2017 4th Qtr. Kildare Asset Mgt.-Kerr Financial Group client review letter

The following is a copy of the 4th quarter and year end letter sent to clients.  It reviews the markets and the client account’s activity and performance for the 4th quarter of 2017 and year-to-date.

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

 

In a year full of extraordinary events, the financial markets were among the top stories of 2017.  This is no small statement.  In a typical year, something like the Trump administration on its own is a topic that contains enough developments to characterize a year as historic.  Yet in addition to the fury and controversy surrounding President Trump, 2017 will also be remembered for the following things – North Korea, revelations of sexual harassment, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the national anthem at NFL games, Fake news, and Bitcoin.

 

Staying within the markets, stocks had their best year since 2013 while bond yields remained calm for long maturities but rose on short dated issues.  The U.S. dollar had its worst year in a decade.  Both crude oil and gold prices rose in 2017.  But the biggest story of the 2017 markets was the growth and prevalence of passive investing.

 

Passive investing has been an enormous market influence for the past several years as the growth of investor capital devoted to the approach has been historic.  The two leading providers of passive investing products (Vanguard and Blackrock) have had inflows of over $1 trillion during the past two years.

 

Passive investing involves buying exchange traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds that track an index.     Investors seek to invest in various asset classes via these funds.  For example, the SPDR S&P 500 Trust (symbol SPY) tracks the S&P 500 index. The SPY or its equivalent mutual fund is widely viewed as the equity asset class of a portfolio.  The iShares Barclays Aggregate Bond Fund (symbol AGG) tracks the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index which is a broad bond market index.

 

One example of a passive approach (also referred to as indexing) would be a portfolio of 70% stocks and 30% bonds using the SPY for stocks and AGG for bonds.  Once set, the investor may periodically rebalance the portfolio to keep the desired balance.

 

The goal of passive investing is to achieve market returns over the long term at the lowest possible cost.  As a result, this approach has the advantage of being much simpler as there is minimal upfront research – you are just investing in the chosen index.  Further, there is limited monitoring after investing the money.

 

While there are many appealing parts to this strategy, especially when the markets are moving up, it still exposes the investor to market risk.  This part of the passive investing equation is overlooked.  If the stock market corrects 15%, your portfolio is declining 15%.  This has not happened in a while so it’s easy to forget this possibility.

 

Another important risk is a function of the popularity of passive investing.  With all of the growth in the indexing approach, there are enormous amounts of capital doing the same thing.  This involves owning the same stocks, bonds, and other assets in the same amounts. If, for some reason, there is move to unwind some positions or raise cash, it could cause a wave of selling.  Depending on the circumstances, this could feed on itself and increase system wide risk.

 

There was very limited selling in 2017.  It was one of the calmest and smoothest years ever for the stock market.  There were no 5% corrections and buyers viewed every small dip as an opportunity.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a record 71 times last year which is the most ever.  Large cap stocks outperformed mid and small caps and growth stocks outperformed value stocks.  Here are 2017’s and the 4th quarter returns for the major averages.

 

4th Qtr. 2017

Dow Jones Industrial Average

10.3%

25.1%

S&P 500

6.1%

19.4%

Nasdaq Composite

6.3%

28.2%

Russell 2000

2.9%

13.1%

Using a size weighted average, here is how the average Kildare Asset Management-Kerr Financial Group client’s account performed. This is calculated after all fees and expenses.

 

Kerr Financial Group

-0.56%

12.82%

The 4th quarter was a challenging one.  Several of our holdings traded flat during the period and a couple even traded lower.  This was especially frustrating because the broad markets were so strong.  Fortunately, this turned out to be a temporary situation as these lagging positions rallied strongly in January.  Nevertheless, 2017’s 4th quarter was disappointing.

 

There was no common reason for this poor performance.  Instead there several distinct developments in the quarter that concurrently pressured different positions to trade lower.  Seacor Marine Holdings is a good example.  The stock (symbol SMHI) began the quarter trading in the mid-$15 per share.  It fell to under $12 in late December.

 

Seacor Marine provides global marine and support transportation services to offshore oil and gas exploration and production wells.  The company offers services that include crew transportation, platform supply, offshore accommodations, maintenance support, standby safety services, anchor handling and mooring capabilities, and liftboats.  The company operates in the Gulf of Mexico, Latin America, the North Sea, West Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

 

Seacor Marine was spun off from Seacor Holdings in the second quarter of 2017.  Spinoffs happen for many reasons and often lead to opportunities as well as problems for the newly issued stock.

 

When a division is divested from a corporate owner, its stock often becomes an orphan in the eyes of institutional investors.  Depending on the reason for the separation, Wall Street may have little interest in the standalone company.  This is because there are often undesirable characteristics surrounding the division being let go by the corporate parent.  For example, the spun off company might be in a competitive, low growth industry with shrinking margins.

 

The spinoff of Seacor Marine Holdings was driven by covenants in a debt deal with the Carlyle Group.  Specifically, Seacor Holdings would have had to re-pay $175 million of convertible notes if Seacor Marine was not divested by December 31, 2017.

 

This is not to say that Seacor Marine was an invaluable gem to keep at all costs.  The industry is a mess.  With the growth of on shore drilling that takes advantage of fracking technology, offshore exploration became uncompetitive.  Consequently, companies servicing offshore drilling have been under severe pressure as business has declined.  Chapter 11 filings have been regular developments.

 

From an operational standpoint, Seacor Marine has weathered the storm – so far.  They have a strong balance sheet and have managed the downturn reasonably well.  Further, they have viewed the current industry landscape as an opportunity to buy some competitors’ assets out of bankruptcy.  Management believes that these transactions represent excellent long term value.  Also, there are signs of improvement as off shore drilling has reduced the cost of exploration and activity has increased as crude oil has rebounded to over $60 per barrel.  If offshore exploration continues to rebound, Seacor Marine could be in a position to make a lot of money.

 

Returning to the 4th quarter’s stock price decline, it appears that SMHI was a victim of tax-loss selling.  This involves investors looking to realize losses toward the end of the year as these losses reduce taxes as a deduction or to offset gains.  Seacor Marines stock was valued at $23 per share at the time of the spinoff.  As the stock price declined throughout the year, it became a strong candidate for selling in December to use the losses to reduce taxes.

 

I suspected that this was the reason for the weak stock price.  While the industry challenges remained, there were no new developments involving the company.  Unfortunately, it is never clear that tax strategies are behind a falling stock price.  I did use this opportunity to add to some positions but these were minor adjustments.  There was no way of being certain that the selling would subside when the calendar turned to 2018.  However, the stock has recovered in January 2018 which increases the probability that the 4th quarter’s price drop was tax related.

 

Reviewing other holdings during the 4th quarter, Dick’s Sporting Goods (symbol DKS and covered in the 3rd quarter letter) closed the year strongly.  Given the company’s financials, the stock price plunge that happened in 2017 might have been overdone.

 

Layne Christensen and Hurco both closed flat for the quarter.  Layne reported quarterly results in the beginning of December which showed continued progress in returning the company to profitability and growth.  However, initially the stock price dropped to the $11 per share area before finishing the year above $12.50.

 

2018 has started out with broad gains and we have participated.  While the 4th quarter was disappointing, client accounts have rebounded and outperformed in January.

 

I think this year will be much different from 2017.  The economy is growing but the Federal Reserve is signaling further monetary tightening.  This will provide some headwinds to the capital markets.  In addition, the markets will be adjusting to tax reform and possibly an infrastructure initiative.  It is possible that last year’s leaders are replaced by new sectors.  And of course, the influence of passive investing might be a greater market risk.  As always, this changing investment background will provide new opportunities.  I will continue to seek out those situations.

 

Please call or email with any questions.  Thank you for your continued confidence and trust.

