Category Archives: Market Outlook

The Future of Retail Banking

Future of Retail BanksUSA Today ran a story in March on the changing nature of retail banking in America.  This sounds kind of boring, perhaps, but it has broad implications both for bank clients and, potentially, for investors.  The gist of the story is that banks are closing retail branches in small towns.  A lack of traditional banking services is not a rural phenomenon, however, with substantial populations of people in urban areas who do not use traditional banks.  For an informative interactive tool that allows you to explore the populations of people with little or no access to financial services, see here.  There is a substantial population of people who have little or no access to traditional bank services (the under-banked or the un-banked), and it would seem that this population is likely to continue to grow if banks close their smaller retail branches.  The solution, I believe, is that online banking services will serve the under-banked and un-banked, just as they have in the developing world.

In general, poorer households hold little if any assets in savings accounts and primarily use banks to cash checks.  Banks don’t make money from check cashing, so they have a hard time profitably serving these customers.  With interest rates at or near record lows, even bank clients with meaningful levels of savings provide little in the way of income to banks.  And banks, not surprisingly, are focusing on wealthier clients as the way to boost revenues.  The goal is to sell more profitable investing and financial planning services to wealthier clients.  As the large banks try to move up-market in terms of products and services that they offer, it seems likely that an increasing number of less-wealthy Americans are quite likely to have less access to traditional bank services.

What does the future of retail banking look like?  First, it seems inevitable that serving less-wealthy clients in physical branches will continue to be a relatively unattractive business.  Second, check cashing and payday lending businesses—alternatives to traditional banks–will probably continue to grow.  Lisa Servon, a professor of Urban Policy, argues that payday lenders provide a valuable service and that the industry is unfairly demonized.  If people need to borrow money and don’t have access to a traditional bank, a payday loan may be worth the cost.  Third, the increasing role of online banking and bill payment among the middle class reduces the time that customers spend in physical branches.  There are a range of perspectives on the future of retail banking (see here and here).

My belief is that physical retail bank branches will largely disappear.  If you really want or need to go to a physical branch – to access your safety deposit box, for example – you probably don’t mind driving.  Otherwise, what does the retail bank really provide that you cannot get online?  Bank analyst Dick Bove actually makes the case that quality customer service at branch locations is not necessarily even a good sign for investors.  He posits that bank employees generate more revenue for the bank by spending their time “selling products”, rather than by trying to solve problems for customers.

As the systems for mobile banking expand, this could dramatically help the un-banked and under-banked as well as displacing retail banking services for the more affluent.  In the developing world, for example, mobile banking (banking services provided via mobile phone) is already a dominant force.  Businesses can pay their employees via mobile banking, entirely removing the need to cash a physical check.  The M-Pesa mobile payment business now serves seventeen million people in Kenya alone.  Mobile payments were the fastest growing form of payments in China in 2013, totaling $1.6 Trillion.  There are also a host of non-banking firms that are providing services that look like banking. There is no obvious reason that some or all of these types of services cannot expand into the U.S. to serve the un-banked and then move up-market to replace some or all retail banking services to more affluent customers.  The current situation reminds me of a number of cases of technological innovation discussed in The Innovator’s Dilemma, the ground-breaking book by Clayton Christensen.  The book argues that new technologies first succeed not by displacing entrenched providers, but rather by first meeting the needs of an un-served population.  After the new technology has proven its worth, it then moves up-market to disrupt the traditional business model.  The current state of mobile banking is in serving the developing world, where people often have little or no access to traditional banks at all.  The enormous growth in these businesses suggests that the future is to move up the food chain.  Mobile payment technology and usage is growing in the U.S., albeit slower than expected.  Accenture projects that as much of 35% of retail banks’ revenues could be lost to a range of online services providers by 2020.  Given that retail banks in the U.S. are seeing their traditional businesses struggle along with  less use of their branch offices, coupled with a growing population of potential clients who the retail banks do not serve at all, mobile banking looks to me like the future of retail banking.

Goldman Sachs Predicts 4.5% 10-year Treasury Yields

Treasury BondGoldman Sachs just came out with a prediction that 10-year Treasury bond yields will rise to 4.5% by 2018 and the S&P 500 will provide 6% annualized returns over that same period.  The driver for this prediction is simply that the Fed is expected to raise the federal funds rate.

Because rising yields correspond to falling prices for bonds, Goldman’s forecast is that equities will substantially outperform bonds over the next several years.  If you are holding a bond yielding 2.5% (the current 10-year Treasury yield) and the Fed raises rates, investors will sell off their holdings of lower-yielding bonds in order to purchase newly-issued higher-yielding bonds.  If Goldman’s forecast plays out, bondholders will suffer over the next several years, while equity investors will enjoy modest gains.

