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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cash Flow Generating Securities

One of my personal favorites is calculating the Net Present Value/Breakeven point for a stock that pays a stable dividend stream. This metric actually has relevance because the dividend is a cash payment that comes directly to the investor as a consequence of owning the shares. In the short-term, dividends are a known quantity. Obviously the metric only applies in the case where a dividend is paid. In the case where an investor is focusing on dividend investing for income purposes or simply for generating the maximum cash from their investing capital, these are important considerations.

An example is on order. Let’s say that an investor purchases 100 shares of a stock trading at $10/share that pays a $1/share annual dividend. The dividend yield on his investment is 10%. The P/Div ratio is 10. This means that the investor paid $10 for every dollar in dividends. Now the nice thing about dividends is that they are cash streams and we can use some common time value of money calculations to make determinations as to whether or not to invest. Let’s use the 100 shares as an example and do a net present value calculation with the following assumptions:

•Our time horizon is 25 years
•Dividends over the 25 years will average the current $1/year
•The Cost of Capital (COC or inflation) will be 6%/year for the duration of the exercise
Most popular spreadsheet programs contain the NPV function where you can set your COC and the value of the individual cash flows if you desire to perform this analysis for yourself.

The Net Present Value of this situation is $262.58, giving a positive indication or a ‘buy’ signal. This alone should not be used to make a buy determination, but should be used as a tool to validate or invalidate individual investment opportunities that arose from our analyses in parts I and II.

The Time to Cover or Breakeven point of this hypothetical investment is Year 15. What this means is that after 15 years, the dividends (after accounting for the deterioration in value due to inflation) will cover the cost of the initial investment. Whatever the investment itself is worth at that time is added value. So even if our stock is still at $10/share, it is paid for, we’re in the clear, making dividends for another 10 years before we need the funds, and can sell the stock at any time thereafter for a pure profit. And since inflation has already been figured in, we’re talking about real gains. We can easily modify the analysis to accommodate hypothetical taxation circumstances as well. Another important point may also be made from the above analysis. Considering that we’re getting $1/year in dividends, in nominal terms, the Time to Cover/Breakeven would be 10 years. Inflation at a rate of 6% per annum increased the breakeven point by 50% or 5 years. While 6% doesn’t seem like that much, this example illustrates exactly how much of a burden on wealth it represents. If anyone really wants to see why clipping bond coupons isn’t such a hot idea, run this analysis on the 30-year Treasury Bond and it will become immediately obvious.

Moving forward, when looking at dividend paying investments, we are looking for lower P/Div ratios (higher yields), and consequently lower Time to Cover/Breakeven points. While looking at the yield gives some good insight, using the NPV and breakeven analysis allows us to quantify the deleterious effects of inflation over time. The yield alone doesn’t give us that ability since it is a snapshot in time and changes as the price of the underlying security changes. It is important to note that in this study, we are NOT valuing the firm. We are valuing the cash streams that the firm pays to shareholders and discounting them to the present.

The risks to the above analysis are obviously many. 25 years is a long period of time, and things can change dramatically. Firms can go out of business or eliminate dividend payments thereby rendering the above effort worthless. Also, the major types of risk such as market, currency, political, and systemic cannot be accounted for over such a long period of time. This is one of the reasons why it is never a good idea to buy today and walk away. Successful investing is a journey, not a destination. As soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out, that is when you’ll get bitten. Vigilance is the name of the game. Another obvious takeaway here is that we’re dealing with long term investing, not trading. Such studies are a moot point for the short-term trader since their focus is on a different goal. Realize I am not trying to be impertinent towards traders, but simply pointing out the difference between their objectives and those of long-term investing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Will Oil Be the Last Asset Standing?

Stocks and commodities gained last week while the dollar – as is often the case these days – fell.

As you recall from last week's update, the correlation between these three assets has unusually close. The see-saw today has stocks and commodities on one side and the dollar on the other.

Investors must ask themselves how long this party can continue, and which of these assets they should be left holding when it ends.

To be perfectly honest, when the party ends it will probably end for all three assets, with stocks, commodities, and the dollar all losing value. However, while all three will go down, only some will be down for the count...

Leaving aside the dollar for the moment, let's focus on stocks and one key commodity, oil.

Our feeling is that oil prices have greater staying power over the long-term than stock prices. Unless you just walked in the door, you won't be surprised to hear us say that. But let's look at two of our most important reasons.

Right now, increased demand for oil stems from the part of the world where economic growth is highest – the emerging economies and especially China.

(Recently someone argued that Chinese growth is not really sustainable because the Chinese consumer accounts for only a small part of China's economy. We disagree that this situation constrains the economy. Chinese consumers are starting to step up their purchasing. We've seen a huge jump in Chinese auto sales for instance, to the level where they surpassed the car sales in the U.S. And retail figures suggest that the Chinese consumer is becoming more of a leader than a follower.)

Overall, Chinese industrialization, infrastructure building, and the rise of its consumer should prevent any collapse in oil demand.

On the other side of the equation, oil production is unlikely to overtake demand unless oil prices rise dramatically. Right now, producers need a minimum oil price of $70 a barrel to justify investing in new production.

And a temporary spike above $70 (like we have now) won't cut it. If anything, producers need to feel confident that $70 will be the bottom of oil's price range for the foreseeable future.

Given oil's huge spike and subsequent plunge in 2008, oil will need to get a lot more expensive and stay expensive for quite a while before producers get brave enough to start bringing new supplies online.