 

“And now for something completely different….” – Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Newsletter

April 2, 2018 – DJIA = 24,103 – S&P 500 = 2,640 – Nasdaq = 7,063

In the 1970’s the British comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus produced a half hour long show that was broadcast in England and eventually made it on to U.S. television.  This was the stone age of television when viewers’ only choices were ABC, CBS, NBC and the public stations.  No cable, no ESPN, no CNN, and no FOX.  (How in the world did we know what to think??)  With such small distribution options it was remarkable that it got picked up.  Just the same, putting it on Sunday night at 11:00 on public TV (its show time and channel) was the equivalent of not getting air time.

Despite this obstacle, the troupe developed a cult following with their sketches that included topics such as dead parrots, Spam, and lumberjacks.  Many early episodes began with John Cleese in a black suit seated behind a desk which was in an outlandish place – zoo cage, in shallow water at the edge of the ocean, or suspended in air.  He would open the show by saying, “And now for something completely different”.

The reason behind this nostalgic tangent is that the capital markets, like Mothy Python, are acting “completely different”.  And it’s important that investors recognize this change, try to understand the causes, and make necessary adjustments.

To review where we’ve been, during the past several years, the markets were heavily supported by the Federal Reserve asset purchases (bond buying) and suppressed interest rates.  As traders came to understand this landscape and gained confidence in the fed, the result was a steep decline in volatility and steady increases in assets prices.

This is especially true since the bottom of the February 2016 correction and resulted in record calm during 2017.  Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and 2017’s tranquility has been replaced by its arch enemy – volatility.  This began when U.S. stocks hit an air pocket in the beginning of February and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 both fell over 10% in ten trading days.   Indexes bounced in back during the second half of February but the sellers returned and stocks lost over 5% two weeks ago and closed near the February lows.

Equities bounced last week but are still around 8% below the records reached in late January.  Looking at the first quarter, the Dow and S&P 500 posted their first losing quarter in two years while the Nasdaq was up.  Here is the 1st quarter performance for the major averages.

2018
Dow Jones Industrial Average -2.5%
S&P 500 -1.2%
Nasdaq Composite +2.3%
Russell 2000 -0.4%

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and few expected the stock markets’ tumultuous 1st quarter.  It’s unclear whether there was a specific cause behind the fall or whether stocks were simply overdue for a correction.   Of course, it’s likely a combination of both.  Some of reasons offered for the selling include rising federal deficits, chaos in Washington, trade wars, geo-political tensions, and central bank tightening.

At a minimum, there are some important changes in the financial landscape and this could have had a large influence on the markets.  First, interest rates have risen.  Last month the Fed raised the overnight interest rate to 1.75%.  It was the 5th rate hike since President Trump was elected.  More importantly, investors are pricing in several more rate increases in 2018.

Other interest rates have moved higher too.  LIBOR (London Inter-Bank Offered Rate), which is another short-term rate, is at the highest level since 2006.  Below is a chart of 3-month Libor (the Libor interest rate for 3 month borrowings) which covers the past 10 years and shows the recent jump.

 

There is no honor among thieves and, as the chart shows, apparently very little among bankers in times of financial stress.  3-month LIBOR spiked almost 100% amidst the failures of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns as it was every man and woman for themselves.  After the dust settled and the Fed got done fiddling as Rome burned, counterparty risk collapsed as central banks flooded the markets with money.

As can be seen, 3-month LIBOR scrapped along a floor of 20 to 40 basis points for 6 ½ years.  It rose above 50 basis points in 2015 and jumped from 1.2% to 2.2% during 2017.  This may appear to be a somewhat insignificant move but to economies that have become hooked on low rates and monetary easing, this is a big deal.  One of the ripples in this interest rate pond is that adjustable rate loans become more expensive for borrowers some of which probably can’t afford higher expenses.  Given that the Security Industry and Financial Markets Association reports that corporate debt is at all-time highs ($8.83 trillion), rising interest rates are a problem.

As noted, interest rates have been moving higher for over a year.  A more recent change is a new Federal Reserve chairman as Jerome Powell replaced Janet Yellen.  The new sheriff in town comes with a new view.  According to recent congressional testimony, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said the stock market isn’t the Fed’s focus.  According to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Powell told the House of Representatives that “We don’t manage the stock market” and “I think the general thing is that the stock market is not the economy”.  He admitted that the markets are important but not central to the organization’s decisions.  (The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2018).

While the markets are aware of the Federal Reserve’s “dual mandate” (price stability and employment growth), traders have long believed that they also kept close watch on the financial markets especially the stock market.  If stocks approached any level of panic, Wall Street expected the Fed to step in any way possible to support prices.  This has some history as it dates back to Alan Greenspan (the Greenspan Put) and continued with Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen.  If Jerome Powell views the stock market as less important than prior Fed heads, this represents a material change and might be contributing to the recent declines.

In addition to higher interest rates and less Fed coddling, inflation could be a third head on the market’s adversarial monster.  After years of deflation and falling prices, there are signs that the U.S. economy could be facing a pick-up in inflation.  This will be a tectonic shift in the markets’ landscape and something that many investors have never faced.

Some of the obvious impacts of inflation include higher interest rates and reduced profit growth due to higher costs.  It could lead to a situation of nowhere to hide in the financial markets.  Low or no profit growth would compress valuations and stocks would fall.  At the same time, higher interest rates would result on losses in the bond market.  The 60/40 or 70/30 mix of stocks and bonds strategy that became popular in the past several years of would suffer.  Add some leverage to this equation, as is the case with many hedge funds, and the pain could become intolerable.

Of course, these developments are not certain to happen.  The capital markets have several reasons for confidence.  Lower corporate taxes should drive earnings growth, the Trump administration has rolled back a great number of President Obama’s regulations, and business and consumer optimism is high.  On this final point, there is much expectation on corporate investment as a result of reduced taxes and repatriation of offshore capital.  This could be a powerful economic wave if it happens.

The volatility of February and March has been a surprise.  The important question is whether it is part of “normal” correction and a great buying opportunity or a function of a changing backdrop to the markets and the start of a larger decline.  This latter option would qualify as something “completely different” and would suggest further downside risk.

It would seem that investors are well aware of the bullish argument and that much of the positives are priced in.  The damages from higher rates and increased inflation are less know and could cause further disruptions as the markets adjust to their likelihood.  Caution might be the best investment approach until the answer becomes clear.

 

 

“Popular! You’re going to be Popular!” – Galinda – “Wicked”

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Newsletter

February 23, 2018 – DJIA = 25,309 – S&P 500 = 2,747 – Nasdaq = 7,337

Popularity is hard to achieve.  The competition for the audience’s attention and affection is fierce despite the fact there are so many more ways to reach them.  For example, putting out a YouTube video is as easy as focusing your smartphone.  And the plentiful options for distribution include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and Instagram.  However, breaking above the endless and constant flow of information that bombards our normal daily activities and becoming noticed is the challenge on the path to popularity.

Of course once popularity is attained, it is difficult to maintain. And those who have the knack of sustaining their fame have a special talent.  Applying these thoughts to the capital markets, the quintessence of human emotion, we find a situation that rivals the stoutest high school clique.  In the equity markets, the FANG stocks are the equivalent to being on the cover of People Magazine every week.

Popular stock market leadership is nothing new.  Radio and car makers (new technologies at the time) were darlings in the 1920’s, the Nifty Fifty dominated trading in the late 1960’s and 20 years ago there a Dot Com bubble with a handful of stocks leading the charge.  Today FANG (or FANG +) is comprised by Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Nvidia, and Google.  Some expanded versions include Microsoft and Cisco Systems despite “M” and “C” not fitting into the acronym (traders aren’t very picky on the grammar as long as the stock is going up!).

FANG’s February muscle flex was historic.  As the stock markets have recovered from their plunge, these favorites have been responsible for much of the bounce. To review, after making fresh all-time highs in late January, stocks plunged over 10% in 2 weeks.  During this air pocket, the major averages sliced through their 50-day moving average and approached their 200-day moving average as the intraday lows were made.  Stocks bounced on February 9th and rallied since then.  The S&P 500 has recovered around 50% of the decline but the Nasdaq Composite’s rebound was much stronger and brought this index back to within 1.6% of its January record.