Historical Perspective

This very long-term history of bond yield vs. the dividend yield on the S&P 500 is worth considering in parsing Goldman’s predictions.

Bond Yield vs. Dividend Yield

Source: The Big Picture blog

Prior to the mid 1950’s, the conventional wisdom (according to market guru Peter Bernstein) was that equities should have a dividend yield higher than the yield from bonds because equities were riskier.  From 1958 to 2008, however, the 10-year bond yield was higher than the S&P 500 dividend yield by an average of 3.7%.

Then in 2008, the 10-year Treasury bond yield fell below the S&P 500 dividend yield for the first time in 50 years.  Today, the yield from the S&P 500 is 1.8% and the 10-year Treasury bond yields 2.5%, so we have returned to the conditions that have prevailed for the last half a century. But the spread between bond yield and dividend yields remains very low by historical standards.  If the 10-year Treasury yield increases to 4.5% (as Goldman predicts), we will have a spread that is more consistent with recent decades.

Investors are likely to compare bond yields and dividend yields, with the understanding that bond prices are extremely negatively impacted by inflation (with the result that yields rise with inflation because yield increases as bond prices fall), while dividends can increase with inflation.  During the 1970’s, Treasury bond yields shot up in response to inflation. Companies can increase the prices that they charge for their products in response to inflation, which allows the dividends to increase in response to higher prices across the economy.  The huge spread between dividend yield and bond yield in the late 70’s and early 80’s reflects investors’ rational preference for dividends in a high-inflation environment.

What Has to Happen for Goldman’s Outlook to Play Out?

To end up with a 4.5% 10-year Treasury yield with something like a 2% S&P 500 dividend yield, the U.S. will need to see a sustained economic recovery and evidence of higher prices (inflation) driven by higher employment and wage growth.  In such an environment, investors will be willing to accept the lower dividend yield from equities because dividends grow over time and tend to rise with inflation.  This has been the prevailing state of the U.S. economy over the last fifty years.  Most recently, we had 10-year Treasury yields in the 4%-5% range in the mid 2000’s.  If, however, we continue to see low inflation and stagnant wages in the U.S. economy, bond yields are likely to remain low for longer.

Investing Implications of Trends in Household Wealth

Shifting Wealth

A new study released by the Russell Sage Foundation analyzes trends in household wealth over the last twenty years, with a focus on the years surrounding the ‘great recession’ of 2008.  The study examines changes in household net worth for the median household, as well as for the 95th percentile of households by wealth (the richest 5%), the poorest 25% of households (the 25th percentile) and tiers in between.

7-30-2014

Source: Russell Sage Foundation

The results, adjusted for inflation (values are shown in 2013 dollars), show that the median U.S. household remains substantially poorer in terms of total net worth than it was before the recession and is actually now poorer than it was in the mid 1980’s.  What’s more, median household net worth has not recovered at all since the great recession.  The same trends are evident even for the wealthiest quarter of households (the 75th percentile), although the gains in wealth by this tier of households in the 80’s, 90’s, and early 00’s were sufficiently great that the top quarter of households by wealth is more than 25% wealthier today than in the mid 80’s.

The most striking feature of this chart is the spread in wealth levels.  While the median and 25th percentiles of households by wealth are substantially poorer today than they were twenty years ago, the wealthiest 10% (the 90th percentile) and the wealthiest 5%, in particular, are substantially richer today.  The increasing spread between the percentiles through time is evidence of growing inequality.  The study concludes that much of the divergence between wealthier and poorer households reflects the proportion of their wealth held in homes vs. stocks and bonds.  Housing prices remain well below their previous peaks in 2007, while the equity markets have regained their previous levels.  For poorer households, homes represents the vast majority of their net worth.  This is not the case for wealthier households.  The results of this study are consistent with other analysis—this is confirmation rather than being surprising.  Nonetheless, each new set of results that are consistent adds weight.

Implications for Investors

The implications of the trends in the table above are substantial.  If the median household is seeing declining or stagnant wealth levels—with more extreme declines for poorer households—this will ultimately reduce their capacity to buy and consume goods and services.  Indeed, the Russell Sage study concludes that declining household wealth shows that poorer households, unable to support their current consumption with income, are gradually depleting their assets.  At the other end of the spectrum, the wealthiest 10% of households has seen a substantial decline in net worth as well, even though this tier enjoyed huge gains in the past twenty years.

Aside from the fact that declining household wealth reduces the ability to spend, there is also the problem of the wealth effect.  Households that have disposable income are less likely to spend it if they feel less wealthy and even the 95th percentile of households by wealth is less wealthy than it was just five years ago.