If oil prices fall back to under $70, oil supplies will remain at a level where they cannot keep up with even lackluster economic growth. Eventually, the world would not have enough oil available to increase production of other commodities or manufactured goods. With a fixed or even declining oil supply, Americans and other Westerners would have to consume less – gallon per gallon – in order for China and the emerging world to consume more.

And that's not a scenario anyone wants to see (especially since the developing world would win the contest).

Bottom line: we need oil prices to remain above $70 to sustain any growth whatsoever.

Meanwhile, U.S. consumers have problems of their own. They have sustained a serious blow, in the form of a $13 trillion drop in their collective net worth, which has them focused on saving more and spending less for the first time in decades. Under these conditions, higher commodity prices will act as a tax, giving consumers even more reason to stop spending. Eventually, it will hold back U.S. economic growth too.

How high can oil prices go before they start to impact economic growth? Actually, it's a question of both price and time. If oil prices remain in the mid-$70s between now and the end of December 2009, that would do it. It would mean we had a year-over-year increase of more than 80% - the level at which our Long Term Master Key would issue a “sell” signal on the overall stock market.

We are betting that oil (and commodities in general) will have more staying power as this scenario unfolds than stocks. Oil is in a cyclical uptrend whereas stocks are trapped in a trading range. However, you should know that both groups will decline in the short-term if that signal is reached.

By now, you may be wondering, “What do we do in the meantime?”...

All we can say for now is that today's market is irrational to be following a path in which both stocks and commodities rise together. It's also irrational to see the most speculative, high risk stocks such as AIG or Fannie Mae accounting for the lion's share of market volume. Yet this has been the case on many recent trading days.

However, markets can stay irrational for some time. All we can expect, while we're waiting for the correction, is that the market leaders will continue to lead. Despite the incredible risks in today's economy the “high beta” (high risk) stocks may continue to outperform.

So if you are impatient and want to make some gains while waiting for the music to stop here's what to do...

First, hold on to gold and zero coupon bonds as a hedge for when the correction comes. Same with the conservative defensive/offensive stocks we mentioned last week.

With that protection in place, and only to the extent of your risk tolerance, you can pursue gains among our high beta choices. Our recommendations here are long-term keepers. Even though they could come down hard in a correction, they are also likely to lead the market in the meantime. They include:

Potash (POT) and Mosaic (MOS), the world's two leading fertilizer producers.
Fluor (FLR), the world's leading engineering and construction company, which will benefit from any drive to raise energy supplies.
Intel (INTC) and Apple (AAPL) as Information Technology plays.
Oil service companies, such as Transocean (RIG), Nabors (NBR), Schlumberger (SLB), and National Oilwell Varco (NOV).
While these stocks will surely decline when the overall market tanks, they are still good stocks to own for the long haul, as they are set to dramatically outperform the market that’s destined to be erratic in the foreseeable future. And with our recommended hedges in place, you should get through the decline, when it comes, in much better than average shape.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Views of a Contrary Investor

I see discussions of short term percentage gain or loss in investing all the time. I rarely see similar long term discussions. Important? Maybe not. But is the fact that there is simple asymmetry between percentage gains and losses actually considered? If it really was, I think a fair number of investors would change their thinking, at least a bit.

If you invest for two years, one up 10% and one down 10% (either order) you end up losing 1%. If you had twice the variability (up 20%, down 20%), you end up losing 4%. If you have a real rollercoaster ride like we’ve had recently and have a +40% and -40% year, you end up losing 16%. And that’s just in a two year time frame. Over a couple decades or so, this is no small matter.

Here’s a different example. Suppose you had five and a half years in which you had an annual return of +24%. But you also had 4 years of -30% performance. 5.5 years compared to 4 years is a bigger ratio than 30% to 24%, so it could look close to a wash on first blush. Actually you’d end up with a loss of 36%. I didn’t pick these numbers randomly. They’re the combined rates of return for the two cyclical bull and two cyclical bear cycles for the S&P 500 in the current secular bear market (counting the last 4+ months as the second bull cycle) since March 2000. For retirees the loss is even worse because nearly a decade has been lost too, and there’s much less time to make it up.

It’s been noted that there’s a fine line between investing and gambling. It’s also been noted that gamblers as a whole notoriously inaccurately report their betting results. This is true even though they know the games are all rigged and casinos very consistently report gaming profits. I’m only suggesting that there’s a psychological driver that can keep us from being objective when it comes to some numbers.

Focus on the short term is the name of the game for TA. It can work well, until it doesn’t. The trends and indicators traders use can be useful for the well informed, and there are people making a lot of money using it. But it’s a combination of skill and getting more right calls than wrong ones, because technicals simply change at some point and go in another direction. They always do that at some point whenever they have been going in a direction for some time that the fundamentals aren’t going in. Ironically, the longer term you use in TA the better the predictive power. I recall seeing a discipline using the 20 and 50 week moving avg. which would only involve trading every few years. It actually resulted in very few bad signals.

But if you go out to the very long term, you can find very durable trends that you can use to guide you. The problem of course is that all of this takes a lot of patience. I suspect, more than anything else, the gambling/investing crossover has some merit here. Gambling is done to make money quickly or at least to have fun. The most successful long term investors tell us success comes with patience and discipline. Now there’s a conflict.

The most useful long term trend I know about is the two century pattern of secular market oscillation. The characteristics of the trend are that the length is fairly uniform, and the investment results over for the opposing cycles are hugely different. In other words you could reliably make money for years during one phase of the cycle and avoid most of the loss in the other phase of the cycle. But very few people have any interest in this phenomenon and it basically gets ignored.