While a recovery from the intense selling was welcome, this was far from a broad bounce.  At the risk of sounding picky, the speed and narrowness of the rally might be a concern.  To this point, as of the end of last week, the FANG gang accounted for 70% of the Nasdaq 100’s year-to-date performance (the Nasdaq 100 is the 100 largest companies of the Nasdaq Composite).  Amazon’s stock is responsible for 28% of the of the index’s 2018 gain while Microsoft is 12%, Netflix is 7%, Google 7%, Apple 6%, Nvidia 5.5%, and Cisco 5%.  That’s 7 out of 100 stocks contributing 70% of the index’s 2018 move.  That’s a remarkable development.

According to Thomas Thornton at Hedge Fund Telemetry (who is the source of this data) the normal attribution for these stocks range between 40% – 55%.  Given this 70% reading, it makes one wonder how poorly the other 93 stocks are doing.   For those keeping score at home, the Nasdaq 100 has a nice 7.8% YTD gain at the end of last week. While we on the topic, here are the major averages 2018 returns as of last week’s closing.

2018
Dow Jones Industrial Average +2.40%
S&P 500 +2.80%
Nasdaq Composite +6.30%
Russell 2000 +0.90%

The Nasdaq 100 is not the only place where we see over weighted concentration.  Within the S&P 500, the technology sector has moved to represent around 25% of the index.  Throughout the last decade it ranged around 15% and since the financial crisis it has been around 20%.  The last time tech was this much of the S&P 500 was during the Dot Com bubble when its weighting topped out around 35%.

Just because technology has become oversized does not mean that the stock market will decline.  However, narrow market leadership is not typically associated with strong upward trends.  Still, the economy is strong, earnings are growing, and optimism is high.

Looking closer at corporate earnings, they have been strong.  69% of companies have beat their earnings estimates for their quarterly and year-end reports and this is the highest reading since 2006’s 3rd quarter.  Analysts increased their earnings estimates going into the reporting season which makes this ‘beat’ rate more impressive.  On top of these strong bottom lines, 73% of the companies exceeded revenue estimates.

Please note that this is looking in the rearview mirror.  Casting our eyes forward, there are a couple items of concern – rising interest rates and inflation.  Interest rates have been moving higher for some time but the recent move up across the yield curve has investors worried.  There is a lot of system wide debt and a sizable portion is adjustable rate.  The translation is that increased interest payments will hurt margins.

Also, there are some signs that inflation could be lurching higher.  January’s employment report showed increased wage pressures and some commodities prices are moving higher.  Lumber is trading at all-time record levels and crude oil has rebounded above $60 per barrel.  Higher prices could force the Fed to raise interest rates at a faster rate.  These could be issues contributing to the capital markets’ volatility.

The popularity of the FANG stocks have helped the markets recover from February’s drop.  As attractive as their shares are, Wall Street needs to see their charm spread beyond that small group.  If the S&P and Dow can close the gap with the Nasdaq, it would be a strong sign that the February’s drop is probably over.  If stocks continue to rely on FANG’s popularity, the rally would likely fail and lead to a revisiting of February’s unpopular levels.  Indeed, popularity is a heavy burden.

 

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast; You Got to Make the Morning Last.

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Newsletter

February 12, 2018 – DJIA = 24,190 – S&P 500 = 2,619 – Nasdaq = 6,874

The pace of life in today’s culture is fast.  This we know.  A few years ago, we only got our mail once a day and it was delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.  Now we read freshly delivered emails on a cell phone while standing in line to buy a $5 coffee made from beans grown in Sumatra.

And we know that this swifter pace has changed the financial markets.  We have instant access to quotes, corporate and economic news, and all sorts of financial data.  Unfortunately, during the last couple of weeks this speed showed up in the form of a sudden price plunge.  It has traders wishing for a return to getting their quotes from a ticker tape.

On January 26th (two trading weeks ago) stocks closed the week at record levels.  It was an incredibly strong month to start 2018.  The market then, without much warning, reversed direction and fell hard and fast.  Below is a chart of the S&P 500 for 2017 through the selloff..  As you can see, December and January’s impressive gains were wiped out in a handful of days.  The blue line is the 50-day moving average.  Notice how prices moved so smoothly throughout last year but when the drop happened is was sudden and swift.  The S&P 500 sliced through its 50-day moving average and continued falling.

 

 

Another indicator that demonstrates how dramatic this fall was is the RSI or relative strength indicator.  The RSI is a momentum measurement that tries to quantify the speed and change of prices.  It oscillates between 0 and 100 with readings above 70 considered overbought and under 30 oversold.  Below is a chart of the RSI for the past year.  We have taken this from Jason Goepfert’s Sentiment Trader blog.  It shows the astonishing plunge in momentum.  Mr. Goepfert points out that this move from overbought to oversold is the fastest ever.  He concludes, “that raises concern that we’re now in a different market environment”.

In the understatement of 2018 (so far), a lot of money was taken out of the stock market as prices fell.  According to Trim Tabs Research, a company that tracks money flows in and out of various asset classes, over $50 billion came out of equities, equity mutual funds, and equity ETFs during the first 2 weeks of February.  The previous record for monthly outflows was $46.5 billion which occurred in July 2002.  This graph shows the weekly flows.  Notice the incredibly steady inflows into stocks during the past couple of years together with the amazing flush in February.

Some other painful points of February’s drop include the first ever daily 1,000 point drop for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  On February 5th the Dow plunged 1,087 which was a 4.26% move.  The next two largest daily declines were in the midst of the financial crisis.  The Dow fell 777 points (6.98%) on September 29, 2008 and 733 points (7.87%) on October 15, 2008.  The 4th largest point drop took place the day that the financial markets re-opened after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (September 17, 2001) – 685 points or 7.13%.  Concerning this month’s 1,000 point daily drop, it is interesting that the prior trading day (February 2nd), the Dow was down 665 points or 2.54%.  Combing these two days, the Dow lost 6.8% in consecutive trading days which, outside of the crashes of 1929 and 1987, ranks among the highest percentage daily losses.

Now that we’ve described the carnage, let’s explore some potential reasons behind it.  January’s employment data was released on February 2nd.  As part of the report, the Labor Department estimated that average hourly earnings for private sector workers jumped 2.9% in January as compared to the year before.  This number raised Wall Street’s fears of inflation and stocks fell while the 10-year Treasury yield climbed to 2.85% which is its highest level since January 2014 (this yield has since moved higher but closed last week at 2.83%).

Inflation, despite the Federal Reserve’s desire for it, would hurt the fixed income market as bond interest payments would have less inflation adjusted value (the real yield).  As a consequence, interest rates would move higher.    Further, corporate earnings might suffer if companies can’t pass along increased costs.  And, if inflation gets too high, the Fed might quicken the pace of interest rate increases which could be an economic headwind.

That Wall Street has inflation worries is an noteworthy change.  Previously, the financial markets’ concerns were more about deflation, but there was confidence that the Fed could prevent it.  Now the markets acknowledge that inflation could be a problem and apparently there is some doubt that the Fed can handle it without upsetting the economy and the markets.

Another contributor to the stock market mayhem involves volatility products.  The VIX index (the CBOE Volatility Index) shows the market’s expectation of 30-day volatility. It is constructed using the implied volatilities of a wide range of S&P 500 index options.  The VIX is widely used in judging stock market risk and the index has a 27 year average of around 19.

The VIX was launched in 1993 and quickly grew in popularity as a gauge for stock market risk.  A separate index was developed for the Nasdaq – symbol VXN.  VIX futures began trading in 2004 and VIX options were introduced in 2006.  Since the financial crisis, exchange traded funds (ETFs) and exchange traded notes (ETNs) began trading.  These securities are tied to the VIX futures market.