The simplest interpretation of these data are that mid-market retail products and retailers are going to suffer, while the budget products and retailers and the luxury markets will perform relatively better.  So, for example, Family Dollar stores (FDO), WalMart (WMT), Costco (COST) and other discount retailers should do well.  More broadly, however, the declining disposable incomes for the middle tier of investors suggests that the companies that provide the basic products and services that people depend upon are good bets.  Utilities (IDU), oil companies (IGE), and pharmaceutical companies (JNJ, BMY, GSK, PFE) are fairly well insulated from changes in wealth distribution.

The more challenging questions involve discretionary goods and services that are higher-priced and easier to do without or that can be displaced by lower-cost competitors.  Companies like Bed, Bath, and Beyond (BBBY), Whole Foods (WFM), Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF), and Express (EXPR) sell products for which there are cheaper and largely indistinguishable alternatives.  The winners in this mid-market business are those companies that provide fairly low-cost products while retaining brand appeal to wealthier customers (SBUX, CMG, NKE).

Another theme that looks promising is consumer products that are expensive relative to peers but that represent a low-cost substitution as compared to other types of conspicuous consumption.  Apple (AAPL) has successfully capitalized on this trend.  The new iPhone may be expensive compared to other phones, but it is fairly cheap as a prestige object.   Smart phones also provide low-cost entertainment via product offerings such as Facebook (FB).  People who spend their time surfing Facebook or watching Netflix (NFLX) are likely to see cable TV as expensive.  This realization is already expressed in the high prices of these firms relative to their earnings, however.

The Take-Away

The latest data on growing wealth inequality add support to the conclusion that the middle tier of American families is getting squeezed.  The long-term implications for how people spend their money are worth considering.  The ultimate losers will be companies that sell fairly high-cost goods or services to the middle class for which there are low-cost alternatives and for which there are up-market competitors that appeal to wealthier families.  One class of winners will be low-cost ‘prestige’ brands such as smart phones and Starbucks coffee.  It is hard to imagine the average urban millennial substituting his iPhone for generic pay-as-you-go hardware or rushing to the office with a cup of gas station coffee rather than the iconic Starbucks cup.  As discretionary wealth gets tighter for the middle tier, low-cost mobile entertainment looks like a winner at the expense of cable and satellite TV.

The discount retailers and providers of basic goods such as fuels and pharmaceuticals are likely to hold up well simply because changing wealth distributions will have little impact on their businesses.

 

Low Beta Market Sectors

With U.S. equity markets near their record highs and a bull market run that is starting its sixth year, the potential for a correction is a growing concern.  In addition, U.S. equity prices look fairly high when viewed in terms of the PE10 ratio.  Another factor that concerns some market watchers is that volatility (as measured by VIX) is at very low levels, reminiscent of 2007.  This type of complacency has historically been followed by increasing volatility, as levels return to their historical average, accompanied by a sell-off in higher-risk assets as investors adjust their portfolios to mitigate the effects of higher volatility.

Investors seeking to remain invested in equities at a target level but who want to reduce their exposure to market swings and to mitigate the impact of a rise in market volatility have historically been well-served by increasing their allocations to low-beta market sectors.  In this article, I will review the defensive value of low-beta allocations as well as examining the consistency of beta over time.

Beta measures the degree to which a security or a portfolio responds to a move in a benchmark index such as the S&P500.  A portfolio with beta equal to 80% (also written as 0.8) tends to go up 0.8% when the market rises 1.0% and vice versa.  Beta may be thought of as showing whether a security amplifies the moves in the benchmark (beta greater than 100%) or damps the moves in the benchmark (beta less than 100%).

How Beta Varies by Sector

The SPDR Select Sector ETFs provide a convenient way to break out the sectors of the U.S. equity markets by dividing the S&P500 into nine sectors.  These sectors illustrate how much beta varies.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 1

Betas and 10-year average annual returns for major sectors and indexes

The S&P500 has a beta of 100%, by definition.  Some readers may be surprised that emerging market stocks have beta of almost 140%, which means that emerging market equities tend to go up (down) 1.4% for every 1% gain (drop) in the S&P500.  Even before the market crash of 2008, emerging market stocks were high beta—this is not a new phenomenon.

There are three U.S. equity sectors with betas well below 100%: consumer staples (XLP), healthcare (XLV), and utilities (XLU).  It is often believed that low-beta equities have very low average returns.  In fact, a well-known but now widely-discounted model of equity returns (the Capital Asset Pricing Model, CAPM) assumes that beta of an equity or asset class corresponds directly to expected return.  High-beta asset classes have high expected return and vice versa.  Low-beta equities have historically substantially out-performed what would be expected on the basis of CAPM, however, and the past ten years is no exception.  These three sectors have all out-performed the S&P500 over the past ten years.  The return numbers shown here are the arithmetic averages, including reinvested dividends.