The other very useful long term trend I know of is the fact that the variance in performance of a given security is due much more to the variance of its asset class than its individual characteristics. And the variance in performance of a given asset class is much more due to the variance in the economic fundaments than characteristic differences from other classes. So the greatest bang for the DD buck in the long run is to learn about the big things. This too is pretty unappealing. None of this is any fun. And it takes too long to get any results.

A knowledge of secular market history and characteristics would put a lot of beliefs and myths into a better perspective IMO. We live and work in a shorter time frame, and get our expectations conditioned accordingly. In the last secular bull market (1982-2000), the only cyclical bear market was the very brief one because of the 1987 crash. 17 plus years of bull market and a few months of bear market. Everybody was making money, especially the risk takers. But to a lesser extent, the same thing was true of the prior secular bull market (1949 – 1966) – 15 years of bull market and only 2 yrs. of bear market.

But the secular bear markets are a long tough grind, which have the added characteristic of being cruel because there is actually more bull market time in them than bear market time. In the intervening secular bear market (1966 – 1982), there was 6.7 yrs. of cyclical bear market but 9.7 years of cyclical bull market.

Maybe surprisingly, the compound annual growth rate for the bear years was almost the mirror image of the bull years (-21% vs. +20%). But as you might guess the result wasn’t a real gain because of how percentages work against you. Actually the overall CAGR was about +0.6%. But there’s nothing positive about 17 years of almost no nominal gain in the face of rapidly rising inflation. Real gain was distinctly negative.

Even in the current secular bear market (2000- present), there has been the 5.5 years I mentioned of cyclical bull market and “only” a bit under 4 years of cyclical bear market. Small consolation, and again cruel, as cyclical thinking still has investors with a shorter term outlook anticipating a fairly timely recovery of the lost ground.

A few years ago I posted in other places a number of times about my deep concern with the long term investing environment we were in. I took some real criticism for being so conservative and being satisfied with trying to earn no more than an 8% return while the domestic equity market was turning out a 14% gain.

I have nothing that isn’t obvious to suggest as a way to achieve good long term results.. But here goes. It really does take more to make up a loss than it took to make it the first time, so don’t lose it. The best investment advisors are the ones with the longest experience. Pay attention to the big picture, even study it. Of course the real world consists of an overwhelming number of market participants with a short term outlook, people trying to make money quickly, and most of the attention focused on bottom up thinking. This is after all a post from a contrarian investor.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Low Price for Natural Gas May be Just What is Needed

The low price for natural gas may be just what is needed to expand markets in the transportation and electric generation sector.

Instead of pouring printed money into uneconomic alternative energy, American political leaders could have Government Motors apply its efforts to building vehicles to run on the proven technology of clean natural gas. Utility executives can make the easy choice of simply running natural gas through generating capacity already in place rather than agonizing over the expense and political uncertainty of new coal and nuclear capacity.

While natural gas cannot meet all the transportation and electric generation needs entirely at once, there appears to be the capacity to supply all of the expected growth and more. Considering that $3 a gallon gasoline is equivalent to $24 a million btu natural gas there is ample room for the price of natural gas to rise and still be a bargain for consumers.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Gartman calls the end of the recession "official"


Firstly, let us turn our attention to the chart at the
bottom left this page of weekly jobless claims. Clearly
now they have “spiked” lower. We were willing to
“give” the weakness in claims last week some room for
seasonal problems attendant to the closing of various
auto plants around the country and to the July 4th
holiday itself.

Obviously now, after another week
has passed and the weakness of the previous
week was followed hard upon by even greater
weakness… even greater “spikiness,” we’ve
concluded that this is indeed the sign we’ve
needed to officially call for the end of the current
recession… and so we are making that call.

The recession has ended. In light of the spike in
jobless claims AND in light of the recent upward
turn in the Ratio of the Coincident to Lagging
Indicators, we are making this statement as
clearly and as unequivocally as we are able to
make one. The recession is over. The worst of the
economic news shall all soon be behind us.

Make no mistake about this, however, it will be
months… even perhaps a year or more… before the
NBER meets and officially decides that the recession
has ended. Our long standing clients will recall that in
late ’04 when the Ratio turned down we said that
history mandated that we call for a recession sometime
in ’07 and we stood by that statement time and time
and time again, even to the point of being laughed at.

When jobless claims began to rise in mid-’07, we went
on record stating that the recession was only months
away… again to laughter. Finally, when Chinese
stocks first broke from their highs and when the US
stock market began to show clear signs of weakening
in late ’07, we said that the recession had begun…
always to derision by others.

Eventually, however, the NBER said that our views were the proper views and
that the US economy had indeed entered recession in
late ’07. They did not make that statement officially,
however, until only quite recently, more than a year
after the recession really had begun.

The recession is now over. But do not expect the
economic data to reflect that fact for many, many
months into the future. Unemployment is still going to
rise and rise dramatically. Indeed, we’ve every belief
that unemployment will not top out until it has touched at least
10% and we’ll not be surprised to see it “trade” to 11% or even
12% before its bull run is finished.

Too, we can expect retail sales to be very hard to
forecast for the next several months, for the consumer
remains distraught and concerned about his/her future.
In that environment, any propensity to ramp up spending
will swiftly meet head-on with continued rising propensities to save. Until the employment “stats” turn for the better, consumer spending stats will follow to
the downside. Such is the historic nature of things
economic, and despite the SEC’s, the NFA’s, the
NASD’s and FINRA’s admonitions that past performance is not indicative of future performance, in the economy the past is indeed prologue to the future.
In the future, given that it was housing and autos that
took us into recession, we’ll be brave and say that it
shall be housing and autos that take us out.