As we’ve pointed out in previous newsletters, 2017 was the calmest ever for the capital markets and the VIX averaged 11 during the year.  This tranquility resulted in the strategy of selling volatility through the various VIX derivatives.  This evolved into a virtual flock of geese laying golden eggs as volatility drifted lower and those short sales decreased in price (profits for those who sold).  Further, traders were emboldened as it appeared that the the Fed was determined not to let the stock market fall (and volatility increase).

As the popularity of this trade grew, it included both retail investors as well as institutional players.  An extension of this trade was to increase or decrease equity exposure depending on the direction of your VIX trade.  In other words, increase stock positions as the VIX fell and sell equities if the VIX climbed.  This became a somewhat self fulfilling trade.  For those old enough to remember the markets in the 1980’s, this is similar to the portfolio insurance strategy that contributed to the 1987 crash.

To be sure, this trade was not so common that it was the dominate happy hour topic with everyone bragging about how much they were making by selling “vol”.  However, it was a widespread approach among hedge funds especially those involved in risk parity strategies.  And if hedge funds are doing it, leverage is applied.

Once the VIX panic started, it spread fast.  And interestingly, its largest impact was the U.S. stock market.  Yes, international bourses were affected, but they didn’t encounter the selling that the U.S. market underwent.  Further, the emerging market indexes, usually a victim of global panics, weathered the storm pretty well.  And there was no rush to traditional safety plays such as Treasuries (yield didn’t plunge) and gold (it actually traded lower).

By the end of the week there were some encouraging signs.  U.S. stocks stabilized and recovered a little.  The VIX retreated from the 50’s and looked like it would return to the low 20’s.  Investor sentiment had collapsed which is a good sign as pessimists usually have sizable cash positions which could come back into the market.

On the negative side of the ledger, the depths of the damage are unknowable at this point.  Even if the markets return to their calm ways, we could still see some players taken out in body bags.  There are struggling hedge funds that could have been over leveraged and unable to adjust to the turmoil.  Or an extended “vol” trader who is pressed his bets and is going under.

In addition, the emotional damage to investor psyche could require more time to heal.  With all of the money that has flowed into the stock market over the past year and one-half, this sudden drop could begin to cause investors to second guess their confidence.  And if inflation indicators keep popping up, it’s a good bet that we have not seen the lows for the year.

Of course, recalling that everything happens faster these days, it’s possible that all of the negatives were quickly resolved and the markets will resume their move from lower left to upper right.  However, it would be wise to keep in mind the speed of this month’s decline and develop a plan if we begin to trade lower again.  Indeed, the markets are making us stay nimble as well as fast.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away. Now It Looks as They Are Here To Stay. Oh I Believe in Yesterday.

 

 

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Newsletter

January 22, 2018 – DJIA = 26,071 – S&P 500 = 2,810 – Nasdaq = 7,336

 

Somethings aren’t what they used to be.  This comment isn’t a nostalgic yearn for the ‘good ole days’ but, instead, an observation that virtually nothing is protected from the ever present upheaval impacting our lives.

Take the National Football League for example.  NFL football games used to be around three hours in length.  Now due to a combination of constant reviews of officials’ rulings and endless player celebrations over the most routine play, the games are a tedious bore and have become unwatchable.

Another example of how times have changed involve federal government shutdowns.  They used to have much more meaning.  Previous shutdowns came with intense angst and fear over their unknown length.  Further they used to be accompanied by threats of credit rating downgrades, a falling U.S. dollar, and widespread fallout.  Sadly, government shutdowns have turned into an exercise in name calling and casting of blame with everyone knowing it won’t last long.  They’ve become routine.

And of course, the stock market is not immune to perception change.  For example, bold headlines used to announce when the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed a 1,000 point threshold.  The business television stations would break out the party hats and it would be the topic of the day.  Last week the Dow crossed 26,000 for the first time and, if you weren’t paying attention, you could have easily missed it.

Perhaps this has become too common.  Last week’s 26,000 mark is the eighth 1,000 point level gained since Election Day in November 2016.  Furthermore, this latest threshold only took 13 calendar days from when the Dow crossed 25,000 – hardly enough time to get the Dow 26,000 hats made.  This is the shortest number of days for the Dow to move from one 1,000 mark to the next.  Obviously, 1,000 is a much smaller percentage and therefore an easier accomplishment at 26,000 than at the lower numbers.  Nevertheless, this has been a historic move for the Dow.

Not only has the stock market been moving up, it has been a remarkably steady, smooth journey.  Last week the S&P 500 set a new record for the longest time without a 5% correction.  At 395 days, this new stretch beat the 394 days in the 1990’s and 386 days in the 1960’s.  To further point out how rare this is, the S&P 500 has averaged four 5% corrections annually dating back to 1927.  In other words, there are normally four 5% corrections every year but we have’t seen anything close to that since the beginning of 2016.  Investors should consider the possibility that we might have some catching up to do.  Below is a graph showing the previous streaks. (Financial Time, January 19, 2018)

 

Looking at this month’s trading, the rally continues.  The S&P 500 started the year with 9 consecutive days of closing higher than it opened.  Further, it closed at a new record high 11 out of the first 14 trading days.  While this does not set a record for the best start to a year, it is among the top.  Here are the gains for the major averages through last Friday.

2018
Dow Jones Industrial Average    +5.5%
S&P 500    +5.1%
Nasdaq Composite    +6.3%
Russell 2000    +4.0% 

 

Another noteworthy financial market development of 2018 involves a spike in interest rates.  We know that the Federal Reserve raised rates in December and that the shorter maturities of the yield curve had been moving higher for several months.  However, the rates on the longer end of the curve (10-year and 30-year bonds) had not moved much.  In 2018, the longer dated rates have moved up.  Last week the 10-year Treasury note closed around 2.66% which is up from 2.41% at the end of 2017.  The 10-year note was last above 2.5% in March 2017.

On the surface, these higher interest rates might seem insignificant.  But in a leveraged financial system and in an economy that has gotten used to low rates with little volatility, this is a change.  Of course, if rates are moving up due to strong loan demand and that capital is being used to fund investments that will result in further economic growth, that is good.  However, if other factors are pushing rates (inflation, deficit concerns, etc), this could lead to wider spread problems.  Higher interest payments will lead to higher interest expenses for the federal, state, and local governments.  This will lead to larger deficits if tax receipts don’t grow.

Another worry involves individual and corporate debt.  For loans with variable or adjustable interest rates, this move will increase the cost of borrowing.  Whether it’s an adjustable rate mortgage or a bank loan tied to LIBOR, these higher yields will change the landscape.

System wide debt levels are high.  According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, non-financial corporate business debt exceeded $6 trillion at the end of the 3rd quarter 2017.  This is up from $3 trillion in the mid 2000’s.  On top of this, individual mortgage debt exceeds $1,300 trillion.  And these totals do not include such things as credit card balances, automobile financing, and student loans.  Clearly there is a lot of debt in the system and this leverage could be stressed if interest rates continue to rise.

Foreign exchange is another market with some important developments.  Actually, this story dates back over a year but has been getting more attention in the New Year.  The value of the U.S. dollar has noticeably fallen against other major currencies.  The dollar index is an index that measures the U.S. dollar against a basket of major global currencies (euro, yen, pound, etc.). It has steadily declined since December 2016 and closed last week at the lowest level since late 2014.  This has gone against the widespread belief that a Trump Administration, with the ‘Make America Great Again’ initiative, would result in a strong dollar.  That turned out to be a bad bet.  Below is a chart for the DXY (dollar index) provided by Bespoke Investment Group.

The U.S. dollar is critical to the international financial markets and global trade.  Virtually all international trade, including crude oil, is transacted in the U.S. dollar.  For example, if Japan imports liquefied natural gas from Australia, it is done through the greenback – the yen and Australian dollar are both converted to U.S. dollars to complete the transaction.  The same flow would occur when China imports commodities from Brazil and Sweden exports to Canada.

The value of the dollar also influences the competitiveness of U.S. companies.  With a weak U.S. dollar, the products sold by U.S. based companies are cheaper in terms of other currencies – the euro or yen buy more dollars.  This means that domestic companies with international markets should be more competitive from a price standpoint and those businesses should see increased sales.