Low Beta Asset Classes in 2007-2008

The first question that is worth asking about beta is the degree to which beta corresponds to losses in really bad market conditions.  In the table below, I have tabulated beta calculated using three years of data through 2007 for each of the funds above, as well as the returns for each of these in 2008.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 2

Beta calculated through 2007 vs. 2008 returns

The three sectors with the lowest betas going into 2008 (consumer staples, healthcare, and utilities) had an average return of -22.3% in 2008, as compared to -36.8% for the S&P500.  An equity tilt towards these lower beta sectors could have reduced losses in that year.

Consistency of Beta through Time

The astute reader may notice that the betas calculated using ten years of data through May of 2014 (shown in the first table) are, in some cases, quite different from the betas calculated using three years of data through December of 2007 (shown in the second table).  Beta varies through time.  The betas calculated using three years of data through May 2014 provide an interesting contrast to the three-year betas through the end of 2007.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 3

Comparing betas for two 3-year periods

We are looking at two distinct 3-year periods, separated by almost six and a half years and, in general, low-beta sectors at the end of 2007 remain low-beta today and high-beta sectors back then are still high-beta.  The two most notable exceptions are international equities (EFA) and the technology sectors (XLK).  These changes notwithstanding, the three sectors with the lower betas in 2007 also have the lowest betas in 2014.

There are a number of factors that will determine whether any sector will weather a broad market decline better than others.  Beta is one important factor, but there are others.  In 2008, the financial sector suffered disproportionately large losses—well beyond what would have been expected on the basis of beta alone.  The underlying drivers of the 2008 market crash were most severe in the financial sector.  Small-cap stocks, by contrast, fell considerably less than the beta value of this sector would have suggested.

Low-Beta and Asset Allocation

Low-beta asset classes have historically provided some protection from market declines and increasing volatility.  There are a range of other considerations that potential investors should consider, however when creating a portfolio.  The selection of individual asset classes should be made with consideration of the characteristics of the total portfolio, including desired risk level, interest rate exposure, and income generation.  The target for total portfolio beta is primarily determined by an investor’s total risk tolerance.  A target beta level can be achieved both by choosing how to allocate the equity portion of a portfolio among sectors and by varying the balance between equity (stocks) and fixed income (bonds) investments.  Fixed income asset classes tend to have very low—even negative—values of beta.  In my next blog entry, I will explore these two approaches to managing beta at the portfolio level.

History suggests that low-beta sectors can provide some protection from market downturns.  The length of the current equity rally, and the substantial increases in equity valuations in recent years, are motivating some investors to consider their best defensive alternatives to protect against the inevitable reversal.  The question for investors to ask themselves is whether they are best-served by reducing portfolio beta by reducing their exposure to equities, by shifting some portion of assets from high-beta to low-beta sector, or both.

Is It Worth Betting on the ‘September Swoon’?

People have an understandable interest in patterns in stock market returns.  As we head into September, we can expect the inevitable articles about the so-called ‘September swoon.’  If you look at the period since 1926, the average return in September has been negative.  A 2011 paper in the Journal of Applied Finance concluded that the historical occurrence of negative returns for the stock market in September is so strong and consistent that it cannot easily be explained away.  There are a range of other so-called ‘calendar effects’ in which a specific time of the year, month, or week has historically delivered returns that are markedly different from the average across all periods.  There are no conclusive explanations for these effects and, in a rational world, these types of anomalies should not persist—but they do.  If they expect stock prices to decline in September, savvy speculators should start to sell in August in anticipation of this drop and this selling should dilute the eventual drop in September.  Over time, this type of effect should, in theory, disappear to investor anticipatory buying or selling.  Nonetheless, these effects remain prominent in historical stock prices. 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

Managing Your Portfolio’s Exposure to Interest Rates

Today, the yields on ten-year Treasury bonds are at a fifty-year low, and no period prior to the last few years reflects yields that even come close.  From 1962 to 2005, the lowest the 10-year Treasury bond yield ever got to was just below 4%, more than twice the current yield.

The chart below shows how unusual our current environment is.  The vertical axis is the yield from 10-year Treasury Bonds and the horizontal axis is time and we are looking at a period from 1962 to present.  From 1980 to today, we have seen the yield of 10-year Treasury bonds go from about 12% per year to below 2%.  The 10-year Treasury yield is considered a benchmark measure of bond yield and interest rates.  The Fed funds rate and the 10-year bond yield are very closely tied to one another.  For another illustration of how interest rates, the Fed funds rate and 10-year bond yield are related, see here. Continue reading