So long as the population here in the US continues to grow… and
it will unless Americans have chosen to give up sex,
which we doubt; and unless the Congress moves to
enact legislation that will clamp down upon
immigration, which it may do but which we fervently
hope it will not do; so go sit down and be quiet, Mr.
Buchanan and Mr. Dobbs! Please!!... we cannot live for
long with housing starts reported each month to be at
annualised rates of less than 0.7 million units. Too, the
average automobile in the US is growing very old and
the entire fleet is going to need replacement sooner
rather than later.

We have said before and we shall say
again that we’ll l soon have shortages of housing and
perhaps even shortages of autos. Again, that’s the
nature of things as the empiricist economists project
recent trends years into the future and forecast no
demand, while we know that all things economic ebb
and flow, moving from shortage to over-production and
to shortage again.

In this light we note that housing starts for June will be
reported this morning and they will be down, despite
our “call” above for the end of the recession. As our
clients will remember, starts rose smartly in May, but
we must see the May increase in its proper light: in
historical terms this supposedly 17% increase
from the April lows was a mere mote in the eye o
the downward trend in place since mid’06 when
starts topped-out just above 2.0 million
annualised units. 2.0 million annualised starts
for any protracted period of time is unsustainable.

That has been proven time and time and time again
over the past fifty years, and starts of less than 0.5
million are also unsustainable. We are there now.
Starts will turn for the better sooner rather than later.
The lows very probably were made in April, but the
new uptrend in starts will not be evident until such time
as we see something above 0.7 million annualised
units and the monthly data rushes upward through the
6 month moving average noted in the chart this page.

The consensus is looking for today’s starts figure to be
somewhere near .53 million annualised starts and we’ll
not argue with that “guess-timate” too loudly. We’d like
to see something above 0.6 million, but we won’t… not
until next month perhaps.

To this end, we’ll keep a much close watch in the
coming months on the building permits figures, for
permits always lead actual starts. Permits, however,
are horribly erratic because just because a permit is
issued does not mean that a “start” must start. The
consensus is looking for permits to be up a bit from the
May figure, calling for something close to 0.55 million
units. We’ve no reason to argue; we’ll await the actual
number however… it might be interesting.

Finally, regarding housing, the supply of new homes
for sale was recently reported at 10.2 months, down
from the record high of 12.4 months January, but far,
far above the 4 or 5 month supply that was the norm
back in the earlier part of this decade. This onerous
supply of new homes will be worked off before builders
shall have the confidence to begin building again…
and long before the nation’s banks will even consider
lending on building again!

This latter concern is probably the most important concern, for without
lending the entire industry is tainted. Banks will lend
when banks lend; it is that simple. Bankers will wait
until the other banker down the street has chosen to
act, and once the new process of lending to real estate
turns it will turn swiftly. It will be as if the present
problems were wholly forgotten, despite the promises
otherwise. Banking has always been thus; it shall
always be thus. Anyone want to bet otherwise?... We
thought not:

To make our final point, the NAHB homebuilder index
was reported out on Wednesday, rising 2 points to 17.
This index is like that of the ISM: it ranges between 0-
100, with 50 as the growth/no growth point. A figure
above 50 means the industry is strengthening; a
number below 50 means it is shrinking.

At 17 the industry is clearly still shrinking but up from 15 it means
that the shrinking is proceeding at lesser pace. This is
not then a “green shoot.” It is rather than the old shoots
are withering less quickly. “Green-ness” lies some way
into the future, but it will come. For the building
industry, at the moment, the line from “A Field of
Dreams” is turned around. Rather than “If you build it
[they] will come,” it is instead “If they come, it will be

Friday, July 17, 2009

Producing Fuel from Algae

Last year I wrote that I felt Oil from Algae was the technology to watch.

Well Exxon is now investing $300 Million into research (Via SGI) in this technology. I consider Exxon to be "smart money".

SGI is harnessing photosynthetic microbes (i.e., algae) to produce a range of liquid fuels and chemicals directly from sunlight and carbon dioxide. Algae produce significantly higher amounts of biomass and oil as compared to terrestrial crops, can be grown on land that is not suitable for agriculture, can thrive in sewage or other types of waste water, and are efficient at capturing and recycling carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

Current methods to produce fuel from algae include processes that resemble farming. Algal cells are grown, harvested, and then bioprocessed to recover the lipids from within the cells. In contrast, in one of our solutions, SGI has engineered algal cells to secrete oil in a continuous manner through their cell walls, thus facilitating the production of algal fuels and chemicals in large-scale industrial operations. Our first product in this area is a biocrude to be used as a feedstock in refineries

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Equality of Outcome vs Equality of Opportunity

May 6, 2009
Nothing New Under the Sun
by Victor Davis Hanson
Pajamas Media

The Same Old Equality of Result

Rather than nitpick about Obama’s envisioned brave new world, I think it wiser to see it in the larger context of age-old divides over the nature of Western democratic and liberal society. Nothing that we have seen proposed since January 20 is novel; everything is merely the promise of the past outfitted with a new snazzier veneer of hope and change.

Take his domestic policies. What overarching philosophy seems reflected in raising taxes, borrowing trillions to spend trillions more on new entitlements, creating a new health care bureaucracy, cap-and-trade, allotting trillions more for education, and the expectation of the appointment of more liberal judges?

