Category Archives: Global Investing

Parsing the Drop in the Japanese Stock Market

One of the most interesting market stories in the last week is the big drop in the Japanese stock market.  Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, ranked by GDP.  The values of the Japanese stock market, as measured by the Nikkei 225 index, dropped by 7.3% on May 23rd, and then suffered another fairly dramatic one-day decline of 3.2% on May 27th.

Over the last five sessions, the iShares MSCI Index ETF, EWJ, has dropped by almost 10% (see chart below). Continue reading

A Thoughtful Outlook for 2013

In general, I ignore the spate of market predictions that experts issue at the start of each year.  There are exceptions, and after reading Jason Hsu’s outlook for this year, I am pleased to recommend it to readers.  Dr. Hsu is the Chief Investment Officer at global money management firm, Research Affiliates.  I found his article both insightful and appropriately skeptical of all forecasts.  How can you not appreciate a money manager who starts his prediction for the year ahead with John Galbraith’s quip that “the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”?

I am going to mention a few of the elements of Hsu’s outlooks and add some thoughts.  Hsu first examines the drivers for bonds and then equities.  I will follow this structure. Continue reading

Sector Watch: Spotlight Telecommunications Stocks

The telecommunications industry is evolving quickly.  Recent data suggests, for example, that half of all adults in the United States have a tablet or smartphone.  There are many countries that have an average of more than one cell phone line per person.  In the developing economies, cell phones have allowed much broader access to voice and data services than would have been possible if the traditional fixed-line infrastructure needed to be built.  Ten years ago, Nigeria had only 100,000 phone lines.  Today, Nigeria has 100 Million cell phone accounts.  The ways that people use telecommunications are also expanding.  For people with little or no access to banking, mobile money services can provide the essential roles of banking.  The continued convergence of banking with telecommunications has substantial implications for both. Continue reading

Emerging Market Indexing

Guest post by Matthew Amster-Burton, Mint.com. We thought this was an interesting article and thought our readers would too. Enjoy.

Let’s say you want to build your own stock market index fund based on the S&P 500. Easy: download a list of all the companies in the index–from 3M (MMM) to Zions Bancorp (ZION) and their market cap, and start investing. Every stock in the index will be easy to buy in whatever quantity you want.

Now, after the success of your first index fund, you decide to create an emerging market fund, concentrating on the world’s up-and-coming economies. Again, no problem. We have the internet, after all, and we can just print off a list of all the stocks in China, India, Chile, Hungary, and so on, pull out a pile of Benjamins, and go to town.

That won’t work, says Raman Subramanian, Executive Director of Index Research at MSCI. Continue reading

Why Bond Yields Scare Me More Than Friday the 13th

Stock investors generally don’t have much to fear on Friday the 13th. Historically, Friday the 13th is a relatively calm day for stocks. Jason Zweig, who writes The Wall Street Journal’s Intelligent Investor column, says it’s usually a good day for investors and says superstition about trading on this supposedly unlucky day is one of the market’s “dumbest myths.”

Bond yields, however, are seriously worrying to Geoff Considine.  Here’s why. Continue reading

Stocks and Shocks: What to Do?

Guest Post by Contributing Editor, David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors.

How do we avoid walking into a “left hook” in the markets? That was the discussion this week during a client review.

“Can’t you see them coming and avoid them?” he asked. Well maybe some folks can, but the issue of investing with possible shocks as an outcome is a very difficult one.

“Do you position for the worst outcome?” If yes, you would never invest in anything.

“Is there a middle road?” We think so and that is why we use a combination of ETFs and bonds and recommend diversifying risk among several asset classes.

Below this introduction is a partial list of upcoming potential shocks. As readers will note, we can see the potential shock relatively clearly. Scott MacDonald of MC Asset Management calls them “dangerous seas ahead.” His maritime metaphors sequence the Titanic and Lusitania. Lehman-AIG and the meltdown were the Titanic. “This leaves us to wonder if the U.S. economy is not like the Lusitania, operating in a high risk environment, but felt to be safe from prowling German U-boats in the North Atlantic.” ponders Scott.

Of course, we cannot know the result of a potential risk before it happens. We cannot know the outcome and the policy shift. Therefore, the anticipatory period preceding the risk and the aftermath (if as and when the risk is realized) are not symmetrical. In other words, you are investing in asymmetry. Knowing this in advance allows for an asset-allocation rebalancing as the circumstances and probabilities change. In other words: reassess, reassess, reassess risks and rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Some of the discussion in our new book addresses these types of asymmetries. See Amazon.com, From Bear to Bull with ETFs or visit Cumberland’s website. In the book, we actually show the comparison with the ten sectors of the S&P 500 index and the relative performance of each sector in the bear and in the subsequent bull market.