While this improved competitive position is obviously good, a weaker currency has its drawbacks.  A falling currency is usually associated with countries experiencing trouble or instability.  Further, a weak currency can be the result of capital outflows which could turn into a strong economic headwind.

So far, there hasn’t been any noticeable deterioration or impact from the U.S. dollar’s retreat.  This can change but the current landscape is unaffected.  Perhaps the main force behind the fall is the relative position of central bank policy.  The Federal Reserve has been raising rates for a couple of years while the European Central Bank has only begun reducing their monetary easing.  It could be that the markets have already discounted the Fed’s anticipated rate increases while recognizing a strong European economy and higher continental interest rates later this year.

It’s been an exciting new year for the capital markets including a strong rally for stocks.  And while a repeat of 2017 would be welcome for equities, a pick up in volatility is expected.  Given that we typically get four 5% corrections in a year and we haven’t had one in two years, it shouldn’t be a surprise for the markets to be a little choppy in 2018.  Of course, maybe like the NFL and all of the other things in our lives that are going through subtle change, perhaps the markets have transformed into a smooth path of always going up.  That presumes the four most dangerous words in investing – “It’s different this time”!  Yes, somethings in our lives aren’t what they used to be but risk isn’t one of them.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

45 Lewis Street – Lackawanna RR Station

Binghamton, NY 13901

 

 

 

 

I Just Want to Celebrate Another Day of Livin’

 

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Newsletter

January 8, 2018 – DJIA = 25,295 – S&P 500 = 2,743 – Nasdaq = 7,136

As we look back at the holiday season, there was some joyful reflection and celebration including relaxing time spent with family and friends.   Unfortunately, for some, the holidays are a time of overwhelming stress and frustration.  Sadly, there appears to be a thin line between these two emotional states and, hopefully, more people enjoyed much of the former and little of the latter.

This range of holiday emotions is comparable, on a certain level, to those that result from dealing with the financial markets. Sometimes there’s a great deal of cheer and jubilation and while other times are filled with lament and despair.  Looking back at 2017, joy and celebration dominated the capital markets.

In most years there are sectors of the capital markets that don’t perform well and even decline.  For example, sometimes an asset class such as commodities, real estate, or fixed income fall due to currency and interest rate movements or economic developments.  It is the natural ebb and flow of the markets.  In 2017, however, all asset classes advanced during the year.

Below is a chart reviewing various asset class returns for 2017.  It shows the steady move from lower left to upper right for stocks (both U.S. and international).  Equities were followed by U.S. real estate and bonds.  Commodities and managed futures (likely related to commodities) both recovered losses in the first half of the year and posted gains.  Hedge funds, as a group, provided mid single digit returns and continued to under perform stocks which provides more ammunition to the passive investing supporters.

The table below shows annual returns of various asset classes dating back to 1998.  The sectors are ranked each year from best (on top) to worst.  The asset classes are basically stock and bond indexes.  It has two major U.S. stock indexes with the S&P 500 (dark green) and Russell 2000 (dark brown) .  International stocks are tracked via the MSCI World ex U.S. (gray), and MSCI Emerging Markets (orange).  Two fixed income indexes are included – the Bloomberg Barclays U.S, Aggregate Bond index (light green) and the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate High Yield index (teal).  For more detail, the S&P 500 and Russell 2000 are broken down into growth and value – S&P 500 growth is light brown, S&P 500 value is dark blue, Russell 2000 growth is yellow, and the Russell 2000 value is light blue. (Apologies that size constraints make the text difficult to read).

Some noteworthy nuggets include the fact that for the past two years every sector has show positive returns.  While there are examples of this happening, three year streaks are not common.  This would suggest heightened risks for 2018.

Another important point is the rotation of the leading and trailing sectors.  In other words, last year’s winners could become this year’s laggards.  This rotation gives the table a quilt type appearance as leading sectors change and the colors move around (The exception to this is that emerging markets were the best performing sector 5 consecutive years – 2003 through 2007.  The move was very impressive with yearly gains of 55%, 25%, 34%, 32%, and 39%.  However, the emerging markets plunged 53% in 2008.)

More recently there has been the classic rotation.  In 2016, the Russell 2000 Value provided the best returns with an almost 32% increase.  2017 was a much different story as it was third to last and only up 8% (S&P 500 was up 22%).  It was the worst of the stock indexes and only beat the two bond indexes.  Another example involves the emerging markets index again.  For the 5 year stretch from 2011 to 2015, the emerging markets were the worst performer 3 years and the second to worst performer for 1 year.  They showed losses in each of those 4 years.  But from these depths it returned to be the top dog in 2017 (up 37%).

The table highlights the folly of blindly chasing yesterday’s winners while overlooking opportunities that have fallen from grace.  To be sure, sectors of the market can remain leaders for extended periods of time, but following an  investment strategy that is equal to a popularity contest will likely result in disappointment.

 

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that 2017 was a good year for the markets.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a record 71 times during the year.  This is the most in history exceeding 69 in 1995, 62 in 1962, and 52 in 2013.  Moreover, it was a steady and smooth trip.  In 95% of the trading days, the Dow traded in less than a 1% range as measured by the day’s high and low.  This bring up the questions – Why can’t they all be this easy?

It’s not hard to forget that the tranquil markets were in sharp contrast to news flow.  There was plenty of news that could have potentially derailed the markets.  The antagonistic political setting including open talk of impeachment of President Trump.  Terrorist attacks in New York, London and Spain.  High levels of social division leading widespread protests (Charlottesville) and massacres (Los Vegas, California, Texas).  High geopolitical tensions including North Korea’s effort toward a nuclear weapon.  Natural disasters with hurricanes hitting Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico.  With this kind of backdrop, it is remarkable the market were not lower and a lot more volatile.  Here are the final 2017 numbers for the major averages.

2017

DOW JONES INDUSTRIAL AVERAGE                                                                              +25.1%

S&P 500                                                                                                                                      +19.4%

NASDAQ COMPOSTIE                                                                                                            +28.2%

RUSSELL 2000                                                                                                                         +13.1%

Enough of the rear view mirror – inquiring minds want to know what’s going to happen in 2018?  It’s easy to think that the market is poised to pull back given the strength of 2017.  After all it’s second longest stretch in history for the S&P 500 trading above its 200-day moving average and markets don’t normally act this way.  On the other hand, if the capital markets have not only survived but prospered given the events of 2017, it might be another strong year ahead.

Looking at history, Bespoke Investment Group provides some data.  The table below gives the annual performance for the S&P 500 in years following a year with a 20% or greater gain.  As shown, the year after a 20%+ move is positive 68% of the time with an average gain of 10.46%.  Further, there are several examples of back-to-back years of 20% or greater returns.

While the markets absorbed 2017’s body blows, the bears are not extinct (yet).  Some of the remaining ammunition is in the form of potentially higher interest rates and high valuations.  The Fed has been raising the fed funds rate and is projecting further interest rate hikes in 2018.  Rate increases during the past couple of years have been absorbed  by the economy.  But the impact of future raises could be more disruptive.

Corporate earnings growth accelerated in 2017.  However, stock prices climbed faster leaving valuations elevated.  Some of the stock market jump was in anticipation of tax reform and the lowering of corporate tax rates.  How much of this bottom line benefit has been priced in is a critical question facing stocks in 2018.  Another important question is beyond the bump from lowered rates, how much more will earnings grow on a comparative basis.

As hard as it was to predict a smooth and historic year for the financial markets back in January 2017, it is equally difficult to forecast 2018.  There are some expected developments (interest rate hikes) in 2018.  However, it’s the unexpected stuff that could move markets.  Investors should remain flexible and, as much as possible, on top of things.  But before we get too far into the year, there are some New Years resolutions to break.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Kerr Financial Group

Kildare Asset Mgt.