It’s old…

In a word, it is adherence to the idea of equality of result rather than an equality of opportunity, the age-old debate that goes back to the Greeks. From Aristotle’s Politics and Plato Laws, we learn of the original dilemma: a stable city-state of roughly similar property owners, who vote as equals, and fight as comrades in the phalanx, tragically, but inevitably, soon becomes tragically unequal.

Divide the land up equally to found the polis; give everyone an similarly-size plot (klêros); and then health, luck, brains, accident, strength, ambition, character, and a myriad of other factors, some understandable, some capricious, conspire to create inequality. I agree with Aristotle; I have seen it with families and communities in which equal inheritances soon led to radically different outcomes, as one sibling on rocky ground thrives, while another in deep loam starves; one town with abundant resources goes broke, while another without natural advantages thrives.
As Aristotle saw, some lose, some expand their original homesteads, and suddenly we have Hoi beltistoi and Hoi polloi — and the rallying cry that someone’s liberty to do as he pleases means that egalitarianism of the lowest common denominator becomes impossible.

American vs. French

The notion of freedom then butts up against equality, as if they are as often antithetical as symbiotic. (N.B.: note the French Revolutionary sloganeering of “fraternity” and “egalitarianism” versus the American Revolutionary emphasis on “Give me liberty, or give me death”, “Don’t Tread on Me!”, “All men are created equal” [by opportunity rather than by result]. And note Obama’s references to the French ideal.)

In response, the state has two choices to preserve its original ideal of equality (and we see elements of this further debate voiced in the Old Oligarch, Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Hume, etc, as well as in histories of the middle and late Roman Republic).

The Therapeutic

1. The state and culture at large can be coercive to ensure an equality of result — in the modern liberal world by high redistributive taxes, generous means-tested entitlements, inflationary monetary policies to diminish the power of capital (in the ancient world by forbidding the alienability of land, mandating the maximum size of estates, coining cheap bronze/silver coated money in vast amounts, redistribution of property, cancellation of debt, etc.).

Such efforts at commonality are what we are now witnessing with income tax hikes, $1.7 trillion dollar deficits, inflationary federal spending and borrowing, along with huge new entitlements. Its extreme form is the European Union, its extreme, extreme manifestations are the failed -isms and -ologies of the bloody 20th century where authoritarian elites broke the requisite eggs for the omelet of “for the people” and in service to “equality.”

The Tragic

2. Or instead of the therapeutic mode, we get the tragic acceptance of innate inequality combined with the notion of personal responsibility to care for one’s fellow citizen.

That is, in the American version of equality of opportunity, we accept some will always end up poor, some rich, some in-between due to factors both in, and beyond, our control. But rather than sacrifice liberty to use the coercive powers of the state to enforce equality, we set a foundation at the bottom, a safety net to ensure a minimum level of support for the poor, and laws at the top to prevent buccaneering and piratical behavior — in theory.

Then the tragic view accepts that some will be very wealthy, but assumes that the race for individual riches will, first, create greater prosperity for society at large (the much caricatured “trickle down”). And, two, a host of private mechanisms exists to channel individual bounty back for the general welfare: the status; and/or sense of right of giving to non-profits, charities, etc; the shame of living it up to an excessive degree; the patriotic call upon one to invest their riches in the public good; the informal practice of lending and giving to family and friends, etc. In other words, millions risk dying to leave temperate, naturally rich equality of result Mexico to enter the once equality of opportunity United States.

Been There, Done That

It seems to me that on three occasions during the last seventy-five years we have someone who really did believe in the therapeutic, equality of result — FDR, LBJ, and Jimmy Carter (Truman, JFK and Clinton proved to be centrists in comparison).
FDR had the rhetorical gifts and personal genius to implement such an agenda; LBJ and Carter tried, but were inept and poor messengers. And now we have a fourth avatar, who, given the current alignment of the planets, has a real chance to complete the FDR mandate — not in the dark days of the Great Depression replete with real want and starvation, but in a recession during the greatest age of affluence in the history of civilization — making both success and failure obsolete, and turning us into a sort of egalitarian polis much like Sweden or France.

I Don’t Owe You Any More

Turn on the radio: ads blare out how to renounce mortgage debt; get out of maxed out credit-cards; short the IRS; be eligible for a subsidized government loan, or new entitlement. Other ‘buy gold’ ads warn: plenty of danger, but no money in passbook accounts, stocks, real estate, as the debtor gains on the creditor, and capital earns little in comparison to protected salaries. To match a $100,000 government salary (as an upper-level bureaucrat), the despised capitalist, at a 2% interest payout on his stash, would need $5 million in accumulated cash: advantage bureaucrat.

Ironies Galore

Obama rather brilliantly counts on two great constituencies (other than the professional Ivy League technocracy whose responsibility is to figure out how to borrow and tax the money, lavish it on constituencies, and do rather well themselves as government overseers). One is the hyper-rich, the Kerrys, the Soroses, the Gateses, and their appendages in universities, government, foundations, and the media. These power players either make enough to be unconcerned with high taxation, or are so well connected politically (cf. the machinations of a Daschle, Dodd, Geithner, Rangel) that the coercive state rules simply do not apply.

Instead the hyper-wealthy receive a sort of psychic gratification in helping the ‘poor’, and romanticizing the underprivileged, thereby alleviating the guilt of being blessed, and at relatively small cost — and so they quite enthusiastically support the equality of result state.

Again, the poor present no challenge, offer no threat to the hyper — wealthy, but are thankful client recipients of ensured government largess. In contrast, the fellow elites have the necessary taste and education to satisfy the demands of aristocratic society.

And The Upper Middle Class?