Now let’s get to some potential shocks and comment about them:

  • Possible Shock Number 1: The Fed will cease “Operation Twist” on June 30. They confirmed the policy shift as recently as this last meeting and Bernanke’s statement. What will a twist cessation bring to bond yields? Will it change home mortgage interest rates? Delay a housing market recovery? Alter the steepness of the yield curve? Or the flatness of the yield curve? What happens to bond credit spreads? Pricing of repo collateral? Maybe the whole thing will pass as a non-event. Nobody knows.
  • Possible Shock Number 2:The so-called “fiscal cliff” is approaching at year-end. Strategas’ Dan Clifton and Jason Trennert have hammered this theme. Their summary identifies three elements:“… roughly one-third of the entire tax code expiring at the end of the year, the spending sequester beginning on January 2, a debt ceiling increase needed in the six weeks after the election and before the end of the year.”How much will markets anticipate these outcomes? How deep is fiscal drag? Is there a fiscal drag? Is Ricardian equivalence dead? How large is the policy shift danger to our country from the Congress? From this President? From next year’s President (re-elected or new)? All of these tax-spend-borrow outcomes are probable in the present-day realm of American politics. That puts our American destiny in the hands of a class of people who are very unpopular and despised by the majority of American citizens. Our politicians have become the scurrilous, scatological scoundrels that we elect and send to Washington. (We include both political parties in this opprobrium). Jack Bittner asks if we should limit all pols to a single term.
  • Possible Shock Number 3: The Bank of Japan has leaped to the top of the G4 central banks when it comes to balance-sheet expansion. BOJ announced an increase in the rate of asset purchases and an extension of the duration of the Japanese sovereign debt it will buy. Initial market reaction was that this plan is “not enough.” BOJ is trying to get Japan’s inflation rate UP! They have not succeeded in the past. Is this time different? What will be the impact on the foreign exchange markets? Will the yen weaken? If so, which currency will strengthen? We have written in the past that FX market adjustments are quite distorted when the G4 central banks are all maintaining their policy interest rates near zero.
  • Possible Shock Number 4:The FDIC limit on non-interest-bearing demand deposit insurance is scheduled to revert back to the pre-crisis level at the end of this year. We quote from the FDIC website:“From December 31, 2010 through December 31, 2012, at all FDIC-insured institutions, deposits held in non-interest-bearing transaction accounts will be fully insured regardless of the amount in the account. For more information, see the FDIC’s comprehensive guide, Your Insured Deposits.”What will be the impact in the money-market end of the yield curve? Will there be an extension of the termination date if markets begin to tighten? What will happen to repo rates? Repo collateral pricing? How closely is the Fed watching this development, since the Fed has been providing the market with more repo collateral (T-bills) through its Operation Twist? Is there a relationship, or will there be one? Can the banking system withstand larger withdrawals of zero-interest deposits if corporate agents deem deposits to be insecure without FDIC insurance coverage? (Note that the FDIC just closed five more banks this week. In the case of the Bank of Eastern Shore, Cambridge, Maryland, the FDIC has not found a buyer or merger partner, and the uninsured depositors are at risk of loss. Readers who are still worried about the safety of their bank deposits may check the FDIC website for the current rules).
  • Possible Shock Number 5: Watch the price and futures prices of Brent crude. Many are sanguine about oil and energy pricing and the gasoline price. We are not. Libyan production is not coming back in a hurry (hat tip to Barclays for superb research on the risk of Libyan civil war). Geopolitical risk is high in the Persian Gulf (Iran) and in Nigeria (see the developing news story of turmoil in this important oil-producing country). Worldwide demand for oil inexorably rises. U.S. energy policy still fails to accelerate our move to energy independence. Despite Energy Secretary Salazar’s protestations, the fact is that the Obama Administration has a failed energy policy and continues to pursue it. We do not drill, we do not encourage the use of natural gas in an accelerated and proactive way, and we do stymie new production and exploration. We do have pipelines running in the wrong directions, and we do have distorted domestic oil pricing because of excess inventories in Cushing, Oklahoma. At Cumberland, we remain attentive to this sector even as the market has become sanguine about it. We continue to hold our oil-energy-exploration and oil-service positions. The range of forecasts of the oil price is a mile wide. We have seen a low of $40 a barrel within two years and a high of $175. We lean to the higher price, not the lower one.