45 Lewis Street – Lackawanna RR Station

Binghamton, NY 13901

 

2017 3rd Qtr. Kildare Asset Mgt.-Kerr Financial Group client review letter

Making quick and easy decisions based on one simple and never-failing indicator has been the Holy Grail that investors have desperately searched for since the Buttonwood Agreement formed the New York Stock Exchange in the spring of 1792. And certainly over the years, there have been countless attempts to develop a foolproof system that would be the guaranteed road to riches.

Despite the well-intended (and some not so well intended) systems developed for making investment decisions as simple as using a smartphone app, the markets are not that easy. Corporate earnings, GDP growth, interest rates, valuations, budget deficits, and currency prices are just a few of the things that influence the financial markets.

And even if it were possible to include all of the many things that impact prices, we would then have to assign the proper weighting for each of them. Finally we would have to recognize that this is a dynamic situation and the amount of impact of these factors is constantly changing.

Of course, any system must also consider how much of the future values of these indicators are reflected in current prices. In other words, how much GDP growth (or any other influencing item) has been priced in. This is a very subjective variable.

This leads to the biggest obstacle to developing such a system – the requirement of measuring human emotions. This critical input is, unfortunately, the most unstable part of the analysis. Investor feelings and sentiment have a huge impact on the markets, contributing to push prices into bubbles as well as playing a part in panic selling. And as can be seen in hindsight, often times these emotions are flawed. A look back at 2017 provides a couple of examples of erroneous investor expectations.

Following President Trump’s election there were several widely held beliefs. The prediction for a stronger U.S. dollar was one expectation that investors assigned a high probability. This was based on the “Make America Great Again” theme which would result in faster economic growth and higher interest rates which would push the value of the dollar up.

Another forecast was centered on Mr. Trumps’ immigration policy. A shift to stricter conditions was expected to be hurtful to technology companies and their stocks. This was related to reduced access to skilled workers.

Both of these events turned out to be off target. The U.S. dollar has not only failed to rally, it has weakened significantly. Below is a chart that shows the Bloomberg US dollar index which is the value of the greenback vs. a basket of other currencies.[i] The index has been in a steady decline for the first 9 months of 2017. Obviously, this is not what Wall Street forecasted.

Likewise, strategists have been equally wrong regarding the technology sector in 2017. Whether this is correlated with the fall in the U.S. dollar or coincidence, tech stocks have outperformed this year. To be sure, it has been a strong year for the broad markets but few were predicting tech’s outperformance at the beginning of the year. Again, this demonstrates the risks of market forecasting.

Regarding the financial markets, not only has this year been hard to predict, it has been hard to explain. Given the social division, political polarity, and general acrimony, it is tough to understand that the stock market is at record levels. The explanation involves corporate earnings which have been strong. Also, despite all of the geopolitical problems, the global economy is doing pretty well. That society’s chaos has not derailed the economy could be a reason that the markets seem to be looking past these issues. Here are how the major averages have performed through September 30, 2017 and for the third quarter.

3rd Qtr. 2017

Dow Jones Industrial Average +4.94% +13.37%
S&P 500 +3.96% +12.53%
Nasdaq Composite +5.79% +20.67%
Russell 2000 +5.33% +9.85%

Using a size weighted average, here is how the average Kildare Asset Management-Kerr Financial Group client’s account performed. This is calculated after all fees and expenses.

3rd Qtr. 2017

+7.47% +12.94%

Your accounts grew in the third quarter and it was the best quarterly performance of 2017. And within the three months, September was especially strong. This was partially driven by the rally in the broad markets, but also gains in individual holdings. A couple of long time positions continued to appreciate. Hurco Companies and Layne Christensen Company both rallied after reporting earnings in early September.

As a reminder, Hurco is a machine tool manufacturer. They produce high end machines with proprietary software and sell them globally with typically over 50% of sales to Europe. The company has a strong balance with no long-term debt.

Hurco released their third quarter earnings report just after Labor Day and it showed that their growth continued. Noteworthy is the sustained expansion in their order book which should drive future revenue and profits higher.

I mentioned Hurco in the 2nd quarter review letter and pointed out that they didn’t have much interaction with institutional investors (no conference calls or presentations). I suggested that if they kept reporting strong results that Wall Street would find them. That might be happening and, if the operational trend continues, the stock could continue to appreciate.

Layne Christensen is a global water management, construction, and drilling company. They have had some challenges in some of its divisions which management is addressing. As is common in these situations, progress is not a smooth journey and investors sometimes take a cynical view.

Layne’s stock price had steadily declined for the first five months of the year falling from over $11 per share to the low $7’s or 37%. This was especially frustrating given the background of a broader bull market. The stock rebounded in June after the first quarter’s financial report showed some positive developments. Their second quarter earnings release at the beginning of September contained more news of improvement and the stock pushed to new 52-week highs.

Layne’s stock could keep moving higher as long as the improvements remain on track. Further the company has some new water related initiatives that look to leverage the company’s assets. This has been a long time holding and will remain in your account as long as the turnaround continues.

As is normally the case, there were some blemishes within your account and the most recent example is Dick’s Sporting Goods. As many know, Dick’s is one of the largest sporting goods retailers in the country. Beside the Dick’s stores, the company also owns and operates Golf Galaxy and Field & Stream stores. Sales for this fiscal year will likely exceed $8 billion. Guidance for net income is in the range of $2.80 to $3.00 per share.

As most people know, retailing is a competitive business and the current landscape is made tougher by the presence and strength of Amazon. The drop in Dick’s stock reflects investor pessimism concerning the company’s ability to compete. Dick’s shares reached an all-time high in November 2016 at $62.88. By the middle of 2017, it had dropped to the mid-30’s. I thought the selling was overdone and, at this level, it represented good long term value. In August the company reported its 2nd quarter results. The numbers were disappointing as well as the guidance for the future business conditions deteriorated. The stock fell into the upper 20’s.

I continue to think Dick’s offers good value. The stock trades at a single digit P/E multiple (as a comparison, the S&P 500’s P/E is above 20). The dividend yield is around 2.6% and is well covered. Wall Street analysts expect company revenues to grow to over $8.5 billion in coming years with projected profit stabilization.

While U.S. sporting goods sales are growing, the pace of growth is declining. Further, Amazon’s marketplace influence could continue to expand. However, there are reasons for optimism. Dick’s has a proven management team that has successfully grown the company to be a market leader. Several of their competitors (The Sports Authority, Gander Mountain, and Golfsmith) have failed which should help them in the future. Best Buy is an example of a retailer surviving tough times to eventually dominate the industry. Finally, the inexpensive valuation gives no credit for these bullish possibilities. I will be watching closely for signals for improvement or further weakening and act accordingly.

2017 has been an example of how tricky the financial markets can be. It would be hard to predict that stocks would trade at all-time highs when the headlines have been so negative. This is a reminder of how challenging the investment process can be. But from these challenges there arises the opportunities to help your investments grow. As always, I will continue to seek out these situations.

Please contact me with any questions. Thank you for your business.

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Kerr Financial Group
Kildare Asset Management
168 Water Street
Binghamton, NY 13905

[i] The Bespoke Report, October 27, 2017

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Kerr Financial Group
Kildare Asset Management
168 Water Street
Binghamton, NY 13905

There’s Something Happening Here, What it is Ain’t Exactly Clear

December 4, 2017 – DJIA = 24,231 – S&P 500 = 2,642 – Nasdaq = 6,847

“There’s Something Happening Here, What it is Ain’t Exactly Clear”[i]

Last week the Dow closed above 24,000 for the first time and Bitcoin traded above $10,000. It took 43 days for the Dow to climb the 1,000 points from 23,000 which is the third shortest stretch for it to move 1,000 points. For Bitcoin, it was a quicker trip as it took only 2 days for it move from $9,000 to $10,000.

It was a fast moving week for the financial markets that started with strong reports from retailers on the Thanksgiving weekend shopping. In addition to this, there was good news on the housing markets and manufacturing. And GDP was revised up to an estimated 3.3%.