But those in between, and especially those of the upper-middle class — the hardware store owner, the dentist, the paving contractor, the successful restaurateur, the real estate agent? These grasping who wish and aspire and may reach a mythical $250,000 salary some day (again, the threshold where one becomes the hated “they”), well now, they are not poor, need no government or private help, and offer no psychological alleviation of guilt to the elite. Romanticize a gardener or farm worker, or even clerk or teacher, but how does one mythologize a successful optometrist or insurance agent?

And yet they are not usually sophisticated in the snobbish sense, not opera-goers, not familiar with museums, not symphony buffs. Their children don’t necessarily attend Stanford or Harvard. In other words, they are near-to-wells, wannabes, without requisite culture, deserving of neither cultural awe and acceptance nor noblesse oblige.

A leftist elitist would always prefer the dubious (and now upscale, tax avoiding) huckster Al Sharpton, Tawana Brawley and all, to Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla and Idaho University graduate. Joe the Plumber, the Cuban upper-middle class of Miami, the local talk show host, anyone who wants to get ahead, but shows so visibly the scars of the struggle to do so, lacks the refinement and taste of the more affluent, yet is in the crosshairs of the Obama revolution.

The only impediment to our new polis? There are not simply enough of these entrepreneurial dinosaurs to pay the taxes to feed the new $3.6 trillion annual beast. One can take all the income of the $250,000 “them”, and there won’t be enough to pay down the $9 trillion in new debt.

In short, Bush = lower taxes, more spending, and more debt; Clinton = higher taxes, more spending, and less debt; Obama = more taxes, more spending, and a lot more debt — and the same old dream that we can make everyone equal in the end — or else!

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Key to Personal Freedom

Due to rising unemployment and the sharp contraction in the economy, personal bankruptcies are hitting record levels, up more than 50% from a year ago.
There is another factor here too, of course. Millions overreached.

In some ways, this is understandable. It's natural to want to improve our circumstances, enjoy the best life has to offer and "go for the gusto."
Without moderation, however, our wants have no natural limits.

True, some of us have fewer desires than others. Yet conservative spenders don't necessarily lack ambition, imagination or even money. More often than not, they have spent years cultivating an attitude of restraint.

Freedom, after all, is not the absence of responsibility. It is the absence of restraints imposed by others. To be truly free, however, we must generally impose severe restraints on ourselves.

That often means delayed gratification... or settling for less... or simply doing without.

This is bitter medicine to the thousands of consumers who hang on to their material desires like caterpillars to a cabbage leaf. Especially when the media glamorizes the materialistic lifestyle, their neighbors - who may be two payments from the edge - are living high, and advertisers bombard them daily with subtle - and not-so-subtle - messages meant to stir their cravings.

There is a reliable defense, however. And it begins with your frame of mind.
If you or someone in your family suffers from the "urge to splurge," here are four steps to help reclaim your personal freedom - and, perhaps, your credit rating:

1. Recognize that we are wired to feel dissatisfied with our circumstances. It's in our genes. An early human who was content with what he had - who spent his days lazing on the African savannah admiring the clouds and thinking "ahh, life is good" - was far less likely to survive and reproduce than his neighbor who spent every waking moment trying to gain some advantage.

2. Understand the psychology of desire. We all tend to "miswant" - to want things we don't really need and won't appreciate once we acquire them. Remember how your last major purchase failed to "do it for you" and you're less likely to believe that this time will be any different.

3. Stop regarding life as an ongoing competition for social status. Opt out of the game - even if everyone else seems to be playing it - and you can't be controlled or disappointed by the opinions of others. Do work you enjoy, even if it's lower paying. Spend your time and money collecting great memories rather than more stuff.

4. Instead of focusing on what you want, try appreciating what you already have. Nothing cures your craving for the next bauble like the thought of losing your partner, your children, your health, or the things you already own.

In "On Desire: Why We Want What We Want," William B. Irvine argues that many of us lack "a sense that we are lucky to be living whatever life we happen to be living - that despite our circumstances, no key ingredient of happiness is missing. With this sense comes a diminished level of anxiety; we no longer need to obsess over the things - a new car, a bigger house, a firmer abdomen - that we mistakenly believe will bring lasting happiness if only we can obtain them. Most importantly, if we master desire, to the extent possible to do so, we will no longer daydream about living the life someone else is living; instead, we will embrace our own life and live it to the fullest."

Sounds simple enough. Yet we face a powerful headwind.
Modern culture and our own heritage have programmed us to want ceaselessly, spend liberally and compete for resources in order to keep up with the Joneses. Millions today suffer from so-called "status anxiety."

Their prison, however, is entirely self-imposed. Unbeknownst to most of them, the key is right between their ears.

Any of us can make the conscious choice to turn our backs on the consumptive lifestyle and live simply, happily and with dignity.
Idealistic? Perhaps. But then freedom often is.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Investing and the Use of Leverage

Investing and the Use of Leverage

Many investors see the current bear market and economic slowdown as a reason to sell stocks. We believe the opposite action should be taken and that investors may think about using leverage to increase their potential net worth. Here’s why:

The current situation for real estate, bonds and equities

In Canada, the real estate market has been buoyant these past several years and has begun to slow as prices have levelled off. People who wanted to purchase a home have done so and they are probably content to stay in that residence for the next 10-15 years. Therefore, the real estate market is not as appealing an investment as it once was. We think that future returns should continue to be decent but are unlikely to mirror those of the past decade.

We believe that the bond market, perceived to be a safe haven from a collapsing U.S. economy, is now overbought. That’s because real returns (after tax and inflation) are now negative.