Reassess and Rebalance

I will stop now with the list of possible shocks and leave it to the reader’s imagination to complete this compendium with thoughts about Europe or China slowing or future inflation risk. Here is how we see the portfolio management decision. Remember this is today. It could change tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. The operative structure is reassess, reassess, reassess, rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Cumberland continues its fully invested approach using ETFs. We have been in that mode since the bear-market bottom of October 3. We think the bull market that started on October 3 is only half over as to price change and only one-third to one-fourth over as to time. Of course, any shock could derail this forecast. Our bond portfolios are slowly repositioning to a hedged or defensive mode. We have time. The process of moving from the present very low interest rates will require years and be volatile but gradual. Interest rates cannot go below zero. To get them above zero and into a more normal relationship, the G4 central banks must neutralize over four trillion dollars equivalent of excess reserves. Collectively they are still enlarging this position and are a long way from extraction from it.

Two items are recommended:

  • Read “Death of a Theory,” by St. Louis Fed president James Bullard, in the March-April/2012 monthly bulletin of that bank.
  • For analysis of last year’s bear market and the ensuing bull market, readers may wish to consult our new book, From Bear to Bull with ETFs. We thank readers for their responses so far. For the first time in our life, we have had a three-week-running best-selling book. All links to book distribution will be constantly updated on Cumberland’s website.

(Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Portfolioist. Cumberland Advisors is unaffiliated with FOLIOfn Investments.)

About David R. Kotok:

David R. Kotok co-founded Cumberland Advisors in 1973 and has been its Chief Investment Officer since inception. Mr. Kotok’s articles and financial commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other publications. He is a frequent guest on financial television including Bloomberg Television, CNBC and Fox. He also contributes to radio networks such as NPR and media organizations like Bloomberg Radio, among others.

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Sell in May? 9 Trillion Reasons to Say “No”

Guest Post by Contributing Editor, David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors.

The old adage “Sell in May and go away” was good guidance for stock markets last year.  The market peaked on April 29 and bottomed out on October 3.  For a detailed discussion of this period and the subsequent bull-market recovery, see our new book From Bear to Bull with ETFs.  The eBook (ten bucks) is now available on Amazon.com.  Paperback by month end and other channels of distribution like iBook and Nook are coming.  Please note that profits from this book will be donated to the Global Interdependence Center, www.interdependence.org.

History shows that ‘Sell in May and go away’ has applied when the Federal Reserve was in a tightening mode during the six-month span from May to November.  Continue reading

Understanding France’s Credit Rating Downgrade

Standard and Poor’s downgraded France’s credit rating last week from AAA to AA+.  While this downgrade has gotten a lot of press coverage, there are a number of topics surrounding the downgrade that are worth noting.

First, France now has the same credit rating from S&P as the United States.  As you’ll remember, S&P downgraded U.S. sovereign debt from AAA to AA+ back in August 2011.  Second, the yield on France’s 10-year bonds is at 3.08%. While this yield is well above the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield of 1.9%, it is certainly not a sign that the bond market sees substantial credit or interest rate risk associated with France. The media response to the downgrade is reminiscent of the situation in July last year when there was a media frenzy surrounding the possibility that the U.S. would fail to raise the debt ceiling and technically default on its debts.

Third, we can better understand the markets for debt (bonds) if we also look at the markets for equity (stocks).  They are related.  The appetite of investors for risk (and that of the market as a whole) varies through time.  When investors are broadly risk averse, they are less willing to Continue reading

Why Warren Buffett Was Right: “Diversification is Protection Against Ignorance”

The volatility in the broad stock market has shaken investors’ belief in the true value of portfolio diversification. The problem is that many of the people who believe that diversification no longer works, may not know how to build a truly diversified portfolio.

Warren Buffett is widely quoted as saying : “Diversification is protection against ignorance.” I’ll admit, that sounds pretty negative. But what I believe he meant, however, is that you diversify when you are not sufficiently confident to bet on which asset (or asset class) will do well and which will do poorly. 

Clearly, Mr. Buffett has done very well in managing a concentrated portfolio. But are you willing to take that bet? Continue reading

International Investing in Uncertain Times

Political turmoil in the Middle East and Africa, a natural and nuclear disaster in Japan, rekindling European debt crises: It’s easy to understand why investors may shy away from investing in foreign stocks these days.

They may be making a mistake.

Reluctant Global Investors

“There’s so much fear out there,” says Darleen Gilmore, founder of Austin Wealth Specialists, an investment advisor who likes clients to put a certain percent of their holdings into global markets. “I have to ease them into it.” Continue reading