a loved one.
Nearly all (94%) nonretirees who plan to work in retirement would like some kind of special work arrangement, such as flex-time or telecommuting, but only about one third (37%) of currently employed retirees have such an arrangement.
It seems to me, both employees and employers need to be more willing to adapt. Workers seem to be more willing, even though they claim they are not: this is mainly a revealed versus stated preference, they claim they won’t accept lower pay but as all those that do show, they really are willing to do so, they just prefer not to. This report is based on survey data which always has issue; nevertheless there are interesting results to consider.
61% of middle income boomers who ware working say they do so because they want to work, not because they have to work.
Only 12% of working middle income boomer retirees work full time all year. 60% work part-time. 7% are seasonal while 16% are freelance and 4% are other. Of those identifying as non-retired 75% work full time while 17% are part-time.
49% plan to work into their 70’s or until their health fails.
51% are more satisfied with their post-retirement work than their pre-retirement work. 27% are equally satisfied with their jobs.
As I have stated in previous posts I think a phased approach to retirement is the most sensible thing for society and for us as individuals. Employers need to provide workable options with part time work. The continued health care mess in the USA makes this more of a challenge than it should be. With USA health care being closely tied to employment and it costing twice as much as other rich countries (for no better results) it complicates finding workable solutions to employment. The tiny steps taken in the Affordable Care Act are not even 10% of magnitude of changes needed for the USA health care system.
Related: Providing ways for those in their 60’s and 70’s (part time schedules etc.) – Companies Keeping Older Workers as Economy Slows (2009) – Keeping Older Workers Employed (2007) – Retirement, Working Longer to Make Ends Meet
One thing for investors consulting historical data to remember is we may have had fundamental changes in stock valuations over the decades (and I suspect they have). Just to over simplify the idea if lets say the market valued the average stock at a PE of 11 and everyone found stocks a wonderful investment. And so more and more people buy stocks and with everyone finding stocks wonderful they keep buying and after awhile the market is valuing the average stock at a PE of 14.
Within the market there is tons of variation those things of course are not nearly that simple, but the idea I think holds. Well if you look back at historical data the returns will include the adjustment of going from a PE of 11 to a PE of 14. Now maybe the new few decades would adjust from PE of 14 to PE of 17 but maybe not. At some point that fundamental re-adjustment will stop.
And therefore future returns would be expected to be lower than historically due to this one factor. Now maybe other factors will increase returns to compensate but if not the historical returns may well provide an overly optimistic view.
And if there is a short term bubble that lets say pushes the PR to 16 while the “fair” long term value is 14, then there will be a negative impact on the returns going forward bringing the PE from 16 to 14. That isn’t necessarily a drop (though it could be) in stock prices, it could just be very slow increases as earning growth slowly pushes PE back to 14.
Another thing to consider is another long term macro-economic factor may also be giving long term historical returns an extra boost. The type of economic growth from the end of World War I to 1973 (just to pick a specific time, there was a big economic slowdown after OPEC drastically increased the price of oil). While that period includes the great depression and World War II, which massively distorts figures, from the end of WW I through the 1960s Europe and the USA went through an amazing amount of economic growth.
I am largely a fundamental investor with the long term time horizon that fits such investing. I however am also a believer in using some more speculative investing for a portion of a portfolio if it fits the risk profile of an investor.
If you are not comfortable with the risk of an investment most of the time you shouldn’t make that investment. There is a bit of a conflict, for example, where an investor is scared of any loss from say an investment in a stock market index and trying to save for retirement on a median level income. It is nearly impossible to save for retirement without investing in stocks if you are not already rich, so as with most investment advice there is a bit of difficulty at the extremes but in general investors shouldn’t take on risk they are not comfortable with.
For experienced investors with a high level of financial literacy more speculative options can have a useful role in a portfolio. Though you should realize most people fail with speculation, so you have to be realistic about your prospects. I have used speculative investments including naked short selling, leverage (margin) and options.
Spread betting is another speculative strategy that can play a part in an investment portfolio. Spread betting is not allowed in the USA (with our highly regulated personal investing environment but is available in most other countries). They are somewhat similar to binary options (which are allowed in the USA) and to futures contracts (they are not the same, just those are comparable to get some idea of how you would use them in a portfolio).
Spread betting really is a bet on what will happen. You don’t buy a financial instrument. You place a bet with a company and if the prices move for you and you close the position with a gain they pay out a gain to you and if you close out the position with a loss your capital held with them is reduced by your loss amount.
Since the price to control a position is much less than the notional position size there is a large degree of leverage which increases the affect of gains and loses. Since positions can move against you and must be settled if the loss exceed your deposit with the company you are trading with having a substantial cash cushion is the way I would use such a speculative account. If I decided I could afford to risk losing $5,000 I would deposit that amount.
My purchases would about 10% of the capital in the account (so $500 at first). If that is leveraged at 20 to 1 (just requiring 5% down on margin), that would make my effective leverage just 2 to 1. But if I added other positions that would increase my leverage, say 2 more purchases and my leverage would be 6 to 1.
The way I have managed the speculative portion of my portfolio is to fund it and then pull off part of the gains to my long term portfolio and retain part of the gains to build my speculative account. It isn’t really quite that clear as I have different level of speculation in my portfolio. Options are speculative but have a limit of 100% loss. Selling stocks short (naked shorting) is speculative but has theoretically unlimited losses. Using margin on regular stocks has the potential to lose more than you have invested though most of the time you should be stopped out before the losses are too much beyond your entire account value.
So I don’t really have a clear cut speculative portfolio but I roughly follow that procedure. I have added to the speculative portion when I have had very large gains in a particular portion of my main portfolio.
Another factor with spread betting, shorting and options is that they can actually be used to reduce the risk of your overall portfolio using certain strategies. If you believe there is a risk for a market downturn but don’t want to sell any of your stock holdings you can use spread betting to create a position that will gain if the market declines. That gain then will offset the likely loss on your stock positions thus reducing you risk in a market decline.
Of course, if you do that and the market moves up you will create a loss on you spread betting position that offsets your gains on your stock positions. You could also bet against specific stocks that you think will decline more in a market decline and seek to increase your return of course that has risks (including the market declining along with your stocks but that stocks you bet against could move against you anyway). I have used this strategy with selling stocks short occasionally.
An additional risk to consider with spread betting is you need to find a company you trust to be around to pay off your gains. You would want to examine the safety of your funds and that (in the UK) the account is covered by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and complies with the FCA’s Client Assets provisions (and in other countries they have similar coverage). To be safe you should consider whether holding more than the covered amount is wise in your account. The last 10 years have provided examples of the riskiness of financial companies going out of business; that your funds wouldn’t be accessible is a risk that must be considered.