Currently, the 10-year Government of Canada bond yield is 3.4%. After 50% tax (interest income) and inflation (2.25%), the real return is –0.55%. This means that investor spending power against tax and inflation is falling, not growing.

As a result, we believe there’s more risk inherent in the bond market and that risk could increase if the U.S. Federal Reserve Board quickly raises rates once the financial sector stabilizes – an increase in interest rates causes bond prices to fall.

Equities, meanwhile, have been in a bear market (down 20% or more from the market peak last October) as the economy has entered a contraction phase of slower or even negative growth. But this economic phase should not last forever. We think there’s a tremendous opportunity for growth in the equity market.

The opportunity in equities

While stock market corrections are unsettling, investors must understand that four things remain static, even in a bear market:

1) Stock prices will fall in a bear market but the capital is not lost unless it is sold. It’s more important for investors to remember that they are making an investment in a business with an expectation of a payback on that capital over time, usually through a combination of dividend payments and price appreciation.

2) If the financial health of the company is solid, dividends should continue to be paid, giving investors income to buy more shares at cheaper prices, waiting for the day when the stock market recovers.

3) As dividends rise, stock prices ultimately follow.

Consider a stock that trades at $20, pays a $1 dividend and yields 5% ($1 divided by $20). If the dividend subsequently rises $0.20 a year for five years to $2:

At $20, the yield will be 10%. Given such a high yield, investors would be attracted to buy that asset. For the stock to return to its previous 5% yield, the share price would have to rise to $40, eventually earning a positive capital return for the investor in addition to their growing income stream.

4) A “slingshot effect” usually occurs and the market rebounds before investors recognize it. Just before the U.S. invaded Iraq, the stock market reached its last low on March 11, 2003. Nobody wanted to own equities then because the fear of war tends to wreak havoc on economies, causing markets to tumble.

It wasn’t until 2005 that many investors felt comfortable enough to buy equities again. Unfortunately, this was a huge missed opportunity. The “slingshot effect” in this case was a 45% stock market decline from 2000 to 2002 followed by a 50% rally from 2003 to 2005.

Those investors who stayed in equities and used the market decline as an opportunity to buy more stocks, earned better-than-average returns when the market recovered.

We believe that opportunity has re-surfaced in the stock market.

1) Some dividend yields are as high now as they have been in 35 years.

2) If there is another 20% drop in the market, price-earnings ratios would be at their lowest since 1975, a period that signalled the beginning of the greatest bull market of the 1980s and 1990s.

3) Globalization has given corporations a chance to sell into greater and more diverse markets, especially in emerging markets where per capita incomes have risen much faster than in the more mature G7 countries.

There are generally three stages in a bear market:

• The first - when just a few prudent investors recognize that, despite the prevailing bullishness, things won’t always be rosy,

• The second - when most investors recognize things are deteriorating, and

• The third - when everyone is convinced things can only get worse.

Certainly we’re well into the second of these three stages. There’s been lots of bad news and many write-offs. More and more people recognize the dangers inherent in things like innovation, leverage, derivatives, counterparty risk and mark-to-market accounting. And increasingly the problems seem unsolvable.

One of these days, though, we’ll reach the third stage, and the herd will give up on a market turnaround. And unless the financial world really does end, we’re likely to encounter the investment opportunities of a lifetime.

What is leverage?

Leverage is the action of taking the value of an asset or the steady income stream of a salary and borrowing against it. For example, individuals can take out an investment loan based on a percentage of the equity in their house - the difference between the appraised value of the house and any mortgage outstanding.

Another way is to borrow against your annual income. If you have consistent earnings, the bank will lend you a percentage of your annual income based on your ability to pay, net of all other expenses.

The purpose of leverage is to have more capital available to earn a greater return over time than if you just had a small amount of cash savings to invest.

It’s even more attractive because the government allows you to deduct a portion of the interest paid on your income tax return.

For example, if you own a house worth $600,000 and the mortgage has just been paid off, the bank may lend you up to 80% of the appraised value of the house in the form of an investment loan, or $480,000.

With the loan, you now have over $1 million of total assets that can grow and compound over time.

Given that interest rates continue to trend lower, the low cost of capital is making it attractive to use leverage through an investment loan.

For Canadian investors, the Bank of Canada is expected to keep pace with the Fed and reduce interest rates. This should lower the prime rate offered by the banks.

For example, if you take out a loan at 6%, the after-tax cost of capital would be roughly 3%. If that capital is invested in a stock that yields greater than 3% after-tax, the interest can be covered by the dividend income and the residual amount can grow through time and compounding to an amount greater than the loan.

What rules should be followed when using leverage?

While leverage helps capital grow over time, there is a downside. That occurs if the investment falls during the period of the loan. If the investment went to zero, there would be no capital growth but the debt would still have to be serviced.

That’s why it’s important to use some disciplined rules if you decide to use leverage:

1) Buy only dividend-paying stocks.

These companies should be more mature (large-cap, blue chip names) and have a proven track record of annually raising dividends.

Another benefit of dividend-paying stocks is that the yield should help set a floor as to how low the stock price may go, relative to current bond yields.

Non-dividend-paying stocks have no guarantees of growth. Unlike dividend payers, their share prices will be determined by their earnings. If the earnings disappear, the share prices will plummet.

2) The holding period should be 10-15 years.

Using leverage isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. When buying stocks (with or without leverage), it’s important to let the companies grow through economic cycles.