Aside from the economic data, Wall Street also watched Washington as the Senate worked on passing a tax reform bill. Rumors of passage pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Average above 24,000 for the first time on Thursday. However, there was other news out of Washington that had nothing to do with the budget (or immoral behavior) that derailed the rally on Friday.

The Dow suddenly dropped 400 points on reports that Michael Flynn, a former advisor to President Trump, had plead guilty to lying to federal investigators and was cooperating with those conducting the probe. As the news crossed the wires, traders sold first and asked questions later. But, as has been the case all year, prices stabilized and the selloff was bought. The indexes recovered in the afternoon and closed only marginally lower. Here are the year-to-date performances for the major averages at the end of last week.

2017

Dow Jones Industrial Average +22.6%
S&P 500 +18.0%
Nasdaq Composite +27.2%
Russell 2000 +13.3%

Indices are unmanaged, do not incur fees or expenses, and cannot be invested into directly. These returns do not include dividend.

Concerning the conquering of 24,000, it was the sixth 1,000 point threshold that the Dow has traded above for the first time since last year’s election. The Dow closed above 19,000 for the first time on November 22, 2016 which was 700 days after getting past 18,000 for the first time. Obviously the 20,000 through 23,000 were reached during 2017. And despite these 1,000 increments being easier on a percentage basis, it has been a quick trip when compared to the Dow’s historical performance. Of the six 1,000 point marks crossed since the election, it’s remarkable that they’ve only been crossed on the downside 5 times in total. Truly, 2017 has been an extraordinarily steady and constant climb.[ii]

Of course the Dow’s achievement is the turtle to Bitcoin’s hare. The crypto-currency is up over 1,000% in 2017 which includes a remarkable 50% rally in November. It’s no wonder that Bitcoin has gathered so much attention as well as questions. If fact, the controversy surrounding the crypto-currency is one of the few things that rival the polarization of President Trump.

Detractors include high profile people such as Jamie Diamond, the C.E.O. of JP Morgan. Back in September, he characterized Bitcoin as a “fraud”, described the situation as “worse than tulip bulbs”, and predicted that “It won’t end well. Someone is going to get killed”.[iii] While it’s unknown if Mr. Diamond is ultimately right, this proofs once again that there’s a fine line between being ‘early’ and ‘wrong’.

On the other hand, there is an important group of supporters of Bitcoin which recently added Wall Street to the list. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE) received approval to begin offering Bitcoin futures contracts.

Whether crypto-currencies and blockchain turns out to be bigger than the internet (as some predict) or the biggest scam of the century, there are some astounding statistics associated with it. The ‘mining’ of Bitcoin (or one of the other 15 crypto-currencies) requires a lot of power. The computers and networks that power Bitcoin transactions reportedly use more electricity on an annual basis than 159 countries including Ireland or Nigeria. And consumption connected with crypto-currencies increased 30% in the last month alone.[iv]

In a world where the President of the United States regularly tweets, Tesla is the highest valued U.S. car maker, and bonds are bought at negative interest rates, Bitcoin and the other crypto-currencies aren’t out of place. The degree of their safety and acceptance remains a question that will be answered over time.

Returning to the capital markets, stocks are clearly overbought and due for a rest. However, it’s very rare that December is a down month. Measuring over the last 50 years, December is the best performing month, averages a +1.57% return and is up 68% of the time.[v] So despite a Federal Reserve interest rate increase this month (an almost 100% probability), stretched valuations, and excessive bullish sentiment, it’s hard to predict a correction of any consequence.

On the other hand, it could be a dangerous point to put capital to work in equities. The Nasdaq Composite, 2017’s leading index, was down last week at the same time as the other averages were setting records. This could be nothing more than a natural rotation of leadership or it could be a sign of declining momentum. With tax reform almost assured together with strong economic data, the markets could be expected to drift higher into year end. While the Grinch could show up and spoil things, he’d be much better off skipping a trip to Wall Street to stay on Mount Crumpit and mine Bitcoin.

[i] Stephen Stills, 1966
[ii] The Bespoke Report, December 1, 2017
[iii] CNBC.com, September 12, 2017
[iv] Cbsnews.com, November 27, 2018
[v]Bespoke B.I.G. Tips, November 30, 2017

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Kerr Financial Group
Kildare Asset Management
168 Water Street
Binghamton, NY 13905

Make American Great Again

November 13, 2017 – DJIA = 23,422 – S&P 500 = 2,582 – Nasdaq = 6,750

“Make America Great Again”

Donald Trump was elected President of the United States one year ago. The event has enraged some and emboldened others. Of course, some of this is a result of the direction that the Trump administration is moving and some of it is a result of the methods that are used. Both have caused a significant amount of cringing. It’s not clear which side of Washington’s wrestling match Mr. Market’s is with, but there’s little doubt that he’s enjoyed President Trump’s first year.

Since the election the stock market has had a historic rally. Looking back, it’s hard to remember that stocks were expected to drop on a Trump victory. Every time a pre-election poll would show Donald Trump’s chances improving, stocks dropped. But on election night after the results were in and the futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average were down over 800, stocks rebounded and haven’t looked back.

As measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, The Trump Rally is the 3rd best for a new president. The Dow’s 28.53% gain from Election Day to its one anniversary is only by exceeded by FDR (1932 – 47.94% gain) and Harry Truman (1945 – 30.59% gain). To put these numbers in perspective, the average Dow return for a new president in his first year is 8.14%.[i]

The stock market’s surge during President Trump’s first year came in spite of a whiff on campaign promises (no repeal of the ACA and no tax cuts), a tense geopolitical landscape, terrorism, and widespread social hostility. On the positive side of the ledger, economic growth accelerated and exceeded a 3% annualized rate. The economy obviously helps corporate profits which also rose materially.

Unfortunately, a strong first year for a new administration does not assure a good second year. For example, the Dow fell 17% in President Truman’s second year and it retreated almost 16% in President Kennedy’s second year, after rising 21% in his first year. The average Dow performance in the second year of a new president’s term is a gain of less than two-thirds of 1%. The median for the second year is an almost 7% decline.

It seems investors are getting used to the stock market’s steady grind higher. The S&P 500 is approaching 500 days without 5% correction and is about to set a record without a 3% correction (370 days). Investors are beginning to forget that stocks can go down which will make the next 3% correction, whenever it arrives, feel more like a crash.

This lack of volatility combined with the consistent move in the stock market from lower left to upper right is starting to show up in some investor sentiment readings. They are showing more optimism. Earlier in the year, investors worried about the negative headlines and feared that the economy was stuck in low gear. They were confused why the market wasn’t falling and were confident that it couldn’t keep rising.

As 2017 has progressed, the economy has improved. However, the news flow remains dire. Apparently higher brokerage statement balances help the public forget about their anxiety and to overlook the negatives they worried about a few months ago. This is shown in various investor sentiment indicators one of which is the Citigroup “Panic/Euphoria Model”. Please see the chart below.[ii]

The difficult to read fine print (apologies) explains that “a reading below panic supports a better than 95% likelihood that stock prices will be higher one year later, while euphoria levels generate a better than 70% probability of stock prices being lower one year later”. In other words, this is a contrarian indicator. Typically, euphoric investors have already bought and panicked ones are in cash.

The current reading at +0.33 hasn’t triggered a euphoric signal yet and there’s no assurance it does. But this does tell us that a lot of people have put money to work and, from a capital flows view, there might be limited dry powder left.

While this model is signally caution, we are approaching a seasonally bullish time of the year (Thanksgiving and Christmas). The historical trend is for gains in November and December. However, it’s possible that the strong September and October, months that are usually weak, could have drained some potential for this year’s Santa Claus rally. Perhaps the net will be a stock market that doesn’t go up as much as expected but doesn’t go down much.

From a fundamental viewpoint, there are a couple of concerns. The stock market is not cheap. While some describe the current environment as the most overvalued market in history, others offer justifications such as low interest rates and earnings growth. Nevertheless, few would defend that we are undervalued.

Another headwind is the change in central bank policy. The Fed has signaled that they will raise interest rates in December and continue this in 2018. Further, the support that other central banks have provided the capital markets will be declining. The ECB is reducing the amount of monthly bond purchases and the Bank of England raised its benchmark interest rate at the beginning of November. This is the first time in over 10 years that Great Britain has increased this rate. Higher interest rates are a material risk to an overvalued corporate bond market.

Trees don’t grow to the sky and, sadly, neither does the stock market. After a remarkable 2017, we could be facing a few more challenges which is something that highly optimistic investors are not prepared for. But like the unexpected election of Donald Trump, the surprise could be that the smooth and steady climb for stocks continues. Some more dysfunctional behavior in Washington might help.

[i] The Bespoke Report, October 10, 2017
[ii] Citigroup Investment Research, November 2017

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Kerr Financial Group
Kildare Asset Management
168 Water Street
Binghamton, NY 13905

Wall Street’s not so scary Halloween stories

October 23, 2017 – DJIA = 23,328 – S&P 500 = 2,575 – Nasdaq = 6,629
“It was the witching time of night…”[i]

October has a history of being a frightening month. Shorter days means more darkness together with a chill in the air. Of course, Halloween is accompanied by tales of ghosts, goblins, demonic developments and the release of B-rated horror movies. And scariest of all, Congress is in session.

Of course the financial markets also have a history of paranormal Octobers. The 1929 and 1987 crashes occurred in October as well as the Panic of 1907. In addition to these historic events, October has had other seminal market tribulations such as Long Term Capital Management’s implosion (technically this was a September event but had October fallout) and 2008’s drop after Lehman Brothers failed which helped start the financial crisis.

Despite this maniacal reputation, 2017’s October has been a continuation of the pleasant and steady move higher that has dominated the year. In fact, this year might become the “calmest” on record. Ryan Detrick, Senior Market Strategist at LPL Financial Research, suggests one way to determine volatility (or lack of it) is by measuring the absolute value of the average daily change. Mr. Detrick uses the S&P 500 and calculates this daily change at 0.30% so far in 2017. This is the second lowest reading with 1964 coming in at 0.26%.[ii]

The chart above shows this measurement dating back to 1928. It is interesting that there were three consecutive years of this type of low volatility in the mid-1960s. We can’t rule out the possibility that we are beginning another similar stretch. Another common belief is that when volatility returns it will signal the start of a bear market. Please note the low number registered in 1995. This was followed by much higher volatility readings in conjunction with the bull market of the late 1990s.

The serene capital markets in the face of the current headlines is similar to a perplexing mystery penned by Edgar Allan Poe. There is a great deal of irony that the markets are experiencing one of the least volatile years in the face of cultural division, protests, terrorism, political polarity, and widespread social tension.

Not only are the markets curiously calm, they are trading at all-time highs. The S&P 500 closed at a record high every day last week. Thursday was the 30th anniversary of the 1987 stock market crash where the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 20% in one day. Stocks marked this by staging a 2017 type crash – plunging a painful one-half of one percent – before rallying back and closing higher on the day.

The S&P 500 has now recorded 61 record highs in 2017 which is the third most behind 1928 and 1964. And there are two months remaining for this year. Below is a chart showing the yearly number of record closes for the S&P 500.[iii]

While the streak of daily records for the S&P 500 is impressive, there is more to this story. Jason Goepfert, the head of Sentiment Trader, points out that the S&P has 6 weekly record closes in a row and 7 consecutive monthly record closes. As Mr. Goepfert points out, this is 18 record closes across daily, weekly and monthly time frames. He goes to say that this is the most in history and that other periods that had a comparable series of records did not mark major stock market tops.[iv]

It is interesting that the S&P 500’s accent has happened despite battling some intimidating zombies. Bellwether stocks such as AT&T, Disney, Exxon-Mobile, General Electric, IBM, Target, and Wells Fargo are not participating and, in fact, are all lower year-to-date. These blue chip, dividend paying stocks were last year’s darlings but have become “the walking dead”. It’s remarkable that the averages have performed so well despite this drag. Here are the major indexes year-to-date numbers at the close of last week.

2017

Dow Jones Industrial Average 18.0%
S&P 500 15.0%
Nasdaq Composite 23.1%
Russell 2000 11.2%

Indices are unmanaged, do not incur fees or expenses, and cannot be invested into directly. These returns do not include dividend.

Inquiring minds want to know why the financial markets are doing so well when the world seems to be crumbling around us. The answer has nothing to with Mr. Market playing a cruel game of Trick or Treat but rather fundamental improvements together with Wall Street’s masterful marketing.

First, corporate earnings have been strong and are projected to keep growing. This has been the trend for 2017 and it has continued in the 3rd quarter. 63% of the companies that have reported so far have beaten consensus earnings estimates. Stocks trade at lofty valuations but investors currently appear to be willing to pay higher multiples as long as the bottom line keeps growing.

The popularity of passive investing and the use of index ETFs and mutual funds also contribute to the tranquil environment. Passive investing involves buying exchange traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds that track an index. Investors seek to invest in various asset classes via these funds. For example, SPY is the SPDR S&P 500 Trust and it tracks the S&P 500 index. AGG is the iShares Barclays Aggregate Bond Fund that track the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index which is a broad bond market index.

Capital flows into passive investment strategies have been astounding. BlackRock is the sponsor of the iShares family of ETFs. They recently reported inflows of $96 billion in the third quarter. This brought the year’s total to $264 billion which easily exceeds last year’s inflow of $202 billion.[v]

Vanguard Group, the leader in index mutual funds, has seen inflows of $291 billion in the first nine months of 2017. This is below last year’s influx of $323 billion but will likely be surpassed by the end of the year.[vi]

BlackRock and Vanguard are not the only organizations offering these approaches. There are many other significant investment firms with similar options. But just counting these two firms, a remarkable total of over $1 trillion of investment capital has been gathered in the past two years. We would guess that the majority of these dollars were directed to a passive indexed strategy.

This means that as soon as the dollars get in the ETF or mutual fund, they are invested. There is no discussion over timing and no holding for a better price – the money immediately buys more of the holdings of the index it is mirroring. $1 trillion of indiscriminate buying could be a major force behind the stock market’s steady move higher despite an unsettling news flow.

This develops into a self-feeding cyclical phenomenon and Wall Street is very happy to help promote. The more capital that flows into these funds the better the market performs and the better the market performs the more capital it attracts. So if it’s low cost, index strategies that investors want for their IRAs and 401k’s, the financial industry are more than happy to meet the need with all kind overlapping index products. “Low cost investing for the long term” is a pretty easy sell. We’re sure somewhere in the fine print it mentions that stocks can go down.

The scarier part of this situation is that passive investing is so widespread. It seems everyone is doing it which is eerily similar to some other periods of popular investing fads. Portfolio insurance was a popular strategy in 1987. It was supposed control losses by hedging through stock futures contracts. It ended up contributing to the 1987 Crash.

More recently, tech stocks in the late 1990s were can’t miss as the internet was changing the world. The internet did change the world but somewhere along the way the markets realized that not every dot com company was going to be successful. Stocks crashed again. We won’t go into the money lost on condo speculation in the 2000s.

With the current landscape, the real horror story will be when the markets start to weaken and everyone wants out at the same time. It could be a sudden and dramatic trip lower and once again investors will be wondering what went wrong. Of course, the timing of such an event is the difficult question. For now, that’s enough of fearsome tales of investment ghosts and goblins – it’s time for Halloween candy.

[i] “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Washington Irving
[ii] LPL Financial Research, October 22, 2017
[iii] The Bespoke Report, October 20, 2017
[iv] Sentiment Trader, October 21, 2017
[v] Almost Daily Grants, October 16, 2017
[vi] Ibid

Jeffrey J. Kerr, CFA

Kerr Financial Group
Kildare Asset Management
168 Water Street
Binghamton, NY 13905