This becomes clear if you leveraged at the worst possible time in the market, such as when the technology bubble burst in 2000. For anyone leveraging their portfolios in 2000-2001, a significant amount of time was needed for the investments to increase in value.

3) Borrow only what you can afford to pay monthly.

Do not extend yourself by borrowing too much. Decide first how much you can afford monthly to pay on the loan. The bank can then determine how much they will lend you.

4) If you currently have a mortgage, don’t leverage further.

Your mortgage is the highest after-tax cost you will face in your lifetime. It is more important to pay off this debt as soon as possible. Once the mortgage is paid, you can then decide if you wish to leverage the equity in the house in the form of an investment loan. A simple method is to borrow an amount that makes the monthly payments similar to your previous mortgage payments.

5) Retirees should not leverage.

During retirement, it is essential to be debt-free. Using leverage would be a dangerous strategy because there is no guaranteed income stream like a salary and bad investments could wipe out your retirement nest egg or worse, force you back to work.

6) The new Tax Free Savings Accounts – TFSAs may be an attractive use of leverage.

These accounts were introduced in the recent federal budget and should begin in 2009. The guidelines are that individuals may put $5,000 annually into this tax shelter. Because there is no tax liability and funds may be withdrawn without penalty, the after-tax cost of using leverage would be minimized.

For investors who can afford to leverage, who have the time-horizon to use it and who understand the inherent risks behind the strategy, we believe this may be an ideal time to do so.

An Investor Receiving Dividends Can Choose What to do With the Money

Dividends - Asymmetric Information

January was a poor month for markets across the globe with most major indexes falling between 5 and 7 percent. The period from September to January has been one of the most volatile on record and the gloomy economic news continues unabated. However, during this period of gloom and turbulence no less than 15 of our holdings increased their dividends. Clearly some corporations are capable of coping with the current economic environment, and are optimistic about their long-term prospects. Dividend increases should not be taken lightly and are a powerful signal of management's view of the future.

Unless management is confident of a business's long-term prospects they would not commit to paying out cash. Based on the current news one could argue that conserving cash might be the way to go, but dividend increases speak to long-term prospects. This is a case of asymmetric information - management might know more about the business outlook than the market or investors. To quantify the impact of dividends on long-term returns consider that a full 2/3rds of long-term equity returns have come from dividends and dividend reinvestment. Look at this decade to date. Dividends paid to investors have added a full 10% to market returns since January 1, 2000 compared to simple price appreciation. Dividends may seem small, but over long periods they add up to a significant amount.

Dividends may seem quaint in this day and age. Any finance textbook demonstrates that an investor should be indifferent between receiving dividends and having a corporation buy back its own stock. Here is how this equivalency is supposed to work.

Companies buy back stock thereby reducing the number of shares outstanding. As a direct result, earnings per share increase, and all else equal (meaning the p/e ratio remains the same), the price of the stock goes up and presto, there is your dividend. If an investor actually wants cash, then they just sell a portion of their holdings.

But if the last few months have shown us anything it is that what is supposed to work in theory does not always work in practice. We have a couple of issues with this view of returning money to shareholders through stock buybacks. First, is one of control.

An investor receiving dividends can choose what to do with the money; save it, reinvest in other companies or buy more of the corporations stock. But make no mistake about it- the control is in the hands of the investor. In contrast share buybacks are controlled by the corporation. They are not scheduled to occur on a quarterly basis and can be terminated at any time.

In fact, most announced buybacks are never completed. Contrast the ease with which buybacks can be announced, delayed or terminated with cash dividends. To suspend a cash dividend is the last thing management will consider and can sometimes indicate a serious problem at the corporation.

Second, dividends impose a capital discipline on corporations. To maintain a dividend commitment a corporation must remain focused on cash generation. Moreover, it curtails the potential for cash to be put in marginal or risky ventures.

Dividends represent a commitment to long-term shareholders. Finally, dividends encourage and reward long-term ownership. The concept of owning a company is all but lost on many investors. Indeed as the average mutual fund portfolio turnover reaches 120% per year (average holding time of 10 months) portfolio managers are just speculating on the price rather than buying solid businesses as a long-term investment. It is not surprising that turnover is one of the best predictors of performance - the higher the turnover, the lower the performance.

Dividends are an important driver of investment performance and increasing dividends are a powerful signal about future prospects. Through your Toron portfolio you are an investor in businesses for the long term and not a speculator about where the next quarter's price will be. This discipline will help grow your portfolio over the long haul.

Arthur Heinmaa, CFA Managing Partner

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How They Took Down the Price of Oil

I figured out how they took down went like this.....

1) They wanted to desperately take down the price of light sweet crude because its a bench mark for all pricing

2) There was (is) a shortage of light oil but a glut of heavy

3) so they pump light sweet to cushing from the SPR and replace it with heavy sour

4) The EIA week reports no change in SPR levels but Cushing is full of light sweet

5) Market concludes there is a glut of light sweet and they are right but for the wrong reasons

6) Don Coxe was right about the deliberate take down in oil

7) I just figured out how they did it


I am a genius (but a broke one)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ten Surprises for 2009

These are my Ten Surprises for 2009

1) Oil Trades above $140 per Barrell
2) Oil Trades below $30 per Barrell
3) GM merges with Chrysler
4) Italy leaves the Euro and returns to the Lira
5) British Pound trades Below $1 US
6) Natural Gas Price trades below $4 per MMBTU
7) Iran's government Falls
8) Cuba elects its first President as a democracy
9) The Canadian Dollar reaches parity with the US$
10)All major stock Indexes in North America break the 2008 lows